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 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

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, with a nice credit. Thanks Kris!

Monday, 27 March 2006


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


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

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.


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!