Monday, November 27, 2006

Congo Tourism?

The way things are, tourism to the Republic of Congo (a.k.a. Congo Brazzaville, French Congo) won't take off very soon. I just spent a night at a beach resort, the Malonda Lodge, which is just down the coast from Pointe Noire. The resort is the brainchild of a retired French couple. Owner Gerard explained that after a career in the oil industry he and his wife decided to settle down in Africa and it is easy to see why.

Right now the lodge caters to people who live and work in the Pointe Noire area and most are connected in some way with the oil industry. So I imagine that the weekends tend to be busy while the weekdays are quiet.

So why won't tourism take off here? The first reason is the costs involved. Airline tickets are at a premium due to the relatively small Airbus plane that flies three times a week from Paris and the fact that this is primarily a semi-charter flight for people who work in the oil industry. On top of the expensive airline ticket, a visa must be obtained and this requires a sponsorship letter. Visas for African countries are never cheap. Then there is the need to have innoculation against Yellow Fever (the area is serious about this and all visitors must produce evidence of vaccination). The arrival in Pointe Noire is interesting, to say the least, as the present day facilities include one open wooden shed that houses immigration, customs and baggage claim.

On top of these considerations there is the concept that the area is unsafe for tourists. Yes, there are ongoing problems in neighboring D R Congo (a.k.a. Congo Kinshasa) but many of the incidents reported in the media are a thousand kilometers and more from idyllic places like the Malonda Lodge.

I am not sure the Congolese Government will open its doors to tourism very soon. But maybe this is a good thing. Too many places have been opened up to tourism where the result has been a flood of tourism that does little for the country but a lot for the tour operators (Tunisia offers a good example). Some places are better off for not being too accessible even if the costs involved are always going to be higher.

The investment in Malonda Lodge needs to be supported and there is certainly plenty of local enthusiasm for their resort and the fine food in their restaurant. So, if you are reading this and think that an exotic holiday away from Cancun, Malaga or Rapallo would be a refreshing change, do give the Malonda Lodge some consideration!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Chronicle and Zune

The final paragraph of what seems to be a fair, balanced review:

Sorry, Microsoft, but that's just flat-out stupid. In order to please the music industry, ostensibly so labels would agree to sell their music through the Zune Marketplace, Microsoft has taken an exciting idea and effectively neutered it. The way it should work: All files sold via the Zune Marketplace get the limit, but any files in the industry-standard MP3 format should be tradable. That's user-friendly, and it doesn't start from the presumption that Microsoft's customers are pirates.
As it is, the Zune isn't about users turning each other on to music they like. Instead, it's about users doing the music industry's marketing on its behalf.

Seems like the Universal Music Group controls Mr. Softy! Other than that, the review certainly suggests that Zune is a worthy iPod competitor. But you can't have too many "other than thats" when attacking market dominance.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Birmingham Exposure

I am delighted to be able to announce the creation of the Birmingham Exposure website. I am also thrilled and honored to be a part of it!

The concept behind Birmingham Exposure is best quoted as:

This is the group for photographers who live or work in the city of Birmingham in the UK and represents a wide variety of styles and levels of experience.

Many of us met through Birmingham FlickrMeets.

We're in the process of building a website to show off our work

Personally, I think the website design is awesome - they've taken Flickr about five steps further along the path to success - a good indication, by the way, of how creative Birmingham sensu lato has become in recent years.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Lightroom Beta Feedback

There is a certain irony in this post. I just joined up with the forum for assisting Adobe with their Beta version of Lightroom. The whole idea of putting Lightroom out there in etherland before its publication date is to solicit ideas and problems from the general public, aka future users. This should mean that version 1 will already be a stable and desirable product, worth whatever it is that Adobe plans to charge.

And there, sitting on the forum, is a post from GovtLawyer, asking what will happen when the Beta software expires - will he be able to continue using the software? First of all, Mr. Government Lawyer, you downloaded free trial software. And part of the download included a software license agreement that explains what will happen. You didn't have to download the free trial and you don't have to use it. No-one is compelling you to.

It is quite amazing to me that not even lawyers read the small print these days!

But I did like one response: "What do you want, your money back?"

