31 July 2008

Parliament building, Budapest

After less than two days in Budapest I feel worn out already, which is why I am taking a short break with my PC! I've climbed the hill to the cathedral twice, walked all around the large park by Heroes Square and explored Visegrad (about an hour drive away) and the surrounding area.

My hotel is by the Danube, on the Buda side, and looks towards the parliament building on the Pest side. The tram stops almost outside the hotel and the nearest metro is about 200m away so it is easy to get around. A 7-day travel card costs just 4,000 HUF, which is around 15 GBP, so one day's unlimited travel on the metro, trams and buses costs about the same as one bus fare in London.

The plans for today are less ambitious, I want to see inside the parliament building and then explore the main shopping street before going to a concert in the park this evening.

28 July 2008

Last day in Keszthely

The last nine days have flown past in a flurry of bikes, pizzas, bridge, walks, beers, reading and generally not doing very much - just like it was meant to. One day was lost to rain (more reading and bridge) but otherwise we've been out and about exploring the town and the neighbouring villages.

The lasting impression of Keszthely is that it is rather like Center Parcs but without the fences to keep you in. Cycling around is easy because of the many roads, paths and tracks and because of the light traffic. And the cycling takes you to interesting places where you can enjoy the view in peace while savouring an ice cream or a beer.

We came here to relax and are leaving relaxed and ready to hit the cultural highlights of Budapest.

23 July 2008

Keszthely is colourful

Our last holiday was to Tunis where everything was painted white with blue highlights so it is something of a change to walk/cycle around Keszthely where the houses are in bright vibrant colours.

The town is more than living up to our expectations by providing the peace and quiet we were looking for, giving us the opportunity to catch-up on books and podcasts, play cards and gently explore the area.

Keszthely also provides quite a few places worth exploring, more than we expected, and in addition to the lake it has a grand town square, a castle on top of the hill, buildings old and new in various states of repair, statues and fountains, and the amazingly quaint hamlet of Szendrytelep a short cycle ride from the town.

This is proving to be just the sort of holiday that we wanted, and needed, it to be. Even the rain does not spoil it.

19 July 2008

Keszthely, Lake Balaton, Hungary

Following a fairly painless journey via Stansted with Ryanair I am now at Keszthely on the north eastern corner of Lake Balaton in Hungary. The lake is a major holiday destination offering traditional seaside activities as well as relaxation and recuperation at the nearby spa.

I am here for a week of chilling out with nothing much to do all day before heading to the hustle and bustle of sightseeing in Budapest next week.

17 July 2008

iPod touch gets even better

Several of the enhancements made this week to the iPod touch software are cute but of minor interest, such as the calculator that is a basic calculator when the iPod is held upright (portrait mode) but when it is rotated to landscape mode it becomes a fully fledged scientific calculator. How cool is that!

Similarly, there are minor enhancements to email, contacts and calendar. All good but nothing to get really excited about.

What is worth getting excited about is the new App Store application which gives you access to a wide catalogue of new applications, several of which are free.

I quickly added new applications for some of the websites that I use regularly, i.e. Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. These are all good and give you much better access to the websites than Safari does (hardly surprising as that is what they have been designed to do).

I've also added my first game, Morocco (a.k.a. Othello), and enjoy demonstrating my mastery over the computer, though it beats me often enough for this to be a real challenge.

My favourite application so far is last.fm. This sounds like, and to a certain extent is, a radio station that plays your favourite music. But it is much more than that. last.fm makes it easy for you to find new music based on the artists that you like, to find gigs that you might be interested in, to find out what your friends are listening to and to find people with similar musical tastes.

The beauty of last.fm is that it relies on the input from the many users to create the links between artists and events etc. which is where the value of the service comes from. User content and networking is what web2.0 is all about and last.fm is an excellent example of this.

