Sunday, December 04, 2011

Getting Wintertyres in UK

The last two years, winter here in UK had been abnormally "harsh". For several weeks, snow blankets covered large parts of the country, and much of the traffic was at a standstill or only moved slowly. So how will it be this winter? Could this be a part of the general climate change, or were these winters just freak random events, which will be compensated by this years record-warm winter?

The press had made wild predictions about another snowy winter, but they have really no clue - weather cannot be predicted for a longer period than 3 days, and in recent weeks I have even got my doubts about the ability of weather forecasters for this short period. Nobody knows. But this year, I am actually less worried. Why? This year I got winter tyres on my car.

These past winters I just had the same summer tyres on my vehicle for the whole year. And yes, the car did slide all over the place on those un-cleaned side roads with their snow-covered ice. Nobody here in the UK drives with winter tyres: there is usually no necessity to put on winter tyres for those two days of some wet snow drizzle. But the last two winters have shown that winter in UK can also be different. When I lived in Germany, we did have lots of snow in winter, and I always had put on winter tyres because they really provided better traction, cornering, and stopping. Now since recently, it is actually compulsory in Germany to put on winter tyres. These tyres in general really work already better in any condition from below 7 deg C, so this should be fine on many days in the UK winter too.

Since October, there has been some awareness campaign by tyre retailers to convince customers to buy winter tyres. The only problem is: there are almost no winter tyres available anywhere. I did check the major tyrer retailers, and they do have either no winter tyres at all, of maybe one single noname brand of which I never have heard from before. Even doing an online search did show that most tyre dealers did not sell any winter tyres. But then I found one online retailer: www.mytyres.co.uk. They have all possible tyre manufacturers, from cheap tyres at around £ 40 up to £ 90 per tyre. In my opinion, the tyres from Dunlop, Goodyear, Continental, Michelin are the best (as tested by the ADAC). But for myself, I opted for a lower-cost tyre, which including fitting cost £ 60 per tyre: Debica Frigo 2 (made in Poland). Should be good enough for my cheap vehicle. The test results on TyreTest (actually submitted by owners of the tyres) appear to be much more lenient than the ones by the ADAC, but at least the Debica did fare better than some of the other low-cost tyres.

Quite interesting, how the URL of the Tyretest page has the German word "pkw_winterreifen" in it... and the German connection goes even further: Turns out that the company mytyres.co.uk is part of the German company Delticom AG. The tyres, after I ordered them online, would have been sent to my home in Leeds directly from their supply depot in Germany! But instead I chose them to be delivered to one of their recommended fitters here in Leeds. Shipping is for free, and the fitting added about £ 15 per tyre for fitting, so the total price including the fitting came to £ 60 per tyre. Yesterday on Saturday, I did the fitting, and now I am ready for any snow storm here in Leeds! The weather report for Monday already predicts some chance of snow flurries - I am prepared, and I am looking forward to the strongest longest winter ever!

Sunday, November 06, 2011

In the former "Sudetenland"

Most people with an awareness of European history in the 20th century connect the name "Sudetenland" rightfully with events in 1938, when the Munich Agreement regulated that this area of Czechoslovakia was annexed by Germany. But there is a bit more to know than just this single year of Sudeten history. The name "Sudeten" is quite old and refers to mountains at the Northern border of Bohemia and Moravia. German settlers had been invited in the Middle Ages to settle there. Since around 1918 they are called "Sudeten Germans", although this term no longer was limited to the actual Sudeten Mountains, but to all Germans who lived within the borders of Czechoslovakia, after this country was established in 1918. In the years 1945-1947, most of these Sudeten Germans around 3 Million) were expelled from their homes and fled towards West, where most of them settled then in Germany.

Among those were my maternal grandparents. However, I myself grew up in Western Germany and never felt any close connection to that Sudeten region. The "Sudeten Germans" were in my view mostly old people who spoke a strange dialect, cooked a hearty food (meat with "knedl"), went into the woods to collect mushrooms, and met all once a year at a big meeting to remind politicians of their fate.

After the death of my grandparents I collected some of the old photographs which they had brought with them - they are online here. And now when I had the opportunity of travelling in the Czech Republic, I decided that I would pay this region of my ancestors a visit.

After driving towards northeast away from Terezin (which is also linked to the same fateful period in history), the first thing that appeared were large chemical factories. I passed a large "Glanzstoff" factory. Then the road turned into a very rural region, with marked the beginning of that hilly region with its characteristic small post-glacial mountain peaks. Quite impressive and unusual, very bucolic. My first stop was at the little village of Zichov / Schichhof, which I had identified on those old photographs. When driving into the village centre, I felt as if I drove back in time. The houses looked very much the same as they did in the 1930, with the exception that the small chapel had probably become a victim of communism.


Schichhof Village Square in 1936


Zichov Village Square in 2011

Schichhof Village Square in 1937.

Zichov Village Square in 2011.


Some of the houses were newly renovated, while other buildings showed the traces of time. I sat down in the centre of the village and looked quietly around. Some people were working in their yards, I heard some hammering, probably renovation work. One car came along, stopped near one of the houses, a couple got out. They looked at my with some distrust, not quite knowing what a stranger would do here in this remote place. I got up and walked towards them, putting my most friendly smile on. He did not speak or understand English. I took out my phone and showed him the old photograph of his house, I thought he might like to see it. He looked at it, smiled slightly awkwardly, then went away into the house without further comment. Maybe he thought I want the house back?

I moved on to the next town on my schedule: Bilina / Bilin. The buildings were all still there, slightly modernised, but recognisable.

Bilin, winter 1936.

Bilina, autumn 2011.


It began to get dark, and I drove on, because I wanted to reach the hotel before nightfall. I had booked a room in the nearby town of Teplice, formerly Teplitz, and I found it without any problems. The price per night was very inexpensive: 20 Euro including breakfast. When approaching the hotel, I saw why the price might be a bit lower than usual: right behind began a large industrial complex with two huge chimneys. But now on weekend they were off. The hotel itself is actually quite nice, with a few strange quirks: at the reception during check-in, I had to pay upfront for the night. And I had to book my breakfast in advance, from four choices. Next to the reception sat two young women, chain-smoking. They were still there after I had brought my stuff up into the room and had a one-hour nap - the travelling and the sites today had made me quite tired.

I headed out to find something to eat for dinner. First I drove to another town, Osek / Ossegg, from where I also had a few pictures. But the town was larger than I expected, and in the darkness I was not able to identify anything familiar. There was a kind of restaurant, I peeked through the window, but its neon-lit large room looked empty, there was only the chef and one waiter sitting around bored. An elderly couple walked along, they seemed also to look for a place to eat. They also checked out the place, and I decided that I would go into this restaurant if they would. But also to them this neon-lit room did not appeal to them very much, and they moved on. So I also decided to drive back to Teplice and try there my luck.

Frantisek who also had studied in Teplice, had warned me that some parts of Teplice may not be very safe; and it looked like I was just now driving through one of these parts near the train station. But a few blocks southwest, there was the old town centre, and I parked the car there. Saw a very fancy looking restaurant, and they did have a very good and reasonably priced menu. No goose, but I did order the duck.

Later that evening, I made good use of the free Wifi in the hotel to upload some of the pictures I had taken.


Next day the fog had lifted, and the weather was sunny. After breakfast I went again into the town centre of Teplice to have a look at it in daylight. Then I drove on towards North, up the mountains to the border with Germany. A cold wind was blowing over the lonely hill crest. Strange shops where you could buy wheel caps (who needs to buy wheelcaps in the mountains?). I took a small road through the forest down south and moved again to Osek. Then drove further to Duchcov, Bilina, passing the significant Borek mountain (Borschen), Zichov. Czech drivers seem to know exactly where they want to go, and they want to be there as soon as possible. This is slightly opposite of my approach now, as I am not quite sure where to go, nor am I in a big hurry - so I often turn to the side to let cars pass.

These lonely narrow country roads, of which there are still many, seem to lead directly into the past. I slowly drive along, enjoying the beautiful hilly region of this area.

I am glad that I visited this place. Now I can associate some visuals when there is talk about the "Sudetenland". I may come back again some other time, to explore further, as time was quite limited during this visit.


