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Travelling from France to Switzerland
Travelling from France to Switzerland August 23, 2005 2:16 PM
I have cycled from France to Switzerland and am currently stopped in Zürich. I have bloged about that trip in more detail on my Sun blog. I was thinking of posting the entries here too, but thought it may be good to wait for Roller to implement the Atom protocol, which won't be ready for a few more months, as this would allow me to get the entries in both places to have the same id. Now whenever I post something I have to worry about where to publish it too...
Savings in the US
Savings in the US August 23, 2005 2:13 PM
I happened across an interesting blog entry about savings in the US. Eva Maler finds that the statistics on US savings may be quite misleading. Something I have been wondering about too...
6 Feet Under
6 Feet Under 6 Feet Under July 27, 2005 9:53 PM
My brother Nicholas came over to Fontainebleau last week and introduced me to the 6 Feet Under (6FU) series which he had found in our local english DVD shop (Fontainebleau is international enough to have such a thing). I never watch TV series partly because I don't have a television, but his enthusiasm was catching enough so I looked at the first episode, then the second, then the third all the way through the whole first series - a total of 12 episodes. The last time I watched a series was when I was living in San Mateo, California, and I sat eagerly through the whole Twin Peaks, that I had borrowed from the local BlockBusters, as I am a fan of David Lynch's work. Well I have been enjoying "6 feet under" at least as much as Twin Peaks. It makes a lot more sense for one, but is just as weird, though perhaps a lot more didactic, without being unsubtly so. The only other series I really enjoyed was The Singing Detective which I also need to see again. Twin peaks is a much more than a Soap Opera such as "East Enders", "Dallas", "Neighbours" or other such... umh.... drivel. I really have never been able to understand those. 6FU really makes sense to me. It digs right into really difficult subjects such as death, homophobia, drug abuse, personal relationships, madness and other subjects in as subtle a way as one can do for a TV program. Certainly one can go a lot further than this and someone will. But this is such a solid foundation to work from...

For those who like me are 4 years behind the times (6FU came out in 2001)- and on the web we are all at the center of something - and years behind most other things - 6FU is life seen through the eyes of the Fisher family (no wonder it's a good film :-) who run an independent funeral home in Pasadena, California. When I was a kid one of my mother's friends Pierre Passy, also came from a family that ran a funeral home in Fontainebleau ("croque morts" in French), and like the elder brother Nate was, and still is quite a womaniser - though Pierre would I think play the obvious card that Nate surprising does not play which is to emphasize a little the dark and intriguing side of his family business to attract the opposite sex. Pierre Passy is now an aesthetic surgeon, which does not put him very far from the work that we see in each episode of 6FU.

A lot of the commentary emphasizes the word "dysfunctional" when describing the Fisher family represented in the film. But my experience of life suggests that what is represented is in fact normality. It is just that what people have been so used to seeing the world through rose colored spectacles that they end up thinking the world is the way it is represented in bad soaps. This can be quite dangerous when the dream and reality don't match up. 6FU in many ways gives us an excellent representation of a normal family. Things will start making a lot more sense after watching this film. At least they do to me.
Terrorism in London
Terrorism in London July 26, 2005 10:15 AM
The mistaken shooting of the Brazilian man in the London tube made me very weary as soon as I heard of it. Apparently the man had been running, fell, then was shot 7 times in the head from close range. This clearly achieves the aim of incapacitating the man but at the cost of not being reversible and furthermore anihilating much of the intelligence the suspect may posses. Are there no weapons available that can incapacitate a man for a few hours and render him inoperative? Searching for "nonlethal weapons" or "less lethal weapons" brings up some good sites. But a bbc article does point out how suicide bombers are creating an atmosphere where it is becoming very difficult to stop them in any other way. The police don't want to shoot in the body for fear of detonating the bombs.

I really wonder what these suicide bombers are trying to achieve: To reduce freedom in the UK? To help create a police society? How can that possibly help the cause of spreading Islam? Perhaps by increasing the tensions between muslim and non muslims in the wake of the bombing they are hoping to create an atmosphere that will bring more people to their radical fold. In which case a mechanism has to be found to help the larger muslim community combat the perception that they are a foreign entity. Just as the Queen is the head of the anglican church, perhaps it is time for the royalty to also take on the role of head of the anglican muslim faith. The loyalties of the British muslims have to be clearly aligned with those of britain. Any gap or vagueness in their words is beyond irresponsible.

