27 June 2006

5 Algarve Cycle Rides

Following on from my previous post about using our Airnimal Rhinos, here are 5 rides of moderate distance that may be of interest to cyclists visiting the Western Algarve (Lagoa, Portimao, Lagos, etc.)

A few points before I start:
1. Beware dogs - the more remote location, the worse.
2. Beware maps - roads change a lot - conversion from track to road for example, plus new buildings in towns and motorways. Even new maps were not accurate. Our Rough Guide map - while good for bikers because of the material used and detail had many quite serious errors.
3. Beware wind. It's almost always windy in the Algarve, and it's often head on against you. You may find distances that you normally cover at home harder to achieve because of this (and the up-down nature of landscape especially around the coast).
4. Beware cobbled streets. The streets of many towns are pretty unsuitable for cycling unless you have good suspension. But it is easy to walk your bikes or lock them up and walk alone.

Photos from some of these rides have been posted on my website here.

1. Coastal route from Carvoeiro to Alvor via Ferragudo and Portimao (32 miles).

This was just a simple acclimatisation route from our base meandering around trying to follow coastal routes where possible. Alvor is very pretty - especially at night, and Ferragudo is also a nice town. There are plenty of places to stop. In Portimao it is possible to follow a cycle lane along the river parallel to the road. It is too hard to describe our exact route, but it is easy to follow a map including these places. While having a drink in Alvor (during the Portugal-Iran World cup game!) we met Frank who was interested in our bikes. He runs a company called Outdoor Tours which does cycling trips, bike rental, nature walks, canoeing and other adventure pursuits across the Algarve. Frank's staff come from across Europe (he himself is Dutch). He is creating a booklet of 15 different bicycle routes available to his clients. We had hoped to join in on one trip, but for a variety of reasons couldn't get to do this. If you're looking to rent a bike for a day or more, or to have some guided (or even supported) tours, check out Frank's site before you leave.

2. Carvoeiro to Silves to San Bartolomeu de Messines to Armacao de Pera and coast route back (46 miles).

Silves is a pretty town indeed with plenty to see (serious cobbled streets though). There is currently a lot of restoration work going on, but the setting, castle, cathedral, central square etc are all nice to see. We had trouble navigating out of Carvoeiro due to some new road building (and other roads shut), so this route should really be about 42 miles. We went on a quiet road out of Estombar closer to the river. After Silves we headed on the main road (124) towards Sao Bartolomeu de Messines. This is a quiet road of good quality with some nice views lined with citrus groves. The next town wasn't too special but was ok (but a bit quiet on a Sunday lunchtime). We then headed South on a quiet road towards Algoz, then towards Pera and Armacao de Pera. We then cut back onto the 269-1 but trying to follow a coastal route (we made a few mistakes here). The village of Benagil is very pretty but with a very steep descent and climb out.

3. From Odiaxere to Barragem de Bravura (Dam) to Lagos/Ponta di Piedade and back to Odiaxere (25 miles).

The road from Odiaxere to the Dam gets prettier and prettier as it climbs up. It's not too difficult a ride, and the dam is in a nice setting with a cafe nearby. We headed back on the same road before turning right to follow a sign towards Bensafrim. This hits the 120 red road into Lagos but it was relatively quiet. Lagos has a lot to recommend it - with a nice run parallel to the main street. We didn't look in much, but there seemed to be some nice parts to the old town. We headed to the southerly tip with lighthouse which had some wonderful views. A surprisingly good fresh Orange juice was had at the cafe before we turned round back into Lagos. This time we went out on the route towards Meia Praia before cutting back to Odiaxere via Palmares. It looks like you're going through a private golf course, but in fact, it is still the road.

4. Climb and circle round Monchique starting near 124/266 junction (35 miles).

Follow this ride via the GoogleEarth Map on my .mac account here.
Probably the best ride of the trip, though I had expected more from Monchique itself. We parked the car on a lay-by opposite a garage on the 266 just after the road (124) to Silves has split right. We looked for a left turn to take us onto a scenic route which would hit the 267 south west of Monchique. Unfortunately, we missed this (not signposted at all). We started on road but it became a track after about 3km and started to climb. Eventually the GPS came to our rescue and showed us that we had been on a different road (on our map, it was a road, not a track). As it turns out, the route was fine with some nice views as we climbed. We were however glad of both front and rear suspension on this route. We ended up on the 267 but much closer in to Monchique. As we passed the road we should have come up on, it looked like it would have been a very pretty road of surprisingly good quality. We went clockwise around turning right towards Chilrao and following the road north around Foia until it joined the scenic route coming into Monchique from the North. Overall this circular part of the ride was by far the best - wonderful views, very quiet but excellent quality roads. There is a pretty church in Monchique. But the convent is a bit of a wreck and a steep climb up. We followed the main route (266) out of Monchique. This is quite a bit busier but is a very fast and long downhill. Unfortunately for us, major roadworks meant we had at least 4 lengthy traffic light stops and, as we went through these sections, we had cars at our heels (glad we were going down, not up). This last part of the route was slightly disappointing given it is marked as scenic. But overall, a lovely ride.

