Bastides: Taxes and Real-Estate Speculation in Medieval France

On American Tax Day, 15 April, it seems fitting to remember a time 800 years ago when taxation strategies began to shift towards sales and property taxes. Enjoy!

North-by-North-west of Toulouse, the Lot and Dordogne departmentare a joy to behold: well-preserved medieval towns called Bastides with their neat churches, gridiron layouts and square covered markets cling to the limestone banks of the rivers for which the regions are named. One of life’s pleasures in this region is to sit comfortably in a café in the shade of a Bastide’s covered market on a summer’s day, enjoying a glass of the local Cahors wine. What the tour guides fail to mention is that these picture-perfect villages are the result of 13th and 14th century global economic forces, shifting taxation strategies, technological innovation and plain old real-estate speculation.

Belves market square - a classic Bastide layout

Belves market
square – a classic Bastide layout

The first clue to the commercial purpose of the Bastide is its layout – specifically, the location of the church. Elsewhere in France and other European countries, the church usually occupies a strong, central position. Often it has its own square, vying for attention with the market square. But in Bastides, the market occupies the center of the village, with the church pushed off to one side. In this photo of Belves in the Dordogne, you can see the church is on a side-street of the main market square.

Covered market area in Monpazier

Covered
market area in Monpazier

The second clue is that this central market square contains a large covered section – a fairly complicated structure, as you can see from all the exposed woodwork in the photograph of Monpazier to the left. Why go to all the trouble and expense of a covered marketplace?

Siena - not a straight street in the entire town

Siena
- not a straight street in the entire town

And then there is the grid-iron layout of a Bastide. To Americans, this may not seem remarkable since most American towns and cities are structured as a grid. In Western Europe, this is very unusual compared to the complicated twisting, turning streets typical of towns, villages and cities. All of this points to the fact that the marketplace – and by implication, trade – was important, but why? Also, why the division of the village into regular blocks?

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Going mobile in Europe part 2: data services

Updated December 2013

Florence fashionistas checking email

Florence fashionistas checking email

If you read the previous article, you now know the answer to the question “why doesn’t my American cell phone just work in Europe?” and what to do about it. This article will take a look at the various data services that are on offer for Americans who want to send e-mail, surf the net or transmit digital photographs back to base while traveling in Europe.

What’s easiest and best for European data today?

WiFi: Wifi is widely available in cafes, hotels, airports and other places, usually for a fee. Free Wifi is available in some places but is far less common than in the US. Connection quality varies widely — from good to unusable. Wifi is best if you’re stationary and have the time to sit down with a coffee or glass of wine to do your surfing.

Mobile wireless data: You’ll find yourself with 3G or GPRS/EDGE (see below for definitions of the technology) 99% of the time. 4G LTE roll-out in Europe is just beginning, and is on different radio frequencies to US 4G LTE. That means your US phone likely won’t connect to European 4G LTE networks today. Expect this to change over the next few years as new phones come out: phone makers like Apple and Samsung like to standardize on a single hardware design world-wide that can access all networks. It’s cheaper and simpler for them to manufacture.

European 3G coverage has vastly improved in the past few years and in many countries it is the best technology available. Today, almost every smartphone offers 3G with up to 1Mbit/sec of data transfer speed, and again you don’t need to do anything different with your phone to access it. Your phone will automatically switch to EDGE or GPRS coverage outside of 3G data areas.

GPRS/EDGE typically offers data rates in the 128-256K region, and is good for email and basic surfing. All GSM world phones support it. You don’t need to do anything different with your phone while in Europe.

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Going wireless in Europe: what you need to know about cell phones and tablets

Part 1 of 2 articles: the second covers cellular data in Europe

Last updated: November 2013

To many Americans, staying in touch with a cell phone or tablet while in Europe can seem difficult and expensive. But savvy travelers know it doesn’t have to be. Having a phone while you’re there can be a major time saver and convenience. This article tells you how to stay in touch and save money.