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Podcast Recommendations

There is a lot of choice out there and only so much time to listen. I am finding that the better podcasts tend to be short, or, if possible, I seek out podcasts that have sections so that those parts that are not of much interest can be skipped. Anyway, here are a few I enjoy:

The Engines of our Ingenuity must be one of the best short segment programs on radio. OK, I am biased by the fact that it comes from KUHF, Houston's public radio station. But we always enjoyed John Lienhard's entertaining but short science lessons when in Houston and now they are available as podcasts. To download these, it is best to obtain the link (basically copy the link from KUHF's website) and paste it into iTunes' subscribe dialog box. The latest will download immediately and the previous nine will be shown for available download.

NPR: Story of the Day is a short item chosen each day by NPR's editors. You never know what to expect and this is part of the delight of this podcast. As with just about everything done by NPR this is as professional as it gets in the podcast world. NPR have lots of other podcasts to choose from here.

The Daily Telegraph Podcast started out being pretty dreadful with journalists reading their stories but then they brought in a professional host and this livened up the proceedings no end. The podcast is sectioned so that individual segments can be skipped. Therefore, though it is a long podcast, it is easy to shorten the program!

Morning Becomes Eclectic is a rare gem in that it features occasional live sessions at KCRW Santa Monica's studio. Host Nick Harcourt has a transatlantic accent that doesn't quite give away his roots in Birmingham UK. He and his program have launched quite a few independent bands over the years. As with the other public radio station podcasts I like, you never quite know what to expect with each offering.

Just four recommendations for now. If you want to explore more, here is the best resource (in addition to the extensive list offered by NPR above):

Within iTunes, simply go to the Podcast Directory (click on the link at the bottom right of the Podcast screen). You will be taken to the iTunes store. Don't panic, most podcasts are free!

Next time I will recommend some video podcasts. . . .


It doesn't sound very appealing, does it - Stirchley? And it isn't, really. And being next door to Bournville with its quaker quaintness, the Birmingham area (or suburb?) of Stirchley probably doesn't have a lot to commend it. Also, armed with camera in appalling weather, the place didn't seem very photogenic.

I was visiting Pete for the afternoon and we were both hungry, so Pete recommended a place he had heard about, the British Oak. This pub had recently been "improved" after years of being run down and almost out. It turned out to be something of a revelation. The menu offered a varied selection of honest pub food and I could not resist going back a few years and ordering faggots, peas and chips. Faggots are like Italian meat balls only larger and with more "filler" to add bulk and flavor. I decided to wash this down with a pint of Mild, a brew rarely seen outside city pubs these days. Mild is low in alcohol and therefore often the cheapest pint at under £2 a glass. It also has a different flavor, best called "mild" by comparison with other brews from the same brewery. And this was a local classic, M&B (Marvellous Beer), though I am not sure where M&B brews its beers these days.

The British Oak, Stirchley

The interior of the pub offers the classic suburban pub built in the early years of the 20th Century. A central bar with rooms around it. The first room is the old Public Bar, a place with tiled floor and meant for serious after work (i.e. all evening) drinking. Round the back are two rooms, basically the old Lounge Bars. One is for smokers, the other isn't. Food is served here. The present furnishings include a few large sofas more reminiscent of a Starbucks coffee shop before it gets beaten up by constant use. The walls carry art deco murals and on the fireplace I couldn't help but admire this gorgeous lamp:

Seen in a Suburban Pub

Off to one side is a full size (maybe 3/4, come to think of it) billiard table in its own room. There could be four pool tables in its place but the one large table is so much more in keeping.

The Gentlemens Room has not changed since it was built with those fine porcelain fittings and expertly fitted plumbing that will probably last another 100 years of heavy use. It was good to see that the owners have not modernised the place where it didn't need it.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Central Heating by PowerBook

This is yet another iPod related post, but only because ripping DVDs for the iPod seems to use more CPU power than anything else, including Illustrator and Photoshop. I am using Handbrake and once the process starts, so does the PowerBook's thermostatically controlled fan. And it stays on throughout the several hour process.

It's kinda worrying to hear this continual noise, so I downloaded Temperature Monitor Lite and now keep an eye on the sensor immediately beneath the processor. Right now it's at 146.3ºF (I am ripping a DVD while I write this). Normally it would be at around 110ºF.