5. Vila do Bispo to Sagres to Cabo de Sao Vicente and back (25 miles - less if you don't try a failed shortcut).

This was an interesting ride covering the SouthWest tip of Portugal (and the most Southwesterly point on mainland Europe). If you think the wind is strong on the Algarve, wait till you get here. Vila do Bispo has a lovely church and a square that can be parked in without restriction. We headed towards Sagres on the main road (268). Though a bit busy, the road is wide with a pseudo-bike lane courtesy of a genorous white line. We flew along this at around 20mph despite it being pretty flat - sometimes even faster. We were in Sagres in no time at all. It is possible to navigate a road which parallels the 268 (the old road?), but we didn't spot the start of that, and once on the main road, couldn't find a way off. Sagres is actually quite interesting as a seaside town - we followed the main road into the town and then came out of the town closer to the beaches. It is not as spoiled as the other Algarve towns closer to Faro which have become mass development sites. We then went out to the Fort towards the Southern tip. It is possible to go tour the fort (small entrance fee) - there is even a simple bike rack just by the ticket office inside the entrance. But we were in a bit of a rush so skipped this. Do walk out to the edge of the cliffs though for great views and to see the real force of the sea coming in - awesome! We then headed off towards Cabo de Sao Vicente (Cape Vincent) into a massive headwind - struggling to keep 8mph on the flat. There's not much at the Cape, but a pretty lighthouse and some great views again. There seems to be a monument to do with biking - perhaps a Portuguese equivalent to John O'Groats to Lands End, as it signposts 0Km. We then headed back intending to take a smaller road directly back to Vila do Bispo. We found what we thought was the road (again GPS to the aid), and turned into another serious headwind (winds are frequently NorthWesterly). As we neared a junction, we came across a farmhouse with at least 8 very large and VERY aggressive dogs, only a few of which were on a leash. Despite our Dog Dazer - which may have had some effect as one dog came towards me, the number of dogs and the howling wind (which perhaps lessens the effect) meant we had no choice but to turn round and head back to the main road with a tail wind helping us beat a hasty retreat. We headed back into Sagres with a massive tailwind - hitting 30mph on the flat (!), before turning North and back into the wind for the return to Vila do Bispo. This bit took approximately 3x as long as the way out despite being relatively flat! (Incidentally our Rough Guide map had the distance from Vila do Bispo to Sagres at about 17km, when it is in fact about 8-9km, so beware error-strewn maps.). A memorable ride indeed - and really not that far at all.

Hope you're able to enjoy one of these routes or try one of Frank's. If you have experience of any others or variations, do post a comment here. One more article to come in this series - on our experience using a GPS device for the first time!

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26 June 2006

Airnimal Rhino and Cycling in the Algarve

Warning: This post is only of interest to those who are interested in bike riding in Portugal and/or folding bikes.

We've had our Airnimal Black Rhinos for about 16 months now. We had been looking for many years for the "ultimate" touring bike that could also be easily taken around the World (by car, plane, train, etc). While I have been very pleased with my Brompton L6 (and wish I'd got something like that earlier), it is very much a commuter bike. Most other touring folding bikes we saw (Bike Friday, Birdy, Dahon, etc.) seemed to be compromises in one or two departments.

When we set eyes on the Airnimal Rhinos however, we could see immediately that, despite the small (20") wheels, these were real bikes. We tried them out at the same time as a Bike Friday and a Birdy, and it was obvious which one we would choose. Airnimal make a range of folding bikes for different requirements and different price points. The Rhinos are aimed at riders who want foldability but also off-road levels of performance.

While neither of us consider ourselves mountain-bikers, we are frequently faced with different terrains on touring rides, and so such a bike seemed a good solution to us back then - fitted with slimmer and slicker tyres for better touring performance. The Rhino is unique (as far as we know) in being a folding bike that is also a full front and rear suspension bike - using standard components. This had not been a requirement for us - in fact we had not been convinced about the need for any type of suspension. But having now experienced the value from modern light suspension systems that can also be easily turned on and off, I am especially pleased we went this route.

It is partly the suspension that allows the Rhino to offer such a great riding experience next to its peers - even in normal road situations, as small-wheeled bikes seem to behave and ride better with even just a bit of suspension. The fact that the Rhino is British-designed (though not manufactured completely here) seemed to be icing on the cake. We've had a good level of personal service from the people at Airnimal, so that has again been a benefit.

We were actually keen to have our bikes with the Rohloff 14-speed hub gearing system, and talked to Airnimal about this possibility. While they would have been prepared to do this, we felt that we might suffer from being guinea pigs, and opted for the traditional Shimano Deore XT 27 speed solution. Ironically, newer Black Rhinos are equipped as standard with the Rohloff, and we may consider retrofitting some day. But interestingly, while I feel the 27 speed Shimano doesn't offer as much as I would like at the top end and I haven't got the adjustment right yet (though that is because of my lack of skill in that regard), our trip to Portugal showed why the traditional gearing might be better if you intend to fly with your bikes. Our Black Rhinos come in around 12.5Kg with saddle etc, and in the hard Delsey suitcase, it's pretty close to 20Kg. That happens to be the weight limit on many airlines for European flights. Add even a few bike extras (such as tools - more about that later) and you're pushing it a bit. Ours' clocked in around 21Kg and Easyjet were fine with that. My suspicion is that another 1 or 2Kg though would have triggered excess baggage costs. It also means, you've got to ensure your other (carry-on) baggage is VERY light. Fortunately, we're now experts at that!