Advanced mobile phone usage in Lucca, Italy

Advanced mobile phone usage in Lucca, Italy

Why don’t US cell phones “just work” in Europe? For various reasons, the United States developed and deployed wireless technologies that were incompatible with those deployed in the Rest Of the World, which went with a standard called GSM (“Global System for Mobiles” – one of the reasons why Europeans use the term “mobile” and not “cell phone”).

This meant that for many years, the only option for US travelers to Europe was to rent a GSM phone, which was expensive and inconvenient. No one could reach you on your US cell phone number; you had the hassle and cost of receiving and returning the phone, and both phone rental and calls were astonishingly expensive.

GSM comes to America (AT&T and T-Mobile)

Today, you can buy US mobile phones that use the GSM system from AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile, and phones from Verizon and Sprint that offer GSM modes. So why don’t these phones “just work” in Europe? Although they use GSM, they work on different radio frequencies. To function in Europe, a GSM phone must operate (at the very least) on the 1800MHz frequency; to get the best European coverage it must operate on both 900MHz and 1800MHz. And this is just for regular GSM — for 3G services, you need 2100MHz in Europe and 1900MHz in the US.

The net? Make sure you buy a phone that clearly states is can be used internationally or is called a “World Phone”. These operate on both US and international GSM frequencies. If in doubt, check the small print to find out what frequencies it supports. The good news: GSM World Phones are increasingly popular, so it’s now a lot easier to find a good international phone.

AT&T charges $0.99/minute for voice calls while roaming with its Discounted International Roaming plan, and $1.29 without it. T-Mobile is the stand-out leader in International Roaming, however, with its $0.20/minute charges and you can roam on all the same networks as AT&T when overseas. Competition is a wonderful thing — let’s see how AT&T responds.

What if I’m on Verizon or Sprint?

Verizon and Sprint use a system called CDMA (it stands for Code Division Multiple Access — incomprehensible to the average human.) However, Verizon in particular has figured out that it is losing a lot of nice profitable international traffic as a result, and now has phones that support both CDMA and international GSM frequencies. Verizon calls theseGlobal Phones. The line-up changes every couple of months as new phones are released, but the Apple iPhone 5S, Motorola Droid RAZR HD and Samsung Galaxy S4 are all CDMA/GSM world phones available at the time of writing.

The most significant Global Phones for Verizon and Sprint are the iPhone 5 (any model) and 4S because they’re the most capable world phones. Verizon iPhone 4 (not 4S) customers are out of luck — both are CDMA-only and will not work in Europe. This means that if you’re on Verizon or Sprint and you have iPhone 4S or 5, you can use your phone in Europe and get 3G and regular GSM coverage. More on iPhones later — it gets a bit complicated.

Verizon/Sprint iPad 3 and 4, launched in March 2012 and November 2012 respectively, are more travel friendly, as is the more recent iPad Air. They support 4G LTE in the US, but are also fully compatible with 3G GSM networks world-wide. Note that Verizon iPad 2 has no GSM capability and so can only be used via WiFi in Europe.

Verizon also offers a free GSM phone rental program for occasional travelers — if you’ve been a subscriber for a while, they will lend you a phone at no charge for a short trip (less than 21-days). Call Verizon on 800-711-8300 to find out if you qualify.

Sprint offers a flat rate $1.29 per minute overseas roaming charge for most GSM countries (i.e. those where Sprint has a roaming agreement). For Verizon subscribers, it’s a little more complicated: Verizon GSM roaming charges are different for each country, though most of Western Europe is $1.29 per minute, discounted to $0.99/min on the $4.99/month discounted international plan.

There are now also some Caribbean and Asian countries with CDMA networks — e.g. the largest Chinese cities — but it is still just a handful compared to the 250+ countries that offer GSM. GSM coverage is usually far better than CDMA in those same countries.

