Monthly Archives: July 2009

Musichackday 2009 – my hack: TwinkleStarduino

I had a great weekend at Musichackday in the Guardian offices in Kings Cross. There were some fab hacks going on and excellent people to chat to as well as share ‘n’ compare ideas. I particularly enjoyed sitting in the Arduino room with the tinker.it folk and other hardware hackers such as Mitch Altman, from TV-B-Gone. Mitch had brought his Brain Machine with him and it was very entertaining to watch people drop in and have a go as they were passing by – everyone had something amusing to say about their experience. We also had some great philosophical discussion as we wiled away the afternoon into late evening – so I came away with much to reflect on :-)

About my hack

I’ve been working with computational art for a number of years to create interactive artworks incorporating sound, so I was really excited when I discovered microprocessors for rapid prototyping – because this gave me the opportunity to make something physical. for this project I wanted to created a fine art textiles, interactitive sound artwork.

My original idea was to find a Twitter api, send tweets to an LCD screen and trigger Twinkle to sing – BUT – I bought the wrong LCD screen which runs on 5v, when I needed the basic one that runs on 3.3v – I’m just mulling over ordering the the 3.3v LCD or a 5v Lilypad LiPo battery component so I can complete this idea later.

Soooo… for Musichackday, I took a canvas and cut out shapes in felt for my design. In terms of hardware, I got Twinkle singing through a buzzer via a Lilypad Arduino – which is sending the buzzer note frequencies. To make things a bit more interesting I’ve added an accelerometer which changes the pitch of the note when you move Twinkle about – plus a button so you can toggle between straight and bent pitch Twinkle :-)

In case you haven’t seen it before, Lilypad Arduino is a wearable form of the popular Arduino microprocessor. It’s connected/wired up by conductive thread.

Coding:
I’m using the Arduino compiler on my Mac and the code is written in C, it is then uploaded to the Lilypad via a FTDI Basic Breakout – 3.3V board & USB cable. You could use the Arduino or Processing libraries for code if you wanted to.

Some more info on sound:

The hack uses a LilyPad speaker module to produce simple musical notes.For a chart of the frequencies of different notes see: http://www.phy.mtu.edu/~suits/notefreqs.html

Fiddly?
Yep – sewing is a bit fiddly! All the components are connected by conductive thread – none of these must touch each other or you’ll get a short circuit – which is a challenge in itself :-)

API’s/tools used:

* Sadly no APIs because of my LCD fail – see above
* Lilypad arduino, buzzer, accelerometer, LEDs, conductive thread, felt, canvas.

Here’s the code – enjoy!

/*
* LilyPad tutorial: sound
*
* Uses a LilyPad speaker module to produce simple musical notes
* For a chart of the frequencies of different notes see:
* http://www.phy.mtu.edu/~suits/notefreqs.html
*/

// You can ignore this:
// #include “arduino.h”  // only for testing compiling with g++

#include “WProgram.h”
void setup();
void loop();
void flash_eyes();
int read_accel();
void beep(unsigned char speakerPin, int frequency, long duration);
void play(unsigned char speakerPin, const char *note, long duration);
void play_tune();
int ledPin = 13;        // LED is connected to digital pin 13
int speakerPin = 9;     // speaker connected to digital pin 9
int catseye1 = 5;       // cat’s eye no1
int catseye2 = 12;      // cat’s eye no2
int moveSensor = 3;     // analogue input for accelerometer
int buttonPin = 11;     // button input

// A note in one octave is twice the frequency of the same note in the octave
// below.  We define here the frequencies of the notes in octave 8.  To get
// notes in lower octaves, we just divide by two however many times.