OSS Get Together Paris
OSS Get Together Paris July 22, 2005 11:53 AM
Every month there is a little Open Source Sofware meeting (ossgtp) in Paris which gathers people working on some very interesting and fruitful Open Source Projects (Groovy, Xwiki, Rome, ... to name just a few). Yesterday for example there was a very good presentation on aspect oriented programming by Alexandre Vasseur (BEA) and how this fits in with java 5 annotations. Sometimes the presentations are less relevant to my work, such as the other presentation by Jerome Lacost on the Quilt patch management tools and the CruiseControl continuous integration suite. There are only very few commiters for BlogEd so I have not yet come across these problems. But when I do, at least I'll know where to look for a solution.
my experience with Atom
my experience with Atom my experience with Atom July 21, 2005 10:59 AM
So you may have noticed that my blog now supports Atom 1.0. There will be very few clients at present that correctly interpret the xml generates as the spec is not quite out of the IETF oven. But according to Tim Bray who has a lot of experience with standards bodies it's very nearly there.

I have spent the last year following and contributing to the Atom group via their mailing list and on their wiki. It has been a huge learning experience more than anything else. Most of my proposals never made it through the system. The IETF has a very simple but also very constraining method to reach a conlusion: it works by consensus whilst also being open to every one. This makes it very frustrating, but it leads to solutions that gravitate towards the simplest possible ones to understand. One really should not understimate how such rules affect the outcome. They are fundamental. It made it clearly very difficult/impossible to use tools such as OWL to help clarify various issues. Not enough people understand them yet, and many don't even want to. So one should not expect of the IETF to make huge leaps into the future. But what it is good at is helping people find their common ground. And with the RSS wars of the past it was clear that such a procedure was very much needed. Finally we have a feed format that is clear and mostly well defined. This is a huge improvement. A foundation on which to build on.

I am happy to say that one of my contributions did make it into the spec, with the essential support of Tim Bray (I had nearly run out of steam trying to convince a certain Graham of this). And that is the ability to have more than one entry in a feed with the same id if they have different time stamps. Entries are therefore descriptions of the state of certain resources at a time, and a feed is a collection of such descriptions. A feed can therefore be used to describe the history of a web resource. As a result I am happy to say that my name is listed in the contributors section of the spec. Now that's cool :-)

200km in a day
200km in a day 200km in a day July 21, 2005 8:59 AM
This weekend I tried out my new GPS system by cycling from Fontainebleau to Nevers (200km) on Saturday and from Nevers to Moulins (60km) on Sunday. The GPS was really helpful. I could zoom through the countryside and through towns without hesitation and securely. Gone was the usual background worry that I had missed an important intersection.

My average moving speed has fallen down to 25km/h, probably due to my not exercising continuously and carefully during the past 3 months. This reminds me to mention that the most important tool on the bicycle is of course not the GPS unit but my Polar S150 pulse watch. It is really badly made (plastic all the way around) but the functionality is essential. When exercising it is not the speed at which one goes that is important but the rate at which the heart beats. At my age my heart should be beating between 130 and 162 bpm. When cycling on a straight road I should be stabilising at 130bpm and move up to short bursts of 160 when climbing hills. So my coach Jacky explains to me. The heart is the most important organ in the body. With time the heart will grow and the muscles will become better at moving one forward for the same heart beat rate. As I have been lazy since my fall in April (never mentioned that here) my general physical condition has sagged somewhat. Hopefully I'll be able to get back to an average of 30km/h soon.

So with 25km/h moving average that means that I was cycling Saturday for 8 hours. It was incredibly hot. I drank over 5 litres of water in the process and it all must have come out in immediately evaporated sweat, because it came out nowhere else. My guess is that without the GPS I would only have been able to do 150km in the day. Reading a map can quickly consume a lot of time, so people then end up taking major and so more dangerous roads. I was driving down small country roads most of the time, crossing through small french villages, a car passing me only once in a while.