One reason we exceeded the 20Kg on the way out is that we put our tennis rackets in the cases too. On the way back we chose to dice with security and carry them on. Perversely we had no problems with the rackets, but an allen key, a set of bicycle tools (primarily allen keys), and a bicycle chain were confiscated from us by officious Portuguese security (forcing a pain-in-the-arse visit back to Easyjet, and the submission of the smallest ever oversize luggage item in a thick plastic bag!). UK security had no problems with such items on the outbound flight. And nobody worried about pedals, etc which we also had with us. I mention all this in relation to our decision on Black Rhinos and the Shimano system. The (cheaper) White Rhino bikes (but still Black in actual colour!) are heavier, and use of the Rohloff vs Shimano also adds 1Kg to the weight. So, those wishing to fly within Europe with their folding bikes should beware the exact specification of the model of Rhino they choose.

We have folded the Rhinos many times to fit in the back of the car. This first-level fold is very easy requiring just removal of the front wheel, removal of the seatpost/saddle and undoing two quick-release levers on the frame (one to link the suspension, the other for the seatpost). The rear of the bike then pivots and the front forks fit over the rear wheel. It can be done in just a couple of minutes. The bike then fits into a soft carrier bag which can be carried over the shoulder. The size of the pack is considerably bigger than the Brompton, but fine for most purposes.

A couple of annoyances are that there is no way to secure the bike in the folded position - so it easily comes undone when not in the soft case. And, it is easy to catch the front forks on the rear wheel and derailleur which causes paint damage. We've solved the first problem with a velcro tie, and we're a bit more careful with what gear we leave it in to ensure the front forks fit better over the wheel (but still not perfect - especially with a speed sensor on the fork).

Until this trip, we'd never put the bikes in the suitcase, and I'd developed an irrational fear that it was going to be very difficult. In fact, it was not much harder than the first fold. In this case, both wheels come off (rear brake cable released), and the spindles are removed from each wheel. A little quick-release device holds the chain and derailleur in position. The pedals are also removed. The only other operation of note is to release the handlebar from the stem and turn it into fit. The bike comfortably and securely fits in the suitcase. A little padding helps - especially if you carry loose extras/tools.

I'd say that I could do each bike in under 10 minutes - both disassembly and reassembly - made easier with a second person on hand for a couple of the operations, but not vital. To ensure correct setup, it's best to allow a little longer. Also make sure you have some latex gloves as it can be a bit messy. The only tools required were two allen keys (one for pedals with good leverage, and one for handlebar). With the bikes in the suitcases, there was no need to disclose they were bikes, and no need to let the tyres down of course which saved some time at the other end. We certainly saved £20-30 per flight per person on luggage costs (bikes can usually be sent for about that much on most airlines). But our bikes also arrived safely at each destination. Previously, we've experienced bent derailleurs and other damage - even with extensive padding. I would also say that the packing and unpacking required for the Rhinos is less than we've had to do on standard bikes to send them by plane. The suitcases fitted into our small Hyundai hire car at the other end with just the rear seats folded.

We enjoyed 5 different rides while we were there from around 25 miles to 45 miles - unfortunately usually in the midday sun of about >35˚C. I've placed information on those rides in a separate post as they are generic for any rider. The Rhinos were superb in every case. We were able to climb up serious hills into and out of villages with the excellent gearing, as well as deal with some off-road trails climbing up to 500m (when we chose the wrong road!). The suspension came in very handy in this case in particular (as did GPS!). It also turned out very useful when dealing with some less than perfect roads as well as in the many towns with extensive cobbled streets and speed bumps (The front suspension can be damped immediately by reaching down and turning a "volume" knob. The rear suspension is usually left with damping on. A button press - slightly awkward while moving, but simple when stationary - is all that is required to undamp.

The bikes are very stable - even at speed. Our best experience was covering a 5 mile flat route down to the tip of the South West coast at >20mph with lots of wind assistance. On the way back we even had a 2-mile stretch where I was riding at about 30mph on the flat. Wonderful. The downside was doing the reverse - 8mph into a headwind for 5 miles! I do not feel that the bikes have much of a trade-off in top speed over a bigger wheeled bike. But they also offer faster acceleration from standing start and are slightly easier up steep hills due to lower rolling resistance.

The bikes got a huge amount of attention wherever we went with at least 3 people taking photographs of the bikes, and lots of questions from many people!

In conclusion, the bikes are just great - exactly what we had wanted for many years, but perhaps only recently possible with newer technologies. The folding is simple enough for most non-engineers, and the packing secure. More importantly, you have a bike with you that is your favourite best bike wherever you are - capable of riding most surfaces and conditions reliably. The few quibbles are generally mentioned above. Occasionally when standing on the pedals my knees get a bit close to the gear shifters on the handlebar, the gear adjustment isn't quite right yet (but should be ok), and I'd like a higher top gear for those flat-out wind-assisted moments! Also, we haven't quite worked out ideal placement for water bottles (I don't like the Camelbak style approach as I don't want some sweaty mess on my back during a ride).

