Switzerland

Before I get too wrapped up in Spring and completely forget about our winter adventures, I must mention our trip last December to Switzerland.

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The view down towards Weggis
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Rigi Kaltbad

We had booked ourselves in for a week at a mountainside spa resort. The Rigi is ‘the Queen of the mountains’, and has a surprising number of rail connections up and down its flanks. What’s more, the region is carless, so folk can walk around untroubled by traffic.

It was, as we’d hoped it would be, staggering beautiful. Although we didn’t get the dreamed-for snowfall, the views of the Swiss Alps in the distance were breathtaking, and we were blessed with mostly clear weather.

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Actually, I should qualify that statement by saying that our resort and surrounding area was blessed with clear weather. We were at sufficient altitude to be above the clouds. The Rigi is famous for sitting atop a ‘sea of fog’.

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The sea of fog

We learned about this ‘sea of fog’ on our first evening. We took the train from Lucerne, followed by a local bus, and then one more, until finally our last connection was a cable car up the mountain.

A kind local fellow showed us the way to the station – the luftseilbahn – and explained the mysterious ‘sea’. As our car rose swiftly up the hillside in darkness, we soon left the modest lights of the town of Weggis behind.

At one point on the way up – to our surprise at 8pm on a dark winter’s evening – the car’s lights were dimmed completely, and so we rose silently, through thick fog, in complete darkness. It was one of the eeriest moments I’ve ever experienced, particularly when travelling somewhere new.

Thankfully we could tell from the demeanour of our fellow travellers that this occurrence was entirely normal, and before long we had reached the top station and our final destination.

A week above the clouds awaited us.

A few days in the Lake District

Spring is here. It’s still quite cold first thing in the morning, but the longer evenings are suddenly back, and nightly constitutionals are making a return. When the sun shines and the wind drops, the warmth on one’s skin is very welcome.

M and I spent last week in the Lake District – just what the doctor ordered. We even spent an unseasonably warm warm afternoon at Kew Gardens the day before we travelled. A mini-holiday prologue.

I have a few little strands to mention about this trip to the Lakes (not quite Postcards, as per my last visit), which I will try to do over the coming week or two. But for now, just a handful of snapshots from Windermere, Blackwell, and a few other spots thereabouts.

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Have returned to London with something of a thump.

Giving myself a few days’ buffer at either end of the holiday was a very good idea. But whether it’s the deafening traffic of Finchley Road or the gloomy grime of certain streets around my neighbourhood, the transition from country to town has hit me quite hard. The existential ennui of the local and global political situation isn’t helping much. But perhaps it’s just post-holiday blues.

Anyway. Photographs.

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Blackwell, a Baillie Scott Arts & Crafts house nestled in the hills above Windermere
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On Windermere
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I like a good stile – but a dry stone wall stile? Marvellous.
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Sketching at Blackwell
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I loved Blackwell. I’d like to have spent much more time there.
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Towards Orrest Head

Thoughts on StreetPass

About a month ago, after some amount of umming and ahhing, I bought a Nintendo 2DS.

I’d been interested in picking one up for a while, and the promise of price-drops around Black Friday had me checking every now and then. I’m not a massive gamer, but there are a handful of games on the system that looked appealing to me.

article-2412249-1ba413ba000005dc-179_468x385The 2DS is the cheaper version of the 3DS. For one thing it, obviously, omits the 3D screen. This wasn’t a huge concern to me. It also has a simple, flat construction rather than the 3DS’ hinged, folding clamshell approach. This makes the 2DS less neat and pocketable, but still quite portable.

(Trivia: the flat construction means that although the 2DS appears to have two separate screens, it’s actually one big slab under the plastic shell to save money. Clever!)

I’ll talk about the games another time – I’m dozens of hours into Weeaboo Junction alone – but today I’m thinking about one of the system’s core functions: StreetPass.

StreetPass

2DS and 3DS devices all have WiFi built in. This lets the user download games, play online multiplayer, and browse the web (to some degree). So far, so ordinary for a games console these days.

