Friday, 30 December 2005

HP Printer

I discovered last week that if I was setting up my own business to be able to offer freelance consultancy services, it would be a good idea to invest in a printer. Up until now, I would print the odd page I had to print in the office. Obviously, if the office is now my home, I need a printer at home. So, I went to the Apple store to find something that would work well with my Mac. I ended up choosing the HP Officejet 7410 all-in-one. What sold me to this printer is:

  • The price is right, less than £400 for a printer/scanner/fax/photocopier is good;
  • It can do double-sided printing;
  • It can connect to a wireless network;
  • It is completely supported on Mac OS-X;
  • It is quite fast.

The Apple store says it can deliver it in 2 to 3 weeks. So I was very surprised when it arrived today, two days after I ordered it.

I followed the installation procedure step by step until I got to installing then ink cartridges. The printer wasn't happy with the cartridges and told me so, saying I should check them and insert them again. Which I did. 3 times. I went through the troubleshooting section in the manual. Nothing. I went to HP's online support and found a promising entry that involved cleaning the copper contacts on the cartridges. I did. 3 times. To no avail. So I tried the next step: clean the contacts on the carriage itself. No luck. I went back to the manual and found the support phone number. I called. The UK number directed me to a call centre that was obviously somewhere on the Indian sub-continent. I was asked for a lot of personal details in order to create a file for me, details that I had already given via the support web site, and this even before I had a chance to mention anything about the problem. After a good 30 minutes, the conclusion of the support guy was that the printer was defective and needed to be replaced. This is where I was offered two options: either get the original provider (in this case the Apple Store) to replace the appliance or get a direct HP replacement but if it was replaced by HP directly, it would be a refurbished printer, not a new one.

How can HP even begin to think that it might be remotely acceptable to replace my brand new non-working expensive piece of kit with a refurbished one? I wonder.

So I called the Apple Store. The call was answered very quickly and in 10 minutes they had arranged for a new printer to be delivered to me and the old one picked up. The only thing I have to do is pack everything back in the box and write a return number on it. They do the rest.

the final support score is:

Apple Store

Rain drops

Every year, people in the UK wish for a white Christmas. More often than not, this wish is not granted, especially in London. Outside of London, temperatures very seldom go low enough for snow to form. In town, it happens even less as it is always a few degrees warmer.

Then yesterday, we had about 2 minutes of snow and we were all hoping it would transform into real snow today. Tough luck, we got rain so I took a picture of the drops on my bedroom window.

Thursday, 29 December 2005

The mystery of the # key solved!

If you have a recent Mac with a UK English keyboard, you might have noticed that nowhere on the keyboard is there a key with the # symbol (aka hash in the UK, aka pound in the US). I have lost hair trying to find out how to print one without resorting to the character palette. I just found the answer to the problem on HTML Dog: press left alt + 3. Similarly, to obtain the € symbol, press left alt + 2. However, the € is marked on the keyboard, the # symbol isn't. Surely Apple could have gone the extra mile (or rather the extra nanometre in this case) and marked the # symbol on the keyboard? Or maybe they could have used the same UK English layout that is used with PCs? Anyway, that's one mystery solved.

Wednesday, 28 December 2005

Time Piece

I need a new watch. I accidentally broke mine a few months ago. I suspect I could have it repaired but then I would miss the excitement of getting a new toy. I also want a watch that can handle multiple time zones so that I can check the time at home while I am travelling. I also thought that a radio controlled watch that I would not need to set would be a cool thing.

I've never seen anything like this in the shops here. Ok, I haven't looked very hard.

So rather than go out in the freezing cold of London, I decided to see if Google could help. And indeed it could. By giving it the query watch traveller multiple time zone radio controlled, it came up with Handy Watches, which looks like a nice UK site with a lot of choice, and Watch Report, which looks like a good advice site, with lots of models tested. Browsing the latter, I ended up finding YES Watches. I'll grant you that none of those watches are radio controlled but they are beautiful time pieces and, as a keen photographer, having solar and lunar rhythms on my wrist would be just great. I love them, especially the black titanium models, obviously the most expensive. Digging a bit further, I found out that you can buy them online from ThinkGeek or

Interestingly enough, I want one of those doesn't have them but if you search their products for yes watch, you end up finding some watches and... pole dancing experience vouchers.

Merry Christmas!

I hope you all had a great Christmas. I spent mine in Dijon, Burgundy, France, with my family. As usual, there was a lot to eat and drink. This year, deer was on the menu, which is quite traditional in that region of France. And then yesterday, just before I left, we had snow! Not much but enough to turn the roofs of the town white.

Some people might notice that the photograph was not taken at Christmas but a couple of weeks earlier. If you look closely at the reflection in the decoration, you might recognise the setting of a traditional English pub. I didn't even think of taking a similar one when in France and I don't have a Christmas tree at home.

Wednesday, 21 December 2005

Drunken Cooking

Right, I'm drunk while writing this. Something to do with a few too many bottles of wine in the company of a mad Venetian and a mad Slovenian. Ladies. Yes, ladies but mad. One used to be my flatmate, the other one is my neighbour. They are both lovely. But mad. End result, we drunk way too many bottles of Chardonnay (or rather I drunk way too much of it while they were sipping it).

So, the end result is I came home wanting food and I had lots of raw ingredients in the fridge. But I was still sober enough to remember Irina's email I got earlier today, on how to make sure a grown man won't cry. This involved putting salt on the onion while peeling and cutting it. It worked! I didn't cry. And then I got on with my cooking, ending up with this beautiful mushroom, scallop and salmon brown basmati rice. Very healthy while very filling.

So I might be drunk but I can still cook. Or so says my stomach. A big kiss to Irina for the salty tip as I'm not crying tonight.

Tuesday, 20 December 2005

Ice Skating

I went ice skating today, at Kew Gardens. Every year in winter they have this outdoor skating ring and it's great. The price is sort of reasonable: £10 for 1 hour, including rental skates.

I was a bit shaky on my feet at first because I hadn't skated for years. But then it's like cycling or skiing: once you're back on the ice, your body remembers. After 10 minutes I was ok and really enjoying it. However the weather is quite mild at the moment considering it's the end of December so the ice was quite wet and deteriorated very quickly. The rental skates were also quite blunt. This plus the fact that I'm a very average skater meant the skates were constantly sliding sideways so it was a bit more strenuous than it should have been.

All in all it was a great exercise and I really enjoyed it. I'll have to go try the rink at Somerset House to compare.

Monday, 19 December 2005

How to make a grown man cry

Get him to peel and slice onions, I tell ya! I was crying my eyes out making this gratin Dauphinois last night but the result was worth the pain. That's what you get when you spend too long at home away from work: you end up trying unusual things like cooking.

So for whoever is interested, here's my recipe. You will need, per person:

  • 1 Onion;
  • 100g of or bacon;
  • 3 big or 5 small potatoes (you can mix in sweet potatoes);
  • 100ml of single cream;
  • 200g grated cheese or fresh mozzarella;
  • some butter or oil to fry the onions and lardons.

Start boiling a saucepan of water to cook the potatoes, while peeling and cutting the onions. If using bacon, cut it in small strips.

Fry the onions in butter (or olive oil if you prefer) on a very gentle fire in a small frying pan. If you have a real non-stick frying pan, you can leave them frying on their own without having to check too much. Make sure they don't burn and if they do bring the fire down. In the meantime, put the potatoes in your boiling water and let them boil away. Also start pre-heating the oven on a grill setting or whatever setting that heats only from above. If you are planning on drinking white wine with it, pour a little over the onions.

Have a break. A glass of the wine you poured on the onions will do nicely at this stage.

When the onions are getting to a nice golden colour, pour in the lardons.

When the potatoes are cooked (stick a knife through them to check), take them out of the water and let them cool down a bit. Peel them off and cut them in thin slices. If using mozzarella, cut it in small pieces.

By now, the lardons should be properly fried so pour the onions and lardons in an oven safe dish so that they cover the bottom. Arrange the slices of potatoes on top. Pour the single cream on top so that everything bathes in it. Add salt and pepper to your liking. Sprinkle the cheese on top making sure you cover the whole surface.

Put in the oven until the cheese is a nice golden brown colour, as in the picture.

Enjoy with a nice dry white wine.

Monday, 12 December 2005

High Speed Downloads

I wanted to download NeoOffice today, an OS-X office suite based on The package file is 107 megabytes so there was plenty of opportunity for the download to get cancelled. This is where I discovered curl. I suppose this tool is available on Linux and other variants of UNIX so *nix gurus who know about it, you can stop reading now.

curl is a command line download tool that is full of useful options. The simplest way to use it is to trigger a resumable download. The easiest way to do this is to issue the command curl -C - -O remote-file. The -C - option tells curl to resume the download where it was previously stopped. So if the download is interrupted for any reason, rerun the same command and it will find where to pick up from. The -O options tells it to store the file locally with the same name as the remote file. You can specify a different file name with the -o option of you wish.