Here two further links, with very interesting content:

An interview with the two Czech authors Matej Spurny and Ondrej Matejka about their books about the Sudetenland. They are members of the Czech group AntiKomplex.
In Germany there is a research group at the Carl-von-Ossietzki-University Oldenburg which is concerned with research about Bohemistic and Sudetistik.
It is such activities which can bridge divides and can bring people together in mutual understanding.




In Terezin / Theresienstadt

I think that the history and significance of Terezin/Theresienstadt is well known to everybody, so I will not present it here. Since my route up north would pass this place, I decided to include it in my travel plans.

The weather on Saturday was determined by a thick foggy cloud cover, which seemed to make everything grey and depressive. This set the proper frame for a visit of this place of sadness. Coincidentally just 4 weeks ago, I had attended a concert with music of composers who were in Terezin, and on Friday evening, I learned that also cellist Frantisek Brikcius is participating in this project to keep this music alive and make it more known to wider audiences.

Terezin is an 18th century military fortress. I had expected to find fences and barbed wires, but the town is actually open, and people live here. This seemed strange to me, and the whole atmosphere is a bit weird: there are shops and restaurants (advertisement for a pizzeria shows up), but most visitors walk solemnly around. The area is quite large to walk by foot, and I was not able to see every corner of the town. But I visited the central museum, which does provide a very good documentation. There is a room with just the names of all 10,000 children. There are also many exhibits with original documents which described everyday life and procedures.


If I had more time, I would have also have visited the auto museum which is located between the small fortress and the parking lot: they seemed to have a nice selection of classic buses. But I think that somehow such a mundane "attraction" feels misplaced here in Terezin.

After about 1 1/2 hours I drove on, towards my actual destination for today, not very far north from Terezin: the area known formerly as "Sudentenland".

Saturday, November 05, 2011

In Jihlava

When planning what to do during the two days after the EuroPLOT meeting, I immediately considered visiting the town in which Gustav Mahler had spent his youth: Jihlava. I was curious to see the town which has shaped him and to see the same environment that has brought out the creative talent. And so I booked one night in the Gustav Mahler Pension. I also had the choice of staying at the Gustav Mahler Hotel, but I went for the less expensive option. Seems that the good tourism folks there in Jihlava have discovered how to milk the fame of their famous citizen - there is also a Gustav-Mahler-Cafe. Neither of these accommodations has in fact anything to do with the composer - the houses in which he grew up are a few blocks away. The Gustav Mahler House is one of these - he spent there his first 12 years.

After my arrival around 23:00 I went soon to sleep. The Gustav Mahler Pension is in fact quite a nice accommodation: the room is nicely appointed, like a little suite, and the breakfast buffet is very good. 11:00 is checkout time, so I planned to do my walking around the town right after breakfast. Walking through the grey cold autumn morning, the town Jihlava seemed slightly unwelcoming. The sometimes slightly crooked buildings on hilly streets seemed to find their equivalent in Mahler's sometimes slightly crooked harmonies. I could imagine how the small-town mentality felt somewhat limiting.


But then, the exhibition in the Gustav-Mahler-House showed a different aspect: there was a lot of music activity in the town, and also the nature around was inspiring to young Gustav. The exposition in the Mahler house is very interesting: some replicas of equipment that was used in the house when it was his father's liqueur shop. Also there are details about Mahler's bad grades in high school.

I am glad that I got at least a brief impression during this visit from the environment in which Mahler grew up. If I had more time, I would have explored the outside environment, the hills, valleys and forests around Jihlava. But my time schedule was tight - my next stop would be north of Prague. So back in the car, filling it up with petrol, then driving north. Once again driving through the vicinity of Prague, but not touching the center this time. Instead, following just the signs for Teplice and Usti nad Labem.

In Praha / Prague / Prag

The EuroPLOT meeting in Hradec Kralove ended around 15:00 on Friday afternoon. We (Georgi, Margrethe, Nicolai) had our luggage already in the car and left 10 minutes later. The ride was smooth, and we followed the directions to Praha Centrum, which guided us into the entrance from South. Traffic was not too bad, and in less than two hours we were right at the center, west of the Carls Bridge, to drop off Georgi, Margrethe, and Nicolai. I continued to drive on, looking for parking, and found it right near the Rudolfinum. We planned to go out for dinner. But then I got a phone call from Margrethe that their hotel had a problem with the water, and they would transfer to a different one. We agreed to meet on a later date. Meanwhile Georgi checked in fine, and would join us for drinks. However, by the time that Margrethe and Nicolai could make it back to the east end of the Carls Bridge, it was already quite late, and we just went into the very first place that offered something to eat. No point that Georgi would rush over the bridge, as we left shortly after we had the Gulash soup, and then walked to the Rudolfinum where the concert started at 19:30. I would have joined them, but I did instead meet with cellist Francisek Brikcius who studied one year in Leeds and knew people there. He gave me a detailed tour through the old town of Prague, and we had a nice chat about music, politics, Leeds, etc. I took
some pictures of the nightly city, which was naturally very impressive in all its architectural glory.


Then it was time for me to continue, and I drove on towards south on the Motorway, listening to the music on the CD which Frantisek gave me. Shortly before 23:00 I arrived at the Gustav Mahler Pension in Jihlava.

EuroPLOT Meeting

The EuroPLOT project is about "persuasive learning objects and technologies" (PLOTs), which are to be developed and to be tested in four case studies. The team (6 institutions from 4 European countries) meet every 6 months face-to-face, in addition to several online meetings. This was the third meeting, after one year into the project. Since Janet's retirement earlier this year, I have been asked to lead this project further.

It is indeed a very interesting project, linking several of my interests in teaching and learning technologies, and the partners are highly qualified and specialists in their respective fields. The user case studies range from academic university courses, language learning, industrial learning, to heritage and tourism. At this meeting, one of the goals was to link these user studies tighter to the persuasive design elements, as envisioned in the original project plan. I believe that this was achieved in the past two days. We also got the opportunity to use the two software tools GloMaker and PLOTLearner in the latest versions. Nicolai chose me as a subject to test the German language case, using the Tiger database of German newspaper articles. I am ashamed to admit that I failed the tests miserably! It appears that my knowledge of the German language is only very rudimentary. So it is very good that we now have this new tool, with which I can brush up and improve my command of the German language!

The meeting was very well organised by Jarka from U.Hradec Kralove, and we had good opportunities to sample the delicious Czech cuisine and a couple of Pilsener Urquells.

After the meeting I will stay in the Czech Republic until Sunday, to do some travel in Czechia.


Georgi had a hotel reservation in Prague, and so did Nicolai and Margarethe. So I decided to take them into the (small) rental car into the city, before I would head off to my other destinations.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Travel to the EuroPLOT Meeting, Hradec Kralove

After the farewell dinner with our friends from India, I went back home for the weekly evening online chat session with my student group in California. However, in the UK the time has changed from daylight savings time to regular time, whereas it has not yet changed in the US... so when I went online, only a few students were there, as they had been already waiting for one hour... why can the daylight savings time not be changed simultaneously in all countries of this planet?

Then, after midnight, I began packing my stuff for the travel next day, and I was done with everything at 3am.

Wednesday morning was cold, grey, foggy in Leeds. Driving to the airport, then a bit of sun came out. Leeds-Bradford airport was very empty, I got immediately to the check-in counter. Later I meet Georgi from LeedsMet who is also travelling to this meeting: the bi-annual face-to-face meeting of the project EuroPLOT, in Hradec Kralove, Czech Republic. Departure was on time, and arrival in Prague was 20 minutes ahead of schedule. There was a thick grey cloud cover, no sun came through.

I got a white Fiat Panda. Nice car, but the 1.2i engine seems quite weak.
Instead of driving around Prague on the south side, Georgi and I decide that it might be nice to drive straight through Prague towards the East. And yes, we had a glimpse at the illuminated Hradschin, after crossing the river Vltava (Moldau) near the Karls Bridge, as the evening darkness set in. Around 19:00 arrival in Hradec Kralove.

Nice meal for dinner: Altboehmische Kartoffelsuppe, Lendenschnitte mit Boehmischen Knoedeln. And Pilsener Urquell.

At the after-meal walk, I see the participants from Krems: Peter and Erich, who just arrived. And then we meet Nicolai, Margarethe, Helle, and Tom. A few of us decide to go out for another pint, and we end up in the Na Hrade restaurant. When we enter, a very familiar smell hits us which I had not smelled for quite a while: cigarette smoke. It is apparently (still) legal to smoke in bars and restaurants, and this smell is somewhat reminiscent of past times. The bar itself with its interior decoration at the wall appears also to be so nostalgically out of the past.

