Vieux Nice

September 7th, 2008

In June, after being in England and visiting Stonehenge on the summer solstice, I went to Nice, France for a Trusted Computing Group meeting.

After arriving, one of the first things I did was head for View Nice, the old part of town. Old city districts are easy to explore on foot. As one book I read several years ago put it, cities reflect the dominant form of transportation used at their construction. Walking means you get crowded districts with small paths, like Jerusalem. Horse riding leads to wider streets but often in a jumble, like Boston. Finally, by the time the car comes along, you get wide streets all intersecting at right angles with excellent visibility for drivers. In other words, you get Los Angeles.

Old city districts are built around foot transportation, and they have a small scale that really helps me as a photographer. It’s easier to fit a lot of action into a frame without using a super-wide angle lens, and it’s easy to move around. Vieux Nice is no exception. Here’s the bustle on one of the main roads leading in:

One of the challenges walking around Vieux Nice was the lack of street signs. There were, however, several plaques commemorating French citizens who fought in previous wars. I was particularly struck by this plaque, which recognizes a young man executed by the Nazis at the age of seventeen:

Streets in Vieux Nice are narrow, even for pedestrians. Here’s a typical street size, and the width on offer shrinks even farther when cafe tables or shop displays are put out in the street.

In spite of the narrow streets, there were a few cars that wandered the cramped streets of Vieux Nice. Here’s a tiny car trying to make its way by a pedestrian who seemed perfectly content to walk in the middle of the street.

However, the prize for showing how difficult driving in the old city came one night as I was dining at Nissa Socca. It’s a bit off the beaten path, on Rue Ste.-Réparate. As I was sitting outside, a Smart car crawled by and made a turn off the “big” street of Rue Ste.-Réparate on to a much smaller side street. At the right edge of this picture, you can see the small street, barely bigger than an alley. In fact, to make the turn, the Smart had to attempt it a couple of times and back up to get a better angle.

Just for fun, I grabbed a picture of the Smart after it made it into the alley. Smarts are tiny cars, and yet the small size of the streets in Vieux Nice required it to make multi-point turns.

Segways allowed back on BART

September 6th, 2008

Last month, I attended the public meeting of the BART board of directors. After an incident in June, BART temporarily banned Segways on safety grounds. After the accident, BART imposed a blanket ban on all Segway use while a more permanent policy could be developed.

The BART Accessibility Task Force recommended reinstating access for all riders, with some restrictions on the able-bodied. BART staff ignored the recommendation and proposed a policy that banned Segways permanently for all non-disabled users, while disabled users would be required to dismount and push their devices inside the stations. Restrictions were justified on the grounds of safety, with the exemption for the disabled required to avoid a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act. As a listener, I felt that if a blanket ban had been legally feasible, staff would have elected that option.

Seven members of the public, including me, spoke against the policy as an unnecessary restriction. Although I am not a Segway owner, I attended the board meeting to speak against the policy. For the past few years, I have considered buying a Segway to make short-range trips from my home to BART and nearby business areas.

After public comment, the board members discussed the proposed policy. Tom Radulovich was by far the most articulate speaker, and he had clearly thought more about the various issues involved. (I suppose this isn’t surprising, given his work with Livable City.) His common-sense idea started with the statement, “let’s treat people like adults.” With the increasing cost of automobile transportation, BART parking lots are getting full. By allowing riders to arrive at stations on bicycles or by Segway, BART could potentially reduce demand for costly parking. For many riders a car is the best option, but alternative vehicles are especially useful for the one to three mile range. Radulovich also argued that BART needed to avoid a situation where they made rules so restrictive that they would be encouraging riders to turn to cars instead.

Other directors supported Radulovich. Lynette Sweet pointed out that non-disabled riders were not creating problems and there was no justification for the ban. President Gail Murray mentioned a knee problem, and said that the morning had been eye-opening because she had learned about the Segway as a transportation option for her. Tom Blalock mentioned letters from other users, some of whom I recognized from the Bay Area Segway Group. One director has never seen a Segway on BART, and can’t believe that they are so numerous to be problematic.