So on the whole the Garmin GPS worked as advertised. Of course no technology is completely free of bugs. At one point the Garmin GPS froze and required a forced reboot. After a quick meal in a Chinese restaurant towards 7 o'clock it thought I was in the middle of the English Channel, which screwed up my moving average quite a bit: I was doing 125km/h all of a sudden. It got rained on a couple of times by watering systems out in the fields which goes to show that water proofing is important even on a scorching hot summer day.

Entering the trip path was more complex than it should be. Garmin has a cycle mode to calculate the route between two points but this is not subtle enough to distinguish between french D roads (departemental) on which nearly no one drives and N (National) roads some of which can be very quiet, but others very busy. Since the N roads are the most direct the Garmin will choose those more often than is desireable. As a result I had to create a lot of way points in small villages to force it off the N roads. There should really be a lot more flexibility in selecting which roads one does *not* want to be using: it should be possible to specify that some roads should not be used at all, or only for certain distances. Of course if the GPS were linked to the internet a remote server could calculate from all the other GPS's travelling around which roads were the busiest at any time and direct the cyclist down the quietest roads.

Finally the limitation to 24MB of memory is still very annoying. I could probably fit all the maps from here to the south of France on a narrow corridor, but I would like to be able to put a lot more on the GPS to give me flexibility on my trip. The cpu on the Garmin could do with some improvement too.

But for the moment this seems to be the best that there is. Clearly a Pocket PC contraption would just not be solid enough:

  • Not waterproof
  • Batteries won't last long enough
  • Not solid enough
  • Requires an extra external GPS system (one more device to lug around)
 But I am really looking forward to some device like that which I could use both on my cycle trips and in daily life. That would make it much easier to justify the cost.
Cycling with a GPS
Cycling with a GPS Cycling with a GPS July 14, 2005 3:14 PM
I discovered the joy of cycling when I worked at Philips in Eindhoven, Holland, in 2003, where it is the national vehicle of choice. There are more cyclists there than cars or motorbikes it seems. One can cycle to every place in Holland and nearly never have to leave the beautifully laid out cycle tracks. The number of types of types of cycles is also breathtaking. Ever since a kid I had dreamt of being able to cycle using a recumbant bicyle, and so I jumped at the opportunity to criss cross holland my eyes turned towards the sky.

In the end though I bought myself a normal racer cycle (no name titanium frame from Russia) as I discovered on my journeys that recumbant cycles are less practical in hilly environments. I used this bicycle to cover the 1000km from Eindhoven to Austria for my brother Alexander's wedding in 2003, and last year I cycled 750km to Avignon. Those are just the longest trips. Every few weekends I cover 80km or so to go to Paris.

My average speed recently is approximately 30km/h. So I should be able to cover 180 kms a day easily: 2 hours in the morning, 2 hours in the afternoon, and 2 hours in the evening. But this average drops dramatically when I don't know where I am going. On a bicycle you can't easily look at a map while you are driving. And if you don't pay attention you only realise it at the next intersection, which may be 10km down the road. The process of finding one's way by consulting maps is extreemly time consuming. It also requires carrying a lot of maps around if one wants to be in the least flexible about where one goes. When I went from Holland to Austria I ended up with 3 books in my back pack. And every kilo in that pack counts when one is pushing on the pedal.

So over time the idea of being able to use a GPS system to help me along has been taking hold of my imagination. There are two other pieces of equipment that I really need on my bicycle: a camera and a phone. A camera in order to take pictures of some of the scenery and incidents that occur along the way, and a phone to help me out of tricky situations when needed. A merger of all of these would of course be ideal. I could then use the phone to send pictures of my trip to my blog with GPS location information, use the phone to receive calls while on the road, and have the same tool guide me along the curvy paths towards my destination. A phone supporting all these with 3G communication would also be very handy during the rest of the year I thought, allowing me to connect my computer to the net from any café, even those without wifi connection. So last weekend I went to Paris on the hunt for a tool that would fullfill all these criteria. All the technologies are available. Was I going to be able to get what I was looking for?