And now the mind moves to the EuroPLOT meeting which will take place on Thursday and Friday.

Visit of our Friends from India (Gujarat) in Leeds

I have been to India twice: in November 2008 and in January 2011. With members of the organisation "The Rivers Movement", directed by Brian Lewis, we had traveled to Gujarat and visited there the Sardar Patel University and other educational institutions, and we had made many friends there. Now the plan was to bring to the UK four of these friends, to facilitate a mutual cultural exchange.

Our four friends who would visit us were: Asha Makhecha, lecturer at Sardar Patel University in Management and Business, Surendra Gohil, lecturer at Sardar Patel University in IT Education, Juhika Bhanjdeo, artist, and Chhaya Uphadya, teacher and educator. A program for their visit was worked out by the local team here in Yorkshire (Gina Hawkins, Deborah Bullivant, Brian Lewis), taking care of the various interests of our visitors, and thanks to donations and fund raising we were able to collect funding for the flights and accommodation. In August 2011, our four friends from India applied for their travel visas. But then in September, we got the news that despite four identical visa submissions, only Asha had gotten her visa. So suddenly, instead of four visitors, we would only have one coming to the UK. The program was changed, and we booked the flight for Asha. In the meantime, the visa applications were submitted again, with additional documentation and with letters from the sponsoring organisations in the UK. And indeed, one week before the planned travel date, the other three (Chhaya, Juhika, and Surendra) also got the notification that they would get the visa. Fortunately the ticket prices at Emirates Airways had not gone up too far, and we could buy the three remaining tickets. However, a few days before the flight departure, they still had not received their passports with the visas in them... and we all got worried. Juhika finally had to fly to Mumbai to the consulate to pick them up herself, and the group only held the passports in their hands just six hours before their departure from Ahmadabad!

They arrived on Thursday, 20.October, and Gina, Deborah and Brian took good care of them, organising events and meetings. The following Sunday I joined the group, and we had a memorable train ride on the Middleton Railway in Leeds and a visit to the Saltaire Museum. Then last Wednesday, they visited LeedsMet, and on Friday there was the "Pockets exhibition" in Castleford, with Juhika's and others' art works.

Then Tuesday evening was their last day in Yorkshire, and we met for dinner at Barnsley Northern College. Next day they would travel to London to spend the remaining days of their stay.

It has been great to see them again during her stay here in Yorkshire, and I am very privileged to know them and count them among my friends.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Interview with TrendPOV


A few weeks ago I received an email from Dr. Amy Vanderbilt with an invitation to appear on the TrendPOV show and chat about Augmented Reality (AR). At that time I was not familiar with TrendPOV, and I learned that this is a one hour web streaming show about certain topics for businesses.

This sounded quite interesting, and so I agreed to participate in this. I prepared a CV and sent my picture. Then I decided that it would be good to update my website. Unfortunately, weeks passed by, and I still had not found the time to prepare a new version of my web presence. So on this Monday I finally began to set up a new Google Site for a new portal to my site(s). Not much time to put any content in, so I placed a link to my site at LeedsMet which contains the most relevant Augmented Reality work.

Then I prepared for the recording of the show, which would take place today, Wednesday, 26.October. I had taken the day off because of our friends from India were here on a visit, and I joined them for a few activities during the day. But then in the evening I went back to my office at LeedsMet and set up everything for the Skype session. I was supposed to call in at 6:50pm. There was still some time, so I some other work. Suddenly I noticed that the EDUROAM WIFI started to fail around 5:50pm. The signal dropped from 5 to 1 - what was going on? It looked as if an access point was powering down... So I tried to use another laptop computer which did have the credentials for the wired Ethernet. A pity, because this meant that I would not be able to use the built-in camera of the first laptop computer. When trying to setup the second laptop computer, I was not able to get the internet going. WIFI was out, and the Ethernet connection kept giving problems regarding the proxi server. I am sure that the credentials were correct - that all had worked fine a few months ago. But now it did not... and so I had to resort to the third option: using the office PC with its two monitors. I rarely use that PC, since most of my work is on the laptop(s). But at least there I got a reasonable internet connection. So the picture here with the four monitors does really not reflect technical sophistication, but actually shows the sad state of an emergency solution.


Then another problem: how to affix the camera on top of the monitor, so that I could look right into it and see the screen at the same time? This webcam did not have a suitable base, so I had to stick it with tape onto the top of the screen. It worked ok then, and I was ready for the show to begin.

I dialed in at 6:50pm. Had a video chat with Dr.Amy first. She was very enthusiastic about the Augmented Reality concepts and was really looking forward to this show. Then the show began. On the skype monitor I only saw a logo, but I heard the show then live, the music, and then Dr.Amy speaking. And then we talked about Augmented Reality for a whole hour. I gave my opinion and assessment about the AR technology. Unfortunately I got carried away and forgot to put a plug for the ongoing ISMAR conference in Basel, something that I actually had wanted to do. And when I talked about the LeedsMet project "Our City, Our Music", I forgot to mention the main proponents Ben Dalton and Megan Smith. But otherwise I think I got everything across.

It was a fun experience!

--- Update 3.November 2011: the video is now live online, see here on the TrendPOV site.

At one point during the recording a slight technical problem happened: in my LeedsMet office, the lights are dimming off, once they do not sense any motion in the room for a certain while. And since I did not move that much while speaking into the camera, the sensing switch-off kicked in a few minutes before the first commercial break, and then the lights dimmed away, and it got quite dark. Fortunately I did have another non-dimming lamp on, which kept my face illuminated, and so I just kept talking as if nothing had happened. Then during the next break I did bring the lights back by getting up, and from then on they stayed on fine until the end.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Car Insurance - Get Comprehensive!

My annual car insurance premium was due recently. Premiums were rising, so despite me not having any claims, I would have to pay more.

As every year, I did a search using the comparison web site GoCompare. In the past years, I did have good experiences with them, and I always found the best price through them. I did also contact some insurances directly which were not among their offerings, but I very often found that those insurances were still more expensive than the cheapest listed in GoCompare, except once when my renewal and staying with the same insurance was the cheapest option.

I again tried GoCompare, because in an experiment two years ago, I concluded that they did offer the best capture of my data, relevant to my situation as a non-UK driver with EU license. The other competitor comparison sites did have some trouble with that. And now I am also too lazy to try those out again - takes a lot of time to enter all the data, and GoCompare already has them stored from my last years of searching.

Of course, if I would base my choice on the commercials which these comparison sites run, then I would definitely take Compare The Meerkat, aeh, I mean Compare the Market - these commercials are really good and not as annoying as the singing tenor or the confused cartoon lady.

When I tried this year to get a car renewal quote for the insurance with the least features (just 3rd party), I got only quotes which were the same or more expensive than what I already had. Disappointing. For fun I selected then "comprehensive" - and the quote was about £ 200 cheaper! This is quite surprising, that an insurance which would provide more cover, would cost less. Has probably to do with the average comprehensive client, who drives maybe more carefully.

The same was confirmed for another renewal - saving £ 150 then. So it appears to be well worth choosing a comprehensive insurance, if you want to save money on the insurance fee.

If you do not like to go through comparison web sites, then you may try directly with SwiftCover - in both cases they were the ones with the lowest premium (naturally, they try to sell additional items on the insurance, but these can be unchecked). They operate mostly web based, so no postal mail is sent - better back up your data and the policy then! But this approach appears to make them quite efficient. Of course I had no opportunity yet to test how they are when a claim should be filed... but I hope that I will not need to do this anytime soon.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

A busy day


I knew it that 45 minutes is just simply too short for a transfer between two flights at Amsterdam Schiphol airport. This is how much time I had between the official landing time and the departure time of my connecting flight.My flight from Leeds had arrived on time, I was the very first one out of the bus, moving quickly into the terminal building. By the time I was in the queue for entering the Schengen zone, only 40 minutes were left until the next flight would continue. And there was this veeeery long queue of visitors from China, which did not seem to move at all, and I had to place myself at the very end of this queue. There was a special line for "short connections", but this was closed between 12:00 and 16:30. Fortunately someone shouted "European Passports", and a new line opened, which I joined and which was very short then. Lucky, but the border control police officers seemed to have their training day today: very young officers looked very long at each passport and asked very detailed questions.