16 July 2008

My small collection of Olivier Raab pictures

I discovered the works of Olivier Raab about twenty years ago (late 1980's) through a catalogue for Christie's Contemporary Art (CCA) who sold limited edition prints and had a small gallery just off Berkeley Square on Bruton Street.

I had reason to be in that part of London in those days and used to pop-in their regularly just to do some window shopping. There were several artists whose work I admired, such as John Piper, but I only ever bought things by Raab.

This painting, Leviathan X, was included in Raab's 1987 exhibition at CCA. I liked it a lot but it is very large, 135 x 180 cm, and I did not have a wall suitable to put it on so I had to resist the extreme temptation.

However, over the next couple of years I did manage to acquire one oil painting, several prints and a poster.

I bought the painting directly from the artist who had his studio in Camberwell, South London at the time. I visited him there and it was lovely to see the place where we worked. I got the poster at the same time and Olivier kindly signed it for me.

Then the children came along and the money went on other things.

The Raab works are still very much part of my everyday life. As I write this sitting in my front room I can see the oil painting, two prints and a poster. There is another print in my bedroom on the wall facing me as I lie in bed there.

Leviathan is something of an exception to his usual works, some of which are still available from CCA, and most of them combine oranges and blues, feature figures drawn to show the form but not the detail and have dramatic shades of light.

I think that the first print that I bought was this one, Going Upstairs, which does all of that. It is slightly unusual in that this figure is active, the girl is clearly racing up the stairs, whereas the figures are usually stood or sat still waiting for something to happen, like a card to be played or a person to arrive.

Another print that I have is, I believe, called Waiting and shows a young woman looking out of an open window. It is very peaceful.

I have searched the internet regularly in recent years looking for news about Raab, with limited success, but he has now started his own website which includes examples of work.

There are also examples of his work on his Facebook page.

It is good to see Raab's new material, particularly the abstracts and, who knows, I may become an art collector again! Until then I will carry on enjoying his work that surrounds me at home.

14 July 2008

Lord of Ham has retired from Kings of Chaos

Age 9 of Kings of Chaos has just finished and my account, Lord_of_Ham, finished a very creditable #214 out of a total of 13,278 players at the end of the age.

I would like to say that this was a result of immense skill but mostly it came down to some simple tactics and putting the long hours in to grow the size of my army through the very repetitive process of "clicking".

But no more.

Having played Kings of Chaos for just over four years, starting right back in Age 1, there is nothing else that I want to achieve in the game so Lord of Ham has retired. It was fun but there are other things that I now want to do with my time.

13 July 2008

Albert Herring at Glyndebourne

My second visit to Glyndebourne this year was to see Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring. A lightly comic opera that suited the mood for a Saturday afternoon in July where the sun was valiantly winning the battle with a fey foolhardy grey clouds.

We got there as soon as the garden opened at 3pm by which time there were already 50 cars there (we'll go even earlier next time) but we were still in time to grab one of the picnic tables in the opera house building (we were not so sure the sunshine would prevail!).

From then the day worked to plan. We had cake and champagne, a walk around the garden then back for cheese, biscuits and red wine before the opera started. In the long interval we had our main course, a cheesy pastry thing and a mix of the more interesting salads (e.g. radishes, beetroot, rocket), and our desert of raspberries and cream. And more wine.

The staging of Albert Herring was classical, as you can see from the picture, which made a change from the more common sparse modern staging that I am used to at Glyndebourne.

I think that on the whole I prefer the simpler stages particularly when, as in this case, there was some delay between scenes as the stage was changed. But I do not want to overplay the argument and the staging had its good points too.

There is not a great deal of plot to Albert Herring, good boy gets drunk and has a wild night, but that is hardly unusual for an opera as the story is just a framework for the music and singing.

Benjamin Britten's score provides the background to the singing and does not greatly intrude into the performance. One of my companions said that the music had no tunes, which may be another way of saying the same thing.

