Thursday 27 December 2012

Good book

I picked up a reference to this book on a blog that I was passing through recently.  It was included in a list that the blog writer had read and was recommending, and since I have an interest in China, her politics and how she is starting to make herself felt, I thought I'd take a look.

It is a thoroughly researched, detailed, clear and articulate exposition of China's past, current status, and  extrapolations and predictions as the what the future might hold.  It's as excellent a political book as I have ever read.   See other reviews here.   If the subject is of interest, don't hesitate.

Monday 24 December 2012

Pushing envelopes

I have been nervous playing music in front of an audience ever since I can remember.  I still vividly remember the terror of a school concert where, as a teenager, I played a Chopin waltz on the piano.

Since those times my working life often involved giving formal presentations to large audiences, and although I was nervous in the early days, my technique improved over time.  In the end, although I would sometimes get a bit nervous before presenting, this would never get in the way of a good result.   So it came as a surpirse (and a considerable disappointment) when, the first time I played my flute in front of an audience, the terror struck again.  I was shaking so much that my trembling jaw made its own, completely uncontrollable vibrato, and the overall result was, of course, a disaster.

In the grand scheme of things, not being able to play for an audience is not, at least for me personally, a big thing: it's not as if I'm ever going to be a professional musician.    But I find it frustrating not being able to share my love of a piece of music with a wider audience.  What's more, other people play in public without being reduced to gibbering wrecks, so it's clearly a personal, internal barrier that belongs to me.  So I set about trying to get rid of it.

I tried hypnotherapy, counselling, and above all, practice at getting out and playing.  The music school here is especially helpful, since they hold little informal concerts at the end of every term, and one is simply expected to play.  We have also hosted a couple of the flute courses run by the inspiring teacher Wissam Boustany here at Les Hallais.  Wissam is a firm believer in playing from memory, or "by heart" if you like, and the wonderful concert he held at the end of his recent course inspired me to go for it.

So here, warts and all, is my first ever renditiion of flute music, in front of an audience and from memory.  The rehearsal was better than the concert, and the video isn't really as good as the concert, but such is the way of things.  2 Romances, from Op94 by Schumann.  With thanks to Wissam and to Sandrine, the wonderful pianist.

Friday 21 December 2012

Top marks to Maxwell and Williams

We chose Maxwell & Williams' White Basics range of crockery for the gîte.  It has a simple elegance that we both like, and being off-white, goes with any colour of furnishings or table setting.  However there is a problem that we didn't thnk about when choosing it: there are no French-based suppliers.

Breakages are inevitable, and to replenish our stocks this year, we had to have the new items sent to my sister's place in England, and pick them up when we went over.  (Thanks, sis, we're always grateful).  It happened that we ordered the necessary items at the end of October, and picked them up during our recent trip, in the middle of December.

The crockery was superbly packed but despite this there were two chipped plates.  These things happen.  So I telephoned the supplier (International Home Goods Ltd in Thrapston, the Maxwell & Williams distributor), explained the situation, and they shipped two replacement plates to arrive next day at our friends' house where we would then be staying.  They duly arrived.

Later on, we looked for, but didn't find, an invoice in the original box, so a second telephone call resulted in an electronic copy by email within the hour.

I reckon that this is excellent service.  The crockery shipped in October and we didn't collect it until December, and as far as IHG know, we could have been using it since then, and broken the plates playing frisbee.  No quibbles, and replacements that arrived on time, which was important since we were only there for one day.  First class.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Missing food

Our trip to the UK this last weekend was hugely enjoyable.  Visits to friends, family, with the special extra of celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary.  The wedding itself was organised in a bit of a rush, since we realised fairly late in the day that we were going to have been together for 25 years, and to hit the right date, we had to get our skates on.  So the centrepiece of the trip was a 3-star Michelin dinner and overnight stay at the Roux brothers' Waterside Inn at Bray, where we got married.

We commented that of the things we thought we might miss in moving to France, good food was not on the list.  And yet the impression whilst we were back in England was that we hadn't eaten so well since, well, the last time we were in England.  We ate fish 'n chips, a curry, a burger (Burger King, char-grilled), Chinese, Thai, as well as French.  Had we had any room left on the way to the ferry on Sunday night, there is also an excellent pizza take-away right near the Portsmouth ferry terminal.