And the day had started so promising: first a few things done in the office, then driving with Gerhard to the Old Broadcasting House to the monthly Open Coffee meeting at 10:00. Then driving back to Headingley again, to give my lecture at 11:00. Before that, ordering the taxi and arranging for car parking. After the lecture, the taxi came in time and brought me to the airport, 1 1/2 hours before departure. Plenty of time, as the Leeds Bradford airport was quite empty around noon. The only inconvenience was that the taxi let me off 200 m before the airport, because otherwise additional £ would have to be paid: there is no more free passenger drop at Leeds Bradford airport. Greedy people! Now taxis stop before the airport, passengers walk along the road, and I saw several groups who waited for a pick-up from friends along the street outside. I can predict what soon there will be: any kind of stopping in the vicinity of 1000 m around the airport will be made illegal. Then it may really be better to fly from Manchester airport.

When boarding in Leeds, I was told that I had to change the seat - it was faulty. Ok, so I got a nice wide legroom space in the emergency exit row - which usually costs extra. Had my window seat, and dozed off a little after munching the savory snack. Arrived on time in Amsterdam.

And now in that Schengen queue, where I was inching slowly forward. Behind me a guy from York who was on my flight and also had to catch another flight. Finally my turn, after the officer carefully checks my boarding pass and the passport, I can go through. Now only the x-ray procedure, then I am clear and have entered Europe. The boards show my flight is already boarding - and the signs indicate a 24 minute walk from here to gate B26! I start running now. The Amsterdam airport is very big. I use the moving walkways wherever possible and walk fast on them; on the regular hallways I just run, pulling my rolling carry-on behind me. Reach the gate - no passengers are there anymore, but I am still in time. Go down the stairs, and am the last one on the bus. After I enter, the doors close and it drives to the tarmac where the next Cityhopper is waiting.

After that little exercise I can relax in the plane on the short flight to Luxembourg. Arrive in time. Weather is warmer than in Leeds, still some remnants of the weekend heat wave. At the hotel, they cannot find my reservation. But it does not matter, because they still have a room.

Then I take a bus towards the town. With me on the bus is another participant of tomorrow's meeting, whom I already knew from a few years ago - nice to see him here already. I get off at the Philharmonie Luxembourg in Kirchberg. Pick up my ticket, have a sandwich snack for dinner, then enjoy a marvelous concert: "TerezĂ­n / Theresienstadt". Anne Sofie von Otter sings songs which were composed and played by inmates of the concentration camp Theresienstadt. Very moving.


Back to the hotel, preparing for the weekly online chat with students at California Lutheran University (in California obviously) which is from midnight until 0:45.

Yes, this was quite a busy day. But overall very enjoyable. Tomorrow is the FP7 Call 8 Info Day. Will be again quite busy.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Improvements at Blogger

For quite a while, Blogger (owned by Google) had not introduced any improvements to its blogging system. But a few months ago, a new interface was offered, and I switched to it. Very positive experience, I can confirm. The interface looks very nice and clean, all relevant items are well accessible - it is real fun to work with this. There are many improvements in details regarding the editing and publishing blog posts, compared to the previous interface.

Here is how the main interface portal looks for my blogs:

With this interface it is quite a pleasure to manage my blog universe.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Autonomous Self-Driving Vehicles - Talk at AGI 2011 by E.D.Dickmanns

From 1990 - 1996 I worked with Prof. E.D.Dickmanns in Munich at the UniBW on developing a computer vision system for autonomous road vehicles. This was a great experience, and I also got my PhD degree from that work. It was therefore a delight to see a recent presentation given by my "doctor father" (that is how we call our PhD supervisors in Germany) about his work in computer vision based autonomous vehicles. I remember taking part in these technical demonstrations, for example the PROMETHEUS presentation in 1994 near Paris, and the road trip from Munich to Odense (Denmark) with my colleague Markus Maurer (now Professor at Uni Braunschweig). When the autonomous vehicle (a nice Mercedes 500 SEL) went with 180 km/h (110 mph) on the Autobahn near Lueneburg, we were quite a bit tense, hoping that the car would not suddenly decide to swerve to the side...

Here is Prof Dickmanns' talk, given at the recent http://agi-conf.org/2011/:

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Powerpoint 2010 - Bad Narration Quality

For a few weeks I have been using the "record narration" feature in Powerpoint. Never needed this before, because I was always speaking live when giving a presentation. But now with the advent of true online distance teaching, this feature becomes handy. But unfortunately, in Powerpoint 2010, this feature is not really usable. I can record the narration ok, but the sound quality is appalling. It sounds as if recorded with 8 bit, at 11 kHz, and results in absolutely unprofessional recording. In addition, the audio appears not to be compressed, but raw wave, judging from the file size increase which is caused by this. And there is no way of setting the quality, the coded, the bitrate, the compression or any relevant parameter. After searching the web for a solution, this problem is know. Apparently, Powerpoint 2007 did provide means for changing the sound quality through a panel with options. This was taken out in the 2010 version. Is this progress?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Low-Cost Airlines Price-Cheating

Low-cost airlines are a nice thing: they give us cheap and no-frills travel, compared to traditional airlines. But recently, they are resorting to unfair practices in their pricing, showing false low base prices, then add on additional costs which cannot be avoided. This is plain cheating, and the European Union is already considering action against this and will outlaw this practise, as seen on 13.May in the Telegraph newspaper.

But this practise is still going on, as my recent purchase of a Jet2.com plane ticket shows: base price is £15.96. Then comes a taxes and charges fee of £109.00. Steep. Sure, the other regular airlines also do this, and their price also often is more than 50% tax and "charges". But then there is an additional charge for the baggage of £49.96. Then a £20 fee for checking-in online. So what if I would not check in? I would not be allowed to fly. So why is this fee put separately, instead of being included in the mandatory base price? That base price is pure fiction, is just there in order to look good (low) and to attract customers. And it is illegal, to lie to customers about the price of a product, as blatantly as Jet2.com does this here. There are still more fees: £7.00 for fuel supplement. Why is this not in the "taxes and charges" included? Payment card fee for £7.53. Maybe they want me to pay with cash? And then the final insult: a booking fee of £7.27. This fee is for the convenience of booking the flight. Maybe the next fee would be a luggage drop fee, for allowing to bring your baggage to the flight check-in desk. Or a gate-transfer fee, for the convenience of being brought by bus from the gate to the plane. Or...

Here is the screenshot of the fees from my web booking, in case anyone thinks I made this up:



Friday, August 12, 2011

Refreshing the Design of this Blog

It has been a while since I have posted on my blog. In the past 6 months I have posted more on Facebook, and also have tried out Google+. This led to a decline of my blog and Twitter activities.

Now I have chosen a new design for this blog. Also properly equipped with all the social networking buttons under each post. The people at Blogger have done a good job in the last year and have added many new features, such as these buttons, and also making new designs. Also there is now a feature in the template which allows to automatically format this blog content for mobile phones - this is very useful.

The app "BlogSpace"

This is my first post to this blog using a little app on the iPhone called BlogSpace. It gives me an overview of my various blogs on Blogger.com, and let's me post to each one. Seems to work fine so far. One slight negative issue is that the title field is difficult to click on - it is very close to the top, and one can easily hit the cancel button instead, when trying to enter a blog title.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Movie "BRAZIL" - My Review

This film came out in 1985. At that time I watched a review of it in one of our German TV culture programs, but I did not pay much attention and did not watch it in the cinema.

I did not see the film until sometime in the 1990s, I think it was on German TV, in a dubbed version. And I was immediately fascinated by this movie’s emotional approach to the very important topic of life in a totalitarian society. Since then I had the opportunity to see the film a few times on the big screen, and everytime I see it I discover new details. The most recent viewing was on Saturday, 26.March, here in Leeds at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds, and it compelled me to write a review about it which I want to share with you.

You may find info about this film at the IMDB site of BRAZIL, where there is an outline of the plot and many other reviews (I also submitted a short version of this review). So I will not go into details but rather give my own impression and my interpretation of some of its content.

The movie is absolutely hilarious, pointing out with the means of irony, satire, and parody the flaws of totalitarian societies. But these flaws are actually also the flaws of our own society, and this movie reveals this brilliantly. Besides the overall theme of a fictional retro-future all-encompassing dictatorship, the movie has several layers of topics that are very relevant to our current society. I would like to list these topics here:


Work environment

The satire with regards to the aspects of working life is so heartwarming because we all have most likely encountered in our own work life some of the pathetic specimens that are depicted in this movie.

