Sunday, 17 December 2006

Another One Bites The Dust!

One of the reasons why I keep a Windows laptop used to be that the HSBC online business banking site required Internet Explorer or an antiquated version of Netscape so I couldn't use it on my Mac. They recently changed their authentication mechanism and out of curiosity I tried it again with Firefox today. It works perfectly both on Windows and OS-X. So that's now one less reason to keep the Windows laptop. Thank you HSBC.

Friday, 8 December 2006

Zend Framework

For people who have been used to MVC frameworks such as Struts or Ruby on Rails, PHP can be very frustrating: a typical PHP page looks like tag soup that mixes business logic, presentation and database access. And there is no escaping PHP: this is the one technology that all ISP offer and a vast majority don't offer anything else. So up to know it was a case of setting up your own server to use your preferred technology or deal with tag soup.

So stumbling upon the Zend Framework today felt like a revelation! and what's even better, you can download an excellent tutorial from Rob Allen's weblog. The Zend Framework is still at an early stage of development but it looks extremely promising. If you use PHP, you have to try it out.

Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Amazing Innovation in Fish Bowls

That's what a targeted ad in Gmail said. Not knowing how on earth you could innovate in fish bowls, I had to click on the link. Also note that you get Tetra Easy Balance and Feng Shui pebbles for free! Amazing!

Tuesday, 28 November 2006

ID Card Petitions

Number 10 are trying an online petition system. It is currently a beta version. Of course, there are already petitions about the ID card scheme: one to scrap it and one to support it. Interestingly enough, the former currently has 4849 signatures, the latter... 4. Or if you don't care about ID cards, you can always sign the ice-cream juggling petition.

Tuesday, 21 November 2006

Compulsory Upgrade

I just opened Microsoft Messenger, something that I hadn't done for a few weeks and it came with a message saying that there was a new version available for Mac and that I must upgrade (emphasis mine). This is one of the things I hate most with Microsoft: there is no choice, we must do things their way if we want to use their software or services.

Saturday, 4 November 2006

Low budget film with big stars

I got the following email from a friend last night:

As some of you may already know, I have had a small hand in funding a new feature film, opening this Friday across the country (including Manchester, Bristol, Reading as well as most of London ;), starring Ewan McGregor, Catherine Tate and a handful of established and upcoming British talent.

Set on a sunny afternoon in Hampstead Heath, it is a wry look on relationships from the vantage of several couples meeting up in very different circumstances.

It is entitled ‘Scenes of a Sexual Nature’ (although not particularly racy, and a 15 rating ;) – and if we have a good opening weekend then the Film Council will provide additional funding to open more cinemas. Apparently we have made waves in the film industry for our unique approach to financing the filming and distribution independently (and actually making in into the cinemas). Sony has just signed for the DVD rights, and if all goes well we hope to open across the pond in La La Land in April.

So if any of you or friends/family/pets fancy visiting the cinema this weekend, please consider our humble British, independent effort rather than those brash Hollywood pieces of fluff and fancy ;)

You can find out more at the website www.tinpanfilms.com or the bbc websites for Films2006 reviews (Jonathan was very positive ;)

I also read an interesting review in a newspaper last night. Apparently, they have been extremely innovative in the funding and distribution, while managing to get an impressive cast. As explained in the email, everybody is waiting to see what happens on the opening weekend (this weekend, 3-5 November) because a lot of people have said it was impossible to do. So I really want to go see it and contribute to making it a success.

Monday, 30 October 2006

Sync your Nokia phone with your Mac

I have a Nokia 6234, a model that unfortunately is not supported by iSync on the Mac out of the box. I have been looking for a solution more or less since I got the phone and today I found it on .mactomster. They offer an iSync plugin for a large variety of Nokia mobile phones. The site is all in German so it took me a few minutes to work out that I had to register before I could download the plugin but I eventually got there. Luckily the installation instructions also come in English but they are so simple it would be difficult to get it wrong. Once I had downloaded the plugin, it took the whole of 5 minutes to have it installed and my data sync'ed. What more could I ask for? This is what software should be like!

So, if your Nokia phone is one of the unsupported models on the Mac, get this plugin and you'll be sync'ing in minutes. Then make sure you click the Paypal button as those guys definitely deserve your support.

Sunday, 24 September 2006

White Balance

Three images showing different white balance settings

Digital cameras have one very interesting advantage over good old film cameras: you can adjust settings that you would normally have adjusted by changing film. An obvious one is the ISO setting: one shot can be taken at 100 ASA, the next one at 400. A less obvious but very important setting is the white balance. This setting is meant to adjust the colour balance in different types of light so that white areas actually come out white. If you get the white balance wrong, the white areas in your shot will come out yellow or blue, depending which way you got it wrong.

Most DSLR cameras and some high end compact digital ones allow you to override the white balance, typically by offering a presets for tungsten or fluorescent light, cloudy or shade conditions, etc. But your specific lighting conditions don’t always match a preset. Some cameras allow you to provide a sun temperature equivalent in Kelvin but this is confusing if you are not an astronomer or a physicist. Finally some cameras allow you to specify a custom white balance by giving them a reference. I had never used this setting as I wasn’t too sure how it worked on my camera, until today when I picked up a copy of Mac User that has a very simple and straightforward explanation.

I decided that the subject for experimentation would be my bedroom, complete with unmade bed. Not that I want to pretend I am Tracey Emin but the wall behind my bed is the best white reference in my flat. To make my life easier, I composed the shot to ensure a large area of white wall would cover the centre of the image, as this is the area the camera will use as white reference.

  • The first picture is taken using the automatic white balance setting. Although the camera tried to compensate for the yellow hue produced by the tungsten light, it is still very yellow.
  • The second picture is taken with a preset white balance for tungsten light, which should be the right setting in this case. unfortunately, and probably because of the lamp shade that modifies the light, it is still quite yellow. Although, in this case, when seen on its own and in the original light, the mind adjusts and makes you think it is actually white.
  • The last picture was taken using the custom white balance seting and the previous picture as a reference. This time it is really white: I verified this by using the colour picker tool in Photoshop. The funny thing though is that seeing the shot on the camera’s LCD screen, on its own and just after the previous one, the mind plays tricks again and makes you think it is blue-ish.

Using a custom white balance produces great results. The only complication is that you have to take a reference shot and adjust the setting every time you change light condition but it is easier and quicker than doing that in Photoshop afterwards, especially if you take several shots in the same lighting conditions. Also note that, because it consists in comparing the balance of primary colours in a reference subject, this reference doesn’t have to be pure white, it can be light grey. So a photographic 18% grey card is an ideal reference object.

Tuesday, 19 September 2006

Nova 1

Less than £1000 to send a digital camera (nearly) into space and come back with more than 800 amazing pictures: this what a group of students from Cambridge recently did. This is beyond cool! Well done to the Nova 1 team! Beat that NASA!

Saturday, 9 September 2006

No Saddam link to Iraq al-Qaeda

We already knew that there were no WMD in Iraq, contrary to what the UK government said. Now we have the confirmation that there was no link with al-Qaeda either contrary to what the US government said. What a mess and what a waste of human life and resources! But more importantly what a travesty of so-called Western values of freedom and democracy! One Nation under God, indivisible, With Liberty and Justice for all, they say. Indeed, to the detriment of other nations' liberty and justice. Note that I have nothing against the American people, as I understand that the People are not the same as the Government of George W Bush, in the same way that the British People are not the same as the Government of Tony Blair. Isn't it time that the democratic process in both countries be put to work and make the clowns that are at the helm accountable for what they did, before more damage is done? Apparently, this is already happening in the UK and I wish it happened in the US.

Via BBC News

Another Goat Story

This time the action is in Sudan and is about a wedding.

Via BBC News

Friday, 8 September 2006

The Chicken and the Donkey: a story with a Moral

I just got this in an email from a friend and thought I should share:

On the farm lived a chicken and a donkey, both of whom loved to play together. One day, the two were playing when the donkey fell into a Bog and began to sink. Scared for his life, the donkey hee hawed for the chicken to go get the farmer for help! Off the chicken ran, back to the farm.

Arriving at the farm, he searched and searched for the farmer, but to no avail, for he had gone to town with the only tractor. Running around, the chicken spied the farmer's new Z-4 silver BMW.

Finding the keys in the ignition, the chicken started the beautiful motor car and the chicken sped off with a length of rope, hoping he still had time to save his friend&'s life.

Back at the bog, the donkey was surprised, but happy, to see the chicken arrive in the shiny BMW, and he managed to get a hold of the loop of rope the chicken tossed to him. After tying the other end to the rear bumper of the farmer's car, the chicken then drove slowly forward and, with the aid of the powerful car, rescued the donkey!