The lone holdout was James Fang, who tried to get the staff policy adopted while promising to revisit it at a future meeting. However, he made it clear that he supported the restrictive policy as written. Bizarrely, he compared a restrictive Segway policy to airport shoe screening, arguing that both were conservative policies designed to prevent great harm. (Many security experts disagree with Fang on the shoe-screening policy, and much else about the TSA.) He also argued that it was appropriate to restrict able-bodied users more than disabled users, as a kind of affirmative action for past discrimination by BART against disabled riders.

After discussion, the BART board adopted a policy of permits. I applied for permits on the second day they were available, and I received permit #7. Now I just need to rent a Segway to see if it works for my commute. Further bulletins to follow…

Museums and photography

August 30th, 2008

Last week, I read about Thomas Hawk’s run-in (or is that “run-out”?) with SFMOMA, and I thought about several similar experiences I’ve had.

My gut feeling is that he was being targeted for using an SLR. I have often felt targeted when I started carrying an SLR, especially once I started mounting reasonably large zoom lenses with lens hoods. My most notable memory is from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which allows photography in its atriums, but not galleries. (That’s a fair policy, since much of the work exhibited in a museum will be on loan and the museum can’t give permission to photograph it.) After seeing a half-dozen people use point-and-shoot cameras with flashes enabled in an atrium, I pulled out my SLR and was immediately approached by a security guard who told me that the museum did not allow photography. When I pointed to the visitor brochure’s statement about photography, he told me that I could put my camera away or leave. I put away my camera, but I’m not inclined to go back.

Nearly all museums in Europe are much more forgiving, and many seem to encourage photography. The one exception I can think of is the Musée Matisse in Nice, where all of the work is still protected by copyright. When I visited this summer, the receptionist said that the museum didn’t allow photography because “Matisse’s grandchildren don’t want to work.”

The best photo policy I’ve seen at a U.S. museum is at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. In the visitor brochure, the museum allows photography without a flash for non-commercial use. If you want to sell photos, the museum includes an e-mail address and phone number to contact for permissions.

The 2008 Summer Solstice at Stonehenge

August 25th, 2008

Nearly two months ago, I happened to be in the UK for the summer solstice. English Heritage allows access into the inner stone circle four times a year. (Most of the rest of the time, including my visit in April, visitors must stay behind a rope.)

The first hint that it’s a huge event comes when you get near Stonehenge and notice all the signs for the solstice car park. I was one of the first cars into the car park, as you can see from the long line of cars extending into the distance here.

At 8 pm, access to the stone circle itself opened. There were several people in various costumes and garb. One of my favorites was this wizard hat.

Unlike my previous visit, the crowd was able to get up close to the stones, which is an electric feeling. The audio tour describes all the mysteries of the site, but you don’t really appreciate how massive the stones are until you start walking among them.

There is a small gateway composed of a pair of small pillars sticking up. Many people walked through the gateway.

Even though the terms of access to the site asked visitors not to touch the stones, it was an irresistable temptation for many people.

As many of the earlier visitors were walking in, a group called the Stonehenge Druids formed a procession and was playing bagpipes. Although I entered the site about the same time as the Druids, the physical exertion of producing music from the bagpipes meant they were walking much slower. The bagpipe players had some of the best cloaks at the celebration.

Around sunset, the Stonehenge Druids ran a short ritual, drawing a huge crowd into the center circle. A drum circle formed in the center afterwards, and the crowd settled in for the night. The weather was cold and rainy, and the ground was quite wet. At one point, I retreated to the car in the car park to take a nap. (As an aside, the absolute worst way ever to deal with jet lag is to stay up all night a few days after you arrive in the country.)

About 3 am, a few torches appeared in the distance near the Heel Stone. I didn’t expect much to come of it, since fire had also been forbidden. I wish I had headed towards the torches a bit faster, since the early-morning ritual was a well-done high-energy performance. It started with a group of dancers around a huge skull object.

