Monday, 13 February 2006

Travel: not so exhorbitant

Some good news for residents of the Outer Hebrides. Soon - hopefully - we'll no longer be fleeced like a sheep on Borve Hill for flying back to the mainland.

According to a BBC news story today, air fares to the mainland for residents will be subsidised by 40%. Hopefully this will go through, and there won't be any restrictive terms and conditions. At the moment, air fares start at a reasonable price, and finish at a ridiculous price of over 300 quid for a return to Glasgow (a trip that takes 40 minutes on each leg). Last year I went from Berneray to San Fransisco; it cost me more to get to Glasgow, than it did from Glasgow to California. Madness.

I am wondering how people will be asked to "prove" residency; that part could be interesting. We know some nice people who run a (very good) hotel not far from here that offers a discount for residents of the Outer Hebrides. They frequently get requests for the discount from people who moved off the islands decades ago, or have a third cousin or some other distant relative "somewhere on Lewis".

As a side point, it's a bit of a cheek for VisitScotland to complain that it doesn't apply to tourists, considering their miserly amount of publicity for the Outer Hebrides. The proportion of content on their website is pathetic, badly written, and with basic primary school level mistakes.

Saturday, 11 February 2006

Bad weather at last

The peat fire was still a-roaring at midnight last night, so did my occasional treat and slept in front of it (our futon/sofa being dead handy for this kind of thing). Big fire (26 degrees according to our Ardmaree Stores thermometer/clock thing), a box of wine (it was cheap), and a large supply of as yet unwatched Japanese and Korean horror films.

Fell asleep in the early hours, to be awoken several times by rain. Hard rain. The kind of rain that makes you think that someone is throwing buckets of pebbles at your window.

This morning, wake up, and everything is bright and sparkly in the damp. The sun has just come out, changing the colours of the sea outside from an emerald green to a lighter, sand-just-under-the-water colour.

Monday, 6 February 2006

Raining on my broadband

Got up to find a strange and unusual sight out of my window.


It's been so long since we'd had any - at least during the daytime - I'd forgotten what it looked like. It's not heavy, and the winds still haven't picked up (another record; we haven't had a good gust of wind for at least 12 days now), but it's rain never the less.

This also means that our broadband aerial et al works when wet. Which is good. We still have the intermittent "red bar" problem, but after a few phone calls (in both directions) last week, it looks like someone will be coming out to hopefully fix it once and for all this week. Apparently there are a lot of installations planned for the next week in North Uist and around, which is good - the more the merrier.

Here on Berneray itself, there's more people than we reckoned either ordering it, or seriously thinking of getting it. Our near-neighbours (who had it installed the day before us) have now got a wireless system working, running several PCs and a PSP (Sony handheld game console) through their broadband connection. Which is cool.

Saturday, 4 February 2006

Google Earth: review

It takes a lot to make my jaw drop nowadays, but Google Earth is one such thing.

First, you *need* a broadband connection. Dial-up or ISDN is simply not an option. And when you are using it, be aware that it furiously downloads data, so if you have a monthly download limit you will need to keep an eye on it.

You start with a picture of the world, in globe form. You can manually turn the globe around, and zoom in or out, or you can type in a location, and watch as you hurtle groundwards towards the location.


With most US cities, and many other cities around the world, you can zoom in to a scarily detailed level. Perhaps surprisingly, a few sensitive military areas in the UK (which are often blanked off the Ordnance Survey map) appear in full detail on Google Earth, which probably doesn't go down too well in the MoD and MI5.


Nearer home. Here's an overhead view of North Uist and, over to the right, Berneray. Yes, there are that many beaches - and that's only a small part of the local area. And yes, the sands on the beaches really are that colour.

Caveats. The level of detail is very variable. Worcester (the city I went to school in) and Bath (where I worked in UKOLN) have no detail at even medium levels of granularity. Different areas of a country have different contrasts, pertaining to the "local" batch of satellite pictures that Google uses.

Also "hotspots" are a mixed blessing. People can add a hotspot to a location, which contains a little note (for example, a link to a webcam for that location). Some of these are good and add value. Many, however, are a pain in the butt, of variable quality and cluttering up the screen. Unfortunately, someone in Starbucks seems to have thought it was a good idea to note the location of every branch in certain cities, which can create a devastatingly large number of entries. Some quality and editorial control is obviously required.

However, these are minor gripes. Overall, the system is stunning. This morning, I zoomed in on the hotel I stayed in in San Francisco, right down to the clearly identifiable window of the room I stayed in. I then moved north a bit, then followed the tramline along California Street eastward until I came to a cable car. From there, I hopped over to the Golden Gate bridge, the detail on which was scarcely belieable. From there, we hopped to other cities we've been to (Stockholm, Lisbon and Madrid were most impressive), the huge level of detail being a strong aide memoire to previous holidays.


And, the icing on the cake. You can "tilt" the view so you are looking at an angle. Plus, it's easy to move at a constant speed, thus enabling you to do flyovers. In this screenshot, I'm doing a fly over the Outer Hebrides. There's Berneray, nearest to us with the causeway connecting it to North Uist. In the distance over the Sound of Harris are the various beaches on the west coast of Harris.

What happens if/when Google manage to get high resolution maps of everywhere? Combine this with high speed wireless networking, and you've got an atlas accessible through whatever mobile device is the flavour of the month? Perhaps this is a battle on the horizon, in a similar way to how Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia seem to be engaged in low-level "quality and comprehensiveness" tussle.

As a final point; back to that fly-through. This is something that the tourist board here could and should capitalise on. Want to see how beach-oriented the Outer Hebrides are?
- start at Castlebay in Barra, Scotland
- tilt the map so you are looking roughly north
- zoom back out so you are at between 7 and 10 thousand feet up
- tootle over Barra and follow the beaches of the Uists and Harris north
- book your ticket online and check out some of those beaches for yourself...

Broadband: one week on

It's been a fun few days here in An-Caladh, as the first full week of having broadband has now passed. During that time we've done a heck of a lot of things that we wouldn't have considered, or only done very reluctantly, on dial-up:

  1. Updated all our virus and security software and added some new stuff.

  2. Updated all our media players and viewers (Adobe reader to version 7, Windows Media Player, Real time player, Quicktime player). One of these was a 20Mb download, which took all of 3 minutes on broadband.

  3. Watched some live TV news from various stations around the world. Nice to get a local perspective on the latest oil tanker to run aground on Alaska.

  4. Had a look at a lot more shops that offer online shopping. We are very experienced at doing online shopping, as:
    - we don't drive
    - we work from home, so one of us is in for deliveries
    - on principle, it helps to keep the local postal delivery service viable
    - carefully shopping around can keep costs for various items down
    - going all the way to Inverness and Glasgow and hauling shopping back, in terms of time and faffing about, strikes me as utter madness when Effie the postie or the friendly D.R.MacLeod man can drop it in to our house.
    - the cardboard packaging goes to lay the next days fire

  5. However, many online shops are so slow as to be almost unusable on dial-up (I hope Boots the Chemists are reading and take note), and we'd settled on a small number of familiar and well-designed sites that are quick to load. Now we have broadband, we've started to go back and try some of the more cumbersome online shops.

  6. Watched various clips from the Scottish Screen Archive.

  7. Gone back to Robin Wilson's website and worked our way through the various quicktime movies he has of the Outer Hebrides. He's got a cracking one (with stereo sound) of the west beach of Berneray. Oh, and another cracking one of the same beach and the machair. I still can't believe I actually live just a short and pleasant walk from those!

But the highlight of the week has been Google Earth, which is utterly addictive. More of that in my next entry...