There is the incompetent and cowardly boss Mr Kurtzman, who is unable to take responsibility for anything and delegates everything to his smart subordinate Sam Lowry. He even makes him falsify his own signature, which is one of the items for which Sam will later be held responsible.

There is the false sense of actionism and energetic work ethics in the Ministry of Information Retrieval, when the supervisor runs through the halls, followed by a crowd of subservient subordinates who are requesting decisions which are swiftly given by the superior.

Hilarious are the dire working conditions (dark narrow office) in the Ministry of Information Retrieval which are in much contrast to this energetic positive work attitude.

Very funny is the petty competition of fellow coworkers. For example when the neighbour of Sam Lowry pulls the shared desk towards his own side. Or when he tries to show off with his (non-existent) computer skills.

Then there is the way how office workers find a way around the rules and regulations to make their work life more bearable, in this case by watching a classic movie channel. In our own world this is replaced by web browsing.


Totalitarian Government

"We in the West" live in democracies, but much of the double speak that is shown in the film has slowly penetrated our own political life, by our own corrupted political classes, and we are often not anymore aware of it.

The cruel and impartial attitude of the security forces who make prisoners and put them into these sacks - which evoke the images of hooded prisoners in Abu Ghraib. These security forces are "normal" people, chat about the misery of work such as headache from helmets, but then treat their subjects that they took into custody with uncompassionate harshness, and all is done strictly according to procedures and regulations.

The government’s pursuit of suspected terrorists and the efforts in uncovering the hidden connections between them, which lead to paranoia and to suspicion of connections where there are none. The example is the pursuit of the freelancer Archibald Tuttle, who just wants to work as a heating engineer, because he enjoys it, but who does not want to comply with the tight rules and regulations of that trade. We see currently the same by linking every terrorist act to the omnipresent "Al Quaida" network, even if the links are unproven (the war in Iraq comes to mind ...). Also the phrase "9/11 changed everything" shows how much of this movie has already become reality.

The emptiness of the slogans, expressed in public announcements and also in the posters that are hanging everywhere, shows the paranoia, feeds the public fear of terrorists and justifies the state actions. (I wish there would be somewhere a collection of these posters that are in the movie in the background in so many scenes ...)

The refusal of state authority to admit that an error has been made, is so true also in our current "system". The heartlessness and lack of compassion by the same authority when they realise that an error has been made. The overall long winded process of appeal when such a mistake it tried to be rectified by a citizen. And the labelling of such a citizen then as a potential terrorist.


General society

The obsession with youth and cosmetic surgery, represented by Sam Lowry’s mother’s plastic surgery and her desire to look young. The parody of cosmetic surgery peaks twice: in once instance the person with whom the cosmetic surgery went terribly wrong, dies. In the other instance, in the end Sam’s mother looks like the love interest of the protagonist in an Oedipean twist, although only in the mind of Sam.

The emphasis on cleanliness in the streets, where passers-by are upset when a few papers are dropped on the streets, but where nobody appears to protest against the dirty war against the presumed terrorist thread.

The celebration of Christmas which has lost all its inner spiritual meaning and is hollowed into simple formality of giving thoughtless interchangeable arbitrary thoughtless presents, all done in the same packaging.

The consumer society which has eaten up all that was once in spiritual meaning ("Consumers for Christ") and which encompasses all the life of people. Shopping, expensive goods, and even when a bombing occurs, the show must go on (in the restaurant). But the true essence of enjoyment is lost: food is just a pile of coloured mash and can only be identified by a picture that comes with it.

There are two types of overall attitude which make a totalitarian system function and keep the protagonists alive: one attitude is represented by the silence and under-the-radar-screen-operating main character, Sam Lowry, whose main concern is that he might accidentally get noticed, which he tries to avoid by all means. The other attitude is represented by the ambition and suppression of the conscience by Jack Lint, who is actively supporting the system and is one of its representatives, in executing torture.

This society appears to show a blind faith in technology and in its believe that it works and solves everything – demonstrated to be not the case, as a simple bug can cause a terrible deadly error, and as the technological gadgets appear to malfunction at any opportunity.

The complex technology of climate control for individual housing which is difficult to handle. Overall there are many hoses and wires, in the houses, in the restaurant, during the cleaning process of the administration building. Everything is wired, is connected, and hoses go everywhere.

The annoying dealing with the monopolised services of Central Services. Everybody in our own world and time has had to deal with such non-responsive entities (BT comes to my mind). Free and independent enterprise (as personified by Tuttle) is illegal.

The overabundance of bureaucracy as it stifles all functioning of a society. The overall formalisation of all transactions with receipts and receipts for receipts, the rules and regulations that govern everything. (Reminds me somehow of "health and safety", and of the quality assurance formalisms that have in recent years stifled much of the creativity in UK.) The strict adherence to these rules appear to give even the cruellest government action a coat of legitimacy, because it is all done exactly according to the rules.

The loss of natural environment, as a consequence of providing energy and power and of overpopulation in densely urban cities. There appears to be no park, no trees, no green area. People live in dense highriser blocks without any daylight. Roads outside of the city lead to power plants, through deserted polluted landscapes, which the driver cannot see, because big billboards show advertisement and government slogans, depicting among other things landscape and blue sky, which is no longer in existence in the real world.

The desensitation and cruelisation of children: they grow up in dire housing complexes, mirroring the worst of "council estates", and they play war games with weapons. For Christmas they get guns as presents, and they play out security force and prisoners, with realistically hooding their prisoners as the adult world is doing it. This desensitation is also a reality in our real world, by the proliferation of ego-shooter computer games.


Filmographic

This movie also pays homage to classic movies, as they appear to be the only thing that brings real joy to people, but also that they act as an escapism for the unbearable reality of the present life. Very funny the reference to Eisenstein’s "Battleship Potemkin" in the scene where the security forces walk down the stairs, and a lonely cleaning equipment cart rolls down these stairs (instead of a stroller like in the original). Also at one point there is a parallel in the action of the movie to the film that the office workers are watching ("Casablanca"), when Jonathan Price says to his boss "here is looking at you".




Overall this movie is addressing all the above topics not on a rational level, but on a deeply emotional one. The main protagonist has his dreams, and in a very illogical way these dreams meddle with the reality, as he suddenly sees and meets the woman of his dreams.

This film is an emotional appeal for humanity, to do everything to prevent such a society from becoming a reality. Because once it is established, there is nothing that can bring it down – as the very pessimistic ending of the film implies (evil always wins).



Some of my favorite quotes from this movie:

"My complication got a little complication."
"Do you have a form 27 6-B?"
"This phone call is not being recorded."

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Trying to update Windows Phone 7 (HTC HD7)

A few weeks ago I read that Microsoft is now sending out the first update of the Windows Phone 7. And together with it came the news that a few phones were already "bricked", that is turned into functionless bricks. See also this article Ars Technica.

A few days ago I got the notification on my HTC HD7 phone that an update is available, and that I would need to connect it to the computer and run ZUNE to install the update. This is actually a pre-update, which corrects some bugs in the general update process.

First I had to update ZUNE itself. Then I connected the phone, went into "settings > update". The "searching for update" took quite long... then I got prompted not to disconnect the phone, and then I waited patiently with this screen:


The phone rebooted, then showed a different screen, with a black/white graphic of a mobile connected to a laptop computer. It appears that this symbol indicated I should connect the phone to the computer - which it already was... After a while the phone rebooted again, this time with the regular screen. Then ZUNE showed "Your device wasn't updated". Error code: 801812C1

I googled this error code and found several entries in various forums. One recommended to stop the device recognition process after the first reboot. I was only able to do that by stopping the process "update.exe" through the Windows Task Manager. But that did not help... the error still remained, no update happened.

Another forum advice was to unplug the USB cable for 2 seconds, then plug it back in. Well, the message on the screen says that exactly this must not be done. However, I gave it a try - but it did not help.

There is another "update" announced to be available shortly: The "No-Donuts" update, with copy-and-past. But first I have to manage getting this first update onto the phone...

During my update trials, the phone so far has always booted properly the 2nd time, when it returned to its regular state. I keep trying - maybe I will get lucky, and the phone will finally "brick"; then I will bring it back to the O2 store and swap it for an HTC Desire with Android.