Happy and proud, the chicken drove the BMW back to the farmhouse, and the farmer was none the wiser when he returned. The friendship between the two animals was cemented: best buddies, best pals.

A few weeks later, would you believe, the chicken fell into a mud pit, and soon, he too, began to sink and cried out to the donkey to save his life!

The donkey thought a moment, walked over, and straddled the large puddle. Looking underneath, he told the chicken to grab his thing and he would then lift him out of the pit. The chicken got a good grip, and the donkey pulled him up and out, saving his life.

The moral of the story: When you're hung like a donkey, you don't need a BMW to pull a chick.

Thursday, 7 September 2006

Goat Free Roads

Out of all the possible excuses for driving above the speed limit, the one about the goat free roads is one of the best.

Thanks to The Register.

Wednesday, 6 September 2006

Christmas

Yes, Xmas! My local pubs already have their Xmas menus out and we're not officially in autumn yet...

Exit

Newspaper headlines were saying yesterday Blair out by May next year. Today they are saying Blair out by Christmas. I suppose tomorrow will be Blair out by Sunday.

Monday, 21 August 2006

Smoke

I'm going to Redhill today. I was on the train to Clapham Junction when a lady sat next to me reeking of cigarette smoke. I was quite relieved when I got off the train and could get a breath of fresh air.

Saturday, 19 August 2006

Connecting the Old to the New

As I mentioned recently, Nokia changed their power adapters on new phone models. I suppose it enables them to design thinner handsets. Considering I have quite a few old chargers, I went round Chiswick today to see if I could find an adapter. It took me quite some time because Chiswick has no less than 8 mobile phone shops. Why? Go figure! But anyway, I did the rounds so here is how it went.

Vodafone

I started with Vodafone because it is the closest to my flat and this is the company with whom I have a contract and who provided me with the phone. The two guys in the shop seemed quite annoyed to see a customer come in and took some time to actually realise what I was asking for. They eventually told me that they could potentially have this and it would cost £15. When I asked how a simple adapter could cost £15, the answer was: Ask Nokia, it's not our price.

Thanks for being so helpful guys, I'll go somewhere else.

Metroline

This one is a brand new shop. The staff was really trying to help but eventually came to the conclusion that it didn't exist and I should buy a new charger instead, which is exactly what I don't want to do.

Carphone Warehouse

They knew immediately what I was looking for but said they didn't stock it and the only shop they knew that stocked it in Chiswick was Orange. When asked about the price, they said it should cost about £5, which sort of confirmed that the guys from Vodafone really didn't know what they were talking about.

O2

They were quick to understand what I was looking for but told me they didn't have that sort of things, didn't know where I could find it nor how much it would cost. At least they tried.

T-Mobile

I had to wait for someone to be available first. That took some time. Then it took even longer to get them to understand what I wanted and tell them that no, I didn't have any adapter in the box with my new phone. They then said that they could potentially order it for me and it would cost me between £10 and £15. When asked why I had been quoted anything between £5 and £15 for the same small piece of wire, the answer was: Don't ask us, ask Nokia.

Those guys must have gone to the same school as the Vodafone guys.

Phones4u

The girl I talked to had no idea whatsoever what I was talking about and got confused between the charger and data sockets on the phone. She was very nice and tried very hard to help but to no avail.

Orange

They knew exactly what I was looking for and said they normally sell it but had run out of stock. They had ordered more but didn't know when they would get them. When being asked for a price, they quoted £5.99. They suggested I check Carphone Warehouse and the internet cafe down the road called Hot Gossip. They also said I could find it on the Nokia web site.

Hot Gossip

Hot Gossip is an internet cafe that doubles as a mobile phone shop. They knew immediately what I was looking for but were out of stock. They quoted £6.99.

Nokia web site

Back home, I went onto the Nokia web site. It took a bit of wandering before I found it but I did. It is a Nokia Charger Adapter CA-44 and it costs £3.50 including VAT. Unfortunately, Nokia are out of stock as well. But they can send you an email when they have the item in stock again so I asked them to do so.

eBay

ThenI had a brainwave and went on eBay. Of course, they have tons of them there, most of them at a price below Nokia's own price. So I bought 3 for a grand total of £7.83, including postage and packing. I love eBay!

This will teach me to go on the internet before trying mobile phone high street shops. Out of 8, 2 really knew what they were talking about, 2 sort of knew but couldn't help and the other 4 were completely clueless. In particular, I was quite amused by the blatant lies from Vodafone and T-Mobile.

Monday, 14 August 2006

Ceasefire Campaign

If you want to support a ceasefire in Lebanon, sign the petition at the Ceasefire Campaign website, brought to you by Res Publica.

Thursday, 10 August 2006

Schmap!

Some of my pictures are being used in a new type of interactive electronic tourist guide called Schmap! As a thank you, I can now give away copies of their guides to you, my readers. So if you want a guide, choose in the form below and click the link. It will take you to a site where you can download the Schmap Player with the guide of your choice. I added another copy of the form at the bottom of the side bar, on the right. Enjoy!

Friday, 4 August 2006

Treadmills

It all makes sense now! This is what treadmills are really for! Nothing to do with mindless exercise.

Tuesday, 1 August 2006

Fwd: Broken Tube

I need to be in the office early this morning for a meeting. So I made an effort to get to the tube station early to find out no trains were running from there because of a signal failure. I walked to another station to see a train leave the platform as I arrived. After all the disturbance we've had on the District line due to engineering work that was supposed to make it better, it's very frustrating to see that there are still problems.

London Transport, could you please sort out the tube once and for all?

Thursday, 27 July 2006

Home

I eventually got home through a roundabout route via Putney. I took advantage of the detour to go shopping for food so I have nice fresh stuff to make dinner. There's always a silver lining.

Fried Train

Apparently, a train was struck by lightning at Gunnersbury so I'm stuck at Earl's Court with no train home. Great!

Monday, 24 July 2006

Regular Wages

With my current contract, I now have a good enough cash flow to pay myself wages every month. I got the hang of it now and it’s all becoming routine. The next step is to get VAT registered. In the UK, under a certain annual limit in turnover, you don’t need to be VAT registered but I am now approaching this limit so it’s time to do it.

Friday, 21 July 2006

Broken Tube Part 2

The District line out of Gunnersbury is broken again this morning. And trains out of Chiswick Park are nowhere to be seen. This is beyond ridiculous.

Monday, 17 July 2006

Something that just happened to me

A dear Italian friend of mine sent me this picture. You will agree with me that I have to share it with the rest of the world. Enjoy!

Friday, 14 July 2006

Mobile Mail

I've just been accused of showing off with my Mobile Blog entry. Although, I can rightfully be accused of that on occasion, it was not the intention in this case: I was just trying it out. But this brings the question: why does it sound like I'm showing off? Because I am sending an email from my mobile phone? If this is the case then let's have a look at how anybody can do the same. To send an email from a mobile phone, you need:

  • an Internet Service Provider,
  • a phone line,
  • a handset that comes with an email application that supports standard protocols such as SMTP for sending and POP3 or IMAP for receiving.

The Internet Service Provider

If you have Internet access at home, you already have an Internet Service Provider. If you don't, you mobile phone company should be able to provide the service.

The phone line

If you have a mobile phone with a SIM card, you have a phone line that you can use. In practice, it would be preferable to have a 3G contract with an operator like 3 but it is not essential and all other UK operators now offer 3G anyway.

The Handset

The handset is the complicated part. The first handset that ever had email capability was the Nokia 9000 Communicator, a large brick that appeared in 1996 and was targeted at professionals. Such a service was not available on smaller handsets because it required a large screen and the ability to send and receive data. With the arrival of camera phones and 3G, most modern handsets are now technically able to support an email application. You just need to choose one that has. You could get a handset like mine, a Nokia 6234, which is the Vodafone custom version of the Nokia 6233, and is free when taken with a contract. If you want something more complicated, there are tons of alternatives but you might have to pay for them.

After that, it is just a matter of configuring the phone properly and your mobile operator will be happy to help you do this. Getting email on your mobile is easy. Do you need it? Maybe. Maybe not. Do I need it? Not really but I'm a geek and it's fun to be able to send email from anywhere.

Mobile Blog

Now that I've got an email enabled phone and the email blog feature enabled, I can blog from anywhere!

Thursday, 13 July 2006

Google Goodies

Google Earth is now available for Mac OS-X and Linux and you can also have Google Maps on your mobile. I just downloaded both and it works a treat!