So it all comes down to the singing and, as always, Glyndebourne delivers where it really matters. Albert Herring is an ensemble opera without any lead roles, Albert himself is not even in the first act, and it is the mix of many voices that makes this opera work.

For me, the highlight of the opera was when Albert was missing, presumed dead, and the rest of the ensemble were in his mother's shop singing about him. They all sang at the same time taking it in turns to lead the lament. Pure magic to end a wonderful day.

11 July 2008

2000AD on top form

The very nature of 2000AD, having five running stories in each issue, means that it will varies in tone as one story ends to be replace by a completely different one.

At the moment 2000AD is on a roll and all the strips are excellent.

2000AD opens with Judge Dredd, as usual. The current story arc is about some rogue judges and has JD playing the detective.

Defoe, the cover story, is black and white horror set in 1669 London with plenty of zombies and plenty of ways of dispatching zombies.

The Vort is about a war on a strange planet that somehow has a Vietnam feel to it.

The latest Sinister Dexter story has the great title "The Bournemouth Identity" and has the future hit men protecting the equivalent of a east-end gangster's trophy girl.

Nikolai Dante has left 2675 St Petersburg to deal with unrest in the Imperial Russia territory America.

These are all good stories, well written and drawn in vastly different styles to reflect the different themes and it is this mix that makes 2000AD the first comic that I read each week.

9 July 2008

Reinventing the wheel?

Anecdote posted a blog about questions to ask to avoid needlessly reinventing the wheel and while there is nothing wrong with that there is usually another side to every story - and here's mine.

The issue is over the definition of "wheel" and a search may discover that we have done something like a wheel before but that one was white and now we need a red one. The inexact art is deciding whether it is easier to build the red wheel reusing the techniques used for the white one or to build it from scratch.

I've seen may attempts to reuse ideas, particularly software code, fail because the differences between the two cases proved to be greater than first thought once the project got under way.

Sometimes reinventing the wheel is the right thing to do.

8 July 2008

It's later than you think

"It's later than you think" is a new radio programme hosted by Marcus Brigstocke where he gets celebrity guests to try things that they have never done before.

In the recording I watched, Marcus introduced journalist Eve Pollard to D.I.Y., science fiction, poker and beer.

Due to impeccable planning, and putting one pushy guy firmly in his place, we got the four seats in the middle of the front row.

This gave Marcus the opportunity to comment on Howard's Iron Maiden t-shirt and his long hair; suggesting that combing may be something that Howard had never tried.

The show was planned but unscripted and, as a conversation between two people, it was humorous rather than funny, but overall it was an entertaining hour. How putting up shelves and playing poker will come across on radio will be interesting to hear!

7 July 2008

The Greenwich Wheel

While the London Eye is a famous London landmark, the recently opened Greenwich Wheel is almost unknown and relies on passing trade for business.

It is well located to attract tourists being next to the best that Greenwich has to offer, which includes the former Navy Hospital, Maritime Museum, Royal Observatory (complete with the meridian line so that you can stand with one foot in the east and one in the west), a footpath under the Thames and the Cutty Sark (temporarily unavailable due to a fire, but it is being restored).

The wheel is a modern construction but, unlike the London Eye, is a traditional design with free swinging gondolas attached to the wheel. This makes it simpler to build but it also means that the wheel obscures part of the view and the swinging motion can be a bit disconcerting for those of us who are not terribly good at heights, particularly when you are stopped somewhere near the top to allow more passengers on!

Technically the London Eye is superior in every aspect but that is not the point. The Greenwich Wheel is a traditional big wheel in a riverside location that offers contrasting views of historical Greenwich and modern Canary Wharf.

The wheel in itself is not reason enough to go to Greenwich but Greenwich has much to offer the tourist and the wheel is a worthy addition.

4 July 2008

The Now Show with extras

This week's visit to a recording of The Now Show had lots of familiar elements to it.

The trip to Pizza Express beforehand; having knives confiscated by BBC security; getting ticket number 53; drinking Grolsch out of a plastic bottle in the waiting area.