OK, France doesn't do fish 'n chips, you wouldn't expect it.  And they do do burgers (Mac's and Quick are in Laval, but not Burger King, the best of the lot in my view), and if you want more American options, KFC have recently installed themselves, and there is a Buffalo Grill American-style steak/beef restaurant chain too.   And if you fancy Italian there is a perfectly acceptable Pizza Del Arte chain in Laval.  I should also mention chinese-style places too, often of Vietnamese origins.  They are all fine, and if you want French, there are all levels, including Michelin stars to be found.

Pictures: The chippie where we bought the fish & chips, and the seafront at Warsash where we ate them.

And yet.....

The fish 'n chips was perfect; freshly cooked in crisp seasoned batter, the Chinese take-away organised by our friends was not only delicious but delivered to their house.  The Thai, in an invisible Harry-Potter style space between two pubs, was beautifully spiced and presented (and available at 2:45 on a Sunday afternoon too).   Even the French food in England was better than anything we have eaten anywhere in France (though to be fair, more expensive too).

I accept that this comparison doesn't hold for Paris, and probably other big cities too, where you can get superb cuisine of all kinds.  Perhaps no small part of the difference is because we are, of our own choosing, out in the sticks.   Well, fair enough.  If you can find sticks to be out in in England these days, perhaps the choice and quality is limited there too. And perhaps I'm simply missing the spicy flavours, but I don't think it's just that.

But one thing I will say for sure.  The idea that the food available every day to the average person in England is in any way inferior to that available to the French isn't just outdated; it's just plain wrong.  If anything, it's the other way round.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Colour clash

Blue and green should not be seen
Without a colour in between.

Looks OK to me.

Thursday 6 December 2012

Decisions, decisions

We're always on the lookout for ways of promoting our gîte in a cost-effective way.   Being a large-ish place with catering provided, and best suited to groups, it doesn't lend itself to standard holiday promotion vehicles.  So we keep our eyes and ears open.

I got a spam phone call from a part of Ryanair yesterday.  The gist of the spiel was something like "we don't have enough places of your size in your area, so would you like us to promote you to our clients"   Well, yes, if it doesn't cost anything.

Now I don't know about you, but I tend to assume that someone who says "your size" and "your area" doesn't in fact know where you are or what size you are.   A second red flag is that Ryanair are trying to sell me something.  Mr O'Leary has a reputation for financial astuteness, so I'm figuring that in any deal between me and Ryaniar, I might well come off worse unless I keep my wits about me.

So it turns out that this guy is basically flogging space on a Ryanair holiday website, and he persuaded me to at least take a look at it, so I did.  After all, it might just be worth going for.  It looked pretty standard holiday stuff to me, and not really appropriate for what we do, but out of curiosity, I contacted one of the advertisers and asked them if the site worked for them.  This is the reply I got:

"No, always on vacation has not brought one single enquiry let alone a booking.
It's rubbish as far as I'm concerned."

Now it could be that this proprietor has found the Ryanair website to be a real goldmine and is lying through his teeth to keep the secret.  After all, I have no way of verifying what he said.   And a random sample of one can hardly be expected to be representative either.   But those are both risks that I'm prepared to take.   Some decisions are easier than others.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Eye question

We have (at least some of us, I guess) seen at some time, a diagram of the human eye focusing an image on the retina.  The image appears upside-down.   This is not a problem because the brain simply interprets the top of the eyeball as represening "down", the same direction as the feet, and the pull of gravity.

The brain's ability to "correct" or interpret this image has been demonstrated by getting people to wear prismatic glasses that invert the image back to "the right way up" on the retina.  People took a couple of weeks, but adjusted to it.

Now the human eyeball is basically a sphere, give or take a bulge at the lens, and the junction with the optic nerve.  It is rotationally symmetric about a line drawn from the centre of the lens to the opposite point on the back of the eye.  So images on the retina are inverted left to right as well.   Now there is no asymmetry to left/right like there is for up/down, so does the brain also correct for left/right reflection?  If it didn't for some of us, how would we know?  And would it matter?  How about left-handed people?   Am I missing something obvious here?

