Monday, October 29, 2007

Sydney: We're going to be Randwick residents

We've made our first big decision on where to stay, and our first big payment after the tickets themselves. We've put a deposit down on a one-bed apartment in Randwick, a southern suburb about 20 minutes bus ride from the city centre.

We're on the edge of the Centennial Parklands where I really want to learn how to rollerblade with the kids. They already can, of course, and Letizia will probably take to it very easily.

We're also 10 minute bus ride from Coogee Beach which, as I'm told by many Aussie friends, is much nicer and family-oriented than nearby Bondi.

It's great to have this detail sorted out now. We can start to plan what we're actually going to do, and what kind of lifestyle and living pattern we can expect in Sydney. We've also decided to extend the stay to almost 5 weeks, and we've agreed our first (of hopefully many) rendez-vous with friends along the way (Giangi and Carla will join us for the last week in Sydney, and our road trip to and from Melbourne).

We've also made another decision with regard to Australia. We've gone over budget a little on the tickets to allow us an extra flight: to Cairns. After we return to Sydney from Melbourne, we'll bid arrivaderci to our Sardinian friends and get on a flight to Cairns. From that point we'll allow ourselves a week or so to get down to Brisbane where we'll torment Simon and Leah for 4 weeks.

It's finally starting to feel real.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Telecoms on the Trip: MaxRoam vs Vodafone

Skype will be the preferred method of communication wherever possible, but we'll need a fallback of mobile phones. The solution we'll go with in the end is a new product that's just come on the market. By complete coincidence they are based right here in Cork, Ireland. The company is called Cubic Telecom and their product is MaxRoam.

I've done as detailed a comparison as possible between using MaxRoam and sticking with Vodafone (with Passport), which I'll share with you below. The idea with MaxRoam is that you buy a SIM (for around Euro 25) and use this instead of your normal SIM. Cubic Telecom offer very low prices - based I belive on them finding the cheapest routes from where you are standing to where you want to call. I assume this is mostly using VOIP, but I honestly don't know. An added benefit is that you can associate more than one number from more than one country to a single SIM. That means that I can (have, in fact) bought a SIM and attached an Irish and Italian number to it. So not only will it cost us less to roam, it'll cost our respective families in Cork and Cagliari less too.

Vodafone's passport program is a vast improvement on what they used to offer to travelers. If you go to a covered country (and use a Vodafone partner network), you pay a fixed charge for incoming calls regardless of how long you spend on the phone, and you pay that same charge on outgoing calls, plus a per-minute charge the same as you would get back home (i.e. if you weren't roaming). However Passport is only available on a monthly payment contract, doesn't cover SMSs and doesn't let you use the free minutes of your package.

I've tried to calculate how much we are likely to spend in Australia and China for starters, but those results can be extrapolated to the other destinations. I've put together three possible usage plans representing three possible patterns of use that we might put our mobile phones to while on the road. All the details can be read on this Google spreadsheet right here. They get progressively more intensive, and Usage Plan 2 is heavily geared towards SMS message sending.

First Australia - all prices in Euros:

Note that this assumes that I'm always on a Vodafone partner network.

China, where Passport is not available, is more telling:

In the case of China, Vodafone would appear to cost me more that twice MaxRoam's service. To see the details of the Usage Patterns, and the calculations on which I based these graphics, see the spreadsheet. Do let me know if you think I've done either option some injustice.

As a general disclaimer, I'd like to say that these calculations are as accurate as I need to make them in order to choose a telecoms solution. I am not offering them as a definitive guide to either service. See the respective sites for the full details.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Prodi - You must be joking!?

This is off-topic somewhat, but the government of my adopted second home is planning something which I find deeply disturbing, disheartening, but somehow typical. A law is being tabled to provide for the Registration of Blogs.