Cutting the cost of calling with pre-paid

Call charges on a European pre-paid GSM phone can be up to 80% cheaper than rental phones or roaming charges on your own account, and incoming calls are free. You visit any phone store, buy a pre-paid phone and pre-paid minutes of talk time. There are disadvantages: you can’t use your own cell phone number any more, and you will need enough local language proficiency to buy “recharge” or “Top up” cards and activate them using a telephone menu. Also, due to billing limitations, many pre-paid GSM phones will only work in the country where you purchased them. But if you are willing to put up with the extra complexity, this approach can save you a lot of money as the cost is less than a week’s rental of a GSM phone. At the end of your trip you can keep the phone for next time, recycle it, or sell it on eBay.

Clearly, a drawback of this kind of pre-paid is that you need to buy a phone you may never use again, unless you travel to Europe often. So why can’t you use your own GSM world phone for pre-paid service?

Pre-paid using your own GSM world phone

In the GSM system, your phone number and other identifying information are stored on a little chip: the Subscriber Identity Module (SIM). It’s a fingernail-sized smart card that slides into the back of your GSM phone under the battery (on most models). When you buy a European pre-paid GSM phone, it contains a “pre-paid SIM” issued by the carrier. If you already had a GSM world phone, you could go to Europe, take out the SIM from your US carrier, buy a pre-paid SIM from a mobile phone store (these can cost as little as 10 Euros) and put it in your own phone.

But we’re forgetting one important detail. In 99% of cases, people buy GSM phones from their carrier, such as AT&T or T-Mpbile, because they offer a steep discount from the actual price of the phone, in return for committing to a 2-year contract. A 32GB Apple iPhone 5 costs $299 with a 2-year contract, and $799 without one. Your service provider wants you to use the SIM that they issued to ensure they capture all your usage. Also, international roaming offers great profit margin compared to domestic “minute bundles”. Therefore, all phones sold by AT&T and T-Mobile are “network locked”. This means that only SIM cards issued by the carrier from whom you bought the phone will work. If you put a SIM from a different carrier into a network locked GSM phone, it will display an error message and/or only allow emergency calls (911 or equivalent).

The goods news is that all network-locked phones can be unlocked, because locking is implemented in software. Nokia phones are unlocked using a code computed from the phone’s ID. Sony Ericsson phones need a code that is dependent on the ID and the keypad lock code, but which can only be computed by connecting the phone to a computer with a special cable.

So you have two choices: buy an unlocked GSM phone, or have your existing phone unlocked. Buying an unlocked GSM worldphone today is very easy: Amazon.com sells a wide variety of brand new unlocked phones from all major manufacturers with full US warranties, and Apple sells unlocked iPhones in its online store.

There are hundreds (possibly thousands) of web sites offering phone unlocking services and equipment, and independent mobile phone stores in Europe will also do it for a small fee. Typical costs range from free to $20. The last time I did this a 20-minute call in Italy using a Telecom Italia Mobile pre-paid SIM was enough to break even on the cost of unlocking.

The Apple iPhone 3G, 3GS, 4, 4S, 5, 5S and 5C

AT&T iPhones are all world phones and work on any GSM network, but are network locked. The Verizon iPhone 4 is CDMA only and won’t work in Europe, but the Verizon and Sprint iPhone 4S and 5 are dual CDMA/GSM and will work pretty much anywhere. Apple will also sell you an unlocked iPhone — it’s about $500 more than one sold with a cell phone contract.

The great news for Sprint and Verizon iPhone customers is that they have an easier time with unlocking for international travel. Verizon says its policy is to unlock any Verizon world phone after 60 days for a customer in good standing, if you call customer service and specifically request international unlocking. Sprint’s iPhone 4S, 5, 5S and 5C comes with no SIM and is completely unlocked at sale time.