This is the basics but curl is much more complex than that. In particular, it can download a series of file that follow a logical numeric or alphabetic sequence. It can also use multiple threads to speed up download. The best thing is to type man curl to have a look at what it can do.

Does it work and how fast is it then? You bet it does: it took me 10 minutes and 36 seconds to download the 107 megabytes of NeoOffice over a 2Mb broadband connection, which amounts to curl using 2/3 of the bandwidth, thus being fast but still letting me surf the net at the same time. Nice toy.

Cool Servers

How sexy can a rack mounted server be? What about the processor that is inside? Not very much. Unless it was designed by Sun Microsystems. I was in their city offices on Thursday and discovered their new servers with technology, based on the new processor, also known as Niagara (see also the Wikipedia article). When I first read about Niagara earlier this year, I thought it was cool technology but was really lab stuff and would not be available any time soon. Obviously Sun had other plans.

So what's this chip about then? It is an 8-core processor with 4 threads per core. This means that it has 32 simultaneous threads of execution. Compare this to the newest chips from Intel that are dual core, with 2 threads per core for a total of 4 simultaneous threads of execution. But who would need a processor that can do 32 things at the same time? Obviously it is not geared towards the personal PC or workstation market, but it is ideal for web servers and applications servers, machines that receive thousands of requests a second.

The chips are impressive when reading the spec but what really brought it home was seeing the schematic diagrams of the chip. It is pure Sun: elegant, well designed, a real work of art. If we can talk of The Art of Computer Programming, we can surely talk of The Art of Processor Design. And Sun are masters of their art. But more importantly, the direct result of such a well thought out design is that the chip is extremely resource efficient. It requires less power than other equivalent processors and doesn't heat as much. The heat chart is amazing, I wish I could find a version of it online.

Anyway, for more by Sun people themselves, see their weblogs:


Friday was a very strange day. It was the day we closed the office for good. By lunchtime, we had no desks, chairs or phones. So those amongst us who still had some work to do were doing it on the floor. The rest of us were going to the skip to throw away what nobody wanted to take home. Then at about 5, we took the last photo of the 5 of us that were left, in the empty office, and we went to the pub, were quite a few former colleagues joined us. It was a very emotional and drunken evening and I eventually staggered home around 4am.

Thank you to all the people I worked with while in this job, we had a great time and I, for one, learnt an awful lot. But it was time to turn the page and start a new chapter. I bet it will be as exiting as the previous one, if not more.

Tuesday, 6 December 2005

Quotes of the Day

From the same article at the BBC, one of the most meaningless technical comment ever:

The Xbox 360 is the first next generation games console.

Lawsuit targets Xbox 360 console, BBC News

And very sensible business advice:

If you are going to have after a company, you might as well go after one with lots of cash.

Paul Jackson, Forrester Research

Monday, 5 December 2005

Broken Branch Locator

I am currently filling out a direct debit form. In the form, like in all direct debit forms, they require the full address of my branch, information that I never have with me because HSBC claim that everything can be done from any branch and the only place where I have this full address is on my cheque book that I never, ever use. So, seeing that we are in the age of the Internet and that everything can supposedly be done online, I go to HSBC's web site to check the address of my branch. Once there, I need about 10 minutes to find the branch locator application which is reachable by going through the Contact us section and clicking through a couple of vaguely related links. So far so good. I'm only mildly annoyed because I seem to remember a direct obvious link from the home page. Then I click on the nice map of the UK until I narrow it down to OL postcodes and there at the top of the list is Ashton-under-Lyne, the branch I'm looking for. I click and I get:

There is no HSBC branch in Ashton-under-Lyne.

How did that happen? And when? Were they all abducted by aliens while I was sleeping? Did they close the branch recently but only half updated their branch locator? The most likely explanation is that their branch locator is simply broken. By that time I am quite annoyed as I've been trawling through their web site for a good 15 minutes in search of information that should be easy to find. Luckily, I went through the Contact us section before so I click on the Feedback section and explain my problem:

I have had an account with your Ashton-under-Lyne branch for 11 years so I am quite sure of its existence. However, when I went to the HSBC site to check the address of the branch, your branch locator claimed there was no branch in Ashton-under-Lyne. Note that this was after I had to navigate your web site in inventive ways as there is no obvious link to the branch locator from the front page. I do understand that in this day and age, when everything can be done through the internet, less and less people need the details of their branch but it would still be a nice service to offer your customers.

Yours sincerely,

That won't help me fill in my direct debit form but it has vented the frustration and it might potentially get them to solve the problem. Or confirm to me that their branch doesn't exist anymore because they've all been abducted by aliens.

Thursday, 1 December 2005

The End or The Beginning?

This is it. I got my redundancy letter on Tuesday and we are completely winding down the company. So I will be officially jobless in the new year.

Knowing this would happen last week, I started the process of setting up my own limited company to offer my services as freelance consultant. It should all be up and running within a week or so.

Then I had a few interesting talks with different people on Wednesday and it looks like I'm likely to be working on 3 different contract come mid-January. This is the good side of being freelance: I can do different things and not get bored. The icing on the cake is that between those 3 contracts, I am likely to end up visiting the US (Atlanta), Ireland and Malta.

In the meantime, and assuming everything pans out as expected, I'll have a nice Christmas holiday.

Sunday, 27 November 2005

My Sister's a Star

I received a big parcel on Friday. It was my sister sending me a birthday present consisting of a cool t-shirt bought in Australia and some tasty French cheese. The cheese was nicely packed in sealed plastic bags so that it wouldn't smell too much and could survive transport. Some of them are so strong they would qualify as chemical weapons but they taste fantastic. It should enable me to survive cheese-challenged Chiswick until I go home for Christmas.

Beers in Trujillo

When I was in Trujillo a couple of weeks ago, I ended up in a bar with Hans-Peter, a very nice Norwegian guy I had met while touring Chan Chan. As they had live music that evening, they also had a photographer from And here's the evidence: Hans-Peter and I having a beer in the first picture.

Friday, 25 November 2005

1038 Photos

I finished uploading my photographs from Peru. All 1038 of them. They can be seen on flickr. In fact, that's not quite true: I have a thirty second film still in the camera that I need to finish, develop and upload. So the total should be a bit higher. I now need to go through all of them, title and tag them properly. Luckily, I'll have lots of free time very soon.

Tuesday, 22 November 2005

This Company Terminates Here, All Change Please

It's been a funny old week. I came back from holidays to discover that my company was indeed going to merge with our American partner but that they'd close the London office by the end of the year. So in practice, we are leaving the premises in less than 3 weeks and we will all be out of a job by the end of December. I should get my redundancy letter next week.

What next? I've had enough of companies I work stupid hours for, spending nights in the office, being paid below the market's average, because I believe in what we do, and that end up giving me a P45 as a thank you. So I am setting up a limited company to start as an independant contractor and see what I can do for myself without relying on anybody else. The IT market looks quite good at the moment so it's probably the right time to do it.

If anybody needs the services of an experienced Java/J2EE technical architect, I'm your man.

Friday, 11 November 2005

Pirate Copies

Latin America has a lot of cool rock bands and I wanted to buy a few albums today to add to my music collection. You would think that in one of the largest cities in Peru, it would be easy to find a music shop that would have a decent collection where I could find everything I wanted? No. It is not easy. You have lots of small corner shops that sell CDs, DVDs and other bits and bobs but they are completely unsorted and they are all illegal copies. I found only one shop that sold original copies but they were all old or non-standard stuff that only a fan who didn't find what he wanted in the pirate copy shops would buy. So I ended up buying a few pirate copies, after asking the guy to play them to make sure I wasn't buying blank CD-Rs.

I asked a local friend what she thought about this and how the band made money. She admitted that probably 70% or more of the market is pirate copies and that none of the money on those copies would go to the artists. But the price of a CD is so prohibitive for the average Peruvian that there is no way they could afford originals, even though local music companies did reduce prices significantly in the past few years to make original copies accessible. So the pirate copy market ensures that everybody can buy and listen to the music. As a result, the albums of Latin artists and played everywhere and everybody knows their songs. Comparatively, western music is only a niche market: you don't hear it very often and when you hear it, it's old tunes the sort of which you get 4 for 20 quid at Virgin in London. In practice, western music seems to be pricing itself out of the Peruvian market. Having said this, how do Latin bands earn a living? I don't know but I suspect that every time they do a concert somewhere, the venue is full to capacity. I will be able to confirm this tomorow by going to a concert of Los Prisioneros.

Original Artwork

I went to the Huaca de la Luna, Temple of the Moon, this morning. You also have the Huaca del Sol next to it that is significantly bigger but you can't visit it. The visit was very interesting as it is the Moche site that has been best studied and you can really get inside the pyramid and see the original frescoes, some of them have been restored to their original colours using natural pigments. Apparently, the site's archeologists also found a tumb with remains on Monday but we couldn't see it. I suspect it will eventually be part of the visit when they have finished working on it.