This entire experience is why Apple switched to the much less energy abusive Intel processor family. My PPC-equipped PowerBook generates enough heat to keep my hands warm in the middle of a Canadian blizzard!

Zune not supported by Vista

And, referring to Zune's WiFi capability, MSFT CEO Ballmer is quoted as saying:

"I want to squirt you a picture of my kids. You want to squirt me back a video of your vacation. That's [an] experience"

Which leads to the phrase brown and squirting. This Ballmer guy is something else.

And now let's see what CNN had to say on Day 1 (via youtube video).

But, and this is important, here is an analysis of what Microsoft is probably looking to do: "There is no Buddhism in the Zune design. It's a brute-force, low tech T-72 Russian tank designed to steamroll up the beach and create widespread chaos and destruction in the music player community. Assuming Microsoft will fail based on the examination of the Zune's features and functions would be a huge blunder by all of us.

Introducing - All Things Birmingham

A quick plug for the Brum Blog.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Bill likes Brown!

This photo explains why there's a brown Zune: Bill likes brown; why am I surprised?

iPod airline integration!

Perfect timing! Air France and Continental (among others) have entered into an agreement whereby iPods will be integrated with inflight services. Most important function will, in my opinion, be in-flight charging of an iPod's battery. Excellent news!

Zune: welcome to a competitive world!

So, today sees the entry of the iPod buster, Microsoft's Zune. As a brand new owner of an 80GB iPod Video, I don't suppose I will be impressed! But perhaps more important, the critics agree with me. Not that they are necessarily free of bias.

Zune comes in one model with a choice of three colors - white, black and. . . . . brown. That last color somehow doesn't lend itself to many positive thoughts. My best shot is that it might resemble post-war bakelite, hardly a positive but better than some other thoughts that are not printable. The case is said to be made of a slightly tactile plastic which is not a bad idea at all for a hand held device.

The biggest difference in operation is that Zune contains an FM tuner as well as a WiFi capability to share songs. Clearly this latter feature is aimed at young users in the school playground or campus coffee bar. An FM tuner is available for the iPod as an optional extra.

But the greatest difference that separates the two competitors is probably in the marketing of music. Let's compare:

iPod uses iTunes which is available on both Mac and Windows platforms and is generally acclaimed as the reason why the iPod has been such a success. iTunes has evolved into a brilliant piece of software - possibly one of the best ever and as a free download even more special (you can use iTunes to organize your existing music without buying an iPod). The Zune software is going to be available only for Windows compatible computers - we will have to wait and see how easy it is to use. Meantime, Microsoft has basically excluded me, as an Apple Macintosh owner, from even considering its product.

The iTunes Music Store (ITMS) has also evolved into an innovative but easy to use (as any Apple product should be) place to buy music. OK, you don't really buy the music. But then you never do buy all the rights to music when it is sold on a disc or tape - just read the small print! You can copy the music you buy from ITMS onto several computers and iPods, certainly enough machines to maintain a friendly accord between vendor and user, and of course all other music sources can be imported from CDs, hijack software, etc. Microsoft has introduced a new music store and, this is interesting, any music bought previously is not compatible with the Zune (including Microsoft's own MSN store which will now close). Microsoft's business model includes paying the music vendors a royalty on each Zune sold. This has been brought about by an insistence from the United Music Group that they must receive payment as all iPod users are basically criminals! At $1 a Zune, this means that Microsoft will be limited to the number of royalty payments it can negotiate and therefore the number of music publishers it will sign up. Also, how can Microsoft introduce an entry level shuffle competitor and honor existing high royalty payments to the big music publishers?

Another way of examining the Zune business model is to consider that United Music Group will actually benefit not only from Zune sales but also from sales of every song it markets through the Zune store. In effect doubling its income stream! This hardly benefits the indies who will only get royalties on sales of the music. Indies gave Apple a hard time so I think we can expect a bigger brouhaha this time around. And just wait for the EU to get their hands on it!

Zune's limited sharing of music sounds interesting but the DRM is designed to knock out the shared file after three plays or a few days, which ever comes first. I don't know if this will be possible, but it seems to me that piracy could easily be achieved by hijacking any one of the three plays and then burning a CD! Also, it is said that the "three strikes and you are out" methodology cannot distinguish between a licensed song and, say, a demo disc uploaded onto a Zune by the demo disc's owner who clearly has the right to his own copyright.