But 2DSes and 3DSes can also talk to eachother, primarily for local multiplayer, but also for StreetPass functionality. Contrary to most device-to-device communications, StreetPass actually allows devices to talk without any input from the users.

relay-pointsAs long as a 2DS or 3DS is on standby/in sleep mode, it is constantly seeking other devices to talk to. And when it finds one, it will perform a sort of ‘handshake’ with the other device. Later, both users will see a green LED notification light on the device, and they’ll have any one of a number of things to check/play with.

Obviously, this kind of exchange only happens when two devices are in close proximity, so it’s more likely in busier places, like cities and public transport hubs. Therefore, it can be hugely beneficial to take your 2DS anywhere you go, leaving it in standby mode, just on the off-chance you pass another user.

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It me.

This quite unique system function was one of the things that attracted me to the console. I rather like the idea of pseudo-random exchanges with strangers within the walled garden of Nintendo’s network and games.

“But Paul!” you cry.

“Don’t you know the 3DS was first launched six years ago?! Just how many users do you think there will be still bumbling around on the streets of London?”

Fair point.

My experiences with StreetPass have been… Well, pretty much as I’d expected. I’ve had a handful of exchanges so far, usually near busier transport interchanges, like Golders Green, Euston station, and other busy trains/stations I’ve passed through recently.

But frequenting locations such as these is by no means a dead cert in terms of receiving StreetPasses. I’ve carried my 2DS in my bag when visiting Euston station, Oxford Street, etc, and had no ‘hits’. I tell myself that other factors may be at play – too many other devices interfering with WiFi reception, or the limited range of each device. But I really think it’s just down to a low install base. Which, in a way, makes each StreetPass all the sweeter.

The other way to get StreetPass hits is via a Nintendo Zone.

These are public WiFi hotspots and there used to be loads in the UK, but now it appears to be limited to branches of GAME, the videogame retailer. Above, left, shows the remaining Nintendo Zones within the M25, and, right, the map shows the European countries still with Nintendo Zones. Source.

Users who StreetPass within a Nintendo Zone get the data from, I believe, the last six users to also do the same. This makes it a good way to bulk up your StreetPass hits without actually needing to be in proximity with the other users. The clever bit is, much like an actual StreetPass, you don’t need to do anything to connect to a Nintendo Zone. It just works when you’re in range. I tested this out recently by stuffing my 2DS into my running backpack and passing my nearest branch of GAME. It worked perfectly, and gave the expected boost to my StreetPass hit count.

So what do you get when you StreetPass with someone? It depends.

The main port of call is a sort-of game called Mii Plaza, where other users’ Miis will be gathered. Miis are Nintendo’s weird bobble-headed avatars which you can tweak to vaguely resemble you or whomever you please. The associated metadata is limited: your birthday (DD/MM only), the latest 3DS game you’ve been playing, and a few other child-friendly tidbits.

You’re quite limited in what data you can include in the free text fields. It would be a stretch, even, to hack your contact details into it. And that’s sort of the point. Nintendo intentionally made this system pseudo-anonymous. They have a two-way handshake friend code system for real-life buddies, but StreetPass is just kind of vague. Miis, as avatars, are kind of ageless. It’s hard to tell if you’ve StreetPassed with a ten-year-old or a fifty-year-old.

Anyway, in Mii Plaza there are a handful of cute mini-games, and you also see a frankly horrifying army of all the Miis you’ve ‘met’ recently, lined up and grinning. But Mii Plaza is pre-installed and is just one bit of 3DS software that makes use of StreetPass.

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Other games for the system such as Mario Kart 7 and Animal Crossing: New Leaf can trade data with other users via StreetPass, including fastest lap times in the former and sharing home interior designs with the latter. There are a ton of other examples.

There’s even a music player built into the 2DS/3DS, and if you add some tracks to your favourites, StreetPass will work a bit of Last.FM-style magic and notify you if you share any favourite tracks with other users.

Even with my limited experiences with StreetPass, I’ve had a number of quite charming ‘interactions’ (these are only ever after the fact, never real-time) with other users, particularly seeing their Animal Crossing homes.

The age of the system and the lack of remaining Nintendo Zones means the opportunities to StreetPass are getting fewer and fewer. I wish there were still more Zones available – I think they also used to use the ubiquitous ‘The Cloud’ WiFi hotspots, which would’ve really boosted your chances. But still, it’s a fun little bonus feature of the system which adds some charm and some unexpected surprises now and then.