Many of the participants in this late-night/early-morning ritual had fantastic costumes. My favorite was a torch-holder who had a moon-shaped mask. From the back, the moon face grinned. From the front, his face was painted to look like a skull. (In this picture, you can clearly see that the rain has picked up.)

As the crowd got into the ritual, somebody fired a green laser into the night sky.

The final act of the 3 am ritual was a belly dancer, who unfortunately concentrated on the other side of the cordoned-off area. (For a laugh, note that the man in the high-visibility vest is holding the crowd back. Follow his eyes towards the dancer.)

As the sun rose, the sky was still cloudy. Sunrise was indistinct, and hardly noticeable through the thick clouds. The crowd once again gathered in the center circle. At the small scale of this photo, it’s hard to see just how tightly packed the crowd is.

After the light had risen higher up in the sky, the 20,000 attendees filed back out to the car park. I went back to my hotel and slept for a few hours before moving on to my next airport. For the next week of the trip, my sleep pattern was disrupted. If I were to attend a Stonehenge open site again, I would try and arrive in the country a bit earlier.

Airport security, done right

July 31st, 2008

I often travel with a tripod because it is absolutely necessary to capture stunning night images, like the night shot from Victoria Peak in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, tripods usually feel like they’re in a gray area as far as airport security goes. Most countries have a catch-all category where “anything that’s not on the list that the screener says is a threat to security can be stopped.”

I recently attended a Trusted Computing Group meeting in Nice, France. When I wasn’t working, the food was astounding and the photography was simply amazing. Provence is blessed with some of the best light I’ve ever seen, and colors pop like nowhere else I have visited.

Unfortunately, when it came time to leave Nice, the airport security screener decided that my tripod represented a threat to French aviation security and required that I check my bag of photographic equipment. I was surprised by this because I have visited a dozen airports in Europe in the past year, all of which have allowed my tripod in cabin luggage. I had a bit of heartburn checking my camera equipment just before the bag cut-off, knowing that I would have to fetch it at baggage claim at Heathrow (if it even arrived).

When I returned home, I wrote a letter to the Nice airport requesting clarification on whether my photographic equipment was allowed. I mailed my letter just after the July 4 holiday. For good measure, I sent a similar letter to the Nice convention and visitor’s group. One of the main draws to Provence is the scenery, and clamping down on serious photography could potentially affect tourism.

Much to my amazement, I received a letter back from the airport today:

The key paragraph of the letter is the second to last one, which reads (in the original French):

Suite à votre lettre, nous avons réuni les services compétents de l’Etat, et il a été décidé d’assouplir ces mesures. Nous allons donc demander aux agents de Sûreté de ne plus retire les trépieds d’appareil photos. Vous pourrez donc emporter votre trépied en cabine lors de votre prochain voyage à partir de l’aéroport Nice Côte d’Azur.

My rough translation of this is:

After your letter, we have met with the relevant government officials, and have decided to change our security measures. We will ask that security agents no longer stop tripods and photographic equipment. On your next trip from the Nice Côte d’Azur airport, you may take your tripod in your cabin luggage.

A few thoughts on the letter I received:

  • My response appears to be personal and is in no way a form letter. It directly addresses my comments on the security experience and the questions I asked.
  • I received a response in less than three weeks, which included the French national holiday and two trans-Atlantic mail deliveries. I don’t think I’ve ever received a response to a complaint from a government body in the U.S. in just three weeks.
  • French airport officials have changed their policies based on traveler feedback! (And a foreign traveler, no less.) I can think of at least one airport security agency that doesn’t care what travelers think.
  • I once wrote to the Transportation Security Administration because I had a question on whether my rugged internal-frame backpack would be allowed on airplanes. I began my letter with a statement to the effect of “I have a question about whether an item that is not mentioned on the TSA’s lists…” The response was to send me the same list that I had written about, and indeed, the list about which I was seeking clarification.
  • When can I go back to Nice?

The Wi-Fi Summer 2008 meeting social

June 13th, 2008

Sven Mesecke arranged for his employer, Buffalo, to sponsor the social event. Sven showed up with his daughter Abby, proving that we start working on developing wireless engineers young!

