Friday, August 15, 2014

Flanders' Fields to Westvleteren

Today a friend and I planned a biking trip to visit the cemeteries and memorials of WWI around Ypres, Belgium, more or less the home of the legendary "Flanders' Fields." It was a great idea! The perfect, flat biking paths of Flanders. It's the 100th anniversary of WWI. I had the day off of work because of a Belgian holiday (Ascension, if you're curious). They even have a nice, 35k biking route planned out by the office of tourism in Ypres.

But somewhere along the way we realized that Ypres is only 16k from the Westvleteren Abbey/Brewery. Westvleteren is one of the 6 Belgian Trappist breweries, and it is famous for Westvleteren 12, occasionally referred to as The Best Beer in the World. Notoriously hard to buy, etc. etc. I had had this legendary beer once before, but still, it sounded like a great idea to me, since I had not yet visited a single Belgian brewery.

So our historical tour became a beer tour. It was definitely great, and I would do again. Here's the route we took:

It was nice and easy. Here's some advice if you're thinking about taking the trip yourself:

  • We drove to Ypres, but you could take the train there as well.
  • We rented bikes from this place. (10 Euros each for the whole day.)
  • We got a map from the Ypres tourist office, which is right in the center city. The map was the "Westhoek Zuid" cycling map, pictured below. The paths are really well marked in Flandres, and you just match up the numbers on the road with the numbers on the map. (Seriously, they are super well marked.)
A few pictures:






Sadly our trip was not without incident. About 1k from the brewery my friend's back tire blew out. We walked the rest of the way to the brewery, where we had a great meal and some great beer, but then we had to walk 5k to the town of Poperinge to take the train back to Ypres. Could have been worse, but could have been better too. 

All in all I rate it 4 beers out of 5.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Announcing "Number 'N Date"

Hi folks!

Today I'm releasing the first version of Number 'N Date on Google Play. Number 'N Date is both a proof of concept and a useful Android application. It is a very simple way of adding a number and the current date to a Google Docs Spreadsheet. Take a look at the interface, it's pretty simple:

The basic idea is, you add a number and it, plus the current date, will show up as a row in the Google Docs Spreadsheet that you have chosen in the properties menu. I find it useful for keeping track of daily numbers like my weight, money I've spent, miles I've run, etc. But with the added benefit that the information is all in my own Google Docs Spreadsheets. So I've free to do whatever kind of processing I want to do on the data (plus not have to trust one more company with my information).


Number 'N Date is also open source! Which may be useful! You might not trust me, some Internet weirdo, not to squirrel away a copy of your data somewhere.

Actually the whole open source thing brings me to the second important feature; Number 'N Date is a proof of concept. Specifically, it's an end-to-end application that does something useful, gets authorization from accounts on an Android device, and reads and writes to Google Docs spreadsheets. Information on doing those latter two things together has been pretty hard to come by on the internet. I've written about reading Google Spreadsheets from an Android App before, but in a sort of limited way. This is a follow-on, an end-to-end example that shows everything together. 

I hope you find it useful, either as an app or as a code example. Please, send me feature requests, report bugs, ask me questions, etc. 

Known issues:
  • Spreadsheet must have 'number' and 'date' columns in the first row, or must be completely empty (so the app can add them). 


Sunday, May 25, 2014

Art Nouveau in our Neighborhood (Brussels, Ixelles/Flagey)

One of the things I love about living in Brussels is the large number of buildings and homes in the Art Nouveau style. I'm working on a map of just the ones in the two or three blocks around our house, which is already a pretty impressive collection (including one by Horta!). Google Maps Engine makes embedding pretty ugly, so feel free to click through.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Why do nerds love Subaru?

Something to think about...

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Getting the Internet in Brussels: Home & Mobile

I've now lived in Brussels long enough, and had enough experience with different Internet providers (both home and mobile) that I thought I should share my recommendations.

Cell Phone Plans/Mobile Internet
Recommendation: Buy Proximus "Generation Connect"
You can buy generation connect here.
Summary: A 20€ a month pre-paid SIM card. With it, you get 2GB of data a month, unlimited texting and "20€ of call credit," which is basically 80 minutes of call time.