The fact that StreetPass isn’t coming to the Nintendo Switch means I guess its days are numbered. Hopefully the 2DS/3DS system will live on alongside the Switch, as the new system isn’t truly portable – or certainly not pocketable – and I believe Nintendo has indicated that the two platforms will co-exist for the time being.

Even if StreetPass ceased to exist tomorrow, the vast library of games for the 3DS, not to mention DS and Virtual Console titles, means I will have plenty to keep me going for a while yet.

Postscript

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a closed system run by someone like Nintendo, the technology behind StreetPass is proving hard to research. Online, in the marketing bumf, you’ll find real-world scenarios and in-game features, rather than frequencies, power consumption transmission ranges, amount and format of data transmitted or time needed for a successful StreetPass.

Some of these factors are applicable to the WiFi standard generally. But other factors remain a bit of a mystery. And perhaps that’s best. Certainly it makes sense to keep it simple for the purposes of a mainstream, predominantly kid-friendly console.

The more information a company releases on functions like this, the more likely it is to be hacked or gamed. There are, or were, ways to create your own bootleg Nintendo Zones with a hacked router, which intrigues me greatly. But I also like that it all just works for the average user.

Anyway, the whole concept has got me thinking about near field communications (NFC), local WiFi and Bluetooth handshakes and beacons, mesh networks, and other possibilities with similar technologies.

I had some reckons on StreetPass in general, and I have further reckons on the wider concept of device-to-device communications and other potential applications. Watch this space.

Isle of Wight Coastal Path – photographs online

Last May, M and I walked the Isle of Wight Coastal Path. This 70-mile circular path can be started anywhere along its length (and indeed, done in any number of stages).

We decided to start and end in Cowes (12 o’clock on the embedded map below), and we gave ourselves 4-5 days to work our way round the island going clockwise. This was based partly on what we felt we could manage in a day, and partly on where it was possible to stay on our way. Just like the island’s geography, its distribution of accommodation is a little bit lop-sided.

Anyway, the full story of our walk is best saved for another day (it involved broken footwear, mixed weather, backpack sores, and snakes both venomous and non), but I’ve only just got round to putting the photographs online. So here they are. Below is a map showing the route, and below that is a Flickr slideshow, or you can click here to see the full set on Flickr.

Isle of Wight Coastal Path - Day 1

Radio Australia shortwave shutdown

Radio Australia now no longer broadcasts via shortwave.

Others have covered the news in more detail – in particular, highlighting the shortsightedness of shutting down an affordable service used by remote communities in northern Australia and on Pacific islands.

For me it’s just another inevitable step down the path shortwave seems to be going. There’s still plenty to be heard on shortwave – and a decent array of international sources to intrigue and fascinate. But as each service – usually a country – shuts down their shortwave transmitters, the service becomes of narrower and shallower interest. You need only tune around the wavebands these days to see how prominent China Radio International has become. (Receiving broadcasts direct from as far away as China is still exciting, but it gets less so when they’re repeated via transmitters closer to home.)

The Radio Australia shutdown reminds me of the fact that Radio Canada International shut down its own shortwave services in 2012. This was a long time after I started playing with my first shortwave radio, but RCI became a favourite of mine for its science show, its news and culture magazines, and most of all its correspondence show where they’d read out letters(!) and emails from listeners around the world. I signed up to receive the RCI’s programme schedule by post, and was delighted to also receive other merchandise including little plastic pennants with the station’s branding.

As of today, Radio Australia has gone the way of Radio Canada International, and many others. I didn’t listen to Radio Australia much – had never really been able to, to be honest. But on the rare occasions that it came through clear enough to make out, it was nothing less than a thrill. That the signal had made its way however far from Shepparton, and via however many bounces off the surface and atmosphere of the earth to make it into my little plastic receiver… Amazing.

I’ve had mixed successes tuning the shortwave bands since moving house last September. A new building festooned with insulation, cabling and new sources of radio noise is a bit less conducive to shortwave listening than a third floor flat near the top of a hill, as was my previous accommodation.

But I’m glad I was able to take a short recording last May, of reception of Radio Australia during a DXpedition just a little further up the hill to the top of Hampstead Heath. My own little souvenir of something becoming ever rarer.