Our even was held at Stubbs’s Bar-B-Q, and featured some of the live music that Austin is famous for. I haven’t gone to that many concerts, so it was a bit of an eye-opening experience to be in the room with the enthusiasm and energy of the bands. Young Abby introduced the first band of the night, The Ginn Sisters:

Following a break, Guy Forsyth took the stage. Due to the heat, I had to flee the crowded area downstairs for the relative cool of the less crowded upper floor:

Throughout the evening, people were playing pool. I’m sure that the pool table was attractive in part because it was located inside the air-conditioned area. Here’s Dave Stephenson preparing to break:

It was an awesome event. My only problem was that a meeting the next morning was of interest, and 8:30 am in Austin is 6:30 am for an out-of-state Californian. I had to leave before the second set was done just to get to bed at a reasonable hour.

Best BART delay ever!

May 28th, 2008

I am writing this from a delayed BART car that was mis-routed this morning. As we traveled south from Oakland, the Dublin/Pleasanton-bound train didn’t make the turn over the mountains and headed south to Fremont. The train operator had to stop the train, turn it around, and get us back on the right track, which cost us about 15 minutes. Given that it happened during rush hour, I also wonder how much having to move our train out of the way caused delays to cascade through the system. I’m used to BART delays, but this is my first train mis-route.

The difficulties in building a conference wireless network, TERENA TNC edition

May 19th, 2008

It’s hard to build a conference wireless network. I’ve built a few over the past five years, and it is always a big engineering challenge. As you build the network, you refine your plans. When users arrive and start sending traffic, you refine your plans. As loads ebb and flow, you refine your plans. I won’t say it’s easy, but it is a well traveled path. Every major gathering of networkers requires wireless connectivity.

I’m accustomed to the user experience on wireless LANs built for industry trade groups like the Wi-Fi Alliance, the IEEE 802.11 working group, and the IETF. The Wi-Fi Alliance uses Michael Hijdra and his team at 2Fast4Wireless, and Verilan does work for both IEEE 802.11 and the IETF. This week, I’m speaking at the TERENA NetConnect conference. It’s only the first day, but I’ve had lots of trouble with the network.

First of all, the network uses web “authentication.” All of the conference attendees have been given a unique account, but the use of accounts is enforced by a captive web portal, not WPA. The Wi-Fi Alliance, IEEE 802, and the IETF all run an 802.1X network, though they also offer an option for unauthenticated access. It seems unfortunate to avoid using 802.1X at the TERENA TNC conference because TERENA’s Eduroam project has done a great deal to drive adoption of 802.1X, and many of the attendees are therefore familiar with 802.1X configuration.

When the plenary hall filled up, the performance went down very quickly. In the first eight minutes, I was disconnected four times. At eight minutes, the network connection gave up the ghost and quit working altogether. Before that point, I was seeing round-trip times that I hadn’t seen since the great AT&T frame relay outage of 1998, when round trips were measured in seconds from my then-office to, well, anywhere. Round trip times were also measured in second-plus range here, and are substantially higher even than the GPRS/EDGE network I use when commuting to work:

Reply from 4.2.2.1: bytes=32 time=2964ms TTL=246
Reply from 4.2.2.1: bytes=32 time=1050ms TTL=246
Reply from 4.2.2.1: bytes=32 time=1513ms TTL=246
Reply from 4.2.2.1: bytes=32 time=1464ms TTL=246
Reply from 4.2.2.1: bytes=32 time=3253ms TTL=246
Reply from 4.2.2.1: bytes=32 time=3448ms TTL=246
Reply from 4.2.2.1: bytes=32 time=753ms TTL=246
Reply from 4.2.2.1: bytes=32 time=1575ms TTL=246
Reply from 4.2.2.1: bytes=32 time=1469ms TTL=246
Reply from 4.2.2.1: bytes=32 time=228ms TTL=246
Reply from 4.2.2.1: bytes=32 time=1538ms TTL=246

(4.2.2.1 is one of my favorite test IP addresses. It’s short, quick, easy to type, and it belongs to a highly redundant DNS server so it is almost always there.)