The place is really fascinating, the guides are knowledgeable but unfortunately they are rather under-staffed meaning that you end up being shown around in large groups, especially if you speak Spanish, the English groups being few, small and far between. There were two of us and we got lumped together with 20 odd students, their teachers and two couples.

You can also buy reproductions of Moche art at the site, made using original molds. I would probably have bought something if the guys had let me browse around rather than trying a hard sell and bombarding me with offers of price reductions for a particular piece I wasn't interested in. Ufortunately this is common practice around here and tends to put me off what they have to offer. I like to take my time and be able to look around and compare pieces when I buy something.

Virgins, Horses and Adobe

I arrived in Trujillo last night. According to my guide book, Trujillo is the most conservative city of Peru. What I discovered first is that it is not the cheapest: the hotel the taxi driver took me to offered me the smallest and most expensive room I've had so far. But then it is the end of the trip and only for a couple of days so I stayed. They also have 24 hour free internet access for guests with a decent connection so no need to go and shop around for this.

Once here, I went out and ended up in the Plaza de Armas, as you would in any Peruvian city. It was full of people who were obviously waiting for something and there were a lot of people in costumes. I had accidentally stumbled upon a procession of the Virgen de la Puerta, the Virgin of the Door. The story goes that in the year 1674, a fleet of pirates that had already pillaged Guayaquil, in today's Ecuador, were seen closing in on Trujillo, or rather the harbour of Huanchaco. The local people, who didn't even have much in terms of defensive walls sent emissaries to all surrounding villages, including Otuzco, where there was an hermitage dedicated to the Virgen de la Concepción. To cut a long story short, they put a statue of the saint on top of the city gate as only protection and the pirates didn't even disembark. To this day, they still don't know why but they celebrate the virgin and they do it in style.

Trujillo is also the most photogenic city I have visited so far in Peru, thanks to the beautiful colonial architecture of its centre. A large number of buildings are UNESCO world heritage and gives quite a posh and clean aspect to the whole city. This is exacerbated by the local favourite passtime: raising horses.

But Trujillo also has a past before the Spaniards. Around the city are some of the most important pre-Inca sites from the Moche and Chimu cultures, in particular the largest adobe city in the world, Chan Chan. I went there this morning and, even though a very small part can be visited, it is extremely impressive, covering 14 square kilometres.

Tomorrow, the plan is to see the Huacas del Sol y de la Luna, one of the best restored pre-Inca sites. Then, there's the beach and a concert on Saturday.

Wednesday, 9 November 2005

Peruvian Chav

There are a thousand and one ways to up a car and tastes vary form country to country. The Peruvian top mod seems to be a blue neon light around the back number plate. Apart from its dubious esthetic appeal, it has the advantage of making the number plate unreadable.


I got it slightly wrong above. The trick is to have a blue neon light around both number plates. But I discovered last night that blue neon is only for the ordinary chav. The top chav will have purple neon lights! And the top of the top is to have both colours around each plate. I also got it wrong in that a blue neon light doesn't make the plate unreadable, a greeen one does. Green is probably for the eco-friendly chav, who will also customise his headlamps so that they glow green rather than white or yellow making them totally useless to light up the road: not light polution, result!

Peruvian Politics

In the ancient Inca culture, there was only one person called the Inca: the supreme ruler and semi-god. This can be applied to today's Peruvian politics, when they nickname their beloved president Paz, Peace. They can then talk of the Inca Paz or Incapaz, the Incapable One.

Executive Menu

After all this time in Peru, I've finally found how to eat well the cheapest way. In my defense, I wasn't really looking for cheap food, just typical local food. So the trick is that small local restaurants, the non-touristic ones, all have a menu ejecutivo, executive menu. It typically consists of an apetiser, a soup, a main course and a simple dessert. The whole meal is cheaper than any of the individual main dishes from the à la carte menu. So I've just had a 4 course meal for 6 soles, less than 2 USD or just about 1 GBP. I'll have a siesta on the bus to Trujillo.

Tuesday, 8 November 2005

Word Verification

As I'm still getting a lot of comment spam, I decided to enable the word verification option so that no automated script could leave a comment. I know it's a pain and detrimental to accessibility but it should help. It also means I should be able to allow anonymous comments again. I might try comment moderation as well but then comments would only appear after I approve them.

Church TV

Chiclayo's cathedral is an impressive and massive building. So massive in fact that the diameter of the pillars inside is so huge that if you're not in the nave itself, you cannot see the altar. To make it possible for the whole congregation to see and hear the services, the pillars have been fitted with loud speakers and TV screens. I suppose it's like football matches: you have a better view on the TV than the people who have a direct view on the altar but from the back of the church.

Liquid Sugar

The region around Chiclayo produces a lot of rice and sugar cane. As a result, a refreshing drink that can easily be found here is sugar cane juice. The process is extremely simple: just feed bits of cane into a special pressing machine that extracts the juice. Nothing more, no additive. The juice is very sweet, as it basically is water with a very high content of : liquid sugar. Sugar in its natural form is indeed liquid. To obtain sugar cubes, the extract is purified and crystallised. Although I have never seen it in the UK, liquid cane sugar is easily found in France, as it is produced in the French Antilles, and is great for cocktails. Look for a brand called Canadou next time you're in France, it is usually found in the spirits section although it is not alcoholic and bring me back a bottle: I ran out at home.

City of Friendship

Chiclayo is the self proclaimed city of friendship. It is a nice place where, as usual in Peru, people are friendy and eager to help. It has a lot to see in terms of pre-Inca cultures, all of whom built huge pyramids of adobe bricks. What is left today is a series of huge artificial hills that have suffered a lot from rain erosion but still hide a huge number of archeological artifacts, including some fabulous tombs. The modern city is worth a look too, from the impressive cathedral to the unexpected and beautiful Paseo de las Musas. Tomorrow, I'll also have a look at the Mercado Modelo where I am told I can buy weird concoctions from Shamans. If I can find one that can convince my boss I need more holidays, or a pay rise, that would be great.

Travel Entertainment

The bus trip from Tarapoto to Chiclayo on Saturday night was very smooth. That is apart from the bits where the road is not sealed or the river we had to ford. Have you ever seen a big travel coach pretending to be a 4x4 and ford a river? It is quite impressive.

As I mentionned elsewhere, Peruvian bus staff can't bear having bored passengers and insist on playing very bad movies at full volume. Since the previous bus trip, I had thought there could be nothing worse than Jean-Claude Vandamme at full volume. I now know this to be false. Worse is a bad film, at full volume, where the DVD has a scratch that stops it playing right in the middle of the most important scene that at last gives a modicum of sense to the ridiculous plot. Just when you had started to take an interest in the story, it cuts short and you are left with the feeling that you are missing something by not seeing the end, even though you know it is an abysmally crap movie that you would never have dreamed (or nightmared) of renting, let alone see in a theatre. Argh! Torture by travel entertainment!

Sunday, 6 November 2005

Crop Science

Going out in Tarapoto on Monday night, I met Rocio and her friends. Rocio is an agronomy specialist. She works all week in a small vilage called Chazuta, 2 hours away from Tarapoto, on the river Huallaga. As Tarapoto is a small place where you keep bumping into people you know, I saw her again on the Tuesday and, after discussing the waterfall I would see on the Wednesday morning, she suggested I go to Chazuta where she could show me a better waterfall. Chazuta is in no tourist guide I've seen, nor is it advertised by any local tour agency so I thought it'd be a good way to see a real Peruvian village and I agreed to it.

So on thursday morning I took a collectivo to Chazuta. There, I met Rocio, her sister, her boss and a few of her colleagues and we set up for the waterfall. The walk is steep along an earth path. But the worst is not the path, it is the merciless sun, as we had set up a bit later than we should have. So it was difficult to get there but it was definitely worth it. The waterfall was just amazing and it was a great spot to swim. Just what we needed to cool down from the sun.

On the Friday, we took a boat along the river to stop at a small island. There I could get a better understanding of what Rocio and her colleagues do. They are specialists in crop growing and their job is to explain to villagers what to grow and how to grow it so that they can live decently and get enough spare money to send their children to school. For instance, on the small island where we stopped, they were growing cocoa. But cocoa on its own is not viable because the plants need 3 years before they start producing. They also need shade. So they complement it with corn and use banana trees to provide the shade. The bananas, in addition to shade, provide food and extra revenue while the cocoa plants mature. On the other side, the agronomists put the farmers in contact with companies that will buy the crops for a decent price. This is the easy part of their job. However, in some districts, the job quite often consists in giving farmers an alternative to growing coca so they are less than welcome by the drug lords and it can get dangerous. The day on the island was very relaxing. For lunch, we had fish caught in the river the same morning, with locally produced rice; avocado, bananas, oranges and guava picked directly from the trees; corn picked directly from the stalk. It can't get healthier than this!