Update: and if you want to have fun with a simple 3D design piece of software, try SketchUp.

The Headbutt Videos

After the headbutt song come the headbutt videos courtesy of The Register.

The Headbutt Song

All is well in France and everybody's taking the mickey out of Zidane for his headbutt, in a nice way: as demonstrated by the headbutt song. Genius!

Tuesday, 11 July 2006

Nokia's Betrayal

I got a brand new phone today. It's a Nokia 6234, to replace the Nokia 6230 I lost. It is a metallic grey 3G phone that is full of functionality and mostly works the same way as all other Nokia phones I've had before. Except for one crucial thing: they changed the power adapter! The new one is the same shape as the old one but smaller, meaning that the half dozen Nokia chargers I've got at home don't fit anymore. If there was one thing you could rely on in mobile telephony all those years, it was the size and shape of a Nokia power cord.... No more... Traitors! If anybody has adapters from old to new, I'll buy a dozen.

Enjoy The Silence

Being without a mobile phone for the last few days has shown me how much I relied on it. A typical example is Monday morning. I was going to Birmingham for a business meeting, with a few colleagues. As I had only been to the Birmingham office once before, I was unsure of how to get there from the station and was relying on meeting my colleagues on the train. But without a mobile phone and its address book, I couldn't contact them. Nor did they know that I couldn't do so because they didn't know I had no phone anymore. I eventually found them and it all went well but it was slightly frustrating to be unable to contact them as easily as I was used to.

Anyway, during those few days I have enjoyed the silence. It now comes to an end as I have a new phone.

Sunday, 9 July 2006

Lost Mobile

I lost my mobile phone over the weekend so I will need a new one. The most annoying is not to lose the phone itself but to lose the numbers that were stored in its memory.

Disgrace

Is a word that can be applied to Zinedine Zidane tonight. Idiot is another. I am glad Italy won.

Thursday, 6 July 2006

Italy, here we come!

The France-Portugal game wasn't as good as the Germany-Italy one but France did what it needed to do and booked a place in the final on Sunday. What a way for Zidane to end his career: a world cup final! Whatever the result, it's an amazing achievement. I hope the game will be better than tonight though, a bit more like the one yesterday if possible. My theory is that France were extremely careful and tense playing Portugal considering how the Portuguese players have a tendency to dive to get the opposition booked, as colourfully explained on the BBC web site: If Pauleta is going to dive any more in this match, he might as well put on a snorkel and fins.

But the best part is what Piccadilly Circus looked like after the event.

Piccadilly Circus after French semi-final victory

Piccadilly Circus after French semi-final victory

Wednesday, 5 July 2006

120 Minutes of Passion

The Italy-Germany semi-final tonight was by far the best game of the World Cup. Absolutely incredible! No Hollywood director could have written a more exciting script, with the game decided in the 119th minute. This is what football should be like. Both teams were absolutely amazing and, even though the 2-0 final score is a bit unfair on Germany, Italy really deserved to win. This was a beautiful show. Thank you Italy, thank you Germany for 120 minutes of magic.

France, Portugal: please take note.

Monday, 3 July 2006

Fruity Dragon

I caused mayhem at the Tesco till at Hammersmith tube station the other day. Going through the fruit and veg section, I saw this unusual bright magenta fruit called Dragon Fruit, originating from Viet-Nam. Of course, I had to buy one to try out. The guy at the till was quite nonplussed, having no idea what it was and how much it cost, thus causing major delays until one of his colleagues got him the code for it. Luckily, seeing the fruit, the bewildered face of the cashier and hearing my explanation (I found it colourful and funny so I decided to buy one), the other customers who were waiting behind or going through other tills were rather amused. One of them even asked me several times to confirm what it was so that he could buy one next time round.

Dragon Fruit, whole

Dragon Fruit, whole

Back home, it was time to taste my hard bought delicacy. I cut it in two, to discover a white centre full of black seeds.

Dragin Fruit, open

Dragon Fruit, open

I grabbed a spoon and dug in. The texture is very much like kiwi. The taste is very subtle, virtually non-existent.

Dragon Fruit, half eaten

Dragon Fruit, half eaten

Result: 10/10 for strangeness, colour and potential to cause confusion; 0/10 for taste.

France or Portugal?

Following my entry about team support for the semi-finals, I asked the question to friends and colleagues. Interestingly enough, the answers are mixed: some say they will support Portugal, others say they will support France. At least nobody is indifferent.

Support

Now that England is out of the World Cup, who will the England fans cheers in the semi-finals? We have a choice of Germany or Italy on Tuesday and France or Portugal on Wednesday. I would guess that the average England fan might cheer Italy rather than Germany on Tuesday. However, on Wednesday, I just don't know. Portugal are the ones to blame for England not being in the semi-finals so you would think they would cheer France. Then again, that thought is anathema to an Englishman: a real Englishman can cheer anyone but France. So it will be a case of keeping a stiff upper lip and cheering the valiant enemy that brought them down over the weekend.

Note that those are the same people who complain when the Scots say they will cheer anyone but England.

Mine's Bigger Than Yours

Size fever has been taking over London in the past few weeks. Everywhere you go you can see adverts that look like they could be for some XXX porn movies: 40 inch here, 52 inch there. Whoever's got the biggest plasma telly is where football fans will go and spend money on beer, cheering their favourite team.

Thursday, 22 June 2006

Boring Meeting

My boss's son, who is about 15, is currently spending a week in our office for some work experience. We try to involve him in as many things as possible and have him attend meetings as an observer. We had quite a long meeting towards the end of the day, involving discussions full of buzzwords and technical terms that he had no chance to understand. Predictably, he ended up falling asleep. We all found it very amusing.

Tuesday, 13 June 2006

Evil Eye

I managed to catch an eye infection over the weekend. I don’t know how. My left eye looks like it’s been punched. Luckily, I have very good doctors at my local surgery and I am now armed with antibiotic drops that have already made it look and feel much better.

So as not to make it worse, I will try to avoid smoky pubs and long stints in front of a computer screen for the next few days. Considering the current context (world cup and work), it might be difficult.

Thursday, 8 June 2006

6/6/6

June 6, 2006 came and went and we didn't see any sign of the Antichrist or any of his minions. The world is more or less as it was the day before. Now we just have to wait one year, one month and one day to have the luckiest day in history: 7/7/7.

Saturday, 3 June 2006

Ironing for Men

Before I left home so many years ago, my mum gave me a lesson in ironing. I've now forgotten most of it except the basics that enable me to iron my shirts. As a result, my iron is always set on the same setting that is good for cotton shirts. Don't ask me to iron anything else as I wouldn't know what to change to do it properly. As a guy who lives on his own in London, I am not an isolated case. I know some people who spend fortunes in dry cleaning because they have no clue how to iron anything. Luckily, this is about to change. Mary Hackney, a student from Coventry University has come to the rescue of iron-challenged blokes with an iron that sports a big handle, simple dials and go-faster stripes. It's also a cool gadget as it includes a scanning device which recognises the fabric and automatically selects the appropriate temperature and steam control. Mary, you're a star! I want one of those!

New Ceiling 2: Watching Paint Dry

The builders are back in my flat today to finish off the ceiling they started on Monday, now that the plaster is dry. So I'm stuck at home while it is a beautiful day outside. I wish I had a garden so that I could enjoy the sun while they work.

Monday, 29 May 2006

The Da Vinci Code

I saw the Da Vinci Code yesterday. Having read the book before, I was keen to see how it compared. They had to cut quite a few bits from the book to make it fit, in particular some tense scenes that make the book a gripping tale, so it occasionally lacks pace. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the ending: although it is very close to the book's ending, which I had found very lame, they made it much stronger, meaning that I didn't get that feeling of disappointment I had had when closing the book.

New Ceiling

The flat above mine has had several water leaks over the past few years, most of the water ending up in my flat through the ceiling, to the point that part of it ended up falling down in a couple of places. It took them a long time to find the source of all the leaks and get them all sorted. They finally did and the owner above recently called his insurance to have repairs in my flat done. The builders came today and did a great job: I now have a new ceiling that doesn't look like it's going to fall on my head any minute. They need to come back next week, once the plaster is dry, to paint over it. Then it will be like new! Hurray!

