Archive for June, 2010

iPhone 3G upgraded to iOS4

iPhone 4

Because I live in Belgium and we are usually the last country to receive updated products from the House of Apple I was fretting slightly about the upcoming iPhone4 launch and the fact that I would be forced to wait. I began plotting and scheming to either travel to France where they sell unlocked phones or to the UK when I heard that they are also offering unlocked versions. I was prepared to do anything to get one quickly. Anyone who read my previous rants about my iPhone might have noticed that I implied that I would never buy another Apple product. Yeah, I didn’t believe me either…

In the meantime, before iPhone4 launched, iOS4 was made available for download. This is the latest operating system for all of Apple’s mobile platforms, the various iPhones and the iPad and it can be installed on my old 3G. In the past I might have been found loitering around the Apple website poised to click on download the second the shiny new OS became available. However, this time I didn’t bother as I know from previous experience that the Apple website usually slows to a crawl or crashes during those first few hours as all the other (more dedicated than me) fanboys suck up all the bandwidth. Instead I stayed in bed.

In the morning, when it had been available for a few hours and was already installed on hundreds of thousands of iPhones around the world I got up a little early hoping to do the install before going to work. I downloaded the file in a few seconds via iTunes, plugged in my iPhone and clicked “Yes, I would like a shiny new operating system please” or words to the same effect… There was a warning message that this might take up to an hour but I hoped it would be quicker. Anyway, I left it running and went to take a shower and get ready for work expecting that it would at least be substantially done by the time I was ready.

You can see where this is going can’t you. Yep, it wasn’t. Not even close. It’s not the installation that takes time, it’s the damn full back-up that it insists on doing before it will begin the installation, something I don’t understand given that the iPhone is supposedly backed up every time you synchronise it with your PC. The little green indicator had barely moved and a quick mental extrapolation based on time passed vs back-up quantity achieved indicated that it would be finished at 8:32pm sometime in September 2012. I didn’t think work would appreciate me being quite that late so I cancelled it. Thwarted.

After suffering through a day at work knowing that I was currently one of the have-nots, I rushed home and began again. Again, the back-up began at a glacial pace. Empires have been built and overthrown in less time than this back-up was taking. And staring at the little green bar didn’t appear to be making it go any faster. I took a deep breath and decided to watch a movie to pass the time. I forget which movie it was as I was too busy checking the status of the excruciatingly slow-moving green bar over my shoulder.

Graphical representation of eternity

After about an hour, when the aforementioned green bar representing the back-up status reached half-way, the back-up was complete. Wait, what? Ahhh now I understand. Apple have employed the same technology in their green back-up status indicator that was in the fuel gauge of my 1980 Datsun Sunny. That would also move slowly through a smooth, confidence-inspiring arc from Full to Half Full as you drove along, at which point it would pause for a few miles before flicking straight to Empty accompanied by a coughing, spluttering sound from the engine as the car ran out of fuel… again. Clever.

With the back-up complete my iPhone began a complicated process of installing, rebooting, installing some more, and rebooting again until suddenly (magically if you believe Steve Jobs) it was finished. With trembling hands and a degree of trepidation I swiped to unlock and see what had become of my 3G with it’s new soul. If I’m honest, at that point, other than a new graphic under the lowest row of apps, it didn’t look any different. No wait, the calculator app has a redesigned icon! Woohoo!

Now I knew not to expect a huge difference as I’d already read that, although the 3G would get iOS4, some of the features would be disabled because it doesn’t have the processing power of the 3GS or the iPhone4. So no multi-tasking unfortunately. Having more than one application running at the same time on a 3G would make it too slow says Apple. It’s a pity as the lack of multi-tasking is my biggest bugbear on the 3G and the main reason I want to upgrade to the iPhone4. Hang on…

The other missing feature that is bundled into the multitasking functionality is the screen orientation lock, a very useful feature that I covet. This simple little feature locks the screen in portrait orientation so that if you are reading something lying on your side the screen doesn’t keep switching to landscape mode. Handy but also absent.