Thursday, 3 November 2005

Cat's Claw

After the waterfall this afternoon, the guide took us to a local place that sells all sorts of home made spirits. One of them is made from , Cat's Claw. For those who didn't follow the previous link and are already calling the RSPCA, it is a rainforest plant so called because of the peculiar shape of its thorns. And it is a medicinal plant so it's good for you, even in spirit form.

Wednesday, 2 November 2005

Open Door Churches

An interesting habit I have noticed in several small towns here is to keep the door of a church wide open during services. Maybe it is done in other places but as I have never been to a regular church service, I couldn't tell, I just happened to notice it here. Obviously, I am now wondering why they do that: to share the service with everybody? to provide an obvious emergency exit if something goes wrong? to attract new souls? Apologies if I have offended any church going person, I am just being curious.

Waterfall and Stairs

I went to a small waterfall this morning. It is much less impressive than the but you can actually walk behind the fall and have a swim in the small pond where it falls.

The fall is located in the Cordillera Escalera, a mountain range that joins the selva baja, the Amazonian forest flood plain, and the selva alta, the rain forest in the mountainous region the tributaries to the Amazon come from. The mountain range is called such because, apparently, a long time ago, a group of Jesuits and natives ended up building steps in the forest to cross the mountains.

Tuesday, 1 November 2005

I Love Wikipedia

You might have noticed that I quite often link aricles from . The reason is simple, I just love it. Most often, when I need background information on something, I can just go there and I'll have a great article with photographs, maps, etc. This is what open and free information should always be like.

River Crossing

I went to the Laguna Azul, or Blue Lagoon, today. It is a fresh water lagoon in the mountains near Tarapoto. You get there via a jungle dirt track that goes up a mountain pass and across river , an afluent of the , itself one of the two rivers that meet in Nauta to form the .

The river Huallaga at this point is about as wide as the Thames in London, flows way faster and carries a lot of vegetation ripped from its banks, including whole trees. There is no bridge, only a barge attached to a cable that runs between the two banks. The barge can take several cars or even trucks. It looks impressive but the system is quite smart. By adjusting the cables the barge can be oriented against the stream and by orienting it one way or another, it is actually the river's current that makes it travel across. The barge is sturdy enough to take a direct hit from a fast floating tree trunk without harm.

The lagoon itself is just beautiful, quiet and laid back, as if coming straight out of a glossy holiday brochure. As the region is still off the standard tourist routes and it is not the high season, our small group nearly felt like we had the place to ourselves.

Between Jungle And Mountains

I am now in Tarapoto, a town in the high forest, that is the area where the jungle meets the Andes. It is hot, 30 Celsius, but in the background one can see mountains covered with thick forest and capped by clouds. I am staying a few days and it should be interesting.

IQT, Iquitos airport

IQT, 14:30, the check-in area starts filling up with passengers that are flying out a couple of hours later.

IQT, 15:30, the departure lounge starts filling up but the runway is very empty: one helicopter, one seaplane and an Aero Condor propellor plane that is not going anywhere.

IQT, 16:00, all hell breaks loose. A plane from Lan Peru lands, followed by a first plane from Star Peru. Then a few minutes later, a plane from Tans finds its way there followed by a second plane from Star Peru, another propellor plane from Aero Condor and a cargo plane.

IQT, 16:30, 2 gates, 5 passenger planes to embark, the staff are quite good at sorting out who goes where and everybody end up in the right plane.

IQT, 17:00, the departure terminal is now empty, all arriving passengers have their luggage, everybody can go home for the day.

Sunday, 30 October 2005

Rainy Day

If the number of today's entries in this weblog makes you wonder whether I am bored out of my head, the answer is an emphatic yes: I finished my book and it is raining heavily, like it can only do so in the rain forest. There is a reason why it is called rain forest. On the other hand, it has freshened the air that was becoming unbearably hot and stuffy.

Cheap Food

I had one of my best Peruvian meal today for lunch and it was the cheapest ever in a restaurant: 4 soles, that is 0.67 GBP or 1.18 USD for 2 courses and a large soft drink. There's nothing like the daily menu in a small local place.

Power To The City

The power grid in Iquitos seems to be slightly over used. Every night, when the sun sets and electric light is switched on everywhere, one part of the city or other suddenly loses power. Sometimes, the whole city. It usually comes back in a few minutes but in the meantime business might stop. You can therefore classify shops, restaurants or hotels according to their emergency lighting solution:

  • Places that have a full blown generator and keep doing business as normal;
  • Places that have emergency lighting where business can continue as normal although it might be difficult to read labels due to the weaker light;
  • Places that have a stock of candles, which can make it very romantic, so this is the preferred option for small restaurants and bars;
  • Places that don't even have a candle which makes it very difficult to do any business at all but somehow they manage.


Drivers in Peru are not particularly pedestrian friendly and a lot of intersections just don't have any signal meaning it's a free for all or rather it follows the common sense law that the biggest vehicle gets priority. It's a bit like a food chain with the 18 wheel articulated lorry at the top, the pedestrian at the bottom and buses, vans, cars, motocarros, cycles, donkeys and other types of transport in the middle. This order is not always fixed: a donkey might take precedence over a car on a moutain track.

As a result, crossing the street can sometimes feel like a military expedition where timing is crucial. Peruvian drivers are not that bad though. Contrary to Indian or Egyptain drivers, they do stop at red lights and tend to swerve or slow down ever so slightly when a pedestrian is in the way, although whether this is by respect to said pedestrian or to avoid the delay associated with running over him is debatable. Anyway, the jaywalking skills acquired in India, Egypt and at Paris's Place de l'Etoile are proving useful.

Messaging Privacy

In this age when privacy, identity theft and all sorts of other things involving your personal information is concerned, I am sometimes surprised by how careless people can be. I have just connected on the computer of an internet cafe to find an MSN Messenger session open on the machine. As I am a nice guy, I just signed off and closed Messenger. I could have talked to whatever contacts of the person were connected at the time, trying to pretend I was this person. Fair enough, not knowing anything about the owner of the account, I might have been discovered easily but then maybe not. There is always the chance that some of the contacts are fairly new or have always been internet only contacts and don't know the owner enough to realise the real person behind the machine is not the one they think.

This is typical of any public computer like the ones you have in an internet cafe, a library or even at work. They are all machines to which you do not have exclusive access. Someone else can use them, whether it is another user of the internet cafe, or your work system administrator. If that person wants to play a nasty trick, it is very easy if you have left a messenger or email session open, or if you have the messenger software configured to connect automatically without asking for the password. MSN Messenger is quite bad in this respect because once you've set it up to connect automatically, it is not easy to change that setting or manage your password.

Another thing I see quite often in internet cafes is people who have connected to hotmail with the default setting of remembering the email address. Even though having just the email address doesn't enable someone else to connect to your hotmail account, that email address could end up in a spammer's address book or could be used to send email that pretend to originate from this address.

The only solution to this is to always disconnect from any session and never save passwords on shared computers or let any software connect automatically. I know, it is a pain to have to type your password every time and MSN Messenger's automatic connect or IE's password saving feature make your life so much easier but passwords are here to protect your identity because noone else knows them, in theory. You wouldn't leave you credit card PIN number on a piece of paper next to the card would you, even though it is a pain to type this PIN number every time you want to draw cash out? Or would you?

Thoughts About Cusco

There were a few things I wanted to comment upon while I was in Cuzco but I never found the time to do it so here goes.

Sexy Woman, Inca Style

The day before starting the Inca Trail, I did a short training session by walking up to the walls of . Those walls formed an integral part of Cuzco in Inca times and are located 2 kilometres from the city centre and 200 metres above it. So walking to them involves a good climb. Although Sacsayhuamán was a complex that comprised religious temples and storage areas, it also acted as a defensive wall to the city. It is believed it was intentionally shaped so that it would resemble a jaguar head, with Cusco as the body. This same shape must have also made it impossible to attack without heavy losses. In addition, Sacsayhuamán is one of the best examples of magalithic Inca construction, with individual stones weighing in at more than 100 tons, so little chance of breaching the wall for would be invaders.

Beyond all this, the one thing English speakers remember about the place is that its name sounds very much like Sexy Woman.

Offer And Demand

I was in Cuzco at a time slightly outside the high season. In fact, the majority of tourists were Peruvian school children on holidays and the rest of them were mostly backpackers on a budget. All the restaurants and bars in Cuzco were open for business as in the high season but the number of tourists likely to become customers was small. As a result most places were finding it difficult to attract customers to the point that sometimes the staff would outnumber customers 5 to 1. This state of affairs engendered stiff competition between places. And considering most restaurants and bars were around the Plaza de Armas, this central square was the site of fierce battles between staff armed with the menu of one restaurant or another, the ultimate prize being to convince you to dine at their place rather then the neighbour's. On a few occasions I ended up with 3 or 4 different people thrusting a menu in my face, trying to speak louder than the others and telling me that I'd be making a huge mistake if I were to go to any other place. What didn't help is that they all have very similar tourist oriented menus. But it was fun to listen to the arguments and counter arguments.