Money For Nothing

Last week, I got a letter from the managing agent for my flat. For people who don't leave in England, when you buy a flat here, it can be as a freehold or a leasehold. If it is a freehold, or share of one, you own the property outright. If it is a leasehold, you own a time limited lease for the land on which your property is built. You can extend this lease by paying some money to the freeholder. The freeholder is responsible for maintaining outside and shared parts of the building while you are responsible for maintaining your own property, which is why it is quite common for apartments in a block of flats. When work is carried out by the freeholder, it needs to be agreed by all the leaseholders and each one then pays a part of the fees accordingly. Quite often, the freeholder goes through a managing agency that does this work for them. In my case, my flat is a leasehold in a Victorian conversion that comprises three flats. For whatever work that is carried out on the main property by the managing agent, I am supposed to more or less pay a third.

As I said, I received a letter from my managing agent last week. I had previously sent them a couple of letters asking them to detail what work they had done so far because I thought my management fees were high considering they haven't done any work on the property since I moved in 4 years ago, although there is quite a lot to do. It was therefore with considerable surprise that I opened the letter to find it was a statement of my accounts saying that I owed them £6,000 and a bit for works that were alledgedly carried out on the 19th of March of this year. Very conveniently, the 19th or March happens to be when I was in Atlanta for work. I know that during that period they did ad-hoc repairs to the banister on the outside stairs and added a wooden door to the passage that leads to the back of the property. That must have cost them a few hundred pounds at most. I phoned the owner of the flat above mine. He has received the same letter, asking for a similar amount of money. I suppose the owner of the flat below has as well. Which means that between the three of us, we are being charged £18,000 for works that:

  • we haven't had the opportunity to approve,
  • we cannot see,
  • don't address the main problems with the property,
  • and were carried out in just one day.

I have therefore sent a nice letter to the managing agency asking for explanations and saying that I wouldn't pay anything until I was happy that the bill was justified. Now if anybody knows of a job where you can earn £18,000 in a day doing something that doesn't leave any record, please feel free to contact me, I'd love to apply.

Tuesday, 23 May 2006

Cork'd

What happens when SimpleBits Dan recommends a good wine to Hivelogic Dan? The two Dans come up with a great website: cork'd. It's brand new and it enables you to keep track of wines you've tasted, the ones you have in your cellar or the ones that have been recommended to you. You can even print a shopping list so that you don't forget anything when you go to the wine shop. And like all the best things in life, it's free.

Sunday, 7 May 2006

419

I always wondered why 419 scams were called that. I found the answer in this Wikipedia article, namely: after the relevant section of the Nigerian Criminal Code that it violates. The article is a very interesting read.

Monday, 1 May 2006

Crop It

/

The typical trap for a photographer who is in a place where there are a lot of interesting things to capture is to want to capture everything in one go. Sometimes it can work but often it just produces a cluttered picture with no central subject. There is also the danger that the exposition will be correct for only part of the picture.

Reducing the field of vision and capturing only part of a scene, focusing on a single subject can make a much stronger shot. It can also transport the viewer to a completely different place by removing a lot of the context. For instance, if I were to ask where was this picture taken, what would be your first guess?

Engerrrrrland!

It's time England won the World Cup. I can't be the only one who is getting bored of seeing the same old videos of the 1966 World Cup re-appear all over the place every 4 years. Otherwise, football fans who actually saw England win a World Cup will soon become like World War I veterans: you'll need special ceremonies to remember that some are still alive.

Sunday, 30 April 2006

Church vs Da Vinci Code

An Australian church group want people to think twice before believing what The Da Vinci Code say about Jesus, as reported by Yahoo. Interestingly, the group says Our concern is that The Da Vinci Code will mislead people about the truth. In my opinion, nobody knows the truth about events that happened 2000 years ago, whether it'd be the church or Dan Brown. But they certainly have the right to offer a different view.

Saturday, 29 April 2006

Sales!

For the Londoner who likes shopping but doesn't like paying the full price, here's a brand new site that shows you what promotions are on in your area: LynkU. It looks quite good and hopefully will eventually be even more useful while customers start posting comments on the shops and promotions.

Thursday, 27 April 2006

Beeramisu

Ah the joys of targeted news and ads in gmail! Reading through an email conversation about beer, gmail offered a link to an amazing recipe: the beeramisu. Genius!

Google Preaches Firefox To IE Users

Via Graham, Google tells IE users to get Firefox. As mentioned in the article, maybe this will prompt Microsoft to solve all the CSS bugs in the first release of IE7 rather than leave some for later as is currently the plan.

Tuesday, 25 April 2006

Couscous Man

I now have a new nickname: Couscous Man. All this because I was at a party on Sunday night, where I demonstrated I knew how to cook couscous, thus earning brownie points with the lady of the house. So, for those who don't know how to cook couscous, here is the secret recipe (which you can also find on the side of packs of most brands of couscous, especially the French ones):

  1. Pour couscous in a dish,
  2. Sprinkle with olive oil,
  3. Boil water separately,
  4. Add a little hot water to the couscous and leave until all water is absorbed,
  5. Break up clumps of couscous with a fork,
  6. Taste for consistency,
  7. Repeat the previous 3 steps until the couscous is not crunchy anymore.

Faking It

Salvatore is a wise man. As he more or less said on Sunday night:

Men can't fake orgasm. Women can. But there's a trick: if they sneeze, you know they're not paying attention and they're faking.

Before you ask, that was after a few bottles of wine.

Cheap Laptops

I just came across studentlaptopshop.co.uk. It looks like they have cheap laptops, including refurbished ones. It's not clear whether they sell only to students but they certainly seem cheap.

Thursday, 20 April 2006

Canon Can't Deliver

I've just gone through the 10 pages of camera goods retailers listed on yell.com and none of them is able to provide me with an EF24-105f/4L lens. They are all out of stock and waiting for a huge backlog to be delivered by Canon. Jessops haven't seen the colour of one of those lenses since Christmas. And it looks like Canon are having huge quality control issues on those lenses.

Monday, 17 April 2006

Stable and Straight

/

Coming home last night, I was walking on along Kew Bridge and the view downriver was beautiful. I had my camera with me so decided to take a picture. Being at night, it was going to be a long exposure, especially considering I wanted most of it sharp so needed a narrow aperture.

The main issue in such conditions is to make sure the camera is stable and doesn’t move. For this a tripod, or any other device on which the camera can stand is essential. In my case, I had a mini tripod that I could prop on the bridge’s wall. Then, a cable release is also essential. It doesn’t matter how careful you are, pressing the shutter button on the camera body itself will make it move, ever so slightly, and it will show.

This being landscape photography, an important point to bear in mind is that the horizon should be horizontal. Usually, you should be able to trust your eyes but it is sometimes difficult to evaluate, especially if the scene is unbalanced on one side or if your main subject is curved like this river scene. To cater for this, I always have a cheap but invaluable piece of equipment: a small spirit level that fits in the camera’s accessory hotshoe.

After five minutes of setting up my stuff, I was ready to take the shot and here’s what came out.

Wednesday, 12 April 2006

Infection

I use AVG Antivirus from Grisoft as my anti-virus of choice on my Windows laptop. At the moment I get one virus update a day, if not 2. I suspect hackers are very busy writing viruses while Grisoft are very busy writing counter-measures everyday. So, update your virus scanner. Now.

Gaston, y a l'téléphon qui son

I just called the Jessops shop in Ealing 3 times. The first two times, it was engaged. The last one, nobody ever answered, although I let it ring a long time. If they had answered and had had what I was looking for in stock, I would have gone there immediately and bought it without any question. That's a missed sale worth about £800. Nevermind, I'm happy to give my money to someone else.

Note for people who are not French: the title is part of the lyrics from a song by Jacques Dutronc about a phone that always rings and that nobody ever answers.

Niagara Falls

At last, and after some fiddling with Photoshop, I have uploaded my pictures of the Niagara Falls.

Sunday, 9 April 2006

Extreme Gardening

A monster rabbit is currently the bane of northern gardeners, as reported by Reuters and The Register.

Saturday, 8 April 2006

Jesus & Spring Ice

Did Jesus really walk on water? According to the Discovery Channel, he walked on spring ice.

Busiest Airport

I went through Hartsfield-Jackson again last week and was reminded in an impressive way that this is the busiest airport in the world in terms of planes landing and taking off. I was transferring from a Delta flight from Buffalo to a British Airways flight to London Gatwick and had a window seat on the BA flight. While in the take-off queue, I could see three runways (I don’t know if it has more). One of them was used for take off, the other two for landing and the planes were following each other uninterrupted on all three! The amount of coordination and planning this must require defies the imagination.

I was much less impressed when I landed in London as I discovered that, although they had 5 hours to do it, Hartsfield-Jackson failed to transfer my luggage from one flight to another and I had to go back home with only my cabin luggage, after having filled a mishandling report with BA. Luckily, I always make sure the important items, like money and door key, are in the bag I take with me, just in case. It just meant that my dirty laundry arrived home 24 hours after I did.

