August 2009

Design and Free software and Writing31 Aug 2009 at 22:46 by Jean-Marc Liotier

Good old Issue 3959 got some minor activity lately as drhatch had an interesting insight :

I wish to call into question a fundamental assumption that has been made about this effort, the assumption that has held up development for years: that multiple layout capability must exist before outline view can be useful.

This is holding up outline view because multiple layout capability (issue 81480) is a big effort, and it, in turn, requires refactoring of writer’s usage of the drawing layer (issue 100875) and the latter has some significant technical difficulties. It seems unlikely that these issues will be finished soon.

The logic behind this assumption is that switching views will take too long if multiple layouts are not possible and/or most users will need simultaneous viewing for outline view to be useful. I disagree with both these assertions.

1. Simultaneous viewing is not necessary. I have been using Word’s outline view extensively for years without simultaneous viewing. Even though it’s possible with split screens, it takes up screen real estate that I want to use otherwise.

2. It won’t take that long to switch layouts [..]

I, for one, would much rather have an outline view soon, one that takes a couple of seconds to switch, and which is available only as a single view, than wait the extra time it is going to take for the multiple-layout refactoring to be finished. That would be enough for me for a long time.

This is a case of “perfect” being the enemy of “good enough”. Let’s just have “good enough” for a while first.

Is his experience anecdotal, or do people really seldom or never use Microsoft Word’s outline view simultaneously with another view ? Other users have chimed in, but me too contributions will soon be boring… So here is my attempt at helping quantify user expectations : this poll !

Of course, self selection by passionate users and links from OpenOffice forums will certainly bias the sampling beyond any semblance of representativity, but we’ll take that as better than nothing…

Africa and Cycling and Ghana and Travels30 Aug 2009 at 21:31 by Jean-Marc Liotier

We start at nine after Pauline had the full English breakfast she insisted on – it is horribly late and the sun is already way up, but at least she won’t complain too much about the usual lack of lunch. While she was eating I had a chat with the gardener about cycling in Africa, and he ensured me that there is a new village and a new bridge on the way to Prince’s Town. As if I needed more contradictory information about today’s trip !

We head downtown along the old coastal road. That way there are less than five kilometres between Ankrobra Beach and the Axim fort. We stock up on water and juice, seven liters in total. I find a tailor’s roadside shop and asks him if he can fix my ripped pants, but he looks offended. Apparently some tailors feel above mending my disintegrating clothes.

To sum up the information gathered so far, consensus is that there is a river crossing mid-way, best case is that there is a bridge, worst case is that we have to ford bilharzia infested waters with not even a dugout in sight, median estimate is that a canoe crossing is possible. Anyway since the unknown obstacle is half way, even with no account of underway replenishment I will be able to return using onboard reserves alone provided I start with enough for the whole crossing.

On the way out of Axim, we ask for Prince’s Town. The people along the road advise us to ride up to Abora, but I soon understand that they are once again talking about the tro-tro way, not the direct one I’m looking for. In Africa, most people’s mental map is set by public transportation and forms a network of bus stops with no regard for physical geography. After some thoughts I realize that the same could be said for most people in Paris – they know metro stations but they have no idea about which way is less hilly of shorter by bicycle.

About one kilometer out of town is the turn-off to the Axim Beach hotel, and it is also the start of the road to Ajemra and Prince’s Town. A nice seamstress tries to dissuade us from this folly, but a local fellow cyclist mentions that it is perfectly doable including the canoe crossing. On that optimistic note, we set out toward the terra incognita.

The uphill parts of this backcountry road are almost the raw terrain profile. On one of them I have to resort to having Pauline dismount and push the rig along. But I was not the only one : a tro-tro going the same way as us had to let its passengers dismount and push uphill too !


By now you know my song about the heat, my 100 ml/km drinking habit and so on. On this stretch, I believe I regularly hit my cardiac ceiling – a sign that I should not be pushing that hard in that heat. Normally on long haul efforts I’m always limited by muscle exhaustion or lactic acid accumulation long before any sign of cardiac fatigue.

All that experience underlines how big the difference can be between dust piste and tarred road. Depending on their respective states, I believe there is an effort ratio of three to four between them. And with Pauline now exceeding 23 kilograms not including luggage and water, going uphill is no longer a trivial matter. In general, weight and hills are central consideration in bicycle tour planning – but this sort of experience is great incentive to give them even more consideration. Meanwhile, out efforts along that deserted stretch are rewarded with plenty of hornbills and other colourful birds that I did not recognize.