My iPhone

I’d been reading on various technology blogs how people were finding the performance of iOS4 on the 3G and it was a mixed bag. Some people complained that their 3G slowed to a crawl, others noted no difference either way, whilst some reported a slight increase in performance. I am happy to report that I fell into the latter camp and my 3G did in fact feel a little snappier in its transitions between screens and when opening applications. Still far slower than a 3GS but certainly no worse than it was before. And I am now able to arrange my apps into folders, a very convenient feature that reduces the number of screens I have to flick through to find my apps. I spent many happy hours organising and reorganising until everything was just so.

So you might think this is it, my 3G has been upgraded to iOS4 with no noticeable blunting of performance, and I have an extra couple of features that His Jobsness deems suitable for my out-of-date iPhone. I should be happy. And for a week, I was. But then yesterday I was reading Gizmodo, my favourite tech blog and I discovered a new jailbreak that enables multitasking on the 3G running iOS4! I scanned the comments to see how other people were finding this hack and there didn’t seem to be any horror stories. My confidence was buoyed by the fact that A, my 3G seems to perform quite well with iOS4 and B, I can always restore it back to factory if it all goes to hell.

So I downloaded the patch, followed the instructions (which incidentally require a level of button-pressing coordination that I usually only possess on Wednesdays), and installed “redsn0w 0.9.5 beta”. This went smoothly and took far less time than installing iOS4. And voila, my 3G now has multitasking and no, it has not become particularly laggy or slow. Swiping through the screens is still snappy and not at all like dragging my finger through treacle. Some screen transitions are maybe not quite as smooth as they were before but everything still works smartly even with 4 or 5 apps open at once and while listening to music. This really emphasises the over-controlling nature of Apple when it comes to product releases. I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t have released iOS4 for all iPhones with the proviso that performance on the 3G could be compromised and then allowed the users to choose if they wished to enable multitasking or not. Instead they simply deny us choice and force us to go for a black-market solution or jailbreak.

It is worth noting that at this point in time not all apps are properly enabled for multitasking, an issue that even iPhone4 owners will experience. Some like the Mail app, Safari, and Twitter are fully iOS4 compatible and when you switch away from them and then back again they are open immediately and exactly where you left them. Others, such as Facebook seem to need to reload each time even though they remain in the quick access multitasking window. I assume that more and more apps will be updated to be compatible with multitasking over the coming weeks.

Anyway, as I mentioned at the beginning of this missive, I was hankering after the new iPhone4. I don’t think I am in such a rush anymore. I still want it because I know it will be faster than mine and it has yet more features such as video recording and a superior camera. But my 3G no longer feels like it is missing essential features and I am more content. There have also been reports of significant issues with the iPhone4 such as reception problems, yellow spots or bands on screens, and the fact that they seem to shatter very easily if you drop them. Not that surprising given that they are made of glass I guess. I haven’t dropped my 3G in the 18 months I’ve owned it so that doesn’t worry me too much but I would like to wait and see what happens with the other issues before I cough up another 600€+.

And of course I should really be resisting such rampant consumerism for the sake of the planet. So for now, I’m happy with my illegitimately enhanced iPhone 3G. Let’s see how long that lasts….

His Jobsness

A Citroën DS that works!

Today I had a treat. I seem to have had a few lately but anyway, this was a nice one. I met a guy, Paul from the Netherlands, on the Citroën forum who has a 1965 Citroën DS19 Pallas, exactly the same model as mine, only his one works. He lives north of Eindhoven so we arranged to meet halfway on the “grens van België en Nederland” (the border between Belgium and the Netherlands) here. I drove up from Antwerp in my BMW and arrived at the prescribed time. A few minutes later the “snoek” as they are known in Holland also arrived, gleaming and shiny in our uncharacteristically hot summer weather. Snoek means Pike (as in the fish) and refers to the shape of the DS.

This is a truly magnificent example of a DS, actually in better than showroom condition. It has had a full body-off-frame restoration from top to bottom and it shows. The body, painted in its original Gris Palladium is perfect. It has the original “Sombrero” wheel covers which were only ever sold on the ’65 Pallas model and the interior has been beautifully restored with tan leather and new carpet. I was told that the leather is actually the leather used on 1970s Mercedes but is very very close to the original Citroën leather that is no longer attainable.