Lots and lots of water!

After 3 weeks in Atlanta for work, I had a 3 day week-end to take somewhere before going home. I was originally planning to go to Florida but a combination ot spring break and tennis tournament put too high a price tag on that project. Instead, I found a good deal online to go to the Niagara Falls. In a way, this was also a way for me to correct an old mistake: the very first time I visited the US, I stayed 1 month in Erie and miserably failed to see the Falls.

So I took a flight to Buffalo on Friday evening. I was a bit surprised when the guys at the taxi rank told me that the hotel I had booked was on the Canadian side of the falls rather than the American one. I had no idea because it wasn’t mentionned in the package. But this made it even better as I had never been to Canada.

I saw the Falls for the first time on the Saturday morning. There is only one word to describe them: wow! Even seeing them on an overcast day doesn’t reduce the impact. What does reduce the impact though, is that the town around it is little more than a big amusement park, with casinos and haunted houses galore. There are a couple of redeeming factors though: a few great pubs with excellent live music at the week-end and the Canadians themselves who are extremely friendly.

Photos will be forthcoming soon. I experimented with very long exposures so I have a little work to do in Photoshop before I can post them.

Paying Myself

It took me longer to set up than I expected, mainly because I was out of the country earning money for the company, but I finally paid myself a salary for the first time. There’s no use in having a lot of money on the company’s account if your personal account is empty.

The way to do this in the UK is to set up a PAYE (Pay As You Earn) scheme for the company and then have a good accountant who can do all the calculations and send you a couple of payslips: one for you, one for the Inland Revenue that includes income tax and National Insurance contributions. Then it’s just a matter of doing a couple of bank transfers, making sure you have the correct reference on the one for IR. It’s all reasonnably straightforward.

It was good to be able to finally transfer money to my personal account as its balance was starting to get uncomfortably low after 3 months without income. The good side of this was that, for this one payment, I had very little taxes to pay because of this 3 month lack in salary. In practice, I could have done that quicker if I had really needed to but it is definitely something to take into account when starting a business: make sure you have some cash saved in case you can’t pay yourself immediately.

In the process, I discovered that HSBC, in all their wisdom, automatically open a savings account for your company alongside its business current account. There seems to be no snag in using it: you can take the money out when you need it and it gathers interest in the meantime. So I made sure I transferred some funds in there as well, to build up a cash cushion for when the times get rough or invest in growing the company when I feel like it.

Next on my list are to sort out BUPA and private pension. Oh and finding another customer to keep the company’s accounts healthy.

Friday, 31 March 2006

Online Government, Web Standards and accessibility

The BBC has an interesting article about the UK Government web sites, Web Standards and Accessibility. As expected, the picture is not perfect but it is encouraging to see that the subject makes headline news and that the government is aware of it. So to all web standard developers out there, it might be time to send your CV to your local government and cite the BBC's article.

Towel Day

A tribute to Douglas Adams (1952-2001)

Going North, not South

It is my last day in Atlanta tomorrow. I am flying back to London on Monday. I was planning to do 3 days on the beach but the combination of spring break, tennis tournament and me booking stuff at the last minute mean that Florida is way too expensive. At some point, I was considering going to Mexico instead but the flights are not convenient. There's no point in me going somewhere if it means I miss my return flight to London. I ended up going to lastminute.com and I eventually found something at a decent price: the Niagara Falls. I know, it's a long way North and according to the weather forecast it will be cold and wet. But then that's why it's cheap. And I have a reason to go there: the very first time I visited the US, I spent 1 month in Meadville, PA, and completely failed to see the falls. So I am now rectifying that mistake. To completely redeem myself, I will make sure I take (lots of) pictures.

Wednesday, 29 March 2006

about.com

Ah the joys of community web sites like flickr! One of the pictures I took during my holidays in Peru now illustrates a short entry on the Moche civilization on about.com, with a nice credit. Thanks Kris!

Monday, 27 March 2006

Photomatix

A friend recently sent me a link to Photomatix, a small tool that can combine different exposures of a scene with a high contrast to produce an image with an increased dynamic range, that is an image where highlights and shadows come out well, rather than as blocks of white or black. So I decided to take the tool for a spin to see how well it did.

First, I needed a picture with high contrast, such as an indoor photograph that comprises outdoor light coming in through windows.

Westville house, normal exposure

Westville house, normal exposure

In this picture, the exposure is correct but because there is a very strong contrast between the dark and light areas, the inside of the room looks very dark, while the outside through the windows looks washed out. This doesn't do justice to the actual setting and is a very dull photograph. This is because the sensors in the camera are much less versatile than the human eye and their contrast range is not very wide. Good old negative film would have the same problem. Slide film would do a slightly better job because it has a wider contrast range but would still be disappointing compared to the human eye. So let's try to correct this.

Taking the same scene at -1EV, that is under-exposed by 1 stop, we get a darker picture but where the highlights through the windows show significantly more detail.

Westville house, under-exposed

Westville house, under-exposed

Then taking the same scene again at +1EV, that is over-exposed by 1 stop, we get a much brighter picture where the inside of the room comes out much better.

Westville house, over-exposed

Westville house, over-exposed

Now, according to the Photomatix manual, we just have to let the tool work its magic, using the midtone areas from the first picture, the light areas from the second one and the dark areas from the third one. Et voilà:

Westville house, high dynamic range image

Westville house, high dynamic range image

Of course, as I am using the evaluation version, I get a watermark on the output image but the result is indeed impressive. To get results as impressive as the ones on the Photomatix web site, I should probably have bracketed my photograph at ±2EV or more, rather than ±1EV, in order to have better highlight and shadow details. Also note that to take the three exposures, I needed a sturdy support: it is not something you can do while hand-holding the camera. A tripod is best but in this case, I was using a monopod while being supported by the back wall of the room.

Having said this, does it justify a $100 price tag? If you take a lot of pictures with very strong contrast, have a camera that does AEB and are carrying a tripod with you when doing so, I'd say yes as it can transform an average shot into a great photograph.

Wednesday, 22 March 2006

Windows in-Vista-ble

The next release of Windows is delayed yet again. Apple must be happy!

Passport Fiasco

Apparently, us French people can't go to the US because of the inability of the French government to deliver biometric passports. I am not particularly surprised that a combination of government mis-management and strikes could make them miss the deadline. I mean, we're talking about a government here and the French one to boot.

But then, after reading the story, I thought: How does that work? I am French and I am reading this from the US, they never said anything at the border, even though my passport is clearly non-biometric! It turns out that the only people affected are the people who had their passports issued or renewed after the 26th October 2005 deadline. Mine was issued on 2nd February 2005 so I am immune to this requirement, for now.

Considering there is a new deadline set by the US government on 26th October 2006 that requires all passports to also have a microchip, what are the chances that the French government will miss that one as well?

Customer Service

Transport for London, who already have a quite a bad reputation with their customers, have now decided to contact one of them through their solicitor. What is Geoff's heinous crime? Saying he loves the tube and producing some alternative and silly tube maps. Maybe someone should tell TfL that this is not good PR?

So Geoff has taken the maps down for now. Fortunately, you can see them on this mirror. Seriously, rather than paying solicitor fees, TfL should really learn from the work done by Geoff as some of the maps are just great: I could use the distance, travel time or walk maps regularly. And the geographical maps are just awesome. TfL should make them all widely available rather than threaten their author.

Sunday, 19 March 2006

No ID: No Beer

I went out for St Patrick's Day last night. I went to Fado, the Irish pub in Buckhead. Same as last year, there was a 1 hour queue to get in, it was packed and they had a tribute band playing U2 songs. However, one thing I had forgotten about the US is that you need an ID to go out. Luckily, I do look over 21 and sound suitably foreign so the doorman excused me and let me in. It would have been a shame to get to the front of the queue and be refused entry.

I like the atmosphere in Fado. The people are very friendly and they don't hesitate to invite you in their group when they realise you are on your own. I even met a fellow Breton. It's a small world...

Monday, 13 March 2006

More Geeky Gizmos

As if I didn't have enough gadgets already, I stopped at Dixons in the duty-free zone at Gatwick airport this morning and added to my collection:

There's a logic in all this even if it's not obvious: the crossover network cable is an essential piece of equipment when dealing with possibly strange computers; the Solio charger, when I add the relevant extensions, will also be able to charge my mobile phone and potentially my camera's battery thus reducing the number of chargers I need to carry (and it looks really cool and geeky).