We talk to the guard of the Lou Moon lodge. He is much more precise than other people we spoke to. He explains to us that after a while before Ajeemra (halfway to Prince’s Town and therefore a handful of kilometres from where we were) the road ends. There are only footpaths beyond that, and a few stretches follow the sandy beach. I conclude that going further is not reasonable – at least not with what I am dragging along. So I head back six kilometres to the Axim-Agona road… We are going to push toward Agona, and at Abora wel’l make up our mind about whether we go down to Prince’s or push all the way to Takoradi to have more time in Elmina and Cape Coast.

Back on the tarred road, we take a leisurly pace – the going is easier but the heat is still there. We stop a couple of times to observe grasshoppers and butterflies. We also see a small green snake flee at our sight.

Riding on roads is easy and before we know it we arrive in Abora, at the fork to Prince’s Town. Takoradi is more than 40 kilometres away and Prince’s Town only 18. The dirt road is not all weather, but it looks freshly graded and this is not the rainy season. It is too inviting, especially after two failed attempts across other ways. I want to know what this now near-mythical place looks like, so I engage into the branching road.


Whereas the rest of the whole region looks like it is owned by Ghana Rubber Estates, the vegetation along the Prince’s Town road looks more interesting. We see a huge, maybe 150 cm long dark lizard with a white and red ringed tail cross the road twice before us. A sign notifies that we enter a globally significant biodiversity area, and we can believe it. I would love to come back there and walk around the landscape for more encounters with those interesting fauna and flora.

We see a couple of workers waiting on the roadside with a pile of isolator plates. They tell us that the thunderstorm two days ago damaged the only power line to Prince’s Town, but we might have electricity tonight as they ensure us that they are working hard to restore service.

Obviously it was all running too smoothly and some adventure was required. I had checked my rear tire pressure before entering the Prince’s Town road. I had added a few pumpfulls of air into it, but obviously not enough. So 160 kilograms of people, bikes and luggage hurtling downhill at 50 kilometres per hour on a rough patch of stones produced a perfectly formed classic snakebite like the ones that shredded my tubes back when as a kid I was enthusiastically brutalizing my mountain bikes with uses far in excess of their specifications. I broke open the carton of a replacement tube and discovered that the thick stem of the Presta valves mounted on my bike are slightly smaller than the Shrader valve of the new tube – yet another story that shows why going touring with hardware that you don’t yet know well enough is a bad idea. I’ll drill the rims wider when I’ll be back home : I like the big fat valve and its compatibility with the car infrastructure. But for now I carry three useless tubes. Good thing I also embarked a large load of puncture repair materials. So I take that opportunity to teach Pauline about the fine art of puncture repair, under the watchful eyes of locals eager to see how the obroni does it. Whatever you do in Africa, you always have an audience.

I like the road’s rural setting – low population density and lack of other tourists makes the world so much nicer. Arriving in Prince’s Town, someone hails us on the side of the road in a way different to the usual “obroni” calls. He reminds us about seeing him at Axim’s fort… He is none other than the fort’s caretaker and Prince’s Town is his hometown. He is happy that we visit his town too and confirms that there is accommodation available at the fort.


We end our 62 km ride as we enter a German fortified farm very far from Germany. The grey stones are much less colonial looking than the whitewash of other coastal forts. The inner yard is a well kept grass, with banana and papaya trees that betray the exotic location. Climbing the stairs to the perimeter walls reveals a stunning view over the whole bay, including the laguna and Cape Three Points, Ghana’s southernmost tip.


The fort’s population is a whole other lot of surprises. The fort’s caretaker has apparently made arrangements with a whole retinue of village touts, some of them cooking, washing or running errands for an overlander Land Rover full of Germans that arrived before us. Others were apparently friends of the Germans, others were the caretaker and his staff, and yet others had wholly unguessable roles – but the hanger-on are standard in an African setting, especially when tourists are around.


The line may be under repair, but the repair crew’s estimate was a bit on the optimistic side : power it is still cut tonight. Night has fallen and the only lights downtown are a few petrol lamps. We fill ourselves to the gills with a huge plate of rice and fish – a necessary thing, even though Pauline does no notice that is has been days since the last time we had lunch. We sit under even more stars than yesterday and only the faint halo of Axim of the horizon. For a tiny town like Axim to produce a halo, you can imagine how dark the surroundings are. On the ramparts, a dozen of us remain, European and Ghanaian. For washing myself, I lifted a bucket from the fort’s cistern, probably like the original occupants of the fort did four hundred years ago. Tonight we’ll sleep on a mattress on the ramparts, under our mosquito nets – the ocean wind is the best air conditioning. Apart from the plastic plates and the odd flashlight, we could as well be seventeenth century German soldiers right after the construction of the fort.