Stay tuned for information on the rides including a few tips on riding in the Algarve (and about the dogs!). For the more nerdie amongst you, I'm also going to post on my GPS experience too!

(The photos here are of the bikes near a beach at Lagos, and with Sue standing next to them at Cape St Vincent - the most south-westerly - and windy - point in mainland Europe. The sign refers, we think, to the Portuguese equivalent of John O'Groats to Lands End. More photos of the rides will be over on the website).

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23 June 2006

Why posting has been light!

I've been away for the best part of a week in the Algarve. Interestingly, I found the incidence of internet cafes to be less than in Kerala, India. What does that say (about India, about Portugal, about Brits living/holidaying in the Algarve, etc)?

As a consquence I shunned the internet for all of 6 days!

Our trip to the Algarve was our first using our Airnimal Rhino bikes folded into a suitcase (and just scraping by the 20kg Easyjet weight limit). So, I'll post about our experiences on that front.

Also, prior to going I made a late decision to get my first GPS device, and as a consequence didn't have the usual time to do my thorough research before selection. I'll post about my experiences with the Garmin GPSMAP76C which I found at what I considered to be the "no-brainer" price of £99 (previously retailing at upwards of £350!). Was I too hasty? How useful is it? Look out in coming weeks.

Don't forget to check out the article below on Interoperable DRM with a link to the excellent John Gruber.

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Interoperable DRM?

I have been mulling a post for sometime about DRM, particularly around the issues that Apple might be having with it, and my frustrations with the simplistic treatment it receives from many in the press.

I don't need to write that long-winded diatribe (as that's what it would have been) because John Gruber has written it pretty much exactly as I would have wanted to have said it. While not short, John's arguments are cogent and pretty much spot on.

Assuming DRM is here to stay in some form or other, I think the best way that the authorities can protect the interests of their consumers while not allowing any particular company to become overly dominant (and I'm referring to the record labels, music stores, and hardware/software companies in this context) is not to try to mandate DRM interoperability, but to ensure that rights obtained via one method of DRM are relatively interchangeable on similar terms between other DRM methods, and in a simple fashion with either a trivial sum of money or (ideally) no money required to make such a conversion. Such conversions could be exercised on an occasional basis with the frequency perhaps being limited to once a year if it was free, or with more variations if it was funded.

There are those who say Apple need to be stopped. But Apple is far from a monopoly in this market at this time (especially in many European countries where it's share is between 10-40%). Measures targeted purely at Apple will tip the balance back in favour of other companies (eg Microsoft, or labels) which have been less innovative and consumer-oriented. At this time, you have a choice about buying into the iPod market or staying out of it. The market is working well, and we have seen an innovative service introduced that has put the labels onto the back foot for the benefit of the consumers. Sony couldn't (wouldn't) do it, and Microsoft's own proprietary system has been slow to get off the ground and not found favour with consumers.

Assuming some form of DRM is here to stay, the best way authorities can ensure consumers' rights are maintained for the purchase of copyrighted material while keeping a lid on companies abusing market situations (note EU efforts have always been too little, too late, so do this now!) is to legislate to ensure that such rights can be exchanged easily on similar terms (i.e switch from one DRM version to another). Perhaps a small tax (I'm talking here of a few percent at most) could be applied to digital downloads? Maybe even this tax could be optional for those who wish to maintain their choice, keeping the best deal for those who are happy and confident with the limitations. The tax would be non-profit and go towards running a DRM-exchange/usage licensing service. This will keep Apple and Microsoft on their toes while ensuring the record labels don't succeed in using DRM to make us buy multiple copies of the same thing (which we know is what they want) when they pretend its to stop piracy.

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13 June 2006

Nazis and the iPod

While the Mail on Sunday don't seem to have got around to allowing their articles to be available online yet (no surprise there, it is after all only 2006), we non-paper-readers are left picking up the gist of their full-blown assault on Apple from other news sources (this link from MacWorld)

As I understand it, the Mail on Sunday has accused Apple of using essentially slave labour to make it's iPods and possibly some of it's computers. Now this is a serious claim and deserving of our attention if true. But I have grave doubts about the story and reporting, especially coming from a newspaper that doesn't give a hoot about foreigners.

But before we cover this story as best we can, let's look at the Mail on Sunday/Daily Mail credentials a little. This may be particularly appropriate for our international readership who may not know too much about this newspaper. I suggest you take a trip over to Wikipedia to see what is said about the Daily Mail. This link will take you straight into the part which talks about their support for Fascism and the Nazis in the 30's.

The wikipedia article will tell you a lot about this newspaper and it's raison d'ĂȘtre. However it doesn't tell you about how the Mail is more responsible than any other newspaper for the scandal of MMR vaccine reporting which has led to a massive increase in incidence of measles and mumps in this country. It strongly supported the discredited Andrew Wakefield. Just try searching Google for "Daily Mail Andrew Wakefield MMR". Indeed, the Mail is perhaps the worst reporter of science in the country. Just stop by Ben Goldacre's Bad Science column for more evidence to back that up. Or, perhaps take a look at some criticisms levelled at the Mail by another of my favourite journalists - David Aaronovitch on his blog.