#define NOTE_C8         4186
#define NOTE_CSHARP8    4434
#define NOTE_D8         4698
#define NOTE_DSHARP8    4978
#define NOTE_E8         5274
#define NOTE_F8         5587
#define NOTE_FSHARP8    5919
#define NOTE_G8         6271
#define NOTE_GSHARP8    6644
#define NOTE_A8         7040
#define NOTE_ASHARP8    7458
#define NOTE_B8         7902

// This is an array of note frequencies.  Index the array essentially by note
// letter multiplied by two (A = 0, B = 2, C = 4, etc.).  Add one to index for
// “sharp” note.  Where no sharp note exists, the natural note is just
// duplicated to make this indexing work.  The play() function below does all
// of this for you :)

int octave_notes[14] = {
NOTE_A8, NOTE_ASHARP8,
NOTE_B8, NOTE_B8,
NOTE_C8, NOTE_CSHARP8,
NOTE_D8, NOTE_DSHARP8,
NOTE_E8, NOTE_E8,
NOTE_F8, NOTE_FSHARP8,
NOTE_G8, NOTE_GSHARP8,
};

// This variable tracks the current state of the eye LEDs.
int eyes;

// Arduino runs this bit of code first, then repeatedly calls loop() below.  So
// all initialisation of variables and setting of initial pin modes (input or
// output) can be done here.

void setup() {
pinMode(ledPin, OUTPUT);        // sets the ledPin to be an output
pinMode(speakerPin, OUTPUT);    // sets the speakerPin to be an output
eyes = LOW;                     // initial state of cats eyes is LOW
pinMode(catseye1, OUTPUT);      // sets the cats eye1 to be an output
pinMode(catseye2, OUTPUT);      // sets the cats eye2 to be an output
pinMode(buttonPin, INPUT);      // sets the cats eye2 to be an output
//        Serial.begin(9600);
}

// Arduino will run this over and over again once setup() is done.

void loop()
{
read_accel();
play_tune();    // call the play_tune() function
delay(1000);    // delay for 1 second
}

// ————————————————————————-

// A function to toggle the cat’s eyes on and off.
void flash_eyes()
{
// Invert the desired state of the cat’s eyes:
if (eyes == LOW) {
eyes = HIGH;
} else {
eyes = LOW;
}

// Write the new value to all the LED pins:
digitalWrite(ledPin, eyes);
digitalWrite(catseye1, eyes);
digitalWrite(catseye2, eyes);
}

// ————————————————————————-

// Read accelerometer
int read_accel()
{
static int last_accel = 0;
int in = analogRead(moveSensor);
int diff = last_accel – in;
last_accel = in;
//  Serial.println(diff);
if (diff < -5 || diff > 5) {
return diff;
}
return 0;
}

// To produce a tone, this function toggles the speaker output pin at the
// desired frequency (in Hz).  It calculates how many times to do this to
// produce a note of the desired length (in milliseconds).

void beep(unsigned char speakerPin, int frequency, long duration)
{

int i;
long delayAmount = (long)(1000000/frequency);
long loopTime = (long)((duration*1000)/(delayAmount*2));

int accel_diff = 0;
int button_in = digitalRead(buttonPin);
for (i = 0; i < loopTime; i++) {
if (button_in == HIGH && (i & 31) == 0) {
accel_diff = read_accel();
}
digitalWrite(speakerPin, HIGH);
delayMicroseconds(delayAmount + accel_diff);
digitalWrite(speakerPin, LOW);
delayMicroseconds(delayAmount + accel_diff);
}
}

void play(unsigned char speakerPin, const char *note, long duration)
{
int octave_number = 4;  // default to octave 4
int i = 0;

// Check for valid note letter
if (note[i] >= ‘A’ && note[i] <= ‘G’) {
// Calculate index into octave_notes[]
int note_index = (note[i] – ‘A’) * 2;
i++;
// Check for sharp sign
if (note[i] == ‘#’) {
note_index++;
i++;
}
// Check for an octave number
if (note[i] >= ’0′ && note[i] <= ’8′) {
octave_number = note[i] – ’0′;
i++;
}
// Fetch the note frequency from the octave_notes[] table
int frequency = octave_notes[note_index];

// That will be the frequency for the note in octave 8, so we
// need to divide it by two for each octave lower that we
// actually want.