Some guy gives me a small tour of the fort. He insists that the prison could contain up to 7000 people… I roughly measure length and width, get an approximate surface of 72 square meters, posit that each of them can hold ten people as a theoretical maximum and come up with an estimate of 720 people as the most anyone could imagine stuffing in this place. Was his gross overshoot an honest mistake, or is someone having too much fun making the hapless black Americans cry ? For now, the only guests of the prison are a few tiny bats.

Artist-friend-musician-touts of all trades of course end the evening in a drumming session with the beer swilling German guys in the courtyard. Screw them ! I had escaped their ilk up to now, but in tourist spots all over Africa it is only a question of time before you have to confront them. I must confess having once shopped for jembe materials around Ouagadougou and gotten them assembled for me by local artists, and that was a fun experience. But generic pseudo-traditional cultural activities served in tourist locations are too much for me.

Meanwhile, Pauline is very happy : she has fun with whoever she can grab – usually the first African girl available, but anyone else will do. She is disturbed that I set up the lent mattress (a rather clean one for once), the sheet sacks and the mosquito nets outside – but she’ll get used to it. Waking up at night under the starry dome with fully adapted vision more than makes up for the rough setup !

Geography and Knowledge management and Mobile computing and Technology30 Aug 2009 at 21:30 by Jean-Marc Liotier

As the Geohack template used by Wikipedia for geographical locations attests (see Paris for example) there are many map publishing services on the Web. But almost all of them rely on an oligopoly of geographical data suppliers among whom AND, Navteq and Teleatlas dominate and absorb a large proportion of the profit in the geographical information value chain :

“If you purchase a TomTom, approximately 20-30% of that cost goes to Tele Atlas who licenses the maps that TomTom and many other hardware manufacturers use. Part of that charge is because Tele Atlas itself, and the company’s main rival Navteq, have to buy the data from national mapping agencies in the first place, like the Ordance Survey, and then stitch all the information together. Hence the consumer having to pay on a number of levels”.

And yet, geographical data is a fundamental pillar of our information infrastructure. A few years ago the realm of specialized geographic information systems, geography is nowadays a pervasive dimension of about every sort of service. When something becomes an essential feature of our lives, nothing short of freedom is acceptable. What happens when that freedom requires collecting humongous amounts of data and when oligopolistic actors strive to keep control and profits to themselves ? Free software collaboration and  distributed data collection of course !

Andrew Ross gives a nice summary of why free geographical data is the way of the future :

“The tremendous cost of producing the maps necessitates that these firms have very restrictive licenses to protect their business models selling the data. As a result, there are many things you can’t do with the data.

[..] The reason why OpenStreetMap will win in the end and likely obviate the need for commercial map data is that the costs and risks associated with mapping are shared. Conversely, for Navteq and TeleAtlas, the costs born by these companies are passed on to their customers. Once their customers discover OpenStreetMap data is in some cases superior, or more importantly – they can contribute to it and the license allows them to use the data for nearly any purpose – map data then becomes commodity”.

The proprietary players are aware of that trend, and they try to profit from the users who wish to correct the many errors contained in the data they publish. But why would anyone contribute something, only to see it monopolized by the editor who won’t let you do what you want with it ? If I make the effort of contributing carefully collected data, I want it to benefit as many people as possible – not just someone who will keep it for his own profit.

Access to satellite imagery will remain an insurmountable barrier in the long term, but soon the map layers will be ours to play with – and that is enough to open the whole world of mapping. Like a downhill snowball, the OpenStreetMap data set growth is accelerating fast and attracting a thriving community that now includes professional and institutional users and contributors. Over its first five years, the Wikipedia-like online map project has delivered great results – and developed even greater ambitions.

I have started to contribute to OpenStreetmap – I feel great satisfaction at mapping the world for fun and for our common good. Owning the map feels good ! You can do it too – it is easy, especially if you are the sort of person who often logs tracks with a GPS receiver. OpenStreetMap’s infrastructure is quite impressive – everything you need is already out there waiting for your contribution, including very nice editors – and there is one for Android too.

If you just want to add your grain of sand to the heap, reporting bugs and naming the places in your favourite neighbourhood are great ways to help build maps that benefit all of us.  Contributing to the map is like giving directions to strangers lost in your neighbourhood – except that you are giving directions to many strangers at once.

If you are not yet convinced, take a look a the map – isn’t it beautiful ? And it is only one of the many ways to render OpenStreetMap data. Wanna make a cycling map with it ? Yes we can ! That is the whole point of the project – we can do whatever we want with the data, free in every way.