The Daily Mail and it's sister Mail on Sunday are truly atrocious publications that bring out the worst sort of behaviour in our population - fear of change, fear of crime, fear of immigration, fear of.... If they had their way, we wouldn't of course have iPods. There'd be a few of the landed gentry here listening to gramophone records played at 78rpm, perhaps with some German opera - certainly no rock and roll - placed on the player by the servant, who of course would also change the side for his master. The gramophone player would have been made by fine craftsmen at the Rolls-Royce-Amstrad factory (non-unionised of course), costing £2,000 17 shillings and sixpence, and of which less than 1,000 had been made, three for export. The factory was of course designed in classical style by Prince Charles. The rest of us would probably be down the old pub having a knees up while some cockney plays the Joanna (piano), spending some of our hard-earned £27 a month. Oops sorry, mixing up my stories and imagination here.

The problem I have with this story is not that it isn't true. I don't know enough to say one way or another. It's that it picks on one company's products being made by one Chinese company. As I understand it, that same company produces many other well-known devices for other hardware manufacturers including Sony PlayStations and PSP's, Dell, HP and IBM (just Google for Foxconn and some other names too if you doubt). Now, I would agree that there is a relevant story against Apple if somehow only Foxconn factories making Apple gear are the baddies and that other Foxconn factories are models in treating workers right. But we don't know that - the journalists couldn't be bothered to cover that. Nor could they be bothered putting the salaries and conditions in the context of the country they are covering. How does £27 (if that is indeed the figure - I've seen it vary between £27 and £100 and between 1 week and 1 month as the timeframe) work out in China? How are the conditions relative to other places? Maybe there is a story here about how our electronic goods are being produced in such situations. But it is a general one (and more serious because of that). It seems particularly perverse and ironic to pick on a company that for many years produced its computers in the US, Ireland and Singapore but has been constantly criticised (by the press particularly) about its high prices.

I have read in other discussion areas about Foxconn by people who have seen it first or second hand, and generally seem to have positive things to say about the company. One post referred to UN approval of their factories. I can't say, I don't know enough. But before I wrote an article attacking one of that company's clients, I think I'd do a bit more research.

Is the Mail on Sunday article going to do any good? Of course not. Will people search out a domestic MP3 player or make sure it's produced under Western conditions? Of course they won't. If they desert the iPod because of such writing, it will probably be only to buy even cheaper crap made by someone else in a worse sweatshop. There may well be a story here, as there was with Nike shoes some years ago, but this is not it. If I were Apple I would be quite mad about being picked on in this way. But, as always, the nazi-loving, jew-hating Forger's Journal, er, sorry, Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday wouldn't want the truth to get in the way of a good story would it?

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08 June 2006

Telegraph Stupidity

I read this on the Guardian site today:

The Daily Telegraph is to delay the publication of print articles on its website until later in the day in a bid to encourage more internet users to buy the newspaper.

Admittedly, the Guardian might just be taking a potshot at its rival, but given the article quotes Telegraph sources, my suspicion is that the article is indeed valid.

In which case, it has to be one of the most brain-dead decisions taken by this newspaper and indeed any media organisation. The printed version is not really competing with its online version for readership. It (and the online version) is however competing against other sources of news from Guardian/Times/Independent through to BBC and other international news sources. This message basically tells your online readership (average age 38 compared with print version 56) to go and get their news elsewhere!

I know I may be unusual in that I've not bought a printed newspaper for perhaps approaching 2 years (and enjoy never having to recycle mountains of printed material), but I'm not unusual in that I expect the most up-to-date news to come from the internet. To subvert a key advantage of the internet to maintain your old model is just foolish.

07 June 2006

RapidWeaver and ScreenCastOnline - Cool AND British

I've been doing some further research into website creation/maintenance on behalf of a few people recently and have unearthed a couple of gems that I wanted to share with you. I'm particularly pleased to report that both are British in origin, and both are very Mac oriented.

First up is RapidWeaver - a website creation tool from RealMac Software in Brighton. When you first take a look at this application you think it's just another iWeb. But this is a MUCH more powerful application than iWeb, with a considerably more open architecture. It's on version 3.5 now, and so quite mature. If you've used iWeb but understand and are frustrated by some of it's limitations, then this may be the package you've waited for. There are also plug-ins and other themes available from 3rd parties which add even more functionality. As a blogging tool it surpasses what iWeb can offer today as well. It doesn't however yet offer an ability to insert blog entries by mail or other methods though. And sure, it's not Dreamweaver, but, it looks to me like a great tool for those who want more than iWeb can offer but aren't pro website creators for their day jobs. And, best of all, it's a bargain at $39.95 or around £22. But, if you hang around here, I'll let you into a secret of how to get it for 15% less while being really prepared to use it right out of the box! Great work Realmac!