As a kind of young person, mobile data is my highest priority. Most of the mobile plans from the big three cell phone services in Belgium (Proximus, Base and Mobistar) focus on texting and call time. They'll usually come with some piddling amount of data, like 100MB. Upon moving to Belgium, I was really interested in getting a lot of data, and also interested in getting a pre-paid plan. (Pre-paid plans are relatively rare and crappy in the US, so I was excited about this opportunity.)

When I first got here, I went with Mobile Vikings. For 10-50€ a month you get a ton of data, texting and some call time. Even better, they are a great company. They truly get mobile. They know we want tons of data for mobile. They have nice, helpful employees, and they respond really quickly and helpfully on Twitter/Email etc. The problem? They have terrible coverage in Brussels. Like, really bad. To the point where it was basically useless. So as much as I would have loved to stay with them, I couldn't do it.

Proximus, on the other hand, has great mobile service (reception/data speed/etc.). They are the mobile arm of the national telephony monopoly here in Belgium. Their pre-paid plans are mostly bad! However, so serious was the perceived threat from Mobile Vikings (and similar, data-first mobile providers) that they had to come us with a competitive offer. In their case, that was the "Generation Connect" plan. It's a good plan. You get plenty of data. You get good service, life it good.

Home Internet
Recommendation: Numericable "Duo TV + Internet", if it's available in your area.
You can sign up for this plan here.
Summary: For 40€ a month, you get very fast Internet, without all the peak problems of Belgacom.

When I first moved here, I had Belgacom Internet and TV. Belgacom is the, again, the national telephony monopoly. Our internet service (DSL) was fast enough when it was working, but we had tons of problems with our router. If you had more than a certain number of devices (in our case, 4) they would constantly be dropping off of the WiFi, and losing service, forcing you to disconnect & reconnect. I talked to a bunch of people at work, they all had Belgacom internet, and they all had the same problems. Even worse, at peak Internet times (Sunday evening!) Internet service was really bad. Streaming video basically didn't work, and this was even with our "premium" service (50mbps, or something like that).

When we moved to a new apartment, we went with Numericable. They are a cable provider (as opposed to a telephone/ADSL provider). So far we've had none of the same problems that we did with Belgacom. Unfortunately, every Commune in Belgium has the right to choose their own cable providers (beyond Belgacom, which is everywhere) so you may not have Numericable in your area. Still, I have heard good reports of the other cable providers, e.g., Voo. Can't be any worse than Belgacom, I say!

Good luck! If you've had any good/bad experiences, please post them below so that others can learn. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Megabudget v0.1

I finished the very first, somewhat-useful version of the Megabudget Android App. To recap, Megabudget is an Android app that allows you to use your existing Google Docs spreadsheet as a budget, but add expenses on the go from your phone. It does the following:


  • Authenticates into your Google docs spreadsheet with your Android user account(s)
  • Reads months & categories from your budget spreadsheet
  • After you select a category & month, you can add a new expense, updating your spreadsheet
The project itself is meant to be extensible, so that if it seems useful to you, you can contribute an implementation of the BudgetAdapter in order to have it work with your own budget format. 

Here's the project again: https://code.google.com/p/nolacoaster/

And the last SVN commit log:
This is the first version of Megabudget that does something useful. It:
- populates the categories & months
- populates the total of the latest month
- you can select a category
- you can add an expense to that category

It has several notable problems
- no idea how it works when disconnected from the internet
- it is very slow, esp. at the beginning where it does multiple pulls from the
spreadsheet
- you can't select a month

Additionally it would be really nice to
- organize the categories by freq of use
- allow for offline expenses

Sunday, September 8, 2013

11 mile run (17.5 km run), Wallonia to Brussels

I've been training for the Brussels Half Marathon this year! It's been fun so far, and it's my first race of any length so wish me luck. Anyway, during training you're always looking for interesting routes to run.

This one is cool because it starts in Wallonia, passes through Flanders, and then ends up in Brussels, in the Bois de la Cambre, already one of our favorite places to run.


View Running route from Wallonia to Ixelles in a larger map

More information:
Distance: ~11 miles (17.7km)
Starting point: La Hulpe train station
Ending point: Bois de la Cambre, by La Bascule
Terrain: Mostly forrest with some farmland type areas. Passes by the Chateau de la Hulpe, which is a very nice bonus. Gentle hills up and down.