And anyone can decide he wants his neighbourhood part of the worldmap, even if no self-respecting for-profit enterprise will ever consider loosing money on such endeavour :

“OpenStreetMap has better coverage in some niche spaces than other mapping tools, making it very attractive resource for international development organizations. Want proof ? [..] we looked at capital cities in several countries that have been in the news lately for ongoing humanitarian situations – Zimbabwe, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For two our of the three, Mogadishu and Kinshasa, there is simply no contest – OpenStreetMap is way ahead of the others in both coverage and in the level of detail. OpenStreetMap and Google Maps are comparable in Harare. The data available through Microsoft’s Virtual Earth lagged way behind in all three”.

Among other places, I was amazed at the level of detail provided to the map of Ouagadougou. Aren’t these exciting times for cartography ?

If you purchase a TomTom, approximately 20-30% of that cost goes to Tele Atlas who licenses the maps that TomTom and many other hardware manufacturers use. Part of that charge is because Tele Atlas itself, and the company’s main rival Navteq, have to buy the data from national mapping agencies in the first place, like the Ordance Survey, and then stitch all the information together. Hence the consumer having to pay on a number of levels.
Africa and Ghana and Travels23 Aug 2009 at 18:43 by Jean-Marc Liotier

We start the morning lazily and I’m sitting on a bench in front of the bungalow, writing our diary while Pauline wanders around. Twelve hours of sleep did wonders except that the last stages of my digestive process are still very disruptive to say the least. So it is a good thing that we have this day in this benign home to give my body time to mend itself, with a good helping of loperamides…

We set out to walk to Axim along the beach. There is also a very derelict coastal road connecting Axim to Ankrobra Beach – this one would have saved us many kilometers yesterday, but neither guide nor map mentions it. Walking this road from Ankrobra Beach to Axim took us one hours and forty minutes. A broken bridge in the middle, with only a single file span remaining makes it impassable to vehicles with more than two wheels.

We have the entire beach for ourselves. Pauline collects sea shells, and since I will carry only one for her she ends up with an armful of them, waiting for me to buy something so that she gets a plastic bag.

As we near Axim there are a few fishermen and women gathering wood. Nearer to the town we exit the beach to follow a crumbling road – a good idea since the whole section of beach up to the town is a big latrine that stinks the whole way. In general, beaches near towns are far removed from being anything like postcard tropical paradises.

Once more I have to force Pauline to drink. On top of not noticing she dehydrates, she avoids drinking for fear of having to go without a European toilet seat. Pauline likes Ghana, but she has a few topics of regular complaint. By reverse order of importance :

  • Squat toilets with newspaper. Actually she ended up liking the squat toilets, but newspapers remain a beyond her tolerance.
  • Languages she does not understand. Pauline is dissappointed that speaking French very loud does not help non-French speaking people understand French any better.
  • Red pepper in food, even in the bolognaise sauce.
  • Having to wash her clothes herself – though this summer I noticed that she has taken my habit of showering with my clothes on to wash them while I’m under she shower.
  • People littering, which she sermons every time… Good thing they don’t understand what she is saying.

Mzungu, oyinbo, farenji, foté, toubab… I have one more name to add to my collection : obroni. This is how the kids in this region call me. This calls for another variation of the “my name is not Mzungu” t-shirt.

Like all other coastal towns in Ghana, Axim is geared toward fishing and agriculture, with a sprinkle of tourism. But there is not much tourism : according to its guestbook, the Axim fort had in average one visitor a day during fall season, one in January, and three in February – including us. The visit costs one Cedi per person and one Cedi for the camera. So this month, the guide and his apprentice worked for less than five Cedis. Good thing they have a commanding view of the local soccer pitch for distraction.

The fort is a well preserved piece of 15th century architecture, apparently undergoing some inner renovation – new floors and mounds of wood chips attest of that ongoing effort. The views over the bay is nice.

The apprentice tells us about an undersea tunnel leading to the lighthouse island a kilometer offshore, where he says the slaves were loaded abord the ships – but that seems too incredible to me and I believe that this tunnel is only fantasy. Sixteenth century quality of life for the troops manning the fort looks quite rough – only the commander has decent living quarters, but not that much better than aboard a large ship.

The tiny slaves cells are of course impressive and you can imagine the horribly squalid living conditions there. But most impressive is the location of the dining room right above the cells :dinners and prisonner slaves could hear each other easily. The vultures circling above the fort are a perfect addition to the theme.

After resting in the shade at the fort away from the crowds, we go downtown to gather intelligence about the road to Prince’s Town. A policeman dissuades us, explaining about the danger of criminals on a very isolated road – the danger exists, but officialdom always give the worst case out of precaution. A group of young men playing cards explain that the road is cut by several rivers and that for lack of bridge they must be forded. I’m not geared for fording, especially not in bilharzia contaminated areas.