Monday, February 28, 2011

RIP, Jane Russell

Jane RussellOn 28.February 2011 one of the last great Hollywood icons died: Ernestine Jane Geraldine Russell. I knew her films already as a child, and I especially liked the movie "The Paleface" with Bob Hope, where she plays a woman who once in a while hits him on the head with a pan. For me as an 8 year old, this film - especially the hitting on the head - has shaped my image of women for many years.

In 2003 I once had the pleasure to meet her personally, at an afternoon event at the TCM store in Los Angeles, where Robert Osborne hosted an afternoon with her as a special guest. We chatted about movies and classic movie channels. Also about Germany, where some of her ancestors were from. A very friendly woman, and a great actress.

She will be greatly missed by every fan of the Classic Hollywood. Rest in peace, Jane.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Windows Phone 7 - a second look

For a few weeks I had now the HTC HD7 with Windows Phone 7, the new mobile OS by Microsoft. In my first brief note about the initial user experience, I noted many shortcomings, both compared with the previous version of Windows Mobile 6.5 and with the current other smartphones competition. So what remains of this negative first impression after a few weeks of use?

The overall resume of these first few weeks using Windows Phone 7 is that the update is urgently needed. This version of Windows Phone fall short on so many expectations. These are often quite little things, but sometimes also major issues. It makes you think if the engineers/developers have ever tested their product in a real life situation. Probably not.

Here are some of these issues:

- After making a phone call, any respectable phone shows the call duration. Not so Windows Phone 7. No display about the length of the call, neither in the call history.
- When a text message is received, many phones show a button to make a call to this number. Not so Windows Phone 7. The only option it to reply. No "call this number", no "store to contacts". This is absolutely inadequate. One clicks onto the sender, then one can make a call or store the number in the address book.
- the phone does only display battery status and signal strength on the start screen when switching on the phone. Afterwards only the clock is displayed in the top right corner. There would be space for a heading info line, but it is just plain empty. Would be very useful to have this info, especially when doing longer online sessions.
- the tap on the display sometimes does not work, especially when it is on a text link with small fonts. One almost needs to use a stylus to click the link then, as it would not react to the pressure of a finger. Has probably a technical reason: because the overall "click strength" is taken from the absolute number of active pixels being pressed; and since a small text has only few active pixels, this number is small. Would be better to have a relative measure. But this is just a speculation...
- the finger sliding is often interpreted as a side swipe instead of a vertical swipe, and then the page changes. This has been reported by many other people in a variety of apps. It could have several reasons: a driver problem of the display, a bug in the gesture API of Windows Phone 7, or an incorrect use of this API for detecting swipe direction by the app developers.
- Why is the battery strength only shown graphically and not as a numeric percentage?
- The Marketplace search returns too many wrong things. When I search for an app by a name, for example "Twitter" in the apps category, a lot of songs and albums also appear with the name "Twitter" in their name... this should be filtered.
- Many apps offered for Windows Phone 7 are inferior to their counterparts on other smart phones. This can have several reasons: Windows Phone 7 is new, so many apps are just in their first version, with updates (hopefully) to come. Or the Windows Phone 7 market is so small (3%?) compared to iPhone or Android, that the developers neglect it and put not much effort in. There are a few notable exceptions though.
- There is no synchronising of data/files with such files on a PC. When connecting the phone by cable to a computer, there is not much that can be done. I was hoping that I could drag some files over, or have some files automatically synced as it was great on the old Windows Mobile OS where Office files (for Excel, Word) could be automatically be stored, edited, and synchronised on both devices. This capability has now been lost and can only be sort of emulated via a much more complicated method through cloud computing. The Zune software synchronises music and video, but that I use almost never.
- No copy-and-paste. This makes it very difficult to edit Excel files, modify entries in the contacts list, etc. I cannot believe why it is so difficult to implement this feature? Also the first iPhone generation did not have this...
- The title headings of pages in apps use a very stylish, elegant, large font, but these titles stretch over several pages, therefore cannot be read fully on one page. This is especially annoying when the app only has one page, because the rest of the heading is just cut off. Here a bit more "function over form" would have been better.

There is something positive to be said about Windows Phone 7: it looks quite nice. The big tiles are more attractive than the icons/buttons of other phones, easier to touch. The also can show live content, although most apps still stick with a static image.

There is good potential: if all these little bugs/annoyances that I mentioned above are being fixed, and if there would be more options for users to create additional pages instead of just having one title page and one app page, then this may actually take off. Installing and updating apps works as smooth as with the iPhone.

So, Microsoft engineers, keep working and please produce an update soon (and without "bricking" it...) !

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

SCORM in XSTREAM

The first semester in this academic year has been concluded in January. My major work had been in the the Mobile Wireless Comms (MWC) MSc module: I have experimented with SCORM-compliant Sharable Content Objects (SCO), integrated in our Learning Management System (LMS) XSTREAM and accessible remotely through a web interface. SCORM enables such SCOs to provide feedback about the learning progress of the student, by having small assignments in the SCO which automatically are being fed back into the LMS. In principle this works fine, but there are a few issues:
- the connection between the SCO and the LMS times out, and then some error messages appear at the user's end. This is quite annoying, and it also may interrupt the data flow: sometimes the results from the SCORM quizzes were not reported back correctly to the LMS.
- new versions of an existing SCO will create a new column in XSTREAM gradebook. This makes the handling of the overall marking quite cumbersome, as all different versions of the SCO grades will have to be considered.
- in principle it is possible to have several questions/quizzes within one SCO. But this proves somewhat more prone to failures in reporting back the quiz results, which leads to missing and wrong grade entries on XSTREAM.

Overall, the concept of having these interactive learning objects in the form of SCOs was quite popular with students: they were engaging very well, and the assignments were designed in such a way that students could try out examples. At the core was here some additional JavaScript code, which allowed these SCOs to give each student a different set of problems to solve: the basic formulas and equations were the same, but the individual numbers and parameters were different for each student. This allowed the student to repeatedly try a particular problem, everytime with a different set of numbers.

The downside of using this SCORM-based approach is that it is very time-consuming for the teacher: the preparation of these SCORM-compatible SCOs takes longer than the traditional lecture/tutorial preparations, and fixing the technical issues regarding the incorrect grade feedback added an additional hassle. As a consequence, I am now preparing a set of "good practise" recommendations on how to best use SCORM in this context of XSTREAM.

Also, I will present this work at the CAL 2011 conference in Manchester, April 13-15.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Windows Phone HTC HD 7 - First Impression

Two weeks ago, right after the arrival at Manchester Airport and while waiting in the baggage claim area, my mobile phone stopped working: the touch screen was no longer operable. I noticed one spec on the screen at one location, as if the layers of the touch screen surface have collapsed at that point. While the screen still showed data and the buttons of the phone worked fine, the touch screen no longer responded to any touch.

Fortunately a few days later my contract allowed me to get a free upgrade. Which phone should I get? I am already using an Apple iPhone for project-related work, so I would look for other alternatives. Android looked good, but in order to get the HTC Desire HD I would have to switch to Three, and I would prefer to remain with O2. O2 only offers the lower-end version HTC Desire as an Android phone. Since around 1998 I had quite good experiences with Windows CE devices: first the PDAs, then PDA phones. I liked the backward compatibility and the ability to edit Word and Excel docs on the mobile device, so also my most recent phone had been a Windows Mobile (6.1). Since October the new Windows Mobile Phone 7 devices were out - breaking completely the backward compatibility and actually offering less functionality (I wonder why it is so hard to implement copy/cut-and-paste; Apple had the same initial problem). There is still one phone out there with Windows Mobile 6.5.3, which still offered the old well-proven functions, such as synchronising with Outlook (even without Exchange) and backward compatibility, so I could run some of the software that I still was using (for example CodeWallet was a very nice utility for storing passwords; they are working on an iPhone app). But then I got lured by the latest Windows Phone: the HTC HD7.

The upgrade was free, and so I got my phone on last Friday. And here are some first experiences:

The overall look of the interface is very slick. Nice fonts, although the overall stylishness and coolness sometimes leads to text being shown too large and going beyond the screen.

There appear not many customisable settings, especially in comparison with the iPhone. There is only one main screen with those tiles (which can be arranged and configured), then there is one other screen which sorts all "application" icons in an alphabetical column. I have not yet found out if one can actually define more screens, which I would prefer.