Sexy Woman, English Style

Peru is a fairly traditional country, at least on the surface, machism is ripe and men are not shy in showing women their appreciation. Peruvians, especially the people of Cuzco, typically have dark hair and dark skin. Cuzco is very high in altitude and as such nights are fresh, even if days can be very hot. As a result, people who prefer Western dress to traditional Andean dress usually wear long trousers, especially in the evening.

So, when you are a young English girl of 18 or 20 years of age, with very blond hair, blue eyes and fair skin, wearing a very short mini-skirt and skimpy top, in the dress-to-kill Newcastle style, what can possibly happen the second you set foot on the Plaza de Armas at night? Cat calls. Persistent and loud to the point that every single male in the square forgets they have a job trying to attract tourists to their restaurant, bar or diso and converge to the same point, adding their own cat calls until the whole square reverberates with the sound.


By going to Cuzco and the Sacred Valley, I think I now know what the Nazca lines were about: giant advertising for pre-Inca businesses. They are using the same technique today to draw huge logos and slogans on the sides of mountains near Cuzco, especially one that can be seen from all over town and that reads ¡Viva el Peru! ¡Glorioso Cusco! Talk about national pride.

Sexy Coffee

In a completely non-PC style, Cuzco has a great coffee shop where all staff are cute young women wearing mini-skirts. Their motto is Sabor y Sensualidad, Flavour and Sensuality. The coffee is nice too and they have a big screen showing music videos, mostly J-Lo while I was there, to add to the theme.

Saturday, 29 October 2005

Law Of The Jungle

I met Guido in the hotel lobby. He is a friend of the hotel owner and is an independant jungle tour organiser. He had a red eye from having riden his motorcycle too close to a lorry on a gravel road. I wasn't too sure about booking a jungle tour with him as the Lonely Planet guide had warned against using independant services as they vary greatly in quality. But Guido had been recommended by the hotel and his price was quite cheap for a few days in a small jungle village, hosted in the guide's house. So I decided to take the offer. We would meet on the following day, Wednesday, at 4pm to cach a boat that was leaving at 5.

I checked out Wednesday afternoon, left my big bag at the hotel, hoping to come back on the Saturday afternoon, and kept my small day bag with a few changes of clothes, the camera and some basic toilettries. I still wasn't sure whether I'd see Guido or if he would disappear with my money but he was here, 10 minutes before time. We took a motocarro, the equivalent of the Indian tuk-tuk, to the harbour and boarded the boat where Guido had already set up two hammocks and loaded enough food and water for 4 days. This wasn't a private boat, it was the standard public transport barge that locals take when they want to go somewhere. There is no road here, the river is the road. Hopefully it wasn't too crowded so we had space to breathe. We had one hour before departure, during which a crowd of street sellers passed from person to person selling everything from batteries to full meals, via peanuts, hammocks, fizzy drinks, etc. The boat had to do a fairly complicated manoeuvre to extract itself from its part of the harbour but we were finally on our way. It wasn't the Amazon yet, it was a small affluent that was wider than the Thames, even though it was the dry season. We got to the Amazon itself a few minutes later, where the waters changed from a dark brown to a milky brown: cafe solo, cafe con leche. Now we just had to wait and enjoy the sunset.

We got to our destination in the middle of the night. The barge stopped along the river bank just a few minutes to let us disembark. No quay here, just mud. A friend of Guido was waiting to help us carry our stuff. A few hundred metres along the bank and over a small wooden bridge took us to the house where we would spend the night. After installing mattresses and mosquito nets on the beds, we could finish the night.

The following day started early. I was introduced to Enrique, whose house it was and who was to be my guide for the next few days. So after breakfast, we set off for the jungle around the village. I didn't wait long to see my first jungle animal: one of the village guys had a very tired anaconda in his wash basin just outside his house. We did quite a long walk through the forest, with Enrique explaining the usage of different plants and trees, showing me some notable species like the sequoia which the locals are not allowed to cut as they are in a protected reserve. We also spotted quite a few birds and even a paca, a big rodent like an outsized beaver without the tail. We stopped at Enrique's papaya field for a papaya and to retrieve his fishing equipment. Among the papaya were some remnants of banana trees. Tree is not the right word. Inside, it looks more like a huge leek than a tree. We then stopped at a small river where we set about fishing piranha. We had the visit of a big hawk but no piranhas. They would eat the bait and go away too quickly for us to actually catch any of them. So we decided to go back to the house for lunch. On the way back, we met Enrique's wife in a panic: her father had been bitten by a venomous snake the day before, while deep in the jungle, and was being brought to the house. He needed immediate treatment but nobody had a vaccine, they were too poor to have health services and anyway it would have to come from too far away. The only solution was the local shaman who knew how to deal with a snake bite using local plants. I felt completely inadequate. In hindsight, knowing I was going to the jungle, I should have carried a vaccine with me but I didn't. The only contribution I could make that day was translate the English manual of the emergency suction based venom extraction kit but even that was useless as it needs to be used a few minutes after the bite, not the day after. The old man was in excruciating pain. There was nothing we could do but let the local healer work so, after having luch, Enrique took me for a boat trip on the river to go see some dolphins. The Amazon has two species of fresh water dolphins, a grey one and a pink one. Of course the ones all tourists want to see are the pink ones but we only saw a few greay ones, as well as quite a few birds: cormorans, herons, etc. Back at the house, the shaman was at work and his remedy seemed to work, as the pain in the old man's leg was easing. We finished the day with a game of volleyball on the communal ground, during which I showed how crap I am at this game.

We got up early on the Friday. Enrique's father in law had had a quiet night, the venom cure seemed to have worked very well. Enrique, Guido and I were to go on a canoo trip on some of the small rivers deeper in the jungle and Enrique would take me to the real jungle, not the semi wild thing around the village. While making our way up river, we saw a lot of birds again and a few bats that were spending the day asleep under tree branches. We got to the small house of a friend of Enrique, where Guido would prepare lunch while we would go into the forest.

The jungle in that part was very thick and we had to cut our way through some of it with a machete. Or rather, Enrique did the cutting, I did the following trying not to trip over. There was a lot to see, especially more of the huge sequoia trees and more birds and insects, in particular the huge electric blue Morpho butterfly, that is considered by locals an evil spirit that leads people deep in the forest for them never to return. Then suddenly Enrique turns round, stops and tells me to move slowly. Just there, spiralling around a dangling branch is a bright green bushmaster snake, the largest venomous snake in this part of the world. It is more than two metre long and doesn't move at all while we circle it. It is absolutely beautiful but also deadly. After this adrenalin rush, we slowly head back towards the river, the house and lunch. After lunch, we canoo back down the river and stop for some more piranha fishing. We manage to catch two, a red one and a white one, where I learn there are different species of piranha, but they are both too small and we have to let them go. Not before Enrique shows me how they can cut a leaf in pieces with their teeth though.

Back at Enrique's house, we decide to wash the grime of the day in the big river. It is not the Amazon anymore here, we are too far upriver, it is one of the two rivers that become the Amazon at Nauta. While having a swim within easy reach of the bank, I ask Enrique what fish live in the river. Piranhas; caneros, a fish that smells human urine and attacks you so don't piss in the river; caimans; dolphins; electric eels that can kill a man; and all sorts of other inoffensive creatures. Just on cue, I feel small teeth gnawing at my leg. It is a small fish of the inoffensive sort that thought it would have a go at this big pink thing. We are in water that is too shallow for the more offensive residents. After diner and a quick game of cards with Enrique's young children and brother in law, I decide to go to bed early as the following day's plan is to get up at first light, take a boat to Nauta to see where the Amazon starts and then a bus back to Iquitos. Indeed, Iquitos can now be reached by road from Nauta. The road has been open a few months and has cost the Peruvian government a huge amount of cash as it goes straight through the jungle but it makes communication much easier.

Suddenly, a couple of hours after dark, Enrique's father in law, who had been feeling well all day, starts crying in pain. The pain of the venom is not in the leg anymore, it is in the stomach. His family assemble around him, pray, cry, try the shaman's remedy that had worked so well and everything they can think of, to no avail. The old man dies an hour later in excruciating pain. There has been no time to call any doctor or shaman. As is the custom here, the mourning starts with the wailing, taken to histerical levels. And because he was the oldest man in the village, it will happen in the communal house. Guido and I feel completely out of place. We decide to go immediately and leave the family and village to privately mourn the old man. The barge is meant to stop here at 10pm to load more than 800 bags of rice, the surplus production of the village that is one of their main source of incoming cash.

We arrived back in Iquitos at 9am this morning. I checked back at the hotel and had a shower. Guido and I will meet later on for lunch. Then tonight I will meet other people I met on Tuesday, when I arrived, so that they can show me the night life of Iquitos. The feeling is very strange though.

Wednesday, 26 October 2005

Iquitos, Loreto

Welcome to Iquitos, the outside temperature is 84 degrees Fahrenheit. Or 29 degrees Celsius. I arrived here yesterday. In about 1 hour's time, I am leaving for a 3 day jungle tour. The program includes lots of different animals: pink dolphins, snakes, tarentulas, mosquitoes, etc. Possibly monkeys too. And sleeping in hammocks. I'll be back here on Saturday afternoon.