Crossing a hamlet on the outskirts of Axim, we stumble upon one of the hotel’s employees. He explains us that the road is quite doable, but that there is one large river that can be crossed using a pirogue ferry service. At the hotel in the evening, the manager’s husband tells us that the dirt roads are impassable in times of rain – but that is not a probelm in this season. So all in all I’m beginning to think that I’ll give Prince’s town a second try, this time from the west.

Along the beach I notice that the sand is peppered with crab holes – I saw a few crabs in the open them, but most of them seem to remain hidden. There are no marine birds in the places we visited – absolutely none of them, which is very surprising in fishing towns. The big birds are nothing to write home about : a few egrets in the wetlands and vultures wherever there is human trash. The mangrove nearby may have more diversity, but we’ll probably not have time for it this year – too bad because I like the mangroves very much.

Halfway between Axim and the Ankrobra Beach hotel lies the empty shell of a building half eaten by vegetation. On a wall I recognize the logos of scuba diving gear brands. The husband of the Ankrobra Beach hotel manager tells me that between 1995 and 2002 a French and an Australian operated a diving center there. There is a shipwreck west of the bay and also a few interesting cliffs. But their main business was lobster farming : they pulled 800 to 1000 kilograms of lobsters out of the sea every day. They had cages at different spots along the coast and their truck collected them. This was a great business, but the owners spoiled it : they dodged taxes and the French guy spent way too much money on local girls. So in 2002 they tanked and the French guy ended down in prison. The coastal ecology still provides great business opportunities though – in the estuary mangrove west of Axim, a spanish guy makes a tidy profit breeding baby eels and shipping them to Scandinavia where they are farmed.

Near the coast, most plots of land have headless palm trees. They were a complete mystery to me until I got my answer from the German managers : it is caused by a virus and all the palm trees will die. This will completely change the face of this place. The same thing happened in Mexico and Guatemala in 1989 .

We have the same dinner as yesterday as the kitchen’s has apparently not restocked since then. The cook may make excellent red-red and nice pancakes, but unripe bananas don’t go very well with the pancakes, especially with no topping. We go to bed after washing clothes and other general camping chores. Tonight we’ll sleep early again – tomorrow is a big and challenging day.

I end up discussing investment opportunities in Africa with the husband of the manager. He explains that Ghana has low levels of corruption and a serious administration that seriously enforces fiscal laws. He believes that Ghana provides a firm ground for any serious venture. From the mouth of an upright German, this is no faint praise.

Evening in a safe place with reliable electricity is the occasion for sorting notes and photographs. All my pictures are left on the Compact Flash cards and backed up on the notebook – and the whole thing is backed up to a large flash USB dongle which I keep under my clothes to prevent theft. Though non-zero, the likelyhood of losing it all is as low as possible.

I went back out during the night for a stroll in darkness among the dying palm trees. I enjoy the starry skies of locations unencumbered by light pollution. But what I came out for was on the beach : the hidden crabs were out in force. Dozens of them reflected in my grazing light. Some zipped straight to the water, others froze dazzled by the light. One more mystery had been solved : those crabs are a nocturnal specie.

Code and Design and Knowledge management and Social networking and The Web21 Aug 2009 at 16:01 by Jean-Marc Liotier

LinkedIn’s profile PDF render is a useful service, but its output lacks in aesthetics. I like the HTML render by Jobspice, especially the one using the Green & Simple template – but I prefer hosting my resume on my own site. This is why since 2003 I have been using the XML Résumé Library. It is an XML and XSL based system for marking up, adding metadata to, and formatting résumés and curricula vitae. Conceptually, it is a perfect tool – and some trivial shell scripting provided me with a fully automated toolchain. But the project has been completely quiet since 2004 – and meanwhile we have seen the rise of the hresume microformat, an interesting case of “less is more” – especially compared to the even heavier HR-XML.

Interestingly, both LinkedIn and Jobspice use hresume. A PHP LinkedIn hResume grabber part of a WordPress plugin by Brad Touesnard takes the hresume microformat block from a LinkedIn public profile page and weeds out all the LinkedIn specific chaff. With pure hresume semantic XHTML, you just have to add CSS to obtain a presentable CV. So my plan is now to use LinkedIn as a resume writing aid and a social networking tool, and use hresume microformated output extracted from it to host a nice CSS styled CV on my own site.

Preparing to do that, I went through the “hResume examples in the wild” page of the microformats wiki and selected the favorite styles that I’ll use for inspiration :

Great excuse to play with CSS – and eventually publish an updated CV…