Help is at hand for AT&T iPhone owners: AT&T will also unlock your iPhone, but its policy is unclear. AT&T says it will do this for phones that are off-contract (i.e., when you have completed the minimum 2-year term). On AT&T’s web forums, there are reports from those who are simply longtime AT&T customers having their phones unlocked before the end of the minimum term. In short, it’s worth a try. Here’s the link to the AT&T iPhone unlock request page.

You can also use an unofficial unlocking service, either at a store or on the Internet. Some unlocking services also provide after-sales service: if Apple releases an iPhone software update that invalidates their unlocking, they will unlock the new software for you at no extra charge.

An important footnote on SIM cards: iPhone 4, 4S and iPads up until iPad 3 use “Micro SIMs” that are smaller than a regular SIM. Most SIM cards now come in a dual package — a standard-sized SIM that can be turned into a Micro-SIM by breaking off the plastic surrounding the metal contacts. The iPhone 5, 5S, 5C, iPad Mini and iPad 4 and iPad Air use a new, even smaller and thinner SIM card called a “Nano SIM”. If you’re buying a pre-paid SIM card at a store, have them install it for you right then and there. Not only do they have the right tools to get the SIM cards out of your devices, but you can also be sure they gave you the right sized SIM card and that it works.

AT&T/Apple iPad

All Apple AT&T iPads are not network locked. They come with an AT&T SIM for use in the US. To use elsewhere, you will need to buy a micro SIM from a local wireless carrier and swap out the AT&T SIM. Don’t lose it (they’re tiny) as you’ll need it when you get back to the US. Get the store to install it because sometimes they get the SIM size incorrect, selling you a Micro SIM when you need a Nano SIM.

Verizon 3G iPad 2 is CDMA-only and does not work in Europe, but Verizon and Sprint iPads 3, 4, New iPad and iPad Air support 3G GSM if you buy a SIM card.

Skype and other voice over the Internet options

With smartphones becoming more powerful and now offering apps like Skype and Google Voice, it’s possible to get free calling if you are in a reasonably good WiFi hotspot (such as your hotel). Call quality depends on the WiFi network performance and Internet connection congestion at your location. If it’s busy and everyone is Skyping, you’ll get poor quality. But when it works, it’s a great alternative and can offer better voice quality than a regular call.

Handy tips for a phone-stress-free European trip

  • When buying a “world phone” make sure that it operates on 1800MHz frequency, and ideally on both 900 & 1800MHz at a minimum. If it does not, it won’t work outside the US.
  • Before you leave, call your carrier or log in to the website and turn on international voice and data roaming. It’s turned off by default. Even if you bought a world-phone when you signed up for service, and/or told the nice sales or activation person that’s why you went with them. It is turned off by default as an anti-fraud measure.
  • Sometimes, you cannot call US 800/888/877/866 numbers from foreign phone networks. So find out the non-800 number for your cell phone carrier’s customer support before you leave. That goes for any other 800 numbers you may need to call when overseas (e.g. your credit card company).
  • Calling 611 or any other “short code” (in industry lingo) may also not work, so don’t rely on it. Find out the international number for customer service.
  • To call internationally when outside the US, you need to know the country code of the place you’re dialing. The US country code is 1 — pretty simple. France is 33, Italy is 39, the UK is 44… there’s a whole list.
  • To call internationally from a mobile phone, enter a plus sign (+), followed by the country code, followed by the number. For example, to call 415 555 1212 from Europe, you’d dial +1 415 555 1212 on your phone. Finding the plus sign on the keypad of your phone can be hard… keep looking, it is there somewhere! You might need to hold a key down to get the plus sign. If that doesn’t work, try using 00 instead — this is the International standard code for international calling, and works on both mobile and landline phones across Europe. In my example, you’d dial 001-415-555-1212.
  • When calling from a non-mobile phone (e.g. a payphone or hotel phone) remember that the international access code in Europe is 00, not 011. For example, to call 415 555 1212 from a payphone in Europe, dial 00 1 415 555 1212. This convention also works on mobile phones.
  • When making an international call to any European phone number that begins with a zero, omit the zero — unless you are calling Italy. For example, to call the UK number 01606 54321 from France, you’d dial +44 1606 54321. + is the international prefix, 44 is the country code, then the number with the leading zero omitted. Italy is the lone exception — if you need to call there don’t drop the leading zero.
  • Enjoy your trip, and don’t forget to call home!