// The ‘>>’ operator is a useful shorthand that (for integers
// >= 0) basically translates to “divide by two this many
// times”, so we will use that:

frequency = frequency >> (8 – octave_number);

// Actually play the note!
beep(speakerPin, frequency, duration);
}
}

void play_tune()
{
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “C6″, 500);    // twin-
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “C6″, 500);    // -kle
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “G6″, 500);    // twin-
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “G6″, 500);    // -kle
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “A6″, 500);    // lit-
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “A6″, 500);    // -tle
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “G6″, 1000);    // star
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “F6″, 500);    // how
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “F6″, 500);    // i
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “E6″, 500);    // won-
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “E6″, 500);    // -der
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “D6″, 500);    // what
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “D6″, 500);    // you
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “C6″, 1000);    // are

flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “G6″, 500);    // up
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “G6″, 500);    // a-
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “F6″, 500);    // -bove
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “F6″, 500);    // the
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “E6″, 500);    // world
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “E6″, 500);    // so
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “D6″, 1000);    // high
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “G6″, 500);    // like
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “G6″, 500);    // a
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “F6″, 500);    // dia-
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “F6″, 500);    // -mond
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “E6″, 500);    // in
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “E6″, 500);    // the
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “D6″, 1000);    // sky

flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “C6″, 500);    // twin-
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “C6″, 500);    // -kle
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “G6″, 500);    // twin-
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “G6″, 500);    // -kle
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “A6″, 500);    // lit-
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “A6″, 500);    // -tle
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “G6″, 1000);    // star
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “F6″, 500);    // how
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “F6″, 500);    // i
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “E6″, 500);    // won-
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “E6″, 500);    // -der
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “D6″, 500);    // what
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “D6″, 500);    // you
flash_eyes(); play(speakerPin, “C6″, 1000);    // are

}

int main(void)
{
init();

setup();

for (;;)
loop();

return 0;
}

Reboot Britain, Savoy Place, London

Today I attended some of the afternoon sessions of Reboot Britain, a conference which is part of NESTA’s Reboot Britain program looking at the challenges of a networked digital world. Topics such as Government, schooling, the economy, gaming and participation by the individual were amongst the ground covered.

Reboot Britain is also as series of essays exploring online participation & digital tools, You can download the Reboot Britain essays.

The event comprised of multiple streams, with no breaks between the sessions of different lengths of an hour or half hour, so I ended up missing the beginning/intros, which became a bit confusing. There were also several spontaneous breakout sessions by people who wanted to carry on the session found somewhere to chat. All in all a bit frustrating and difficult to tell quite what was going on.

Here’s a few points from the sessions I attended…

Is the web female?

I arrived close to the end, so I got the summing up points from the chair & panel:
• established that the web is organic…
• it is global
• using generalisations for what makes something female doesn’t add value
• if we notice things about places like Twitter that we can change to create an environment more hospitable we should note them
* look out for what we can do for people who feel disenfranchised and make them feel more valued
• women are using the web, but want to take out the testosterone – e.g. Slashdot
• how can we make it more participatory and a better experience?
* what will make the web more attractive is to make – Simms & second life are aimed at women but a waste of time – being able to chose your hairstyle is a crap way of making something more feminine!
* Mixed reactions to whether we should do anything to make the web more feminine
* We should clean up the web, e.g. youtube
There are some women entrepreneurs
* Programming is an ideal feminine activity because it gives you something to play with

I missed most of this session, so I can’t really comment on the sentiments!


TLS: leading practitioners on learning technology

A session on learning & tech with various teachers, specialists and interested peeps

* the biggest barrier is not trusting our children
* Derek Robertson – teachers are reinventing how learning is being presented to kids through games
* Leon Cych – on exemplary projects, such as orchid growing project – you’ve got a spine of examples of action research models, if you collected them together then you’d have a system that would affect change & enable grass roots projects like a magnifier

Stan Stalnaker – Founder of Hub Culture

‘Hub Culture is a real network bringing together the physical and the virtual’

Hub Culture is a ‘socially operated movement’ which uses technology to create environments and has it’s own private currency, Ven, the first P2P social currency. They have clubs or ‘pavilions’ around the world in hub cities for members to meet. In London there’s one in Carnaby Street, it works totally on virtual payments and is £29 to join. There are also clubs in other cities such as New York and San Francisco, Bermuda, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Howard Rheingold

I really enjoyed listening to Howard and I loved his colourful, fun style – definitely reflective of a creative person. Anyways, I’ve taken a ton of notes and quotes…

