Archive for April, 2007

Wi-Fi on BART

Thursday, April 26th, 2007

I’ve been out of the country, so I can only watch from afar, but Glenn ran a story about getting 802.11 on BART, provided by a company called Wi-Fi Rail.

I was interested, so I clicked through to find out more about the network. According to the WiFi Rail site, the network covers “Embarcadero, Montgomery Street, Powell Street, and Civic Center, and the the tubes between Civic Center and Powell Street.” That’s not quite as good as the existing area covered by the cellular network between Civic Center and Embarcadero that I have been using with my T-Mobile data subscription. (I certainly hope that the speeds are better.)

Wi-Fi Rail is asking a hefty amount ($10/day, $30/month, or $300/year). For just four stations (and the tube link between only two of them), there’s no point in buying the service a higher price than my T-Mobile HotSpot subscription. For one subscription, I would prefer to work continuously through the hour-long train ride. The cell data connection is available in the downtown corridor and in the above-ground areas of the East Bay, so it covers a bit more than half of my journey. To pry open my wallet, WiFi Rail will need to get coverage for more than half of the journey, perhaps by partnering with other hot spot networks. (They will also need a better roll-out schedule than was promised in this November 2005 San Francisco Chronicle story on the cellular network.)

The big problem for the train deployments is how to connect train riders to the Internet as they move. Typically, a train deployment will use Wi-Fi on the inside, linked up to one of a variety of backhaul technologies. The WiFi Rail web site doesn’t talk about how the train riders are linked up. My guess, given that I haven’t seen antennas in the trains, is that in-train service is provided by the APs on the platform, perhaps with antennas to get coverage down the tunnel. Spacing between the downtown stations is about half a mile, and the tunnel is nice and straight. If WiFi Rail is using the APs to provide service in tunnels, they will probably use a a fancy antenna (either a distributed antenna system or a “leaky coaxial” antenna) to get good-size coverage from a single AP.

Service is apparently free during the trial period. When I tried to sign-up, here’s what I saw when I handed over an e-mail address:

Wi-Fi Rail sign-up error

I hope the service is provided more robustly than the sign-up…

I am in good company as a tax procrastinator

Wednesday, April 18th, 2007

I own some foreign stock that pays a dividend, and the company that provides account services recently advised me that they had issued the 1099 form reporting the dividend had mistakenly not reported the foreign tax withheld. (They also can’t get my address right, but that’s a longer-running problem.) I needed to file for an extension while they get their act together. Apparently, I’m not the only one looking for the extension form. When I hit the IRS web site, I saw that the extension form, 4868, was at the top of the search results on the last day to file:

IRS most requested forms

So, apparently, I’m in good company with lots of other people who are putting off the final day of reckoning.

Po Lin Monastery

Saturday, April 14th, 2007

On this trip, I read somewhere that about 80% of Hong Kong is undeveloped. You’d never know it if you spent time in the traditional tourist areas on the Island or Kowloon, both of which are uniformly tall. when I first visited Hong Kong in the early 1990s, Mong Kok was the most densely populated area in the world, with a density equivalent to shoving New York City into Central Park.

The Po Lin Monastery is in a remote area of Lantau island. The MTR stops well short of the monastery. Many guides will tell you that you need to ride a bus from Tung Chung station, but there’s a new cable car that goes almost straight there over the mountains and takes about a third of the time (though it costs five times as much).

The most famous attraction is the gigantonormous Tian Tan Buddha, shown here with humans to make its immense scale obvious:

Tian Tan Buddha

More in the Po Lin gallery. There’s more to the monastery than the Buddha. A short walk over a paved trail will bring you to the Wisdom Path, a poem carved into tree trunks arranged in a figure-8 loop.

Free Internet access at Hong Kong International Airport

Saturday, April 14th, 2007

There are multiple wireless networks at the Hong Kong International Airport, but most of them cost money. If you want free access, go to gate 2, which is right underneath The Wing, the Cathay Pacific business-class lounge. You can hop on the free network without being in the lounge, and the signal strength is very good since it’s not walled in on the level above.

disown is my new favorite bash command

Saturday, April 14th, 2007

One of the biggest annoyances I’ve had with using nuvexport is that the latest version doesn’t work well with nohup. It used to be that I could run “nohup nuvexport” in one window and “tail -f nohup.out” in the other, and use the tail command to view the output of nuvexport and enter the right prompts. Then, when I was all done with the shell, I could just log out, and nohup would keep the export ticking along.

Well, the new nuvexport doesn’t work with nohup. Fortunately, Google led me to Rob Newcater’s BasicallyTech blog, where I learned about the magic of disown in bash. It’s much more convenient than using nohup because if I forget to start the job in the correct way, I can background it and disown it without restarting from square one.