Similar to the Apple Appstore one can also here directly download apps. The selection appears much smaller than for the iPhone; also the prices for many apps are somewhat high; but there are also free apps. These apps appear somewhat of a lesser quality as the ones for the iPhone: for example the Twitter app for Windows Mobile does only support one account, whereas the same app for iPhone supports multiple accounts - although both apps come directly from Twitter. Similarly the Facebook app, which works fine, but seems to have only few configurable options on the Windows Phone side. It also shows less information on Windows Phone, for example you cannot even see which people are behind a "like".

In some other cases there is stylishness over function: for example on the "people" tile, the faces of contacts pop up in a random manner. While this looks interesting, it has no meaning at all, as these face popups appear only to be random. It would have been great if these would be linked to actual activity online, for example when a contact post something on Facebook, or when an email arrives. But the faces fade in and out even when there is no network; when I see those faces and then check for the actual activity of that person, there is no correlation whatsoever to the tile display and the actual activity.

One positive thing: all contacts are now accessible under one tile, providing one access point for contacts from Outlook (Exchange), Facebook, and all other email accounts. This is really useful.

On the other hand, there is no common joint inbox, as it is on the iPhone: instead each email account has its own tile on the main screen.

One big advantage of the old Windows Mobile phones had been the capability of synchronising data and files with a PC, although the synchronisation suffered from terrible programming of ActiveSync, which often resulted in duplicate items and updating of the wrong file. The new Windows Phone has replaced this by using the Zune software. First one has to download a 120 MB big file for the Zune installation, then one has to wait for another 30 minutes until all the updates for this have been downloaded and installed, then Zune is ready. Supposedly the synchronisation of the Windows Phone with the PC would work from there. But I had connected the phone per USB to the computer already before I installed the software, assuming (hoping) that there would be some kind of self-installing driver there, as it is with many USB devices. Unfortunately that was a wrong hope - the device did not install itself, and when I tried then to use Zune for installing the drivers, the phone did not show up there in the "device" settings. That had worked better with the iPhone on the Apple Mac... no surprise about this.

So it appears to be a big problem that I had connected the phone to the PC before I had installed Zune... fortunately I found the solution in a forum, and I was finally able to have the HD7 installed as a "portable device". But then it did still did not show up in Zune... until I realised that I had to click an "ok" somewhere in order to move on. Strange GUI...

Unfortunately this Zune software only synchronises media files, but no other files such as Excel, Word etc. There is some mention on synchronising "One Note" files, but I will have to explore this further.

The camera takes excellent sharp pictures, and the 4.3" display (800x480) is very nice: bright and crisp.

Overall the experience with this phone so far is mixed. I still am looking for a proper way of getting the synchronisation going. On the windowsphone.live.com website, it says I can sync notes from my phone by tapping on "Office>All>Sync". But that does not exist... instead there is mention of a "Sharepoint", which I found out costs something... so it looks pretty bad, and I may not be able to get my car petrol statistics or the list of all my flights (all in Excel files) over to this mobile phone, which really is a pity.

A year ago Microsoft had about 7% market share of smart phones. This has now dropped to 3%... and if they do not soon provide an update to their new Windows Phone OS with all the features one would expect (cut-and-paste, synchronisation of Office files with PC), then soon there will be the well deserved end of their attempts in the mobile market. Windows Phone does have potential - the look-and-feel is good, but it needs more substance.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Final Departure from India


A short breakfast in the hotel at 7am, then leaving with the free Shuttle to the nearby airport. Have to show the passport at many occasions before we can board the plane. Everything is on time and runs smooth.

There are rain clouds over Dubai, and there is a little drizzle on the ground. In the terminal I cannot resist going to McDonalds and ordering a juicy burger - the first meat after 13 days. I guess I am not made for vegetarian life...

The connecting flight is on time. The route goes actually over Iraq, and when we are over Baghdad, I just am eating lunch, listening to Gustav Mahler's 9th Symphony through the fabulous Emirates entertainment system. A somehow surreal combination...

I do not feel very well, the throat hurts, and I feel feverish and warm. Take two more Lemsip cups and try to rest.

Arrival in Manchester without problems. Luggage is there, and then our group parts: Gina and Deborah have a taxi waiting, and Brian and myself take a train to Leeds.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

13th Day in India - Ahmadabad

Breakfast at 6am, the taxi arrives shortly after 7am. Sunil has carefully noted down the directions to our hotel in Ahmadabad - Comfort Inn Sunset, and we arrive safely at the hotel around 8:45. First we head to the Calico Textile Museum, which Brian was keen to see. Very large selection of fabrics, and a tour explaining the complicated manufacturing techniques which requires exclusively hand craft work. The admission procedure is a bit strange: since we do not have a reservation, we have to wait in a queue - only 10 people without reservation are allowed to visit the museum, and this can only be done 10:00am - 11:00am. We have to hand over our mobile phones and cameras to the officer at the entrance. The tour takes until shortly after 12:00. No pictures can be taken, and they have run out of postcards to sell... so the world here will not know much more about this marvelous place.

Following a suggestion by our friends we visit the restaurant Saffron. Have to take 2 rikshahs, as 4 people are not allowed in one. Great food. Then we hire another two rikshahs to drive into the old town. Nobody whom we ask seems to understand the term "Old Town". That was the same time during our last visit 2 years ago; for some reason it appears not to be worth anything to the locals. But to us it is: a wild mix of rikshahs, hidden architectural heritage gems, and colourful bazaar atmosphere. But one thing is quite negative: the pollution. Even in the smallest street there are auro rikshahs and motorcycles competing with streams of pedestrians. Miraculously no collission occurs, but the air is very heavy of exhaust smoke.


At 15:45 we hire another auto rikshah to drive us back to the hotel. This time the rule of no 4 people in a rikshah does not apply... but Deborah has to move into the luggage compartment of the vehicle. At 16:15 we are back in the hotel and take a nap.

I doze off on the bed, but when I awake I am shivering: the AC had been onto max, and it is now freezing cold. The shower is just lukewarm and does not help, so I keep shivering, and I feel my temperature rising. So finally my immune system had given in to all these threats in the air, and I got a throat infection. I am not hungry and decide to skip supper, having an early sleep. Fortunately I have some lemsip with me, which I prepare on the tea cooker.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

12th Day in India: Feedback Session and Good-Bye

On Wednesday morning we had a feedback session at 10am at the HP Patel Institute where we discussed the project and our stay. The resume was overall very positive, and we decided on a few action for the future.

Afterwards we went with a rikshah to Anand, meeting Chhaya and Mitali for some more gift shopping. We got hungry, and I could not resist trying something extravagant: a cheesburger with fries and Pepsi. The cheeseburger was indeed unusual: instead of cheese inside, the cheese was grated above the burger. The veggie part inside the burger was not a patty, but were actual vegetables: cucumbers, tomatoes, and a kind of green pesto. Very unusual, but quite good.

Then I use the last few hours in which I have access to the USB 3G stick for uploading a few more pictures. Tomorrow we will be in Ahmadabad, where possibly I might have another few hours of internet access.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

11th Day in India: A Book in 8 Minutes


The workshop was supposed to begin at 11:00. However, only a few students were present at that time; more started to trickle in, as they were commuting and came back from the holidays. It reminded me of my lectures that I gave this semester at LeedsMet each Thursday morning - many students usually also started then to trickle in a bit late. In this area there is definitely some room for improvement on the students' attitude... although I must say that our taxi pick-ups and all the travel arrangements during our stay had been spot-on in time.

When finally the last students come to the lecture lab around 11:20, Brian begins the lecture. The first part is about the students writing in Gujarati language on paper a short paragraph about "My Place is Gujarat", which would be intended to be a textbook for Gujarati children. Each of them has to do this within 8 Minutes, and then they read aloud and translate this paragraph into English.

Then comes my bit: Each of the students should now put down their story/paragraph online, to share it with the world. I show them how to use the page I have set up and how to get pictures from
my Flickr archive, then the start typing. In the end we have collected 23 pages, which automatically were collected on the web page: www.theriversmovement.org.uk/bi8m/ViewBook.php.