Podcasts. It would appear that Microsoft is not going to offer podcasts. How very interesting! I guess their business model just doesn't make way for free downloads of anything even if such downloads may be fantastic loss leaders! The podcast is rapidly maturing into the better way to disseminate information to people who need that information on their time schedule, not necessarily when the Media deliver it. Podcasts are superb for anyone who travels a lot, whether transatlantic or the daily grind on a commuter train. Maybe the problem is in the name "podcast"? Could there be a parallel universe with "zunecasts"?

In conclusion, I predict that Zune is a brave entry that may not live up to its promises. With only one model aimed at the iPod's higher end, Microsoft will not quickly invade Apple's market share. In shear numbers this Christmas it will be the newly introduced Nano and Shuffle models that will boost Apple's market share. These are cheap enough to be stocking stuffers and are expected to sell very well indeed. Microsoft is gambling on one model being successful because of the huge Windows installed base. Most iPod owners I know are also Windows users (thanks to the cross-platform iTunes software) and some are actively considering moving to Apple for their next computer purchase.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The iPod as a Learning Tool

I was recently made aware of the University of California at Berkeley iTunes site via Pete's November 9 2006 linklog. I must admit that my initial reaction was not exactly positive but then I didn't follow the link to explore more until now.

The various courses available are clearly aimed at the serious student so it can be asumed that the content is basically the same that an enrolled student would receive if attending classes on campus. Without the campus cameraderie, of course. (It does bother me to think that in future students will listen to coursework in isolation and perhaps fail to learn the skills of communication, discussion, point and counterpoint, etc.)

But just like a Google search, or Wikipedia, these free downloads form a formidable resource that is instantly available any time, any where. With the portability of an iPod, the classroom can indeed be a commuter train, a trans-Atlantic airplane cabin, a lonely spot on an unspoiled coastline. Wherever.

There is also a certain altruism in all this information sharing, whether it is Google or Apple that is providing the means of access for free information. Yes, it's true that both companies make a lot of money as a by product of this altruism, but no-one is actually forcing the consumer to spend any money (other than to buy the basic equipment, but in a few cases an iPod is now being made available as part of the course material anyway). In a sense, the very act of education should make such iPod users more discerning when it comes to the "pull" toward those commercial links!

I used to think that anyone wearing earbuds (white or not) was probably listening to popular music - i.e. being entertained. Many of my generation almost certainly would agree with that observation - the banning of personal listening devices in some quiet zones would certainly suggest that they are not very quiet and therefore must be turned up too loud. But free downloadable podcasts and course lectures are probably taking a larger and larger percentage of the playing time on many iPods and other players. Which can only be a good thing. So the next time you see an iPod user on a crowded train, he/she may be listening to a course on, say, food nutrition, courtesy of the UCAL system.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

iPod Usage

The iPod is starting to fill up. This neat display on iTunes explains what is where. The audio, video and photos are all within the iPod partition of the hard drive. The "other" category contains the high resolution images associated with Lightroom and are directly accessible from the PowerBook.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Full Stern Ahead

Having decided to discontinue "Global Warming is Good" as I have not the time to devote to it at the moment, I still follow the events that surround the great climate change debate. The publication of the Stern Report brought out the inevitable "carbon-burning to get there" protests in Trafalgar Square (have these people nothing better to do?) but there has been precious little in the news to put Stern in his place. Ex-World Bank economist that he is, Stern has no scientific credentials and his study was commissioned by the UK Treasury, presumably as a vehicle to introduce green taxes.

I recommend Philip Stott's excellent blog on the subject. Required reading for all those who seek balance in a complex world. And here is another article worth reading, on the BBC website.

[Additional thoughts]

All this concern over the potential for "catastrophic" climate change has got to me! Why are people spending time, effort, money and natural resources going to protest about something that has yet to happen when there are a thousand problems already facing us and in urgent need of solutions. AIDS in Africa, TB on the rise, lack of water and electricity in many third world countries, social problems brought on by religious extremism to name just five.