Monday, 24 October 2005

The Inca Trail

From Cusco, the centre of the Inca world, several trails used to start, linking different Inca sites. What is today known as is a small portion of the trail from Cusco to Machu Picchu, namely the part that starts 82 kilometres from Cusco and finishes at the citadel of Machu Picchu. The trek is done over 4 days, covers a distance of approximately 40 kilometres, its lowest point is Machu Picchu itself at 2400 metres above sea level, its highest point is the Dead Woman's pass at 4200 metres. When I booked this trek, I was only vaguely aware of those statistics but knew it would be challenging, especially considering I've never really done any trekking and I am not the fittest person in the world. So here's how it went.

Day 1, acclimatisation

It all started in a bit of a panic as the tour agency forgot to pick me up, thinking I was in Urubamba rather than Cusco. When I didn't see them come well after the agreed time, I called them, they organised a pick up and I joined the group in Ollaytaytambo.

There were 6 of us in the group: a couple of Brits from Brighton, Kai and Tom; an Australian from Melbourne, John; a couple of Argentinians on their honeymoon, Florencia and Ezekiel; and me. Our guide for the trek was a local guy named Angel. In addition, we had 6 porters and a cook. It meant that we had warm meals every day and the heavy gear was dealt with by the porters. Some will consider it cheating but it is what makes this trek accessible to the majority of people, especially unfit people like me.

The first day was a relaxed trek going from 2800 metres to 3000 metres above sea level in 4 hours or so. This was all meant to warm us up and did so beautifully. It was also a great way to get to know each other and as we were a small group all of a similar age we got on very well.

Day 2, challenge

The second day was the really challenging one. It started by a long climb over 10 kilometres taking us from 3000 metres to the Dead Woman's pass at 4200 metres. This part was absolutely excruciating but we managed to make it in the expected time of 4 hours. I thought I'd never see the end of it. The views along the way were stunning though and the feeling when arriving on top of the pass was amazing. The weather was mostly good with a few spells of light rain, which helped as it was not too hot while being mainly dry and sunny.

The second part of the day consisted in walking back down to 3600 metres to the camp. This was easily done and we were there by 2pm. It might sound like a short day but it is calculated so that even people who need significantly more time can finish in daylight. The valley in which the camp was was surrounded by huge peaks which submits were lost in the clouds. The place was extremely scenic. Bird watchers also had the oportunity to see quite a few specimens, in particular bright green humming birds.

Day 3, from one Inca site to another

The third day started with a hard climb to the second pass pf the trek at 3900 metres, with a break midway at a small Inca site. It then went from one Inca site to another. Those fortresses and temples hanging from the slopes of moutains are a marvel of civil engineering. Although the morning was beautifully sunny, the afternoon was spent in a thick mist that made the whole scene very atmospheric, especially because at that point, the trail started going through denser and denser forest that eventually becomes full blown tropical rain forest after Machu Picchu. Seeing an Inca fortress coming out of the mist in the forest on the slope of a mountain around 3000 metres above sea level is an impressive sight. We finished at the last camp at 2600 metres after a very long knee wrecking climb down.

Day 4, the lost city

The last day was very short but started very early. We were up at 4am to be on the trail at 5:30. One hour and a number of very steep Inca steps later, we were at the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu. The gate overlooks the citadel from the last mountain pass on the trek. It had been raining all night and the mist was very thick so when we got there all we could see was a sea of white. But the weather decided to tempt us and the mist parted to reveal the lost city below. It only lasted a few seconds and it all became white again. We walked down the remainder of the trek to arrive just above Machu Picchu shortly after 7am, as the city was still in the mist. Then in a magic 30 minutes, the white curtain slowly parted to be replaced by glorious sunshine and we could enjoy the most amazing Inca city visible today.

It was hard, my legs will be painful for days but it was worth every second. This trek is simply amazing. I will post the photographs that will hopefully say in pictures everything I didn't say in words when I am back.

Tuesday, 18 October 2005

Cuzco, 3400m

I arrived in this morning. The night bus was ok although I didn't sleep much, my iPod decided to pack up (more on that later) and the films they were showing were the most awful I've had so far on a Peruvian bus, which on average rank as abysmal to start with.

Cuzco is a nice place though. The town's arquitecture is mostly Spanish colonial, although you can still see some Inca fortifications and temple ruins. The people are as colourful as in any TV documentary on the Andes and are very friendly.

The one aspect that takes patience to adapt to is the altitude. I had never been above 2500 metres above sea level before so the immediate effect of being at 3400 metres is that I feel quite tired. Luckily, the staff from with whom I booked the Inca Trail strongly suggested I arrive in Cuzco 3 days before to acclimatise. They were absolutely right and anyway there is a lot to see here so three days will be well spent. Interestingly, , the Inca citadel which is the reason most tourists come to Cuzco and which is at the end of the Inca Trail, is at an altitude of (only) 2400 metres.

On a different note, as you would expect in a place where there is any remote possibility to sell alcohol, there is an Irish pub next to the internet cafe where I am writing this from. Is it the highest Irish pub in the world? Probably not: I trust the Irish to have found a way to establish a pub higher than that.

Sunday, 16 October 2005

Photographer's First Rule

When doing photography, there are simple rules you can follow that make your life easier and ensure you take good pictures. Some only apply to certain types of photography, such as film vs digital or landscape vs portrait. Some of them make a good mental checklist when taking a picture; others make a good written checklist before you set off. When I think of a useful rule, I'll try to share it here, with an example of how it can help or hinder if you don't follow it. Here is the first one.

Photographer's First Rule: Camera Power

Never leave home without a spare set of batteries.

This is especially true if your camera requires an unusual battery. Take my SLR camera: it requires a 2CR5 battery, which is a 6 volt double battery that is quite difficult to find. To avoid being caught out, I recently bought an extended battery pack that takes standard AA batteries and allows faster film wind, as well as longer battery life. Unfortunately, this pack makes the body significantly bulkier and heavier so I decided no to take it to Peru. You will easily guess what happens next. Yesterday, as I had just arrived in Arequipa and was about to go see the Monasterio de Santa Catalina that the Lonely Planet on Peru describes as a paradise for photographers, I realised my camera's battery was empty. Panic! Where could I find a 2CR5 battery in Arequipa? Luckily, Arequipa is the second largest city in Peru, has hundreds of camera shops and the second one I visited had what I wanted. It was a close call though. What if it had happened on the Inca Trail and I had been unable to take pictures of Macchu Pichu? Now that I have a brand new battery it shouldn't happen but having another spare one would be better so I'm going to buy one straight away.

If you have a camera that takes rechargeable batteries, don't be complacent. Recharging the battery takes several hours and the perfect picture usually can't wait that long, that is assuming you have access to a power source and you have your charger with you. Obviously dictates that it will not be the case when your battery fails.

To finish the little story above, I did go to the Monasterio de Santa Catalina and confirmed it is a paradise for photographers by taking nearly 4 rolls of film.

Friday, 14 October 2005

Lines in the Desert

I went flying in a 6 seater Cessna plane this morning to see the Nazca lines from above. This is the only way to see them. They are huge drawings made by a pre-Inca civilisation, the Nazca that span several kilometers on the desert's floor. They are amazing. Also amazing is the fact that we can still see them today thanks to the particular desertic climate of the region. Thats is assuming we don't go around destroying them by driving roads through them, which has been done already.

Now something like this, as usual, is the source of controversy. Why did the Nazca draw those lines and how did they do it? Do they have religious significance? Do they have something to do with water, which is scarce in the region? Are they related to halucinogenic cactii? Where they extra-terrestrial landing strips (the Nazca couldn't see their handy work as they didn't have the technology to fly)? I reckon the archeologists forgot about the KISS principle: the Nazca did it because they could and because it was fun.

2 Hours, 108 Photos

That's three 24 exposure films plus one 36 exposure one.

It all happened on Wednesday when visiting Islas Ballestas off the coast of Pisco, 4 hour by bus south of Lima. The islands are a nature reserve that is home to an amazing number of birds and sea lions, as well as fish, crabs and all sorts of marine animals.

The most amazing moment was the nursery, a beach on one of the islands that is called thus because it is where female sea lions come to gove birth. This is nearly the right season but not quite so the beach was full of pregnant females that are going to give birth in a few weeks. The noise they made was absolutely astounding!

Other beaches where more quiet but still full of sea lions quite curious about the boats and willing to investigate quite closely. Hopefully I'll have some nice close-ups.

Above all this, birds where everywhere: cormorans, seagulls, penguins, etc. They weren't quite as noisy as the sea lions but they were the source of the one unpleasant part of the trip: the acrid smell of guano, the islands are covered with it so we went quite quickly around the parts where we were downwind.

This one 2 hour boat trip more than justified carrying my big 100-400mm zoom lens around Peru.