Next up is Don McAllister's ScreenCastOnline a great idea which brings online video tutorials in frequently used software (and also some general software skills such as RSS and podcasting). Don, I would hazard a guess, is a fellow scouser (from Liverpool for those outside of the UK!). He has a nice relaxed style and gets through in about 20 minutes the key techniques needed for the application he is showing you. Admittedly I'd already worked out much of Rapidweaver's interface by the time I watched these, but I still learned some things from the 3 editions for this application. All of these are available in different resolutions for screen and even iPod (I quite like the iPod idea as you can watch the application itself more easily while doing this). They can be downloaded from the site or via iTunes where screencastonline has become a popular podcast. Screencastonline has also many other tutorials including Pages, Keynote, Garageband, DevonAgent, and many Mac basics. You can get the lower resolution versions for FREE! With a small subscription Screencastonline offers additional tutorials, higher res (HD and ED) versions, a free DVD sent anywhere with many of the key tutorials on, and lots of other benefits.

If Don has done a screencast on an application I'm about to start using, I wouldn't consider doing it until I've watched the screencast first - it would massively speed up my learning the application. For beginners, the benefits would be immense. I'm sure Don has put a lot of effort into these, and I hope its a real success.

Now the tip I mentioned above. If you're interested in RapidWeaver, then do yourself a favour: watch the 3 ScreenCastOnline tutorials (and perhaps even the extra one on the Plugin). At the end you will see a code that is valid for a 15% discount on RapidWeaver. Make sure you watch the 3rd edition as the code changed. But I found that code still valid on 7th June. I think Don may get a little benefit from it, and I'm sure the RealMac guys would appreciate a user that will get more out of the software straight away even if they do lose a few pounds from the sale.

06 June 2006

Google Excels

Today's news is that Google is introducing a web-based spreadsheet. While there are lots of comments about this around, I liked Paul Kedrosky's slightly irreverent take on it:

You know, this sort of thing from Google is beginning to bug me. Google reminds of an over-eager puppy: Just happily waving its tail around, and then sh***-ing in markets. It did it with Google Analytics, and now it's doing it with Google Spreadsheet. Where Microsoft used to ruin markets by taking all the revenues to itself, Google takes a nuclear winter approach wherein it ruins markets by freezing them and then cutting revenues to zero.

But how seriously are real users supposed to take this stuff? Google could cut off any of these playtoys anytime, doubly so if they ever whiff on a quarter and investors force them to focus on things that generate revenue. Damned if you commit to one of these services, and damned if you don't.

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Why Intel needs Apple too

I have posted before how Apple's relationship with Intel is a win-win. Not just did Apple need Intel, Intel needed Apple. I've no doubt that Intel has been more successful with the Core processors than had Apple not made such a splash with them. That seems poised to continue with the announcement expected today of the Core 2 range - Conroe (desktop), Woodcrest (Server) and Merom (mobile).

As one example of how Intel benefits, this post at Ars Technica is a good one. The post is about a variant of the Intel Conroe processor. Yet the article mentions Apple 3 times in a 4 paragraph piece, with no other computer manufacturer mentioned. In the discussions following the article, reader Blue02 writes:
"I love how, nowadays, whenever sites have info on a new Intel chip we automatically link it to new Apple products. What happened to Dell et al?"

And I think this neatly encapsulates one of the key values to Intel of the relationship. What Apple does is generally more newsworthy, and for the most part any news is good news in this regard for Intel. But I think it does go deeper than just the newsworthiness.

Imagination of what an Intel chip can do is postulated around the web. Result: Intel gets associated (quite rightly) with innovation. When did that happen in recent memory? Innovation has typically been seen only coming from the hardware and the operating system. If the hardware has been commoditised, then where does that leave the chip inside it? Intel was never in the consumer's eye. If it did innovate, it needed the cooperation of the hardware manufacturers and Microsoft - usually on their terms and their agenda. With Apple, Intel really does see a partner that can help it drive it's own innovation through being closer to the user. So, the relationship with Apple has both a PR value (which was desperately needed) and a longer-term R&D feedback value.

I drafted this post yesterday, and today I noticed in Infoworld this quote from Anand Chandrasekher, senior vice president and general manager of Intel's sales and marketing group on the same subject:

"They push us to think about things that we may not always think about...We were hoping for that to happen and that certainly happened....Apple's view of how the computer market will evolve has influenced Intel's product roadmap. That impact will be felt over the long term, rather than showing up soon."

It is early days yet of course (and the honeymoon period of sweetness and light is still clearly going on strong), with just the first generation of Apple-Intel products. The proof of this will start to become evident in the next rounds of product introductions - with new form factors and new functionality. How much, for instance, will Apple work with Intel on Viiv? How much will Intel contribute to the design of new Apple products? Can these products be unique in terms of offering something that Intel has done that is not available on a Microsoft-based platform? Anand's comments certainly indicate we have much to look forward to.

05 June 2006

The Sony Disaster Unfolds

I've no doubt that Sony will sell out of every PS3 it can manufacture prior to its release later on this year (theoretically). But after that, I think the future looks poor. I have said before here that I'm not a gaming person, but I think the importance of consoles in the grab for the living room cannot be underestimated. Nintendo had looked like the one least likely to succeed last year - it was surely going to be trounced by the mammoth Microsoft and Sony machines which worked by buying marketshare with subsidised boxes.