Atlanta: good; Vodafone: bad

I'm back in Atlanta. The flight was smooth and on time. The temperature is 25 Celsius (80 Fahrenheit) and the hotel where I am has a small but nice indoor swimming pool that I have already tried.

It would all be perfect if my mobile phone was working. I can send texts but I can't call. I did go to Vodafone last week to ensure my phone would work properly and I was assured it would. Obviously the person I talked to was mistaken.

Sunday, 12 March 2006

Gadgets

I've just finished packing my laptop bag to take on my flight to Atlanta tomorrow. The amount of gadgets that go into this bag is frightening:

  • 1 laptop with accessories:
    • power cable and transformer,
    • modem cable,
    • mini USB mouse (thanks to Elena),
    • microphone + headphone combo (thanks to Elena as well),
    • USB key,
    • USB serial port,
    • USB extension cable;
  • 1 digital SLR camera:
    • camera body,
    • standard lens,
    • telephoto lens (in its separate bag),
    • charger,
    • spare battery,
    • mini tripod,
    • small external flashgun (I gave up taking the big one),
    • hotshoe spirit level,
    • cable release,
    • USB connection cable;
  • 1 Nokia mobile phone charger;
  • 1 iPod charger;
  • 2 power adapters for the US.

The guys at the airport will think I'm trying to open a branch of Dixons the other side of the pond.

Saturday, 11 March 2006

iTunes Music Store Single of the Week

If you have iTunes, you have access to the attached Music Store. Even if you don’t want to buy anything from it, there is one great feature: the Single of the Week. Every week, you have a new single that you can download for free. Legally free music? I’ll have some of this! Especially considering it’s usually good tracks from little known artists. That’s how I just discovered Dangerous Muse and I love it.

Friday, 10 March 2006

Scottish Condoms

I knew a Scottish-Cuban pub was bound to be special. Mixing whisky and cigar is bound to have interesting results, as demonstrated in the gents toilets where you can find a condom vending machine. What's unusual about that? They're not your ordinary condoms, they're whisky flavoured ones.

Waterstone's London Reading Map

Waterstone’s, one of the major British book shops has just come out with a brilliant idea: a London Reading Map, a map that identifies 100 books that are related to London and what part of the city they bring to life. Or, in their own words:

For centuries London and the people it attracts have provided a fertile muse for writers from all over the world. From Chaucer to Zadie Smith, the evolution of the city has been documented and retold through the stories of hundreds of fictional characters. They lead us through time, along streets of medieval drama, Dickensian squalor and into the modern day. And every postcode, every character, every book, tells a different tale of London life.

You don’t need to be a Londoner to experience the glamour and the grubbiness of this city. Through the pages of great works of fiction we can encounter the lives or murderers, lovers, petty thieves and dreamers and experience the sights, sounds and smells that evoke this great city.

Dr Johnson’s view that ‘when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’ certainly seems to hold true as the city continue to inspire, captivate and enthral readers and writers alike.

This is by no means a comprehensive record of London writing but here are 100 of our favourite books and some of the locations that they bring to life.

The list is interesting and includes all sorts of genres so it should be of interest to anybody. Of course, the subliminal message from Waterstone’s is that you can buy all those books from them but it is a great idea nonetheless. For those who don’t live in London, here is the list, in order. They highlight the first 30 as ‘essential London reads’:

  1. Aldgate / Walthamstow: Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe
  2. Baker Street: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  3. Blackfriars: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  4. Bloomsbury: Maurice by E. M. Forster
  5. Bloomsbury: New Grub Street by George Gissing
  6. Borough High Street: Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
  7. Brixton: A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  8. City / West End: The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
  9. Clerkenwell: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  10. Clerkenwell: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  11. Covent Garden: The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell
  12. Covent Garden: The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling by Henry Fielding
  13. Earl’s Court: Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton
  14. Grosvenor Square: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  15. Hampstead Heath: Dracula by Bram Stoker
  16. Hampstead Heath: 1984 by George Orwell
  17. Holborn: The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens
  18. Holloway: Diary of a Nobody by George and Weeden Grossmith
  19. Kensington Gardens: Peter and Wendy, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J. M. Barrie
  20. Kensington: The Wings of the Dove by Henry James
  21. Kingston Upon Thames: Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
  22. Limehouse: Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
  23. Newgate: The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay
  24. Portobello Road: Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
  25. Smithfields: The Diary of Samuel Pepys by Samuel Pepys
  26. Soho / Greenwich: The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale by Joseph Conrad
  27. Southwark: The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
  28. St. Paul’s Churchyard: Fanny Hill by John Cleland
  29. Westminster: The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
  30. Westminster: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  31. Baker Street: A Metropolitan Murder by Lee Jackson
  32. Baker Street: Metroland by Julian Barnes
  33. Battersea Park Road: The Battersea Park Road to Enlightenment by Isabel Losada
  34. Belgrave Square: A Dance to the Music of Time: Autumn by Anthony Powell
  35. Belgravia: A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
  36. Borough / Lant Street: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
  37. Brick Lane: London Dust by Lee Jackson
  38. Brick Lane: Brick Lane by Monica Ali
  39. Brick Lane: Girl from Brick Lane by Sally Worboyes
  40. British Museum: Possession by A. S. Byatt
  41. British Museum: The British Museum is Falling Down by David Lodge
  42. Brixton: East of Acre Lane by Alex Wheatle
  43. Brixton: The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter
  44. Brixton: The Colour of Memory by Geoff Dyer
  45. Bromley: The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi
  46. Camberwell: Camberwell Beauty by Jenny Eclair
  47. King’s Cross Station: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling
  48. Chelsea: Millenium People by J. G. Ballard
  49. Chiswick: The Witches of Chiswick by Robert Rankin
  50. Clapham / Westminster: Mr Phillips by John Lanchester
  51. Clerkenwell: The Clerkenwell Tales by Peter Ackroyd
  52. Cleveland Street, W1: Saturday by Ian McEwan
  53. Covent Garden: Jack Maggs by Peter Carey
  54. Deptford: A Dead Man in Deptford by Anthony Burgess
  55. Ealing: The Last Ealing Comedy by Matthew Bayliss
  56. Earl’s Court: Small Island by Andrea Levy
  57. Elephant & Castle: 253 by Geoff Ryman
  58. Embankment: The Cryptographer by Tobias Hill
  59. Euston Road: Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky by Patrick Hamilton
  60. Fleet Street: Towards the End of Morning by Michael Frayn
  61. Fulham: The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks
  62. Greenwich: London Irish by Zane Radcliffe
  63. Hanover Square: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  64. Highbury: Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby
  65. Imperial College: Ann Veronica by H. G. Wells
  66. Kensington Gardens: Kensington Gardens by Rodrigo Fresan
  67. Knightsbridge: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
  68. Marylebone: Lady’s Maid by Margaret Forster
  69. Mayfair: Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
  70. Mayfair: Jeeves and Wooster Omnibus by P. G. Wodehouse
  71. Notting Hill: The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
  72. Notting Hill: Daydream Girl by Bella Pollen
  73. Notting Hill: The London Novels by Colin McInness
  74. Notting Hill: Thirteen Steps Down by Ruth Rendell
  75. Notting Hill: Other People’s Marriages by Shane Watson
  76. Paddington: 4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie
  77. Paddington / Windsor: Paddington Bear by Michael Bond
  78. Park Lane: Penniless in Park Lane by Carole Morin
  79. Piccadilly: Piccadilly Jim by P. G. Wodehouse
  80. Portobello Road: London Fields by Martin Amis
  81. Primrose Hill: Primrose Hill by Helen Falconer
  82. Primrose Hill: The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith
  83. Regent’s Park Zoo: Look At It This Way by Justin Cartwright
  84. Regent’s Street: Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald
  85. Shepherd’s Bush: Making Love: A Conspiracy of the Heart by Marius Brill
  86. Soho: Robinson by Chris Petit
  87. Soho: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
  88. Soho: The Long Firm by Jake Arnott
  89. Spitafields: Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd
  90. Stoke Newington: How the Dead Live by Will Self
  91. Trafalgar Square: The London Pigeon Wars by Patrick Neate
  92. Waterloo: Necropolis Railway by Andrew Martin
  93. Westminster: The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud
  94. Westminster: Kitchen Venom by Philip Hensher
  95. Westminster: The House of Cards by Michael Dobbs
  96. White City: Wite City Blue by Tim Lott
  97. Whitechapel: Foxy-T by Tony White
  98. Willesden: White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  99. Willesden: The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith
  100. Wimbledon: The Light of Day by Graham Swift

Thursday, 9 March 2006

Ethical Food

While searching online for places where I could buy buckwheat flour, an essential ingredient of Breton crepes but unfortunately very hard to find out of Brittany, I came across Doves Farm that then directed me to two interesting online shops:

iPod Comics

Comics on your iPod? Go to Clickwheel, download some and unzip them in your iPod photo folder.