Howard began by stating that we need to go beyond ‘skills’ and on to literacy, and talking about social media. He’s got a list of 5 literacy areas that he considers the most important, these are: attention participation, cooperation, critical consumption and network awareness – he feels they all need to be put together.
Online media has been social for a time time…

In a world where there were search engines before Google, such as early Lycos, he used to help his daughter with her homework. She used to search the internet for help, but he explained to her that things were changing – for example that you could take a library book and trust that someone had checked the content, but on the web you could not assume that someone had checked it and the content was factually correct. He taught his twelve year old daughter how to be a critic – he told his daughter to:
• check who the author is by putting the authors name in the search engine
• check to see who links to the author
• you have to be a detective
• she needed to set a crap detector on it

When Howard has a new class, he says ‘the first thing I do is to shut their laptops, turn their phones off and shut their eyes and see what happens – the mind will free associate without any outside stimulation’.

‘Attention’ – ‘I’m not sure that schools is the place where this kind of education is going to happen, school is the place where we park our kids while we go to work’

‘Participation’ – ‘Never before have we had ways to connect with our peers that our parents couldn’t spy on!’ and ‘How many boring blogs and twitter accounts say that participation isn’t enough?’

‘From passive consumption to active participation, young people create as well as consume online even, if it’s just pimping out their My Space page’.

‘Coordination’ – ‘Humans have used their collective media to co-ordinate action’.

‘Collaboration’ and ‘Critical Consumption’ – ‘Using technology to do collective or collaborative action gives us more power than doing things alone’. Howard gave us examples of this such Chilean school kids, Fair Trading campaigns in London, Gobama campaign, the search for Jim Gray, a Microsoft employee who disappeared on his boat – 12000 people helped. As well as the Asian tsunami where people donated money and equipment and the Katrina hurricane – people were posting on Craiglist and other areas to find people and geeks got together to scrape info and bring searches together. People always rush in to help with disasters, but now with the help of technology it’s global!

Social capital know-how is evolving – the capacity to get things done without conventional means such as Twestivals around the world to help bring clean water to people in villages who needed it. This creates ‘network awareness’.

Reputation is increasingly important online – the presentation of self and identity.

‘Networked individualism’ – ‘Since the invention of the telephone you called a person in ‘a place’, nowadays online you don’t know where they are. There are some serious questions of how we’re going to handle this in the future’.

Personal learning adverts – if you find people who you trust online, make friends with them and consult them.

Twitter is an example of a great medium that does not teach you how to use it. Hybrid literacies – Twitter – ‘Don’t try to see all the tweets while you’ve been asleep you need to sample the flow, there’s a triage skill to this stuff’.

On security – ‘There’s so many panics about the dangers of the internet – parents are frightened to death of their kids safety – it’s not that there’s not dangers, but there’s awareness of falling for bullshit’
Howard then quoted Henry Jenkins formerly of MIT who wrote about participated literacies and wrote something very important about confronting participatory 21st century, which I must look up!

In 1995 Howard Rheingold was asked what an online learning would be like, he came up with socialmediaclassroom.com – ‘The most interesting change for participative media was moving from a classroom made out of rows and into a circle – there is no back row in a circle – you’re not hiding from the teacher you’re hiding from your peers – it’s much better to talk together and get the students to do the teaching too. It’s not guaranteed to work, but when it works it’s amazing!’

“In teaching you need to keep your eyes not just on the technology but the literacies’.

Further reading:

www.rheingold.com

socialmediaclassroom.com

‘Smartmobs’ – Howard’s written a book about how technology & the internet generate collaborative action – ‘There’s a combination of technology and social convention’.

Finally…

‘How can we trust networks for evaluating news? Trusted brands used to be newspapers and television – we’re watching the emergence online, but we may drown in that noise of spam, porn & misinformation unless we have people looking at the crap detection – we need enough people developing crap detectors!’