In the plenary, I was sitting towards the back of the room. As it became clear that the network was failing, people closed up their laptops in frustration. In the afternoon session, an attempted demonstration was aborted due to network performance problems. In all of the rooms, Windows reports low signal strength, so some of the performance problems could be due to AP placement constraints.

Last but definitely not least, there are two network names in use. A sign posted at the plenary room indicates that the split is used for load balancing, and instructs us to use the appropriate one based on user name:

I have connected to both networks, and they appear to use the same DHCP server. This is probably a misguided attempt at broadcast containment and/or load balancing. The Wi-Fi/IEEE 802/IETF networks use a single SSID and let the infrastructure figure out load balancing in a way that is transparent to the users.

A pair of funny wireless network names

May 19th, 2008

I recently had a breakfast meeting in Daly City, and my host picked the location. We met at a restaurant that is right next to a residential area. I arrived first, and when I opened my laptop to start work, I saw several wireless networks available.

I chuckled slightly when I saw the following network name:

A few days later, I was visiting the dentist’s office. Upon opening up a Mac, I was greeted with the following message:

Ahem. Well, I guess it is a matter of trust…

Free Wi-Fi in airport lounges

May 12th, 2008

Danny McPherson has written about Wi-Fi access in the “refugee camp” that is the SFO Red Carpet Club.

Having independently discovered last week that Red Carpet Club members could now get Internet access for free via T-Mobile, I was eager to get online in an airport without having to drop another $9.95 to T-Mobile…

Although I’m an elite flyer on United, I am a more elite flyer with American. The Admirals Club (American’s counterpart to the Red Carpet Club) has promoted their Internet access much better. Members all received multiple mailings, and guests who buy a day pass get a card with a code on it.

American partnered with MobileStar for access in the Admirals Club in the late 1990s. Until this year, the network continued to operate only as a T-Mobile hotspot. Now, the T-Mobile hot spot operates in parallel with the captive portal for the Admirals Club. Like the Red Carpet Club, all you need is a magic membership number:

To login, all you need is the United Mileage Plus number of the primary Red Carpet Club account holder [Ed note: In the American Admirals Club, it’s the AAdvantage number of the account holder]. Now, having long questioned the wisdom of a luggage tag that displays these numbers, be it a “hole-punched” Mileage Plus membership card, or a more obvious oval-shaped Red Carpet Club tag, I’m even more wary now…

Fortunately, the Admirals Club luggage tags don’t have AAdvantage numbers on them. They do have a bar code that I assume can be translated easily into an AAdvantage number by American employees. On the other hand, if somebody is in the club, you can look for a regular luggage tag. Even on the plane, I bet you could do worse than by looking for the right color luggage tag. I would be willing to bet that most people with black elite luggage tags (Executive Platinum) are also Admirals Club members, and the likelihood only increases if you find somebody with a million miler oval.

I’ve yet to explore how difficult it would be to exhaustive search for valid numbers, or if multiple logins are permitted at a given time, or how far outside of the Red Carpet Club these numbers are valid, or…

As to the last point, the numbers are almost certainly valid as long as you can get to an AP. Although it is possible to build a wireless network that attempts to determine location and restrict services to a certain geographic area, the cost is quite high.

My experience is that the signal goes quite a long distance. Even before I forked over the money for an Admirals Club membership, I used their networks frequently. As a non-member, I could almost always sit in a gate area near the entrance and use the network. (I am a long-time T-Mobile hot spot subscriber through my cell phone plan.) In Chicago, I would sit in the hallway joining the H and K concourses, which was especially nice because there were usually unoccupied power plugs. At Los Angeles, I could sit at gate 41 and get a weak signal.

In the past, I tested whether T-Mobile’s hot spot network would support multiple simultaneous logins, and it does not. I have not tested whether the same is true for the captive portal they run for the Admirals Club. I would be surprised if that were the case because club members are allowed to bring guests, and it is likely that travelers with the ability to pay for an airline club membership have friends and family members who also have their own devices.