I'm no peddler of 'bloggers rights' - it simply appears to me that the current Italian government, having taken a blog-based hammering from Beppe Grillo (who in my opinion is nothing more than another example of a long Italian tradition of opportunistic polemicists) now thinks that discouraging bloggers will solve their problems. Italian politicians are (again in my opinion) amongst the most far-removed from the people they serve: they know little of ordinary life, floating along as they do on cushions of state-paid benefits ("feeding from the public trough", as I have heard such things described), enjoying some of the highest political salaries in Europe, offering (often cynically) some of the more absurd policies, demonstrating time and again a level of ignorance and indifference that shocks even the likes of myself who lives in the quirky peripheral European state of Bertieland.

In the finest Berlusconi tradition, they are embarrassing the entire country by their actions. Public servants doing their usual disservice to their public. Sorry for the bitterness in my tone. I watched Le Iene last night (entertaining political exposé show on Mediaset) and it always leaves me feeling particularly angry with the Italian ruling class.

As they (apparently) say in Rome er più pulito c'ha la rogna (even the cleanest of them has scabies).

Sunday, October 21, 2007

More Nerdiness: Google Mashup Editor and Trip Map

I've been playing with Google Mashup Editor recently, with the transparently lame excuse of putting together a map of our trip that is driven from the trip's Google Calendar. Like any software engineer I'm allergic to doing anything more than once (in fact, to doing anything even once, if truth be told), and I didn't see why I should have to update a trip map and a calendar when there was everything a map could need already in the calendar.

GME is a bit of fun, but only the most basic of results can be achieved if you don't know (or want to know) how to write JavaScript code. I'm buggered if I know how it actually works in detail, but what it feels like is a specialized markup language that allows an easier alternative to the Map/Calendar JS API. Presumably it's all being converted into JS behind the scenes anyway.

The effort I put together reads the trip calendar, displays the entries in a list, and for any entry that has a 'Where' value, it tries to plot it. Given the amount of similar (but not quite the same) examples of GME code provided, it was quite straightforward. I've added a button to see where we are based on today's date, and I'll add another one later on to show where we will be on any given date.

At the moment the map's speech bubbles just show some placemarkers, but eventually they will be links to blog entries and images that are tagged with that location. It should make a good overall dashboard for anyone interested in following our movements. Here's where you can go to take a look (I've removed the itinerary map from the bottom of this blog and changed the Itinerary link on the right to point to the mashup).

PS: My wife Letizia is going to start blogging very soon (in Italian and English). I'll pass along the URL when it's up and running.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Review of I Am A Strange Loop, by Douglas Hofstadter

I Am A Strange Loop, by Douglas Hofstadter

Read this review to see why reading I Am A Strange Loop will change the way you read this review (to see why reading I Am A Strange Loop will change the way to read this review (to see...))

The CPU of my laptop is humming away as I type these words (well, the fan is humming, so I guess the CPU is busy too). It knows nothing of the download that I am making from the organic processor in my skull, but then again how could it? It's just a computer it only understands integer arithmetic, and cannot even begin to comprehend the stream of English that I am typing, undoing, retyping, as I try to find the best combination of words to allow you, the reader, to extract the same meaning from this text as I am trying to inject into it.

It has no idea, because it has no strange loop.

The computer is a universal machine - with the right instructions it can be made to represent any problem or perform any job. The power and depth of simple integers is enough to support a rich symbolic system where words, fonts, undos, files, hierarchies, images, conversations, rules, commerce, relationships, humans can all be modelled to some degree of useful granularity. As I type, I'm not thinking about the encoding of each character into binary representation, or the i/o system that supports the notion of directories and files under which those binary values will be stored. I don't think twice about the electromagnetic physics that lies behind that storage mechanism, or the the conversion of these stored integers into electrical or optical pulses to be sent along copper and fibre optic cables between my laptop and wherever the corporate abstraction called Google decides to keep it (I'm using Google Documents). In fact as I try to descend into these details, in order to write the last few lines, I find it difficult. It feels unnatural for humans to leave our world of the virtual, and think about its physical nature! We must be unnatural creatures.