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A mixed afternoon for me – things I enjoyed:
* Lego Reboot Britain – my contribution was a bit off the wall, but what the hey!
* Meeting up with friends and meeting some new people
* Hearing Derek Robinson contributing to discussion in a quite informal session
* Howard Rheingold and his amazing technicolour outfit :-)
* Thinking about ‘crap detectors’ – an amusing term that might stick in my head ;-)

..things I didn’t enjoy so much:
* The schedule having changed on the day, so my pre planning going out the window – needed one of the screen’s put to use with updates
* No breaks between sessions, so I kept missing the beginning/intro & ending up confused
* Too much to chose from
* Running up and down 3 floors with my heavy rucksack ;-)

Could have done with…
* Some actions or ways of actioning stuff
* Clear stream outlines for talks – e.g. games, government and learning
* Name badges – didn’t have a clue who people were
* Vegan friendly snacks ;-P

OpenTech 2009, ULU

I had a great day at OpenTech, seriously the best value tech conferences at £5 entry and one of the friendliest meet ups. Well done & thanks UKUUG!

This year I missed the majority of the excellent talks because there were three streams – so choosing was very hard, and also I was having such a good time chatting to peeps that I missed out on a few too.

So here’s a small bullet pointed smörgåsbord of what was on offer:

The very amusing Bill & Ben show:

Bill Thompson – Two Cultures

Bill discussed Charles Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ thesis from the 50s on culture, technology and solving the world’s problems, culminating in evangelising for more respect for geeks shaping contemporary life.

• It’s fifty years since Charles Snow’s famous lecture on the ‘Two Cultures’
• At the time Snow was writing he thought the world was run by people who did not understand the potential of technology or see what was possible by the use of technology
• Snow had some very patronising thoughts on changing Third World culture to vanquish poverty and change people to be better through Western ideals
• At the end of the 50s things were already being transformed by digital technologies

Conclusions:
• Of course now technology is ubiquitous – it is shaping the modern world
• The choices that we make during the design stage affect how people use technology, so we have to think carefully about how we go forward.
• The political system needs to listen and respect the geeks, because they will design our systems of the future
• Some tech will be exploited by the system – e.g. ID cards
• I want us all to go from this room and educate people – get rid of Microsoft Word in schools and get people to install proper open systems
• We can start to inject in society some positive role models, so not Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but ‘Buffy the overflow slayer’!
• We need to talk to people about tech and code as a fundamental part of our culture
• Snow wanted to impose our western ideas on people, I want something different
• We need to use code to make the world a better place, not a divided world, but for good.

Question from Kathryn Corrick – who should we be looking to as role models & get skills?

Bill joked – Richard Stallman and hairy men eating pizza are role models, but more seriously, everyone who works for My Society are good examples of role models.

Here’s a couple of random links I found on the interwebs if you want some views of CP Snow & Two Cultures:
* Telegraph article
* Danny Yee’s review
* Some academic links

Ben Goldacre – Science and Communication

Ben Goldacre gave some very witty observations on sections of the media being ridiculously bad at science reportage.

• People want to know about science so they can make judgements about things like their own healthcare, but the basic problem with science coverage is that media make publishing decisions based on their own criteria to make money and they also make up stuff
• Example: Mail online article – human race will split into two species, which was rather spurious
• PR companies know that the way to get bulshit stories into the media is via science
• Made up figures example – ‘cannabis is 25 times stronger’ headline in the Independent, 2007
* PowerPoint game – take random PowerPoint slides and present them off the top of your head

What can we do about this shits and giggles economy, beyond just taking the piss out people?
• Have clear guidelines for journalists
• Competition – be better than the others
• Clever structures – reference material / investigative work

Debunking site 1: Quackometer – searches the internet for quackery on the internet, it made a formal complaint to the British Chiropractic Council sbout 550 chiropractors offering practises which contravened / broke rules

Debunking site 2: Badscience – aggregates bad science blogs & quite amusing too!

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Women in technology

A panel of women: Sue Black, Zoe Margolis, Janet Parkinson, Kathryn Corrick and Suw Charman-Anderson talked about their work and experiences in tech.