We sat initially for a chat and a beer before we set off for a drive in the Déesse further into Holland. Paul drove and I could immediately tell that this car is in perfect working order. The engine started easily, it idled smoothly, the hydraulic suspension lifted up smartly, and everything just worked. We drove a few kilometres before arriving in the town of Baarle Nassau/Baarle Hertog.

It’s worth taking a second to tell you about this very unusual town. As I said, we were now in the Netherlands and Baarle Nassau is indeed a Dutch town. But Baarle Hertog (which is part of the same town) is actually Belgian so it’s a little bit like the old West Berlin when Germany was still divided. However, unlike West Berlin which was a fairly uniform shape, the two Baarles are a complicated jigsaw puzzle of different pieces including bits of the Netherlands completely surrounded by bits of Belgium which are again completely surrounded by the Netherlands. If you don’t believe me check out Google Maps.

The border between Belgium and the Netherlands at Baarle-Hertog

When I first saw this a few years ago I thought someone had made a mistake but it’s real and is a result of complex medieval treaties, agreements, land-swaps and sales between the Lords of Breda and the Dukes of Brabant. Wikipedia elaborates. My favourite bit is the fact that in some restaurants which straddled the border the customers would have to switch tables from the Dutch side to the Belgian side because the Netherlands had an earlier compulsory closing time back then!

Anyway, I digress. Paul pulled over in Baarle Nassau (or it might have been Baarle Hertog – I lost track) and graciously allowed me to take the wheel of his precious DS. At least I’ve had some experience driving these so it was no problem for me and I smoothly pulled away and piloted it out of town. It was wonderful. This was the experience I had hoped for when I bought my own DS but unfortunately, thus far, it has not been the case. Anyway, I now have renewed faith that it is in fact possible for these cars to run smoothly and reliably and give pleasure rather than heartache. Whether mine can be brought to this state is yet to be determined…

While out driving we passed a number of classic American cars as apparently there was a gathering on nearby. We even saw a ’61 Cadillac Coupe de Ville, one of my personal favourites. Given the glorious weather it seemed that everyone was out enjoying their classic cars, convertibles, and motorbikes and everyone was waving to one another. The DS certainly attracts a lot of attention as they are particularly popular in the Netherlands.

Driving a DS is an extremely calming experience. Because it is French it will not be rushed. This is not to say it is slow, they are capable of well exceeding the speed limit, but it does not like to be rushed. The semi-automatic gearbox works best if you smoothly lift off, flick the lever, pause for half a second, and then smoothly press down on the accelerator. Any attempt at haste will result in jerky gear changes and indignant Gallic muttering from the car. Likewise the suspension, its most famous feature, requires that you pause and give it a minute to get ready before you set off. I’m sure the DS has been used for the occasional bank robbery but you would want to leave the car running while you did the job. Otherwise you would have to sit and wait for the suspension to raise the car before you could leave.

I steered the DS back to the border with Belgium where, after taking a few photos and having a bit more of a chat, we said our goodbyes. Getting back into my BMW with it’s M-sport suspension and firm sports seats made the differences between the French and German philosophies of car design even more apparent. They very much reflect their countries of origin as well. The French car emphasises comfort, relaxation, a slower pace of life and is quirky if not deliberately different, whilst the German car is serious, single-minded and built with lots of words such as effective, efficient, and purposeful in mind. They are at opposite ends of the motoring spectrum and both are brilliant in their intended functions which is about the highest praise one can give in industrial design. I love them both.

Magnificent ’63 Cadillac Series 62 Sedan De Ville

As spotted by Jim over at Tamerlane’s Thoughts. Check it out. This could be a contender for my wishlist…

1963 Series 62 Sedan De Ville

Spa Italia

Today was Spa Italia, one of the largest Italian car meetings in the world. It is held at Spa Francorchamps in southern Belgium, the venue of the Formula One Belgian Grand Prix. It is considered to be one of the most challenging race tracks in the world, mainly due to its fast, hilly and twisty nature. I went to join a friend of mine who had taken his Ferrari 355GTS, the same one from my Nürburgring debut a few weeks ago.