Wednesday, 8 March 2006

London Buses Acknowledgement

I had an acknowledgement of my complaint from London Buses in my email this morning:

Thank you for your e-mail regarding for buses 237, 267 and 319. The Operator dealing with your case is Arriva who will be looking into the points that you have raised.

Under our customer services policy, we do our best to respond within 10 working days. If we or one of our Operators cannot give you a full answer in this time, we will send you an acknowledgement within 2 working days and a full written response within 15 working days.

Please accept this e-mail as an acknowledgement to your e-mail.

If you are unhappy with the response you receive, you may wish to contact London TravelWatch. This is an independent watchdog body, set up by parliament to represent the interests of passengers. They can be contacted at the following address:

London TravelWatch
6 Middle Street
London
EC1A 7JA

Once again, thank you for taking the time to contact us.

Yours sincerely

London Buses Customer Services

Kudos to London buses for answering this quickly. Let's see how fast Arriva answer.

Tuesday, 7 March 2006

Bus? What Bus?

Fresh out of my float and having bought a few essential things in Chiswick, I decided to go home. From Chiswick High Road, I have the choice between 3 bus lines: 237, 267 and 391. All of them drop me just in front of my flat. I am used to the service not being very good and waiting for a bus up to 10 minutes, even at rush hour. So, I wasn't overly concerned when I had been waiting enough time to see two E3 and one 272 buses go past. I started getting restless when a few more came and went and there was still no sign of a bus going my way. After I had been waiting 30 minutes in the freezing cold with still no sign of any bus going my way, I decided to walk home. It took me 25 minutes and no bus overtook me on the way.

As soon as I was home, I connected to Transport for London, found the feedback form and explained that I wasn't happy with the bus service in Chiswick and why. I have to admit that the feedback form is extremely easy to find and fill in so good on TfL for this, they are not afraid to get feedback. They are also aware that most feedback is negative as the form includes entries such as date and time of incident. It also looks like they really want to come back to you with an answer, as they say they endeavour to answer within 10 days. We shall see how long it takes them in this case and what their answer is, if any.

Floating

I went to today to see for myself what it was like. The concept is very simple: you lay in a bath that is at body temperature and saturated in Epsom salt to make you float, while being in complete darkness and silence. The idea is to free the body of gravity and reduce all sensory input as much as possible to induce complete relaxation.

I arrived slightly early for my appointment. Sasha, the guy who manages the place, is very friendly and very good at putting first timers at ease. First of all, I filled in the new customer form and read the guidelines and emergency procedure. The latter specifies that in case of emergency while you are bathing, you should put on the emergency bathrobe provided and meet outside. I crossed my fingers hoping this wouldn't happen as I didn't care being outside in the freezing cold with only a light bathrobe. Once those formalities completed, Sasha showed me the facilities and explained everything. Each float room is large enough for one adult and has its own shower room attached. Bathing lasts just under one hour. The first ten minutes, relaxing music is played. It is then total silence for 42 minutes and the music starts again for 3 minutes to wake you up in case you fell asleep and notify you your time is up. You then have 15 minutes to wash and get all the salt off you. The float room has a light switch so you completely control whether you are in the dark or not and the door to it just pushes outwards. This is all done to ensure that if you panic while inside, you can easily get out and come back to the real world.

After that quick introduction, it was time to get wet. I had a quick shower just to get my skin wet and entered the room to the sound of chill out music. The water in the float room is about 30cm (1 foot) deep. I closed the door, sat down, pressed the light switch and lay down in the water. While the light was dimming slowly, I started floating. It then became pitch black. I stretched out, letting my head sink a bit. My ears filled with water and the music became faint. Then it stopped altogether. It took a few minutes for my body to stabilise in the water. I couldn't hear anything. I could feel a dull tingling in the parts of my legs that were not completely submerged but that was going away. I couldn't smell anything. I couldn't see anything. I opened my eyes that I had shut automatically. I still couldn't see anything.

Deprived of external stimuli, my body started to concentrate on internal sensations. The only movement was breathing. My shoulders and neck started to hurt. Sasha had warned me about this: it is quite common apparently for a first float and a symptom of a stressed body trying to relax those muscles too quickly. I put my hands under my neck to relieve the tension, as he had said I should do. The tension eased immediately. After a few minutes, I moved my arms away from my body again and let my head drop back in the water.

I was lying there. Logic was telling me I was immobile. But my brain was telling me I was moving upwards, standing up slightly. Weird. Then said brain went into overdrive. It was going through ideas and things I had to do: some old, some new, others old but seen from a new angle. This was not completely unexpected as it happens to me quite often when I am in a relaxed state, especially when having a shower in the morning. I know, I am weird.

The music came up, signaling the end of the bath. It felt like I had been there 15 minutes rather than nearly 1 hour. I found the light switch, pressed it and stood up. The saline solution felt like oil on my skin rather than water. I stepped out and had a good warm shower, went to the rest room and had herbal tea. There was a small book there explaining the different sensations you can have during a float. Apparently everything I had experienced was normal. The one thing I could notice immediately was that I was feeling very relaxed and my back, shoulders and neck were feeling completely devoid of tension, which had not happened to me for a long time. This was a great sensation and it lasted for a few hours after the float, despite the attempts by the local bus service to stress me; but this is another story.

According to the documentation at Floatopia, you need 3 or 4 floats before your body learns to completely relax and you really feel the effects of it so I booked another one for the day I arrive back from the USA. After a transatlantic flight, there should be a lot of stress to get rid of.

My first experience was positive but I want to reserve final judgment until I've had a few more floats because you are supposed to feel more with each one and because it is not cheap: even if it was good, the experience of the first one doesn't really justify the full price. This is probably why Floatopia offers a 3 float introductory package at a discount price.

Dunk mugs

Have you ever wondered what to do with the biscuits you want to dunk in your tea? Here is the solution: the dunk mug. Put a stack of biscuits in the slot at the bottom the mug while drinking. You have left- and right-handed versions. I saw those yesterday and bought a couple today: a lilac left-handed for myself and a mint right-handed for visitors. The other good thing about those mugs is that the bottom stays cool because it is not in direct contact with the liquid.

Monday, 6 March 2006

Russian Spam

As if I didn't receive enough spam that I can read, I now also receive spam in Russian:

10 га Каширское шоссе 26 км недалеко от аэропорта Домодедово,
49 л. аренды, опушка леса, категория (земли поселений),
разрешенное использование ИЖС,
цена 2000$ сотка, можно сделать земли промышленности ,
собственность - цена 2400$ сотка (2-3 мес.)

тел. (495)776-89-89

If anybody feels like giving me a translation, it would enlighten me as to what they are trying to sell me. Or I could make a reverse charge call to the number provided.

Chocolate Wisdom

Found on the wrapping of a tablet of Dagoba Organic Chocolate, Roseberry (dark chocolate, raspberries & rosehips, cacao content: 59%):

You can deprive the body but the soul needs chocolate.

Float and Relax

A friend just told me how good Floatopia was. The idea of floating as if weightless and completely relaxing the body sounds appealing. I'm not sure I believe all the good things they say on the web site but I'm ready to give it a go. If anything, one hour away from the mayhem of the outside world can only do me good. It is quite pricey though so I might wait until I have money in the bank.

Friday, 3 March 2006

Ocado Cadeau

I sometimes do grocery shopping through Ocado. The main reason for choosing Ocado rather than Sainsbury's or Tesco is that you can specify the time you want to be delivered in a 1 hour slot and they do respect it. So there's no being stuck at home waiting all day for your groceries.

A nice touch is that there is always a free gift in addition to what you ordered. Sometimes, it can be really good: the delivery I got yesterday included a free bottle of South African wine, Kumala Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz. Nice!

Tuesday, 28 February 2006

Invoices and Cash Flow

I have been back from the US for two weeks now. I am flying back out in another two weeks. In theory I was supposed to work with the UK/Maltese company I had been talking to but they changed their mind so I found myself at a loose end. I am not chasing them because we agreed that their reason for not doing work with me now was sensible so it’s not worth me wasting my time on this. They know where I am anyway so if they need me they can contact me.