Sue Black:
• Experiences of being a woman in tech
• Set up BCS women in tech groups forums where all sorts of subjects supporting women in tech are discussed
• Urban myth of the different approaches that women and men look at job specs

Janet Parkinson:
• Silver stockholders
• don’t think pink
• Della – Dell campaign – campaign with patronising tech tips that included calorie counters, cooking videos and nutrition
• Nike has very empowering campaigns aimed at women
• Apple came out on top with their colourful ipod campaign
• Dove’s campaign that have 36 different websites for countries all designed differently and have different content
• How do you encourage more women in tech?
• In South Africa almost half applicants for tech courses are women

Suw Charman Anderson:
* Story of Ada Lovelace Day to promote women in tech – mash up with over 1000 posts and currently wondering how to repeat it next year – ask for 5000, 10000 blogs?
* A friend of Suw’s started up a facebook page for Ada Lovelace day – there were differences between the pledgebank and facebook. 400 of the 2000 on facebook signed up for pledgebank
* Top four choices : 1. Ada Lovelace 2. Grace Hopper 3. Hedy Lamarr 4. Barbara Liskov – others included ‘my mother’, Cathy Sierra, Delia Derbyshire, * In the top 20 Ada Lovelace choices only 9 were still alive
* Suw announced a trip to Bletchley Park to find out more about the women who worked there on 26th July

Kathryn Corrick:

Ran a brainstorming session, where post it notes were handed out and people wrote their women in tech role models and inspirations, and then stuck them on the wall to be collated for later inclusion on a website.

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Gavin BellEphemerality? Real time web vs persistence

How we might start to think about documenting and being able to look back on our digital lives.

• Aggregation is key to real time data feeds – integration of real time photos, etc of concerts, trips etc on last.fm and dopplr
• We forget friends too
• What might we want from social applications in the future? Stories from our lives, events, social interactions, favourites on a timeline, replies, cross-referenced views of our lives
• Want RSS feeds from our social lives – a social atlas over time: for example: what were my favourite photos, events, etc in 2008. Would be better than trending – would be stuff my friends have favourited across the web

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Gary Gale, Yahoo! – Location, privacy & opting in and out

* Talked about zero privacy and opting out as well as in – using some examples of location service such as Latitude and Fireeagle – with some fear-mongering examples of how this tech was covered in the media

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Gavin Starks, AMEE – Your Energy Identity

Ways of looking at your carbon footprint in the future.

• Apple have worked out that an Apple laptop = footprint of 460kg 0or 0.5 tonnes of CO2e
• Estimated range of global warming is underestimated
• Carbon will be part of the US budget by 2011 – source the White House
• Your energy identity will soon exist like your online identity does = purchases, materials, buildings, travel + transport, fuel, water + waste
• Suggests looking at Act on CO2 website

Finally, I was most honoured to be namechecked in Phil Whitehouse’s talk ‘How to Build Developer Communities’ as someone to follow on Twitter which was very kind of him. I’m ever so flattered to be Caprica 6 too – cheers Phil! ;-)


Conquering The Great Barnacle of Londinium

Growing up the the UK many of my peers will remember the GPO or Post Office Tower, which was glamourised in Christmas TV Specials and kids progs – not least in the Kitten Kong episode of the Goodies and Doctor Who. It was geeky and cool. Building began in 1961 and it was opened to the public in 1966 by Tony Benn, a long-standing hero of mine.

Situated in Fitzrovia, London, it’s used to house telecoms kit and transmit TV and radio microwave signals around the UK and a load of other important communications. It features a revolving top floor restaurant, which was a No1 London tourist attraction untill someone left a bomb in the men’s toilet in 1971, causing substantial damage and it has since been closed to the public except by special invitation to events and launches.

Last week, I was pleasantly surprised to be invited to a launch of BT/Football Foundation sponsored initiative to encourage kids to get involved in technology/media via sports. As this is a subject close to my heart and I’m working on a project in this field, I was very interested.

The Ghost Office Tower (what I’ve called it since I was little) is my favourite building in London and I’ve been fascinated with it for ever since I can remember, but have never been able to go up it for reasons stated above. So of course I RSVPed to the invite straight away, but remembered about a second after that I have really bad vertigo and an irrational, but very real fear of heights.

Hmm, so earlier this morning I coincidentally had an appt. in the next street to where the tower is situated, when it appeared in the landscape I eyed it carefully. My plan was to not think too much about the height, but the elation of achieving a lifelong dream visit to my favourite barnacled icon (I think it looks like an old barnacled razorfish shell).