What about e-mail, data etc?

See part 2 of this article series, which covers mobile data services.

Links

The GSM Association:A trade association that also maintains world-wide GSM coverage maps showing all carriers and frequencies used.

Search eBay for unlocked GSM world phones

Google result for “Nokia phone unlock”

AT&T

T-Mobile

 

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Is T-Mobile’s new international roaming best for European travel?

In October 2013, T-Mobile introduced a revolutionary new international cell phone capability — free data and text message roaming in 115 countries, and 20c/min for roaming voice calls. Could this be the best option for travelers looking to save money when in Europe and elsewhere?

Picture of Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

Roaming in the shadows of Notre Dame for free?

International Roaming charges are insanely profitable for Verizon and AT&T. How do we know this? Think about it: you can go to France or the UK and buy a pre-paid SIM card to get voice calls that cost between 8-15 cents per minute. You’re getting the most expensive price for those calls because you’re making no commitment whatsoever. Yet the same voice call, when purchased as international roaming from Verizon or AT&T, would cost you approx 99 cents. AT&T and Verizon have millions of customers who roam in Europe making hundreds of millions of calls, so they surely pay a lot less than 8-15 cents for a one minute voice call. Let’s say that call costs them 3 cents, which means AT&T and Verizon make over 95% profit. The costs to interconnect mobile networks are fixed and effectively zero compared to the revenue collected. Everyone in the mobile phone industry knows this, but T-Mobile has decided to do something about it.

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Set up your AT&T iPhone for Europe and save money

[Updated May 2013 with new AT&T screen shots and prices]

Travelling with your AT&T iPhone to Europe? Here’s how you can make sure it works when you get there and avoid a giant bill when you get back. Who doesn’t like to save money?

If you haven’t done so already, register with AT&T’s web site so that you can make changes to your phone plan options online. Log in with your wireless number and password, so that you get to the home screen for your wireless service. Look in the top-left quadrant of the page for a menu called “I want to…”, which will look like this:

Click on "I want to..." to get this menu

Click on “I want to…” to get this menu

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Lytro Light Field Camera Review

Photography began with the concept of capturing light in a single plane — the idea of what’s in and out of focus in an image has been central to photographic composition for more than 100 years. The photographer’s job has been to direct the viewer’s attention by deciding which subjects are in focus, while ensuring that the background (and less frequently, the foreground) are appropriately blurred. The Lytro camera turns that entire concept on its head by delivering a “living image” where the viewer can change the point of focus to explore the image.

When my Lytro arrived, I couldn’t wait to try it out. What follows is my review of the 1.0.0 version of the Lytro camera and 1.0.0 software following my attempts to take good photographs.

I’d love to embed some Lytro photos in this post, but that doesn’t seem to work. So, instead, here’s a link to my Lytro gallery (opens in a new window): Lytro example

The Lytro camera “out of box” experience is very well done and will be very familiar to anyone who owns an iPod or iPhone. It comes in a white box, with the camera held firmly in place with plastic inserts. Underneath the camera is a white cardboard box containing the paperwork, lens cap, cleaning cloth, wrist strap and USB cable.

The camera itself is small — just 4.4 inches long — and arrives with some charge in the battery so you can start shooting immediately. It’s shaped like a square tube, with the lens at one end and a small viewing screen at the other:

Lytro light field camera

Lytro light field camera

A small power button on the bottom turns on the camera, and the shutter button is on the top. Zooming is accomplished by dragging a finger left and right on the rear top edge of the camera. It’s a little clunky, as it can be hard to set just the right composition, but it works.