Getting the seats in the front row between the mikes used by Punt and Dennis; having some of our replies to the audience question read out at the end; a cracking show of around 50 minutes that will be edited down to 29.

And we had a pleasant surprise to top the evening off.

The Now Show audience was roped in to play the part of a radio show audience in an episode of the third series of Lead Balloon, starring Jack Dee.

In this episode Jack Dee's character makes an embarrassingly (adverb!) inept appearance on a show about language.

We were only wanted for one short scene but we were sitting in the front row so should be easy to spot when it is broadcast.

All in all it was another excellent night out. Thank you BBC!

3 July 2008

Firefox 3 set a Guinness World Record

Spread Firefox | Download Day 2008
Thanks to the support of the always amazing Mozilla community, we now hold a Guinness World Record for the most software downloaded in 24 hours. From 18:16 UTC on June 17, 2008 to 18:16 UTC on June 18, 2008, 8,002,530 people downloaded Firefox 3 and are now enjoying a safer, smarter and better Web.

And since then the number of downloads has risen to 28,727,031.

Firefox 3

2 July 2008

Schools' funding

We have just entered a three year cycle of schools' funding in which only minor changes can be made to the formula used to allocate funding which should mean that the Kingston Schools Forum (KSF) has little to do. Sadly this is not the case.

Having just spent a year doing a detailed review of funding deprivation (children from deprived families do less well at school) we are now looking at this topic again just because one school that lost out from the changes has complained to the Local Authority.

The new review will take a few months but I have nailed my colours to the mast and fired this opening salvo.

I would appreciation a discussion at some point as to how this issue has arisen. Most years in the budget consultation schools ask for some elements of the formula to be reconsidered but I do not recall the Local Authority ever responding to a school's concerns in this way before. To be specific, similar requests by The Mount have been ignored. I would like to understand how the Local Authority reached it's decision this time as it would appear that it is behaving inconsistently and, therefore, unfairly.

I also have grave concerns about the issues we are being asked to consider in this line of enquiry. The statement is made that there is an increasing gap in the funding between schools and it is implied from this that this is a bad thing. But the gap in need between schools is far far wider than the gap in funding so a rational analysis is likely to conclude that the funding gap should be increased further.

I still fail to see why the Local Authority continues to use funding per pupil as a measure when the main costs are not incurred on a per pupil basis. These figures are also distorted by statement funding which is particularly an issue with special needs settings. And if we are to have a sensible look as schools' funding we need to consider all the income a school gets, including that from parents.

The comment about lowering standards, while welcome, completely misses several points. Every funding decision that we make that diverts money from one set of schools to another could have an impact on standards to say that this recent change could is meaningless. Secondly, despite the efforts of some of us, it has proved impossible within this authority to link funding and standards in a single debate. And thirdly, we already know that the current funding formula has an impact on standards as those schools with the most deprivation are also those with the lowest standards.

I am not sure that asking schools about their budget pressures will provide any objective information and I would question the purpose of this.

I am more than happy to continue the review of primary funding and in order to do so I suggest that the information we need about each school is funding, needs and standards.


1 July 2008

IBM Lotus Syphony is cool

I am a happy user of OpenOffice on most of my home PCs but the one from my employer comes with Microsoft bloatware so there was no real need to install another office suite. I do have to work with OpenOffice documents occasionally but I simply used another PC to do so.

That changed today when I wanted to rework some really quite old documents that I had produced with Lotus SmartSuite, i.e. Freelance (prz) and WordPro (lwp) files.

I heard about IBM Lotus Symphony when it was launched at the end of last year so I guessed that it would be worth investigating. And it was. One simple install later and now I can manipulate my Lotus SmartSuite, OpenOffice and Microsoft Office documents with one piece of software and can change formats as required.

Like OpenOffice, Lotus Symphony is free so now there is even less reason to fund Bill Gates' early retirement.