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:

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
- 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. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

A Few Hikes in Ireland (The Burren, Inishmore, Connemara)

We just got back from a week-long vacation in Ireland. It was great! We spent most of our time in Western and Northwest Ireland. Unlike most of our vacations, where we hit up museums, churches, and cultural sites in cities, this was a more nature-oriented trip, as I think is common in Ireland. We wanted to do some hikes, but were having trouble finding enough information about them online.

So, for future visitors to Ireland, I thought I'd recap  the hikes we went on with a bit more information. Good luck!

The Burren (Ballyvaughan Wood Loop)

Distance: 8 km
Difficulty: Easy
Time: 1:26, but we were running for a fair bit...
More information: here and here

Our first 'hike' was actually a run. We needed to run 9 miles as part of half marathon training, and we thought we'd do two loops around this 8km route to get us there. It's "Easy," right? Well, that turned out to not really work. The first ~15 minutes of this hike are though some interesting, but tough woodlands and rocky fields. Good hike. Lots of farmland that you pass through, and some times it was almost tough finding our way, but we did it. Go to Monk's restaurant afterwards!

View The Burren in a larger map

Inis Oirr Island Hike

Distance: 4.73 miles
Difficulty: Easy
Time: 1:44
More information: here, and the ferry

We took a ferry to the smallest of the Aran Islands, Inis Oirr, and while there we did this nice hike. I can highly recommend it! We saw lots of great views of the island, some livestock, and we even had a nice picnic at the rustic castle tower on top of the island. 

View Inis Oirr Hike in a larger map

The Connemara (Diamond Hill Hike)

Difficulty: Medium
Time: 2:22
More information: here and here

A short distance from the Connemara National Park visitor center is a hike to the top of Diamond Hill. In fact, there are a few hikes around the hill, but we took the one that went to the top. It was a nice, strenuous climb for me, although some of us didn't like the views from steep heights! The scenery makes one think of the Scottish Highlands. We took the hike pretty seriously, but there were plenty of families with small children doing it (in fact, it was a little crowded) so probably just about anyone could make it to the top. 

View Diamond Hill Hike in a larger map

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Buying a SIM Card in Ireland (from the Dublin airport)

I recently got back from a one week vacation in Ireland. It was amazing. We mostly went to the west and northwest of Ireland (Galway, Sligo, Donegal, Derry). And we had a car, so it was easy to get around and see whatever we wanted whenever we wanted to. I highly recommend it!

I also highly recommend buying a SIM card at the airport. It was really easy and we took full advantage of it.

Buying a SIM card allows you to:

  • Call hotels & restaurants in Ireland
  • Check your email, etc. at the many places where WiFi is spotty or non-existent
  • And my favorite, allows you to use your phone's GPS to navigate while driving. This was a huge help for us, as driving is a great way to get around Ireland, and it's much less expensive than renting a GPS unit from the rental place. 

First, as always, you need to make sure your phone is unlocked. If you've been with your carrier for a while, they'll usually do this for you with no problems when you call them up and tell them you are visiting another country. Or you can be like me and buy an unlocked phone like the Nexus 4.

In the Dublin airport, there are at least two places to buy a SIM card.

  • Terminal 2: This is the International terminal, where you probably arrived from. Once you exit the baggage claim there is a convenience store (Spar, I believe) where they sell many things including SIM cards from several different vendors. While the prices were good (€20-30) I couldn't figure out whether and how much data my money would get me, and I cared much more about data than calls/texts. The employee I asked, though friendly, was not helpful. 
  • Terminal 1: This is the budget terminal. If you took Ryanair you probably arrived here, otherwise you may have to walk. On the ground floor is a small store that sells nothing but SIM cards. This is, I believe, the place to go. The employee was quite knowledgable. There we purchased a Vodaphone SIM for €20. For that price, we got 250MB of data, which was good enough for our one week entire trip, checking email, Facebook, and daily use for navigational purposes. 
Good luck!