Well I had to go through a crash course in mobile technology. I had a lot of requirements, and finding a tool that would fit them all was going to be difficult. I am not new to handhelds. At AltaVista I owned an Apple Newton. I later had a few Palm Pilots. But ever since my Palm Phone broke down in Holland 2 years ago, I have been without a mobile. So I had some catching up to do. Well there are at least 5 magazines in France alone on the subject of mobile phones and devices. I bought all of them and some back issuse.

But this would not have been enough to digest all the information available. Luckily I came accross the director of the very large SFR shop on the Champs Elysées, Lionel Gajac, who is a GPS fan and specialist, and who helped me understand the current state of the art in the area. He spent well over an hour showing me what was currently possible with cell phones and PDAs. And I am very grateful. Sometimes a demonstration is worth a thousand words.

In summary: things are very close to being there. The up and coming Nokia 7000 will have an excellent 2MB camera with a Zeiss lens should cover my mobile photography needs. There may be an attachment by the GPS leader TomTom to add in GPS capabilities. One can allready do this in fact but for two major problems: battery life and resistance to battery. The external GPS systems that exist and are about to come out use bluetooth to communicate with the phone. This will very quickly drain the batteries: on a week long bicycle trip through the country side one needs something better than 4 hours. A bicycle also takes a lot of hard knocks: rain, slippages, heat and other phenomena will test your electronic equipment severely. Most phones are clearly designed for people who are never too far from a power point: be it in the office, car or just any of the many outlets available in town. They are designed for city-zens not for 'adventurers'.

Lionel Gajac pointed me to Espace GPS a specialist GPS shop close to the Eiffel Tower. Here I came across a much more specialised tool, designed very much for the purpose I had in mind. Sadly it does not combine the phone functionality. But I suppose one just can't have everything. The english salesman suggested that for my purposes the Garmin Etrex Legend C would be best. It comes with a bicycle mount, is easy to read in sunlight, has easily replaceable AA batteries that last over 20 hours apparently, and it is shock and water proof. The main competition is the Magellan Explorist 500 a device that does a lot of what the Etrex Legend does, but also has a SD card expandibility slot that allows one to store up to 1GB of information on the device. This would have been enough to convince me to buy the Magellan had the salesman not insisted heavily that he was unable to get the device to work with the software currently on the market.

So that is for the good news. There is a device that will do what I need. The bad news: In Europe the Garmin Etrex Legend C alone costs €440, and this is without the maps of Europe. Alltogether with the Automotive Navigation Kit and cycle clips the whole thing came to close to €700, way more than I could reasonably justify. Futhermore the mapping software only runs on Windows! And the Garmin's limitiation to 24MB of data is exceedingly annoying as for longer trips: it means that one will have to carry the CD around in case of a change of plan, and find a PC on which to install it in case one overruns the map stored in memory.

Nevertheless I bought it, but very much against my gut instinct. I would have liked to look more into the Magellan proposition, and I should probably have insisted more heavily. But then I don't want to spend all my holidays deciding which device to buy...

So yesterday I installed the software on a spare laptop of my father. Not only is the software Windows only. It is really horribly backward, compared to what one is used to in OSX. They clearly would not loose anything in complete rewrite. I would suggest doing it in Java, then at least they would not have any platform incompatibility problems, but then that's me. The software is useable. Just not a pleasure. I drew a small 30km route I know well and added a little detour I noticed would make my trip a little safer and would help me test the device on a road that I had never used before.

Well I must admit that after all the trouble described above the GPS really worked as hoped for. It took me down some roads I had not tried before, but I was happy to follow its advice, secure that it was not going to lead me down a dead end of some sort. A couple of times when I knew better I chose a differently and the eTrex recalculated the path to take accordingly. The guidance information is very well laid out and easy to understand. A small beep attracts one's attention to the display whenever an intersection approaches, and large arrows make it very clear which exit to take.

Not only does it help guide me but it also accurately gives the bicycle speed, which is a lucky as - it took some time to work this out - the eTrex interferred with my wireless bicycle speedometer. If it came with a heart rate monitor the eTrex could completely replace all my other devices on the bicyle. If it came with a built in phone it would be the perfect adventure device. (Just imagine the possibilities if it could update maps and other information over the network while travelling!)

So now I am working on my next week long trip. Perhaps it is time to go and meet Danny Ayers in Italy.