Instead, I spent the first week back home concentrating on getting the invoicing process sorted. The first invoice I sent to my American customer last month was very straightforward as it was a fixed price item. The one this month is much more complicated as it is based on time and material. So it involves getting timesheets and expenses right. This is extremely important for the business to work properly: if I can’t invoice customers, I won’t get paid; if I don’t get paid, it doesn’t work. I’ve got that sorted now so it was time well spent.

Last week and this week, I’ve been doing some work with a London based company I know from my previous job. This particular assignment is paid less than I would normaly want but it is interesting, it can lead onto a lot more and I am confident those guys will be fast in settling invoices. I am discovering that how fast your customers pay you is extremely important at the very beginning of a business, more than how much they pay you. When you start, you need to kickstart your cash flow by getting some money in the bank. If you end up waiting 3 months for a big paycheck, it can be the death of the business, before it’s even started.

To summarise, the lessons of the past two weeks are:

  • Don’t chase customers you’re very unlikely to do business with, even if the possibilities are potentially fantastic, concentrate on customers who want to do business now;
  • Assess how quickly your potential customers are likely to pay your invoices and concentrate on those that pay quickly, even if they offer less money.

Of course, once you have your cash flow sorted, money coming in regularly and a few months worth of earnings stashed away in the bank, you can disregard those rules to net a big contract. I am not there yet but I think I’m on the right track.

Monday, 27 February 2006

Back to Atlanta

I just booked my flight to go back to Atlanta mid-March for another 3 week stint out there. I added a 3 day week-end at the end to go somewhere sunny, possibly Florida.

No Uncle Bruno

It didn't go as well as we were all expecting. When my sister saw the doctor last week, she learnt that the foetus had stopped evolving 2 weeks earlier, at 4 weeks. I was told that this sort of things happen more often than you'd think, especially during first pregnancies. It was very traumatic for her on the day but luckily she's got great friends and a great husband and she's now in good spirits, wanting to try again but not at the same time as a house move.

Sunday, 12 February 2006

16 hours

I guess I was tired after my flight back from the US. I slept 16 hours last night. Hopefully, that's my jetlag taken care of.

Uncle Bruno

I had my sister on the phone yesterday. If everything goes well, I should be an uncle in September! Now, where's the champagne?

Friday, 10 February 2006

A History of M$

For those who love to hate Microsoft, here's a hilarious video on its history. Some people have talent!

Fatal Attraction

Magnets are fun, as long as they are kept well away from computers and magnetic storage media. If you need some, United Nuclear have some seriously powerful ones. I love the MagnaView Fluid and the Magnetic Sculpture Kits!

Geek Toys

What happens when, in Gmail, you open an email that contains the word UFO? Google AdSense kicks in and offers you sponsored links to cool geek toys:

Hats off to Google: they are the only ones who can convince me to click on advert links because the adverts they display are actually related to what I'm reading.

Thursday, 9 February 2006

Who Needs a Mouse?

Since we invented computers, we've tried to find the best way to interact with them. First came the keyboard. Then the Xerox PARC invented the mouse. And the average consumer has been stuck there for a long time. We have touch screens that are more intuitive but require large control areas. Apple Macs have speech recognition that enables us to talk to the computer but, even though it works, the recognition engine needs training and is not perfect. There are also things for which speech is not the most efficient way to communicate with a machine. PDAs and Tablet PCs tried to re-invent the touch screen by giving us a stylus so that we could point to a precise area of the screen. We added more buttons and scroll wheels to the mouse. Apple even added a squeeze to its Mighty Mouse! All in an attempt to make our interaction with the computer more intuitive.

But the problem with the technology so far is that the input is always sequential: you type one letter at a time, click on one icon at a time, speak one word at a time, etc. Compare this to the way we, as human beings, interact with our world: we can manipulate several objects at the same time such as turn up the volume of the stereo while browsing for the next CD to play. We can't do that with our computer. Or rather, we couldn't until now.

Some smart people at New York University are currently working on something that could transform the way we interact with computers. They call it Multi-Touch Interaction (the page is long to load as it has en embedded video). Take the time to watch the video or at least look at the images taken out of it. This thing is a tactile screen on steroids: not only can it detect contact but it can simultaneously and independently detect contact from multiple fingers, including multiple users, and act accordingly. Have a look in particular at the demo applications with the map and the image gallery. Now, this is a much nicer way to interact with the machine: stretch, move, rotate, flip in the same way you would do with pieces of paper.

The number of applications for that sort of interface could be huge: everything that uses a mouse today would benefit from being able to just directly touch what you are interacting with and interact with several objects at the same time. The immediate application that comes to mind is software design: UML would be fun again! Now, this is a scary thought.

Anyway, I want one of those!

Tuesday, 7 February 2006

Colombian Truck Tires

Browsing through the Solio site after writing my previous post, it appears they also sell nifty rubber cases for their gadget that are handmade from recycled Colombian truck tires I didn't know there existed a market for recycled Colombian truck tires. But why Colombian? Why not Venezuelan or Peruvian? Are Colombian truck tires of higher quality?

Plug Into The Sun

No need to pack a collection of chargers and adapters in your holiday luggage anymore, just take Solio, the Portable Solar Powered Charger with you and you'll be able to recharge your mobie phone, camera, iPod and all other essential gadgets while in the middle of nowhere or on the beach.

Via SimpleBits.

Moving Targets

/

One of the good things about being in Atlanta at the moment is that I am working and going out with people who are as passionate about photography as I am and from whom I can learn. So the past few days have been quite busy, as I took 800 shots. Yes, eight hundred. There is a lot of garbage in all this but it is garbage I can learn from and that I can delete by pressing a button. This is the beauty of digital photography: you can keep shooting as long as you have room on the media card, it doesn’t cost you anything and you can throw away the bad stuff afterwards.

But still: 800! Why? Because I was shooting moving targets. The best way to explain is to go over the week-end’s activities:

Friday evening: we went to a basketball game at Wesleyan high school. We were cheering the home team. I learnt quite a few things:

  • Basketball is a very fast game. I didn’t realise how fast until I saw it and tried to photograph it. It is impossible to get a good action shot by just waiting for it because whatever is interesting is usually finished before you have the time to even think about pressing the shutter release. The only way is to shoot continually while following whoever is in possession of the ball. Out of a burst of 10 pictures, one might be good and the rest can be deleted. There is a lot of garbage but you would not be able to take that good one if you weren’t taking the other 9 bad ones.
  • The better you understand the game, the better you will be able to predict where the action happens.
  • When shooting with a Canon EOS 5D in continuous shooting mode, with AI Servo focusing, keep your subject in the centre of the frame so that the centre focusing point is used. This is the most sensitive focusing point and will be the one favoured by the camera in AI Servo, because it has no time to really use the other ones. It might mean the composition of the shot is boring but you can always crop later and anyway you have no way to think about composition when shooting basketball.
  • When using the panning technique with an image stabilised lens, don’t forget to switch the lens to one way stabilisation so that it doesn’t try to counter the panning movement.

Saturday: we went to Callaway Gardens, where we saw a bird of prey show and the exotic butterfly greenhouse. There I learnt:

  • When shooting big birds, make sure you have your camera on a high ISO setting, even if you are immobile and even have a tripod. You need a very high shutter speed, not because of your own movement but because of the bird’s movement: an eagle can flap its wings and accelerate much faster than you think so if you want to freeze the bird’s movement, you camera has to be even faster.
  • When shooting butterflies, a long telephoto lens can do as good a job as a macro lens. A macro lens is great to enable you go get very close to your subject and photograph small insects. However, butterflies are extremely fast and will disappear before you can focus on them. A good telephoto lens with fast focusing will enable you to take the shot from further away so that you don’t frighten the butterfly or you can take the picture before it flies off.
  • Don’t even think of trying to follow a flying butterfly with your camera and take continuous pictures, the same way you’d do with a basketball player. Butterflies are much less predictable and much faster, even though you might think the opposite when at a basketball game.

Monday evening: we went to another basketball game at Norcross high school. We were cheering the visiting team. I learnt:

  • There exists a game faster than basketball: basketball played by a winning team that are getting increasingly nervous at seeing their opponents come back on the score board and are trying to score as many points as possible in the shortest amount of time to rebuild their safety margin.
  • If you are shooting using the panning technique with an image stabilised lens, do switch it to one way stabilisation. Really, I mean it.
  • When using AI Servo focusing, start with a full battery or have a spare one. AI Servo does consume a lot of battery power as the camera is constantly re-focusing.

I’ve had a lot of fun during this week-end and have learnt a lot about taking pictures of fast moving targets like sports or animals. I think it has made me a better photographer but there is certainly room for improvement.