Some people (most perhaps?) believe that we are in fact supernatural creatures. In a sense I can believe it. The prefix super- has the following dictionary definitions:

  1. something larger, stronger, or faster than others of its kind.
  2. over, above, on
  3. exceeding the usual limits
  4. a more inclusive group or category
  5. in addition to, over and above
  6. greater in size, quality, number, or degree, superior

We humans have a soul that is larger than those of other sentient species on planet earth, which sits on, and usually reigns over the natural infrastructure that supports it. We exceed, in good and bad, the limits that confine our fellow species, and include in our virtual realm of ideas everything that we can directly perceive around us, and sometimes distant particles and concepts that arrive to us only very indirectly. In addition to the duties of basic survival and reproduction, we strive to create, to work, to understand, even to love. When we suceed in this, - even when we fail and collapse into destruction, apathy, ignorance or hate - we do so on a level that is superior to any other organism on earth.

But our virtual super-nature sits on a natural physical substrate as surely as the abstraction of this file sits on one of Google's estimated 126,000 integer-arithmetic CPUs and 5000Tb of memory*. And while a degree in computer science allows me a glimpse and a glimmer of how a machine that only knows arithmetic can serve me in writing and publish an article like this, there are just too many abstractions between my self and the brain that underpins it, for me to comprehend how this self can have these thoughts in the first place. I am trapped at this level of abstraction.

Every now and then, however, someone comes along with the imagination to think about thinking, and the communication skills to rattle the bars of this abstraction cage, and offer a slightly longer glimpse at the architecture of the soul. Douglas Hofstadter is such a soul, and I Am A Strange Loop is a book which, even if it doesn't change your life, will at least offer you an insight into why, sometimes, books can change your life.

We now return you to the normal programming schedule.

* Just to be clear: I don't believe for a moment that my brain is architected like a Turing or Von Neumann machine. I don't think that some morning Google will give birth to Skynet. I don't believe that I'm 'just' a computer.

Rated 5/5 on Oct 15 2007 by Brendan Lawlor

Review Tags: , ,

Rate this review or write your own at LouderVoice

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Bought the ticket!!

We have to go now. Just spend most of the SSIA on the RTW ticket. Came in a few hundred shy of 10 thousand Euro for the 4 of us, and that includes the Australian visas which the travel agent has offered to organize.

It's an e-ticket, which is handy - one thing less to lose/get stolen. Letizia had a bit of a brainwave at the last minute. If the ticket allows, we'll take a flight from Sydney to Cairns and drive down from there to Brisbane, rather than driving from Sydney. There were a thousand miles or so left over on the ticket so this seems like a good way to use them and see a bit more of Oz.

Sinéad in ForeignAFares in Carrigaline did a great job. Really knows her stuff and has been very available to us.

Easiest 10 grand I ever spent!

Monday, October 1, 2007

Reading ahead

Arthur Frommer says that the biggest mistake that most travels make is to not do a little bit of background reading before visiting a country. Well, he would wouldn't he, being in the travel writing business for the last 50 years or so. But it's hard to argue with this opinion. The first time I traveled around mainland Europe I found myself going from one gothic cathedral to the next. Well, you do, don't you.

But if you haven't understood the social, political and religious circumstances that led to their construction, and therefore don't get why it is that there will hardly be a comparable age again, then by the time you visit your fifth cathedral you won't give a flying buttress about anything except where the nearest bar is.

I promised myself a while back that I wouldn't read another book that wasn't to do with the trip. I broke it almost immediately of course. But I have been doing so little bit of research.

I've read a number of books on historic and modern China now, and I've moved onto some more about Australia. If anyone out there can recommend any books on New Zealand, Fiji, Chile, Bolivia, Peru or Argentina, then I'd love to hear back. In particular if there's anything that touches the three main themes of family, music or ecology, all the better.