Given that it was an Italian car meeting I was half expecting to pass scattered old Alfa Romeos and Fiats stopped in a cloud of steam on the side of the motorway as I approached Spa Francorchamps. Instead I arrived to find a veritable smorgasbord of shiny Italian machinery on display. Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Lancias, Maseratis and indeed, Alfa Romeos and Fiats, all in beautiful condition.

Here I have posted a couple of photos, highlights if you will. You can find a complete record of photos on my Picasa web album.

Ferrari 458 Italia

Ferrari 458 Italia

Maserati 3500 GT

Maserati 3500 GT

Ferrari 355GTS

Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera

Ferrari 360 Spider

Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione

Alfa Romeo Montreal

Lamborghini Espada

Alfa Romeo 1900 Sprint Touring Superleggera

Artega GT - Unsure why this was here. 100% German. Pretty though...

Maserati Quattroporte

Classic Alfa Romeo

In addition to seeing all these amazing cars I was also afforded the privilege of 4 fast laps of the track in the black Ferrari 355GTS. Very exciting again like it was on the Nürburgring. Maybe I should stop wasting all my money on a certain Citroën DS and just buy a Ferrari instead…

Ferrari 355GTS

In Bruges

This past weekend I had some friends over from London. It was their first visit to Belgium so I planned a little itinerary to try and show them the highlights during their short stay. On Friday evening I collected them from Brussel-zuid railway station, the Eurostar terminal, and we drove the 40 minute drive to Antwerp. Most people don’t realise quite how small Belgium is and that the major cities are close to each other. Driving from my house in Melbourne to the airport is about the same distance as driving from Antwerp to Brussels.

Zonnebloem, Berchem

Saturday was dedicated to sightseeing in Antwerp and we were blessed with glorious weather. I showed them around the old city centre including the Kathedraal (Cathedral), Grote Markt (Town Square), Stadhuis (Town Hall), the amazing Station Antwerpen Centraal (Antwerp Central Station), and I also took them out to Berchem, one of the inner suburbs, to see the famous Cogels-Osylei. This is a street filled with an eclectic mix of mansions built at the beginning of the 20th century when the rich moved out of the centre of Antwerp because it had become dirty and polluted. This street is most noted for its magnificient Art Nouveau houses amongst other neo-styles. If you are interested in architecture this street and the surrounding streets are a must-see!

The 7 Trappist Beers

Saturday evening I took them to one of my favourite restaurants that I frequent very close to my apartment. It is called De Arme Duivel (literally the “Poor Devil”) and serves quite traditional Flemish cuisine and a nice range of Belgian beers. The best dish and the one I usually have is Stoofvlees met frieten. It can best be described as a rich beef stew flavoured with beer and seeded mustard. It comes with excellent thick French fries and mayonnaise and is extremely hearty and delicious. All my visitors get to experience this dish. It is best accompanied by a Trappist beer such as a Westmalle Dubbel or a Chimay.

Sunday the weather was not so good unfortunately as it was raining. Not to be daunted however we set off for Bruges (Brugge) in the western province of West Vlaanderen. This is a famous Belgian tourist destination and is sometimes referred to as the Venice of the North. As the nickname suggests it has beautiful canals and little streets and alleys criss-crossing the old town. The historic city centre is ringed by a large moat and is largely unchanged from centuries ago, part of the reason it is a prominent World Heritage Site of UNESCO. We were lucky enough that by the time we arrived the rain had stopped and the sun even came out. Below are some photos taken as we wandered around.

After our walk, a few souvenir purchases and the obligatory chocolate shopping it was time to take my friends back to Brussels for their return train to London. It had been a very pleasant weekend and I was pleased to have had an opportunity to explore Bruges in depth, something I hadn’t done before as I usually go to Gent, another beautiful Flemish town. I look forward to the next visit so I will have an excuse to explore somewhere else!

BMW X6 Testdrive

X6 xDrive 40d

Today I had a little bit of a treat. I had the opportunity to test-drive two different flavours of a very exciting car, the BMW X6. Derided by many for being a pointless example of a niche too far, an SUV with a headroom-compromising coupé roof line and only two seats in the back or Sports Activity Coupé (SAC) in BMW-speak, it is nonetheless a handsome, muscular looking vehicle in my opinion. And it drives like no 2+ tonne vehicle has any right to do – fantastically.