IE, Floats and Negative Margins

A couple of months ago, I realised I had a problem with my floated figures when viewed on Internet Explorer. One of the aspects of travelling and using Internet cafes is that you invariably end up using IE. As a result, I have just realised why my figures disappear.

Because of the way I float out figures using a negative margin, they are positionned outside the main colum and thus outside the display box of that column. IE assumes that once you have a box everything is in the box unless positionned absolutely. As a result, everything that is out of the box for any reason is cropped along the limits of said box. This happens in situations like this one where you have figures that are floated left with a negative margin or italics or cursive fonts like Zapfino where characters intentionally take more space than their display box. Now the whole reason why I used this way of floating figures was because I wanted the margin of the main column to be simple, because of IE's weird behaviour with margins on floated elements and non-standard way of handling padding and margin together. So by trying to avoid an IE bug, I triggered another one.

So what is the solution then? Well, I'll think about it when I'm back from holidays. It will probably involve some CSS hacks to make IE see something while other standard compliant browsers see the style sheet as it is now. At this point in time, a phrase including Microsoft and a string of very rude words comes to mind.

More Comment Spam

I wish I didn't need to do it but I just re-configured this weblog to only accept comments from people registered with Blogger because I was getting too much comment spam. It won't solve the problem completely because some of the spammers are actually registered users. Sorry about that. Maybe you can report spam from registered users to Blogger. I'll have to check out.

Wednesday, 12 October 2005

London, Miami, Lima

I am in Peru! I flew American Airlines via Miami to get there.

The first leg was done on a Boeing 777 with a 2-5-2 sitting arrangement in economy. I drew the short straw and ended up getting seat 36E, that is right in the middle of the central five seats somewhere at the back. As a result I had to annoy two people every time I wanted to go to the toilet, which on a 9-hour flight I have to d at least twice. On the other hand, I was quite surprised by the leg room which was very good for an economy cabin so all in all the flight was nice. And congratualtions to the pilot who landed us very smoothly in Miami, by far the best landing I've ever had on a 777.

Then I was pleasantly surprised that Miami, as opposed to Houston or Newark, has a real international transfer facility meaning that they take care of your luggage and immigration checks are simplified.

The second leg of the trip was done on a Boeing 757 with the typical 3-3 sitting arrangement. I had an aisle seat and it was a quiet flight, with once again a nice landing. I reckon AA pilots have taken special landing courses recently. That or the automatic landing software on AA aircraft is better than average.

Monday, 3 October 2005


I gave in. I bought an . I went for the 60Gb one for two reasons:

  1. It is the only model that can store all of the 23Gb worth of music I own;
  2. With a camera connector, I can later use it as a backup for this new digital SLR camera I intend to buy.

I gave it a lot of thought before actually buying it and even after ordering it, I still wasn't sure whether it was a good move. Getting it delivered was a not simple either. I ordered it from the Apple store on Monday. On Wednesday I came back from work to find a card through the door telling me they had tried to deliver it to me while I was away. I thought wow, this is fast! So I called the delivery company, Lynx to see if they could deliver it at work rather than home. They told me to call their main number. Then the guys there told me to call Apple directly because Apple requires them not to change the delivery address, apparently to ensure that nobody would steal my stuff by calling pretending to be me and having the delivery address changed to their own. Indeed, when I called Apple, they confirmed the policy and told me that if I wanted to have the address changed, I needed to send them an email with a scan of my passport and a hand written signature. At that point, it was much easier to ask my project manager if I could work from home on the Friday so that I could receive my parcel. And so I did.

Now that I have been using my new toy for a whole week-end, I love it! Having all your music at your fingertips in a gadget that small is just amazing. When using my Palm as a music player, I always had to take the time to download a few albums to it and would end up listening to the same thing for weeks on end. Now, I've got everything in the iPod, all 5839 tracks, so I can decide what to play depending on the mood, wherever I am. Genius!

Now I just have to buy a few extra gadgets to go with it, such as a case to protect it, a second USB cable for the office, a dock for the living room, a camera connector, a microphone to use it as a recorder, speakers to share the music around...

Sunday, 2 October 2005

Comment Spam

This weblog had so far been free of comment spam. Unfortunately, the spammers have recently found it. I'll leave it as it is for the time being but if it becomes too much of a nuisance, I'll change the settings to only allow registered users to leave comments. As usual the rudeness of a minority is detrimental to the majority.

Peru Here I Come!

On Saturday I will be 1 year older. But more interestingly, that day, I will be on a plane to Lima, to spend a 5 week holiday in Peru. I haven't completely sorted the itenary yet but the rough plan is:

  • Lima for 3 days;
  • Nazca to see the famous lines, with maybe a stop in Pisco on the way to see the nature reserve of Islas Ballestas;
  • Road and train to Cuzco, probably via Arequipa and Puno, with a peek at Lake Titicaca;
  • 3 days in Cuzco to aclimatise to the altitude, followed by the 4 day Inca trail trek to Machu Picchu and return to Cuzco by train;
  • Iquitos, one of the few inland cities in the world that is not reachable by air road, only by plane and boat, because it is in the middle of the rain forest, on the Amazon river;
  • Tarapoto, still in the rain forest for less remote than Iquitos;
  • Chiclayo, on the coast, with possibly a couple of days in Piura near the border with Ecuador and where the beaches are supposed to be fantastic;
  • Trujillo, still on the coast, to see some more beaches and the ruins of Chan Chan;
  • Back to Lima, with possibly a stop in Chimbote on the way.

Of course, I'll have my camera with me, with enough film to last me the whole holidays*.* Yes I still use film. I am planning to replace my EOS 3 with a brand new digital EOS 5D but unfortunately Canon have decided to release that model next month, while I am away. So stay tuned for some Peruvian photos.

Friday, 23 September 2005

Alphabetical Order

Ah the joys of alphabetical ordering! Especially when, like iTunes, it is smart enough to disregard words like ‘the’ at the beginning of a name. As a result, in my iTunes library The Village People are next to... Vivaldi.

Sunday, 18 September 2005

Fruit and Nut

I love cashew nuts. And when I was in Brazil last year, I was quite confused by discovering there existed a cashew fruit. Since then, I have wondered whether the fruit and the nut were related. Indeed they are, as explained by this entry at Rain Tree. I also discovered in the bargain that the tree is the one we call acajou in French. We never see the fruits in Europe because it is a tree that is native from South America and thus only grows in warm climates. And the fruit is too perishable to ship anywhere. Anyway, even if it could be shipped, I don't think it would be very successful in Europe: its taste is quite subtle and its consistency unusual, a bit pasty. It makes a great substitute for lime in a caipirinha though!

Monday, 29 August 2005

Floated Into Limbo

I Apologise to users of Internet Explorer. I realised on Friday that all pictures and notes I float into the left margin are actually floated so far t the left with Internet Explorer that they disappear from the page. There is also an unexpected amount of white space at the top of the page with IE. I suppose those glitches are due to IE not calculating percentages according to the specs and it is annoying to have to write special IE code but then again I don't want IE users to miss anything. So bear with me, I'll try to get it sorted within the next few days.

Monday, 22 August 2005


There are people who do macro photography. And then there's Jim. His close-up pictures are just amazing! I wish I could take that type of shots. I suppose it's a question of patience and practice but still, the results are amazing!

Power Nap

As promised, here's a sample of the pictures I took a week ago at the London Wetland Centre. The centre is a great place for young and old alike. If you're in London, don't miss it.

Sunday, 21 August 2005

I switched back

I had been using since I bought my Mac. But Safari is a pure browser with no extension capabilities and I was really missing some of the extensions I had got used to on , such as ScrapBook, WebDeveloper, FireFTP, FlashGot or Gmail Notifier. So I downloaded Firefox for my Mac and switched back. One interesting side effect is that Firefox appears significantly faster at downloading and displaying pages. Don't get me wrong, Safari is a great browser, but I find Firefox better.

Sunday, 14 August 2005

Cute Birds

It was quite a nice day today, rather warm with the occasional rain shower. So I went to the London Wetland Centre. It is actually quite close to where I live but I had never been. To be fair, I don't think many Londoner realise that they have a waterfowl nature reserve just across the river from Hammersmith. This is why the WWT, who run the centre, have been doing a serious advertising campaign in trains and buses over the past few years. This is something I love about London: it is the largest city in Europe but you have amazing parks and nature reserves virtually in the centre. But I digress. So I went there today, armed with my camera, tripod and lenses to take snaps of cute birds. It was the opportunity to try out features of my camera I had never really tried, in particular the AI-Servo auto focusing mode and the continuous shooting mode. The 100-400mm zoom lens I bought in the US earlier this year is great for that sort of shots. Although quite often I wished I had had a longer focal length as I couldn't really fill the frame. It might be time to invest in a 1.4x or 2.0x extender. The only problem with those is that they reduce the effective maximum aperture of the lens, which is used by the auto-focus mechanism. Considering the smaller aperture my camera can auto-focus at is f/8, which is already the best in the Canon range, and my lens has an aperture range of f/4.5-5.6, I would lose the ability to use auto-focus, let alone AI-Servo, with the 2.0x extender. This obviously would not be good to take pictures of birds in flight. But I digress again. I will get the pictures developed tomorrow and post them online afterwards. Hopefully there will be a few nice shots.