Monday 3 December 2012

Notes on a Galaxy Note

I have had a Samsung Galaxy II smartphone for a while now, and more recently, a Google Nexus tablet.  My wife has been enviously eyeing my Kindle app, the games, the stereo remote control, the pocket torch and all the other gizmos that you can get with Android.  But she doesn't want to carry two devices around, so she decided to get herself a Samsung Galaxy Note II, its intermediate size being neither too big to be a phone nor too small to be a book reader.   The stylus and handwriting recognition is a plus too.  This post is the story of its purchase and commission.

Why now?

Anita has had a very old (non-smart) mobile phone for a while, on a pay-as-you-go contract from Carrefour, a supermarket chain.  She never used it much; it was mostly for emergencies, and, if I'm honest, it was often out of earshot, or had a flat battery, or was left at home, or there was some other reason why just at that particular moment, it wasn't actually useful for anything.   However, it had "minutes" available to spend, if needs be.

Recently, Anita found that her spare minutes of credit had disappeared.   On going to the Carrefour website, she learned that the contract had been taken over by Orange, and in doing so, her accumulated credits had been zeroed.   Not happy; no text messages of warning, no announcement, or letter received, nothing.   But, with a 70 euro voucher if she bought a Galaxy Note before 1st December, perhaps now was the time to indulge.

Why Orange lost the deal.

Orange operate the network for my mobile phone, and they also provide the internet ADSL line to the house, so they are well-placed for additional business.  Also, when I bought the phone a couple of years ago, I walked into the Orange shop in Laval, and walked out a while later, somewhat poorer, but with a fully-working phone.   This might sound trivial, but it can be hard to achieve in France.

The bottom line for Orange is that they didn't do any low-usage, low-cost mobile phone deals.  Nor did they offer any kind of all-in-one internet-plus-two-phones deal that might have made them attractive.  They do do a complicated business package that, since we run a gîte, we could have gone for, but I run the WiFi service for gîte customers down the same line, I manage the firewall and security, and these require some specific settings in the ADSL router.  I have encountered Orange tech support before, and I simply don't trust that shower to install a new "Livebox" (internet router, Ethernet switch, and generally useful gadget) to my satisfaction, and to get it running without at least a week of stress and probably no internet connection for at least the same period of time.

In the end, I tend to hold that if they can't be bothered to meet the needs of their existing customers, I can't be bothered to deal with them.

Why Free didn't get the deal

We therefore walked into the Free shop in Laval when they opened after lunch on Tuesday afternoon.  We only had to wait until 2:30.   Now I like Free as an outfit.  I read somewhere that France is the most profitable country in all of Europe for mobile phone operators.  I wonder how that happens?  Free is the upstart, the newcomer, and you could tell that they were offering something the public wanted and that the cozy cartel didn't like, by they way the mainstream media attacked them when they had some teething troubles arising from the enormous takeup when they launched.

Free has also been attacking the "all-in-one" phone-plus-connection deals offered by the other operators, on the basis that it includes a hidden phone hire-purchase agreement, and should therefore publish interest rates, etc.  An interesting argument; they have a point, it will be interesting to see how that pans out.  In the mean time, Free will do you a credit deal on a Galaxy Note, and then sell you the data+voice connection that you want.

A notice on the door advertising an urgently-needed sales assistant didn't promise a speedy service, but we were second in the shop so we only had to hang about for about 15 minutes to get served.

Anita had been to the Free website, according to which, to keep her old phone number she needed something called a “relevé d'identité d'operateur” or RIO.   She called the appropriate number and got this code from Carrefour.  So, armed with credit card, old phone, RIO code and personal ID (French driver's licence), we were hoping for a "one-stop" transaction.

Well, Free didn't have the Galaxy Note in stock, but you can order one.   To order one, you must have a Free mobile phone contract.  Well, OK.   But the sales guy couldn't make the RIO work, and therefore wanted to charge 10€ to to open a new line.  At this point, since everything (SIM and phone) was going to be sent by post anyway, and the phone was not particularly cheap from Free, she decided to just buy it all over the internet.

We walk out of the Free shop without a phone.  The queue behind us waiting to be served was, by this time, enormous.

****Interlude*****   Getting the RIO to work.

The RIO was apparently not valid because Carrefour's mobile operation had been transferred to Orange, which meant that the RIO number had been changed.   Guided by the Carrefour website, Anita sent an email to to request a valid RIO.   After no response in 24 hrs, she eventually she found a phone number to call, who referred her to another Orange service that she then called, who gave her a new RIO that worked.  One email, 2 website visits, two phone calls. Then two different RIOs arrived two days later by text and email, only one of which corresponded to the one given over the phone.