But I have to say, everything I read about the Nintendo sounds positive, and even makes me think I should investigate one. That kind of reaction may be what Nintendo wants - bring the whole family and other non-gamers into gaming with something fund and relatively affordable (the Nintendo is rumoured to be priced around the US$250 in the US - so perhaps around £160 in the UK inc VAT?). The PS3 however will be priced in the UK at least around the £400 level. It sounds to me that Nintendo know their market really well and are very focussed on achieving it. But what is Sony trying to do?

I'm sure that Sony is paying a lot of attention to what's written on the internet - and it is in reviewing the discussions following various articles after the recent E3 exhibition (the major gaming exhibition) that I came to the conclusion that Nintendo had it about right, Microsoft has been smart with timing, and Sony has got it all wrong. This article at Ars Technica gives a good idea of what Sony could do (could have done) to fix their potential problem with the PS3.

Ken Fisher's hypothesis is that Sony should have skipped the Blu-ray player as a mandatory component of the PS3. It is this that drives the cost so significantly for each device and means that Sony will still be losing money at the £400 price point.

I find it difficult to argue with Ken's views. So, what is going wrong at Sony? I believe that Sony executives have fallen into several traps.

Trap 1 is believing that Blu-ray in PS3 is the equivalent of DVD in the PS2. It was arguably the inclusion of this feature that allowed a PS2 purchase to be almost a no-brainer. The DVD format was now very settled and common and the device could be almost justified alone as a DVD player purchase. But Blu-ray is nothing like as established as DVD was when the PS2 came out. Sony knows that of course, but it is hoping the PS3 will make the standard. I think that is backwards thinking - especially at the price point.

Trap 2 is the "design by committee" problem. With PS2, I can imagine the inventors wondering what killer features they could add to make the gaming console great. Someone thought about the DVD player, and bingo. With PS3, I can imagine the Sony board sitting round discussing how to make Blu-ray a success and thinking they could add it to all the new Playstations. Whether the gaming experts really believed that it would help make the best console I'm not so sure (well, best, maybe, but not best value). It is this same thinking in Sony that has so destroyed it as a company. The MP3 player market was lost not just because Sony doesn't really get software, but also because the content side of the business was so important. Sony's boardroom debates and product debates are presumably about how to maximise each product in terms of what it does for the other parts of the business. Instead, each business should just be innovating the best it can for its customers. We wouldn't have rootkit fiascos, We wouldn't have Sony ATRAC/Connect etc. If Apple had kept the iPod as a Mac-only tool, how much would it have caught on? How many more Macs would they have sold? It may not have happened this way at first, but I'm pretty sure Steve Jobs will have told the two Apple divisions (and they are now separate - Mac and iPod) that they survive on their own. They can do something with the other for mutual benefit, but they can't force their own agenda on the other group. Similarly, Nintendo had a clear goal - the best value exciting next generation gaming console.

It is the trap 2 problem that seems to be affecting Sony across most of its product areas.

Jupiter Research analyst David Card had this to say on his blog after reading an interview (New Yorker magazine only) with Howard Stringer:

Our sad takeaway: according to this story, Sony is in deep water/doomed and Stringer knows it, but he's practically helpless to do anything about it. One hopes Stringer was just holding back his cards.

David has some theories too which I would on the whole agree with. I just can't find a lot to like in what Sony is doing these days. I was certainly a fan and a customer. Now, I think they've really lost their way and don't seem to understand why, how, or what to do.

Adobe and Microsoft: Who's right?

There was an interesting story doing the rounds late last week about Adobe and Microsoft having a bit of a fight ostensibly about Office 2007's ability to create PDF documents directly. Ars Technica's summary is a good starting point, though I found it a bit lacking in digging under the covers on this particular story.

There is no question that Microsoft's customers will have been telling it that direct export to PDF would be a nice feature. I have found the ability in Mac OS X to print ANY document as a PDF to be a great feature which I use all the time for keeping online statements/receipts and for ensuring documents I exchange with other people are 100% clean and compatible (Word and Excel documents can contain viruses and IMHO are not ideal for mass distribution).

I don't know whether Apple pays any license fee to Adobe for this ability to produce PDFs that is built into the OS (or for the ability of free applications like Preview to display PDFs). I suspect not. As far as I know, the PDF specification is also openly available, and indeed is surely a reason why it has become such a popular format. Sure, some Mac users are less likely to need Adobe Acrobat to produce more feature rich PDF's (I for instance have never found a need for it), so Adobe loses some revenues, but it surely gains far more when PDF's are as dominant a file format as the Office formats are.

Why shouldn't Microsoft add this feature that many of its customers want so desperately? And why should it have to charge for it (apparently this is part of the dispute), if it doesn't want to and none of it's competitors has to? Surely we should side with Microsoft here, and against Adobe?