Man Mo Temple

Saturday, April 14th, 2007

Today before dinner, I stopped at the Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road in the Sheng Wan area of Hong Kong. The temple was built in the 1800s to honor Man, the god of literature, and Mo, the god of war. Incense is the food of the gods, and so there is plenty of it to keep them from going hungry. The temple uses coiled incense, so the effect is like a building full of smouldering lampshades:

Incense coils at Man Mo Temple, Hollywood Road, Hong Kong

There was so much incense that I could only stay in the temple for a couple of minutes before my eyes were watering too badly to see straight. Click the picture to go through to the main gallery and see more.

Pay phones, as seen through the balance of capital and labor

Thursday, April 12th, 2007

Several years ago, I took an introductory economics class from John Mutti. One of the basic principles that was discussed frequently, but often hard to illustrate in a concrete way, is that the relative abundance of capital and labor influences the mix of the two factors that will be used in any business.

I’m in China right now, where labor is relatively more abundant than in the United States. An economist would predict that businesses would use more labor and less capital, and you do get hints of that in the amount of labor used by hotels and restaurants. (I once ate at a restaurant in Jinan with a colleague, and the two of us were served by six staff members.)

Walking around yesterday, though, I saw the best example yet: pay phones. I’m used to pay phones being things you put coins in to get a dial tone. They’re sturdy, well-built devices that have to stand up to the abuse of patrons. As a result, they’re quite expensive ( will sell you one for $489, as I write this). Pay phones, as I understand them from my experiences in the developed world, are capital.

Not so in China. Here on the street, there are “public telephone” booths, which combine both traditional coin-operated phones and a table with several regular phones overseen by an agent. If you want to make a call, you pay the person inside the booth, and you get to use the phone. Here’s an image from the street yesterday. A woman is paying for the call she just made, and I believe the woman in the white hat is zipping up her wallet as she walks away after a call of her own. It’s exactly the sort of thing that an economist would predict. When labor is more abundant, it can substitute for capital. In this case, the labor of the person inside the booth is substituting for the capital equipment to collect coins.

Staffed pay phone in China

(Some of the booths even have signs that read “public telephone,” but sadly, not this one.)

Rules of the road in Guangzhou, China

Thursday, April 12th, 2007

I’m in Guangzhou, speaking at the China Education & Research Network conference. I gave a slight spin on my talk from Abu Dhabi, but the experience of being in China is a world apart. Here are a few snapshots from toting my camera:

During the trip from the railway station to the hotel I’m staying at, the vehicle I was in merged on to an elevated highway. As we were merging, I saw a bicyclist pedaling along with a trailer, with a dog sitting on top. The mental image was so unbelievable that even though the camera was powered up, I still had to swing around and take the picture out the rear window of the minibus.

Bicycle rider on expressway

After registering with the conference, I went for a short walk in the neighborhood of the hotel. To cross the streed, pedestrians need to cross a right-turn lane for cars. Even small pedestrians aren’t safe from cars that take the turn very fast, though they do at least appear to swerve for toddlers.

Toddler pedestrian

Traffic lights are also advisory. I’d heard the sound of whistles from the twentieth floor of the hotel, but it wasn’t until I got down to street level that I realized that traffic cops were directing traffic, even though the intersection of two six-lane roads has a traffic lights.

Police officer directing traffic

Bad airports

Thursday, April 12th, 2007

This week’s issue of The Economist has an article about London area airports. They write:

The airport consistently ranks near the bottom in surveys of quality of service and passenger satisfaction (see table). Terry Jones, of Monty Python fame, crooned his worries over Heathrow’s baggage-retrieval system in the 1980s and little has changed since then.

(The lyrics to the song are precious, because they put worry about the Middle East on par with baggage claim at Heathrow.)

For the record, the table has selected quality rankings for 35 international airports.

Rank Airport
1 Seoul Incheon
2 Hong Kong
3 Dallas/Ft. Worth
11 Brussels
16 Amsterdam
20 Sydney
28 Rome
32 Heathrow
33 Madrid
34 Moscow

I can agree with most of these. I’ve been to Seoul once, and it was a wonderful airport. I’ve used Hong Kong regularly, and my only complaint is that when I arrive on the San Francisco-Hong Kong flight from Cathay Pacific, it’s too early for any of the restaurants or shops to be open. I don’t understand how DFW makes the list for a good airport. The international terminal is very nice, but if you have to transfer to a domestic U.S. flight, you’re dealing with a Texas-sized airport that’s a pain to get around in.

The source for the survey is the Australian Airports Association, but they don’t collect the data. The best I could find was a reference to the Airports Council International’s program to measure Airport Service Quality. However, in a March 2007 press release, they say that Kuala Lumpur’s airport finished third. I went looking for the data because Moscow is legendary for bad airport experiences, so for Heathrow to only beat Moscow by two places says volumes. I used to like Heathrow, but that was before I was stuck using it as a business traveler. (I guess visiting London on vacation makes anything seem good!) It’s cramped, outdated, and I find that I frequently use the word “metastized” when referring to its layout.