Controversial rear end

I apologise in advance for the ridiculous BMW naming-convention… First up was a black X6 xDrive 40d. In the past the numbering on a BMW would indicate the capacity of the engine e.g. a 740i would have a 4 litre engine, but in this case the 40d is actually a 3 litre diesel with twin sequential turbo chargers. It’s the most powerful diesel engine currently offered by BMW and has 225kW (306hp) and, more importantly, 600Nm of torque. This X6 was fully loaded with every imaginable option to the extent that I was a little scared to ask the price. The base price in Belgium is 68k€ and I would eat my Trilby if this one had a price that began with anything less than a 9. Here’s a small sample of the options on the car: Lane Departure Warning, Head Up Display, Active Cruise Control, Dynamic Damper Control, electric tailgate, soft-close doors, rear-view camera, front-view camera, side-view camera (I’m not kidding), electric memory seats, TV function, rear DVD player, ventilated & heated seats, sunroof… I could go on but I’m sure you get the picture.

Gorgeous interior

I had a very quick explanation from the staff at the BMW Driving Centre before setting off because I hadn’t used the fancy new joystick-style automatic shifter before. It’s quite intuitive but a little instruction never goes amiss and I might not have noticed some of the features during my short drive such as the frankly excellent Auto Hold function. When activated, this function allows you to bring the car to a complete stop and then remove your foot from the brake. Despite being a traditional automatic it won’t creep forward as the electronic handbrake is now activated. Then when your traffic light turns green you simply press the accelerator and the handbrake automatically disengages. Seamless and simple. Excellent feature. I was also asked if I would go a little easy on the car during my test-drive as it had less than 100kms on the clock and was not run in yet. Not a problem for me – I’m nothing if not mechanically sympathetic – and this engine has so much torque you really don’t need to rev it hard to go fast anyway.

Coupé-like shape compromises space in the rear

Setting off I was immediately impressed with the gruff rumble from the diesel engine and the eagerness with which it surged forward when requested. In this model the automatic is an 8-speed unit which gives almost imperceptible shifts and allows the engine to spend more time in its optimum torque band. I was also very impressed with the combination of the compliant ride and it’s ability to corner without any body-roll. This is down to the trick Adaptive Suspension Control which obsessively monitors and controls every tiny movement of the suspension. I had turned on all the nanny functions in the car so the cruise control would automatically slow when there was another car in front (all the way to a complete stop if necessary) and the steering wheel would vibrate in my hands if I wandered out of my lane without indicating first. My favourite feature though was the Head Up Display which projects an image on the windscreen so that it appears to be just in front of the car and can be easily focussed on without having to take your eyes off the road. It displays the speed limit for the road you are currently on and next to that, the amount you are exceeding it by… It also displays cruise control information, lane departure graphics and basic navigation information when you are using those functions. I found it to be extremely clear and not at all distracting. The only downside is that you can’t see it at all if you are wearing polarised sunglasses. I would buy new sunglasses…

X6 ActiveHybrid

After an hour or so I returned back to BMW to swap the 40d for my next flavour, a Vermillion Red X6 ActiveHybrid. First off, may I just say that that is a fantastic colour. A slightly deeper red than the Sedona Red on my 123d coupé, it really suits the X6 and attracted a lot more attention from the adoring public than the black one. The special 20″ aerodynamic wheels also make it stand out a little more. The hybrid version required slightly more explanation from the staff than the diesel even though you can just get in and drive it in the same way. It is a full hybrid like the Toyota Prius which means it can drive up to 60kph for a short distance entirely on electric power after which the petrol engine will automatically start and take over. However, whilst the Prius makes do with a yawn-inducing 1.5litre petrol engine and a 67hp electric motor the X6 has a 4.4litre V8 with twin turbo chargers and 2 electric motors, a 91hp one and an 86hp one, which, when combined with the V8, give it 357kW (485hp) and 780Nm of torque. Methinks the hybrid system isn’t really about saving fuel… they just wanted to make it even faster!