Saturday, 13 August 2005


It's the week-end and I intend to do some serious relaxation. The past two weeks have been hectic at work and I am happy to be off today and tomorrow. However, in typical Murphy's law fashion, the weather was beautiful all week until today lunchtime. Since then, it has been rainy and grim. The weather forecast says it should be nice tomorrow though so there is still hope.

Monday, 1 August 2005

Cool gazpacho

I just tried the gazpacho I did yesterday and it is just great. This is so simple to do and is so nice. And it has a nice kick to it, thanks to the chilies and habanero sauce. But it's a summer soup so now I just need a few rays of sun to go with it. Come on, it's July, in the Northern hemisphere, it should be possible! Even in London! Ah well, maybe not after all.

This might sound stupid or obvious but, by doing it, I found out what makes gazpacho taste so fresh: the cucumber! So the English had it right all along: cool as a cucumber.

Sunday, 31 July 2005

Ice-cream, smoothies and gazpacho

The ice-cream I did yesterday with my new toy turned out great. The only problem is that my freezer is in serious need of defrosting so it was a bit overzealous in freezing the ice-cream which means it was rock hard and I couldn't scoop it. I had to cut pieces with a warm knife. But once it was slightly warmer it was great. I'm sure there are some ingredients I could add to prevent it from becoming rock hard. I shall investigate.

On the smoothies front, I improved the recipe by replacing half the milk with yogurt and using only fruits that have no pips or where the pips are easy to remove, such as bananas and pears. The result is a definite improvement.

I got a bit more adventurous tonight and decided to attempt a using an online recipe as a base. Having no celery, parsley or chives I had to simplify the recipe a bit. I also replaced the Tabasco and Worcestershire sauces with a combination of chilies and sauce, so that it would be reasonably high on the Scoville scale: a real gazpacho needs to have a bit of a kick to it.

And for those who like stats, this is post number 200 in this weblog.

Saturday, 30 July 2005

CSS Superscript and Subscript Using Relative Position

You might have noticed in my previous post that the note references in the body of the text were displayed as superscript. Now sup and sub are tags and should be avoided because the presentation should be in the CSS. However, there is no immediate CSS property for superscript and subscript. Here is a solution using the relative value of the position property. Let's take fractions as an example and assume I want to write 3/17. I will use classes fnum and fden for the fraction numerator and denominator respectively.

The first step is to make the text smaller, 70% should be fine. Then we need to offset it vertically. The best way to do this is to use position:relative. For the superscript, it's easy, just push it up from the bottom by 0.5em. For the subscript it is a bit more difficult. Using the top property has no effect so instead we are going to use a negative bottom property to push it down. Here is the resulting code:

.fnum {
  bottom: 0.5em;
.fden {

This works but looks weird for the denominator because, in a fraction, the forward slash (/) character between the numerator and denominator leaves a lot of white space in front of the denominator. The solution for this is to slightly shift the left margin of the denominator: margin-left:-0.2em. Why not use the fact that we are using a relative position and add left:-0.2em instead? This is because the left property shifts the content of the display box but not the box itself and it would leave a gap on the right of the denominator. The margin-left property will shift the whole box and modify the right margin as well. Of course, none of this applies for a standard subscript such as the one used in chemical fomulae like C2H5OH. That's one more reason to use semantic HTML and CSS: you can adjust the display of each individual element depending on their meaning so that they look good in context.


Following the comments below, here's a simpler solution to achieve the same thing courtesy of

.fnum {
  vertical-align: super;
.fden {
  vertical-align: sub;
.atomnum {
  vertical-align: sub;

I also agree that in an ideal world we would use MathML to display mathematical formulae but a number of major browsers (this one in particular) don't support MathML so for web documents, we have to do with HTML and CSS.

Poor DHL, Great Smoothies

A few days ago I found a delivery notice from DHL in my letter box, telling me that they had tried to deliver me a parcel but as I wasn't at home they took it back to their depot in Park Royal, West London, not very far from where I live, as the crow flies. However, getting there on public transport involves a 1 hour journey on 2 buses. So that's at least 2 hours there and back. Knowing this, I called them earlier during the week to see if we could arrange for a new delivery. It turns out that DHL don't deliver on Saturdays and can't deliver to my work address because it is not the same depot. So I had no alternative other than going to the Park Royal depot on a Saturday morning. I did so this morning. In the process, I discovered that the map printed on the notice is incorrect: the Asda store is not where the map puts it. This is quite important considering it's a major landmark there and you can't rely on street names because there are virtually no street signs in that area11 The English have this very annoying habit of having street signs only at major junctions and only if they really feel like it; and don't get me started on house numbers in the street. Furthermore, the DHL depot is only indicated by a small DHL sign hidden behind a tree just outside the depot. If you don't know exactly where it is, you will never find it.

As a result it took me slightly longer than expected to get there. But I did get there in the end and got my parcel. It was worth all the pain. The parcel in question contained a Braun Multiquick professional MR 5550 M BC-HC blender that I bought from Amazon. This thing is the Rolls-Royce of blenders: it can do all the normal things a hand held blender can do plus all sorts of cool stuff like smoothies, crushed ice22 Essential for cocktails, whipped cream, etc. So after dropping it home, I went to the shops to buy fruit, milk and cream and decided to try it out. It took a few minutes to have a raspberry and blueberry smoothie to die for. Then I got adventurous. The home made ice-cream is now in the freezer. It is probably worth 42 gazillion points on the Weight Watchers scale but it's all natural stuff.

It's Raining Again

As Supertramp would say, it's raining again. Now, we're supposed to be in summer, the sunny season when you can go to the beach and have barbecues in the garden. I don't thing the English weather understands the concept of summer.

Thursday, 28 July 2005

Two Hour Delay

I was in Amsterdam yesterday for work. I was flying back early this morning. Well, that was the theory. We got on the plane and it looked like we were ready to leave when the pilot told us he had been asked to wait at the stand for 45 minutes because the weather was so bad in London the queue to land at Heathrow was huge and they preferred to land the planes that were already flying before allowing other flights towards London to take off. In the end, we stayed 2 hours on the tarmac waiting for air control to give us the all clear. When we landed the weather was grey but warm and mostly dry so Heathrow was going back to normal. Surely, they should be able to cope with bad weather better? It's not as if it never happened in London!

Tuesday, 26 July 2005

1933 Photos

I've been busy over the past few days uploading photographs from Latin America to my flickr photo stream. In fact, it took very little of my time to do it, thanks to the flickr uploadr, the automated batch upload tool. You just grab lots of pictures, give the tool a set of tags it will apply to all the pictures, start the upload and it will do everything itself, while you are busy doing something else, such as attending a meeting. As a result my photo stream now has 1933 photos! It's now that the real work starts though: for each and everyone of them I need to make sure its title and description are meaningful; that its tags are correct; that the time of the shot is close to reality; etc. I will go through them slowly. And when I'm done I have many more to upload.

Sunday, 24 July 2005

Marzipan Long Jump

You can do amazing things with marzipan, as demonstrated by this great picture. I just love it!

Saturday, 23 July 2005

Wet Party

I am supposed to go to a party tonight. But considering how heavily it is raining outside, I think I might stay at home, warm and dry, rather than be drenched by wandering outside. This is when you fully understand the English expression it is raining cats and dogs or the equivalent French expression il pleut des cordes, literally it is raining ropes. It looks to me like it's the ideal evening to be uploading pictures to flickr.

Wednesday, 20 July 2005


Did I recently said that iTunes sold all albums at a fixed price of £7.90? Yes I did. This is nonsense. It took Deacon Blue to show me the errors of my way but this is absolutely not true. £7.90 is more like their minimum price for an album. It would make sense for them to have a fixed price though, for the reasons explained below, but this is a completely different argument.

Monday, 18 July 2005

Page Turners

I got a new copy of the book I forgot in St James's Park and finished it yesterday. If you have any interest in languages and in particular unusual and threatened languages, I suggest you find a copy of Spoken Here by Mark Abley. It is really well written and if you live in or come from a region where a minority language is still spoken, it might make you want to learn it. It definitely made me want to learn Breton, the language of Brittany, the region of France where I was born.

Then, this afternoon, I decided I needed something else to read so I went to the pile of unread books I have in the living room and picked The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. I started reading it. And then I just couldn't stop. As it is written in the first person, from the point of view of an autistic child, it immerses you in the story in a way that no other book does, apart maybe from Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. I just couldn't put the book down and have just finished it. The Curious Incident... got rare reviews when it came out, which always makes me a bit cautious. But in this case, every single review of praise is deserved. If you only read one book on the beach this summer, it has to be this one, except if you've read it before.