In the evening we have invited all our friends to the restaurant "Flavours", and we have a great farewell dinner.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Tenth Day In India: Writing a Web App

On Tuesday we will give lectures at the HM Patel Institute, and these need some preparation. Gina and Deborah will give lectures about education, Brian and I will give a workshop on writing a "Book in 8 Minutes", involving collaborative technology. For this I have to write some software, enabling the joint authoring. So on Monday I devote the whole day to this, sitting outside near the entrance of the guest house and hacking away on my computer. The goal is that the students should be able to write a very short story related to the topic "My Place is Gujarat", amended by a photograph from my online collection. We did not want them to use other pictures because of possible copyright issues, therefore we focussed on my collection only. There was now one technical problem to solve: a few years ago, one could directly right-click any picture on Flickr and get the true URL. This has changed: right-click on a picture does not provide means for saving it or getting its true URL; for this one needs to use the Flickr API. So I had a quick look at it - straightforward, one first needs to get an API key, then call a specific function in the FLickr API to get all the info about the picture in an XML response, then parse this to build the actual URL. I did not want to write a parser for XML, so I was looking for something that would make this job easier, and I found phpflickr: this provides the tools for getting info of any Flick picture, just by passing the picture ID to it. Then there is another function for building the URL. So I began writing a little PHP script, using that phpflickr library: to the script the picture ID would be passed, then the image URL for a medium-sized image would be returned. This script in turn would be called from JavaScript on the main page, using AJAX. What the students then had to do when they would want to embed a picture in their page: they would copy the URL of the picture page into a field, click on a button, and the page would receive the unique image URL from where it could be passed on to a web form for storage in a database. All I had to do now was to write a parser to get the image ID from the Flickr image page URL.

This worked fine: the result is here: www.theriversmovement.org.uk/bi8m/. I did some more minor edits later in the night to have this ready for Tuesday.

At 17:00 we went to Asha Makheesha's C Z Patel College of Business, where an official awards ceremony took place. Gina and Deborah had gon there already earlier, Brian and I wanted to join just before the event would begin. I did not know where the college was, and Brian had missed one turn... so we were a bit lost, when suddenly we met a friend from the HM Patel Institute who recognised us. She engaged another motor cycle rider who was around, and then each of us was riding on the back of a motorcycle heading to the nearby College of Business. The floors on the halls were decorated with graphics made out of coloured powder or sand. The main event venue was outside on a roof terasse, under a large fabric tent roof. The honourable dignitaries were sitting on a podium, waiting for their time to speak. Then the official event started, Asha moderating the proceedings. Brian started to cough, probably a consequence of rushing to this event earlier, and also because of the dust and pollution in the streets. He left the proceedings and went back to the guest house for a brief rest. When he came back 2 1/2 hours later he just came in time for the closing of the official events, after all speeches and prize awards to the students.

Since Brian did not feel very well, we decided to not attend the following dinner and instead head back to the guest house, where I could finish my software for the workshop on Tuesday.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Ninth Day in India: back to Vallabh Vidyanagar


At 5:30 one of the guest house clerks knocks at the door, brings tea for breakfast. At 6:00am we assemble in the lobby and get into the car, to drive through the morning darkness towards a remote temple site on a hill for watching the sunrise. We are there shortly before 7am, driving up a very steep road (probably 30% slope). as we reach the top, a very surprising site: a wall straight ahead, and behind it we see - boats! We think this is a Fata Morgana, boats on the top of a hill. But there is indeed a small reservoid / lake on which a few boats are floating. As we get out of the car, a cold wind is greeting us. We climb up the wooden covered structure from where we can see the plain below slowly becoming visible through the darkness. I head back into the car for a while to warm up. Then, as the orange disk of the sun appears at the horizon, we all assemble on top of that wooden observation point and take pictures.

Afterwards we are heading back to Vallabh Vidyanagar towards West. Passing through a few lively towns. Small rikshahs and trucks are loaded with people: usually there are at least about 20 people per small vehicle: sitting on the roof, hanging from the back, squeezing themselves inside. On the way we see a road accident that must have happened just recently: a white car is damaged at the front, while a truck is lying in a ditch at the side of the road, the driver's cabin smashed by a tree.

We arrive safely back at the Vallabh Vidyanagar guest house and have a rest. I can upload a few pictures, then we head out again for dinner: at 18:30 Sunil picks us up in his car, and we drive first to Kiran Chauhan and his wife Sarika for a tea, where also members of his family are present. Then we all together move to Sunil's house where his wife Viraj has been busy the whole Sunday to prepare a meal for us: a mix of traditional Indian cuisine with Western and Mexican components. We enjoy the company of the family and friends: Surendra Gohil and Juhika are there, as well as Kiran Chauhan and Sarika.

Back at the guest house around 22:00 we quickly fall asleep after a busy weekend.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Eight Day in India: Champaner


We get up at 6am, have breakfast at 6:30, then our taxi arrives at 7am. Dr Piyush Joshi and Dr Falguni Bharateeya accompany us, and all four of us are in the travel group. We head off in the direction of south-east, to the heritage site of Champaner. Before we visit this archaeological site with its mosques and stone carvings, we first drive into a wild rural area and visit a temple that is hidden away. Photography is forbidden there, which irks me a bit - well, then the world will not know about this fabulous temple site with its strange red idol god (which looks a lot like a cartoon character).

We then visit Champaner: a large mosque, where I also meet a group of people from Switzerland (easily recognisable by their unique accent) who are on a family visit in Gujarat. There is another mosque, and there is a large fortress. Within the fortress walls there are people living in a village.

We head up the nearby mountain and visit a site with seven arches, from where we enjoy a great view over the plain down there with the Champaner site. Driving further up we end up in a queue for entering a parking lot. Cars are parked here for going further with a cable car to another temple site. It is quite difficult to enter and exit, and the exiting cars block the entering cars. Finally we get a spot, and then go to the restaurant to have a meal.

Afterwards we have the privilege to see a panther who has recently (4 weeks ago) been captured from the wild. It has killed 4 people, and so they had to put it into a cage. It is not a black panther but a yellow one with black dots. In my opinion this would count as a leopard, but then I have been told that leopards are larger. When we approach the cage, the panther ferociously bites into the metal bars of the window, and she hisses loudly and angrily. The strategy to deal with this panther is to feed her very little so that she gets weaker, and then would not be a danger to people. In my opinion this is completely wrong: a hungry panther is so much more dangerous than a well fed one. There are enough cows running around which are of no use to anyone (because nobody here eats meat anyway), and they could feed this panther with some of those cows to make her really fat and lethargic. Then the panther would also be more happy. But my suggestion seems not to be welcomed...

We drive further, and after a few wrong turns and detours we reach the town of Lunavada, where we visit a friend of Piyush and Falguni who is a doctor. We have a tea, and he prescribes something to Brian against his chest cough. It is getting late already, and the sun has set as we take off for the final travel segment to the guesthouse which is located near a dam.

Very simple accommodations... our ladies share a room: the VIP Suite #3, and Brian and myself share room #7. Both rooms differ slightly in their amenities and their funishing.

We go to sleep early as we will have another early start tomorrow.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Seventh Day in India - Kite Flying Festival


On Friday is the kite-flying holiday. The university and all stores are closed, people are at home, on the roof of their houses, and let kites fly. Traditional food is chikki, a sweet desert: nuts bound together by crystallised brown sugar.


Brian is on this day on a tour with Dr Piyush, to visit an ancient well. The rest of us has been invited by Sunil to join him and his family for this event in the morning. He picks us up at 9:30, and first we visit one of his friends for a brief view of the kite flying frenzy in one of the neighborhoods in Vallabh Vidyanagar. Loud music, everybody on the roofs, flying kites. Unfortunately there is very little wind, so it is difficult to get the kites up.
Then Sunil drives us to his home, where it appears to be a bit more relaxed and quiet. We go to the roof of his home, were other members of the family and friends are there to fly kites. We unwrap our kits and also let them fly. Naturally there is tea being served.

Around noon Sunil brings us back to the guest house, he will in the afternoon visit other friends out of town. We have a lunch in one of the restaurants. Then we rest a bit in the guest house, before Dr Jadeja picks us up for a tea at his home. We meet his family and have a nice chat.

Then we walk back to the quest house, where we meet Asha. Then also Brian arrives back from his day trip. We discuss the further plans, then I upload quickly a few pictures. At 6:30 Kiran picks us up for meeting his family for a traditional dinner, with the festive vegetable dish Undhui. Delicious!

A great day, full of meeting people in their homes and enjoying their hospitality.