V8 drive

Electric drive

Anyway, my instructor showed me the graphical interface you can bring up on the iDrive screen which shows where the power is coming from at any given moment. It is just like the system on the Prius and shows energy flowing to and from the batteries. When the lines go red you are consuming petrol, warming the Earth, and hastening the extinction of low-lying nations (I expect) but when the lines go blue (blue is the new green apparently) you are either capturing braking energy to recharge the batteries or running on electric power. This is accompanied by cooling of the atmosphere, frolicking polar bears and a warm fuzzy feeling inside. Well that’s what the salesman said anyway…

Battery health

The part-electric set-up gives the X6 four operating modes: eDrive, eBoost, Charge and Drive. eDrive is the most efficient and uses nothing but electrons to attain up to 60kph for up to 2kms. For the X6 to run solely on electric power you have to be extremely gentle with the accelerator. The slightest imprudent prod and the V8 will instantly surge into life. It took a little practice but actually works very well for meandering around towns and villages although the battery doesn’t last very long before the V8 is called into action to charge it up again. The most reliable way to keep it running on electric power is to just flick the cruise control on at about 50kph and it will happily cruise along consuming electrons rather than hydrocarbons. I drove the X6 through a small village near work and got a few curious stares as this giant red SUV glided silently past emitting nothing more than a faint whine from the electric motors. But really, as much of a novelty as this was, the V8 was more to my liking. eBoost uses the two electric motors to boost the V8 engine’s performance when needed and is the reason this beast never feels sluggish. ‘Charge’ mode means the regenerative brakes are capturing energy that would normally be lost from the discs, and finally, ‘Drive’ just means the X6 is using nothing but the V8 to move forward.

Once I was out on the highway I had an opportunity to unleash said beast and, Mother of God, does it go! I was lined up at the lights next to a sporty looking BMW 3 series, nothing but silence emanating from under the X6’s bonnet, with the occupants of the other car giving me a challenging look (in my mind anyway). The light turned green and I simply pressed the accelerator to the floor, the auto parking brake disengaged, the V8 sprang into life and 5.4 seconds later I was doing 100kph with a small 3 series-shaped object receding into the distance through the frankly ridiculously small rear window. Given that the X6 ActiveHybrid weighs 2,580kg this is a very impressive turn of speed although this acceleration potential is unfortunately reflected in the fuel consumption. It may be a hybrid but it’s certainly not a fuel miser. Still 13l/100km (18mpg) average probably isn’t that bad for such a heavy high-performance vehicle and it is 20% better than the non-hybrid V8 X6 xDrive 50i with similar performance. So let’s chalk that up as a win then.

Out of my way peasants!

I don’t believe that saving the planet was quite the point BMW was trying to make when they designed this vehicle. Instead it exists to show the motoring public that hybrids need not all be boring and self-righteous but can be dynamic, exciting and well, in-your-face. With it’s specially designed aerodynamic wheels (not available on any other X6) it intends to stand out as a beacon for BMW hybrid technology which will then flow down through the other models. It is already available in a slightly different form on the Hybrid7 and will soon be in the new 5 series and the up-coming 3 series. In any case, I found the X6 an amazing machine to drive, not least because of the intoxicating rumble from that big V8 and for that reason I would love to have one, but not the overly-complicated hybrid version. I would take the X6 xDrive 50i with the same V8 but no batteries or electric motors. Sure it doesn’t have quite the same power output but it weighs nearly 200kgs less and, unlike the hybrid, it doesn’t cost 120,000€! It does however fulfil all of my plutocratic fantasies. I’ll take it in red.

Clean energy research lags behind military research

US Air Force Experimental Fighter Jet


This is a scandalous discrepancy when, as mentioned in the article, you consider that there will be nothing worth protecting in a few decades if our addiction to fossil fuels is not curbed.

Instead such funding should be diverted to investigating technology like cloud-seeding, solar-power generation, renewable energy grids or even beaming energy from the Moon. All of these options have to be more constructive than designing new and more effective ways of blowing things up. It seems to me that we already have so many effective and proven options for generating enough energy in a clean and sustainable way but the political will and ability to organise ourselves is what is lacking.

Cloud seeding ship