How Bouygues won it

The buying process has been reset to zero at this point, so she might as well look around to make sure she is going for the best offer.  Amazon were doing the best price on the Galaxy Note (50€ cheaper than Free), so she ordered it from them, paying a bit extra for fast delivery to be sure that the 70€ discount voucher would still be valid.

Bouygues telecom are advertising heavily their "B&You" services.  Their website is friendly and the offers are competitive.  So they get the deal.  SIM and phone are now ordered, SIM scheduled to arrive by the 4th December.

Getting it to work

It so happened that both the SIM and the phone arrived on Friday 30th November.  Top marks to Bouygues for exceeding customer expectations, and a "satisfactory" rating to Amazon for meeting them.  It's also all here in time for getting the 70€ discount from Samsung.  Things are looking up.

You can't use the phone until the battery is charged, which is a frustrating wait, but unavoidable.  Meanwhile she visits the Bouygues website to "unlock" the SIM.   They promise to send an SMS with the code.  (Where to??)  Bouygues say the old number can't be transferred until Monday but a few hours later send an email giving a temporary number to use until then.  It works!  Test calls are made to and from the shiny new device.

Now to connect it to the home WiFi.  Problem.  Once the WiFi security is set up, the phone fails to connect to it.  It just sits in an endless loop: Scan for networks-->request IP address--> turn off WiFi-->turn on WiFi-->scan for networks.   An internet search tells me that other people have experienced this problem, and it's not just something wrong with our network.  Besides we have four other devices using the WiFi without a problem.

Samsung tech support

Telephone call to Samsung tech support.  I happen to have the number to hand following a problem with my galaxy SII a while back.  Top marks to Samsung tech support for being available at 4PM on a Saturday, despite having a complicated automatic call routing system to navigate before reaching a live person.  Once Anita has persuaded the girl that the problem is not our network, the proposed action is to install Kies on her computer and use this to bring the phone's firmware up to date.

Kies is Samsungs's software for managing synchronisation of files with your home PC, and it also serves to update the firmware of your devices.   Anita downloads the Kies software and installs it (A few hours).  Once installed, however, it fails to achieve a connection between her PC and the Note, even though we leave it connected for a couple of hours while we go out.  When we get back later that evening, I try the same thing with my more poweful laptop.  A connection is eventually achieved and I leave the firmware update running overnight.

The next morning, the firmware is updated, but the phone still does the same thing.  At last, after looking around on the net a bit more, I solve the problem by changing the WiFi channel used by the router from 6 to 5 (a random choice after a couple of posts suggested trying changing the channel, or using one numbered less than 11).  I really shouldn't have to do that.  How many people know how to change their router's WiFi channel?

The Samsung discount

So now to the Samsung website to register the voucher and claim the discount.  The November offer has been superseded by an equivalent December one, so it takes a while to find the right website page but, as promised, this can still be done until 15/12.  But clicking on the link to fill in the online form, takes you to an account setup page first, then you have to wait for an email with a confirmation link to click.   This takes about an hour to arrive.   

Now the online form can be completed, which offers 5 unexplained versions of the grey phone - is it a Galaxy Note II BOG, or XEP, or SFR,  etc?  We chose BOG since it's a bog-standard phone.  I hope Samsung are not hoping for good results from a detailed sales analysis.

When it comes to entering the company we bought it from, the site does not accept the 4 digit Luxembourg postcode of Amazon EU, the holding company for, who sent us the bill.  We fudge this by adding a zero so the form can be printed and sent off, together with a RIB bank form for the reimbursement to the bank, a copy of the bill AND the product bar code sticker.   This sticker does not come off without tearing - why not if they want it back?  Not a satisfactory experience.  Fingers crossed for the discount.


As of Sunday morning, Anita is venting her frustrations by bombing the crap out of some green pigs,  (Star Wars version - fun, and with a great sense of humour) and it seems that, barring actually getting her old number back, and the inevitable hassles of setting up new apps for Facebook, Kindle, etc. everything is finally as it should be.

But this was way too hard.

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