But there are a few deeper elements to this case, some of which have either gone unreported or at best just glossed over. The most obvious issue is that Microsoft is also developing a portable document format of it's own - Metro - which is to be part of Vista, but will also be available on older Windows platforms and, supposedly, open-licensed. So, it is going head-to-head with Adobe. While there are differences, if you read this interview with a key player in Metro's development, you will probably, like me, view the differences as being somewhat small.

Metro is a brazen attempt by Microsoft to muscle in on that space. It is more important than it might have been as Microsoft's own file format barriers (primarily Office formats) are opened up. This has been happening due to both legal and business threats ranging from the State of Massachusetts, some European government organisations and OpenOffice. It was the proprietary nature of these formats that has given Microsoft such a lock-in on the Office application market for years. While Metro is not a proprietary format (it would have been panned if it had been), I'm sure Microsoft would rather be the dominant controlling authority on a format than not.

But even if Microsoft's attempts are brazen, is that any reason why it's wrong? Not necessarily. But from Adobe's point of view, perhaps their actions are if anything pre-emptive. A look back at history would show that Microsoft has often embraced other technologies and then used it's dominance to subtly change those technologies to its own ends. It's work with HTML and Internet Explorer is a classic example which has been essentially anti-consumer by forcing many users into a browser lock or by not having proper access to a site because their own browser couldn't display non-standard HTML. I'm sure Adobe is also considering what happened to Sun Microsystems with Java. Microsoft embedded Java into some of it's applications and OS but created extensions and changes which were not opened up. The .NET environment is the prime vehicle in which Microsoft did this work. Microsoft advertised such products as "Java compatible". Microsoft eventually settled with Sun in 2004, again paying substantial damages. By then the damage was done (for Sun, and to some extent for Java).

With Microsoft adding support for PDF AND Metro into Office2007, it doesn't take a great leap of imagination to see that they could subtly change/add feature(s) so that users are eventually tricked/forced/coerced into using Metro formats rather than PDF. Even just changing the default format would have a major effect.

Of course, Adobe is perhaps also being opportunistic. Perhaps it fancies a piece of the multi-billion dollar cash hoard that Microsoft hands out to other companies that sue it, rather than its shareholders? Real Networks $761m settlement last year was certainly mouth-watering I'm sure. It is interesting that it seems to be pushing the battle in Europe which is where there is currently a greater propensity to investigate Microsoft.

I'm pretty sure that those of us who would rather not use Microsoft's OS and those that don't really want to use MS Office would be losers if Microsoft establishes Metro as a replacement for PDF. But just as ALL Internet Explorer users have been "punished" by having an insecure, outdated browser by Microsoft's dominance there, I would guess that in a similar way Metro dominance would be a bad thing for everyone at some point in the future.

Adobe's PDF is certainly good enough for what I do. It's on just about every device I need (including my Nokia phone). Yes, I'd like it to evolve, and yes I'd like it to be more open, but I really don't believe the world needs two standards in this area, and I would certainly trust a "standard" controlled by Adobe more than one controlled by Microsoft. So, ideally this will be resolved in a way which actually benefits all users of both companies' products and doesn't benefit lawyers or the shareholders of Adobe via a massive blood-money payoff. That means a quick and positive resolution. In that regard, perhaps Adobe's pre-emptiveness is a good thing.

Footnote to this story: Whatever else the merits of this issue, it is yet another demonstration of the mountain that Microsoft has to climb to get Vista out the door. I have mentioned some of these problems in
this post about IE7 and Google
and here about Microsoft's real competitors

Symantec (previously another Microsoft partner) has also taken them to court over Vista features. What these stories show (Adobe, Google, Symantec) is that every little Microsoft feature must be debated by lawyers as well as software engineers. This obviously holds back progress and causes delays, and even then may just end up in a protracted court case. Whether you believe Microsoft is capable of innovation (and I would happily give them credit to do this), the fact is that they are not able to release it. A break-up is what should have happened several years ago. Microsoft's customers would benefit from this, their shareholders, and probably their employees.

01 June 2006

Atlas Maior 1665 - The Ultimate Atlas?

The minute I saw this book late last year, I knew I would have to get a copy, and this morning my copy from Amazon arrived with even the DHL man struggling with the weight!

I love maps and could stare at them all day long. What is fascinating for me about this book is that it brings together maps produced for every part of the globe from a particular time in history into one place. There are 593 maps. For the U.K., there are many maps covering most of the counties, and it is nice to see my village on the Herefordshire map!

The detail and colour is amazing, but I suppose I am most in awe of the mapmakers of the time - the skill to put such detail together so (comparatively) accurately. The U.K. map certainly looks very close to the U.K. map today - not some distorted version. How did they do it?

And then, (author) Joan Blaeu’s achievement in assembling these maps into one atlas is even more astonishing. I’m sure there’s a great film to be made of the rivalry between the mapmakers of the time - Johannes Janssonius - for example as they pushed each other for ever greater coverage, accuracy and beauty.

I have barely touched this book yet, but already know I’ll spend a lot more time with it. Any map lovers would undoubtedly immediately want this on their coffee table! If you happen to be in a bookstore, search it out. And right now, I would say it’s a huge bargain - just £66 on Amazon.co.uk (ISBN: 3822831255) including getting the DHL delivery man to carry it up the stairs!