In case nobody else noticed, today has so far been the hottest day of 2009 and as I sat working I was stewing on the decision, as well as the heat. I ummed and ahhed so much about going I was half an hour late, during which time I chatted to some friends on IRC & IM, who urged me to go – well I would definately be annoyed and kick myself if I didn’t go – so eventually frogmarched myself out into the blinding July sun and off down the road to Cleveland Street.

At 34 Maple Street (the swanky entrance) the security is tight, I had to show the lady on reception some photo ID, before she gave me a printed clip on badge. I was then ushered into a strange booth with a security man & woman who performed some airport stylee security checks – happily my piercing did not set off any alarms! A lady representative came and collected me and before I knew it I was taken to the lift – no backing out without extreme embaressment now!

Whilst waiting for the lift, we could hear the air being sucked up and making a whooshing sound as it travelled at very high speeds. I started to fret, but the nice BT lady started to tell me about the high tech facts about the lift, which genuinely pleased me. Apparently these are the only lifts that you can travel in if there’s a fire and BT got special Act of Parliament dispensation for this, they’re also some of the fastest lifts in Europe!

So in a very shy fashion I asked if I could take some photos of the etched steel image of the tower that lit up to show the lift’s progress, luckily the nice lady wasn’t fazed! Suddenly the lift was there and we got in, I took a couple of snaps and an automated announcement told us how fast we were going – it was very smooth and in about 30 seconds we were up at our destination on the 33rd (I think) floor.

Before I’d had chance to take more than a couple of snaps (okay, slow buffer on Canon G7) we had arrived and I was met with bright light and a waiter. I was given a cool drink and guided round the curve to where the speeches had begun (I was late). I was trying to listen but of course my vertigo was starting to kick in, I was sweating like a sweaty thing (nice), my legs were getting a bit sea-wobbly and I was worried I’d drop my drink – I swear I could feel the building swaying!

After several eons which was probably only 5-10 mins the speeches & demo were over. The BT/Football Foundation media literacy project sounded quite interesting and combining sport and making films/images to share a rather nice idea, so I was glad that I’d gone to hear about it. Anyway, I was considering how I’d make an exit demurely for my impending meeting back at Castle Greystoke when some introductions were in order to chat about the project, though I would have been happy to usually, I was feeling the collywobbles and felt like I could hardly string a sentence together. After a bit of coaxing, I did sit down and chat to a very nice lady who gave me an overview of the project and some reading material, I hope she didn’t notice the panic in my eyes ;-) After I had a chat with the organisers and came clean that I was having a bit of a tough time coping with vertigo, luckily they were quite sweet about it.

So, realising I had to leave for my 3pm meeting I tried to do a quick tour of the viewing area – it’s not big at all and as it’s circular you can walk round in a jiff. It’s also not very big in depth, so you can’t really get away or fail to notice where you are and up (IMHO) very high in the sky! I was amazed at everyone else’s nonchelance at being up in the sky, and that they were happy to perch right up against the windows and munch the pretty buffet.

I had a nice chat with a waiter, who I quizzed about the tower swaying and if he minded being up there – I’m intriuged how anyone can be up there for any length of time and not have a panic attack!

After making an attempt at a few unadventurous snaps, I decided I really had to leave and called the lift. After what seemed like eternity watching the LED floor numbers, it arrived and I was relieved, albeit sad to leave. I really wish I could have enjoyed it more, but alas I need more practice with heights if I’m going to overcome my vertigo hoohars.

So, incase you’re interested, some random facts:

* Height: 189 meters
* Designed to sway only 20-25 cm so as not to affect microwave signals
* No of visitors before closing to public in 1971 4, 632822
* The construction cost £2.5 million
* Opened to the public on 16 May 1966 by Tony Benn and Billy Butlin
* Its foundations are sunk down through 53 metres of London clay
* Tower still in use as a major UK communications hub
* Until the mid-1990s, the building was officially a secret & didn’t appear on maps
* Was given Grade II listed building status in 2003 & so several of the defunct antennae cannot be removed
* Entry is provided by two high-speed lifts which travel at 6 metres per second
* Is being used in a major study to help improve air quality in the capital
* Has appeared in many films and TV programmes

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