The camera is fully automatic: it sets shutter speed and ISO automatically with a fixed f2 aperture. You can tap on the rear screen to tell the camera the exposure metering point and it will do its best. The Lytro needs a wide aperture to capture the best light field — the direction of the light as well as its intensity and color. There’s a little clicking sound when you point the camera at a very bright object like the sky on a sunny day, and exposure is reduced. I suspect it’s inserting a neutral density filter inside the lens barrel to reduce the light intensity.

In “Everyday mode” (the default), the Lytro takes photos instantaneously when you press the shutter button. Lytro makes much of this “instant capture” capability in its marketing, because a light field camera doesn’t have to focus. In theory, yes. In practice, not so much, which is why there’s “Creative mode”, accessed by swiping a finger upwards on the rear screen and tapping a small icon, allowing you to focus the camera. The physics of optics has crashed the “focus free” light field party here: the camera has to focus the lens so that the captured light field has a useful range of potential focus planes.

The net? The Lytro camera requires very careful framing and composition of subjects to give the viewer an interesting set of subjects separated by distance. While the camera might be point and shoot, the composition work is anything but instantaneous! Creative mode offers more flexibility in composing the subjects by distance (handy if they are inanimate) and careful control of the camera to ensure it is properly “focused”. The square (1:1) aspect ratio of the image doesn’t help with composition, making it hard to get everything into the frame. The camera would be easier to use if it had a wide aspect ratio, as there would be more room in the frame for the subjects.

This is really the crux of the challenge presented by the Lytro: how to use it to produce an effective photograph that is interesting and aesthetically pleasing for the viewer. Many of the examples on the Lytro website are contrived compositions with near and far elements to show off the novelty of being able to re-focus after the fact. If that is all there is for light field images, then its impact on photography has been dramatically over-hyped.

Plugging the camera into your Mac (Windows support just shipped) allows you to install the Lytro Desktop software — a nice touch. Once installed, you unplug and replug the camera to download images. You can then view the images — though not at full size — and change the focus point. You can also share images on Facebook and Lytro’s own website, and export JPEGs (so I’m told — I have never managed to find this function in the software). The only effective way to show an image is through the flash file stored on the Lytro website, which is severely limiting.

Lytro touts the camera’s low-light capabilities, but I think that’s a mistake. There is significant noise, banding, lines and other odd artefacts in low light. Shutter speeds are low, even at f2, so camera shake is a real problem, and there’s no flash integration.

Overall, the Lytro camera is intriguing more for future possibilities than what it can do today. Version 1.0.0 is pretty basic and effective composition is extremely time-consuming and requires full cooperation of your subjects. With light field photography, we ought to be able to produce 3D photographs, change the viewers position, tilt and shift the plane of focus to our liking… there are many more possibilities than capabilities in the current software. Today, I find myself leaving the Lytro at home more often than I take it out, and that’s a shame.

 

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What is Chianti Classico wine?

Bottles of Chianti and Brunello wine at a Montalcino Enoteca (wine bar)

Bottles of Chianti and Brunello wine at a Montalcino Enoteca (wine bar)

A trip to Tuscany inevitably means a glass of red Chianti Classico for most visitors. But what makes a Chianti wine special?

Chianti Classico must come from grapes grown in a strictly defined area of the Chianti hills between Florence and Siena, centered around Castellina, Gaiole, Radda and Greve (see map below). There are also rules on the grape content that have changed over the years. Since the 1990s, Chianti Classico has to contain at least 75% Sangiovese grapes, a maximum of 10% Canaiolo, at most 6% white wine grapes and up to 15% Cabernet, Merlot or Syrah.

The definition of Chianti is controlled by the DOCG, the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita. In the past 30 years or so, Chianti’s reputation has gone from fairly low grade red to a region producing some world-class wines. In the 1970s-90s, it was common to see low-grade Chianti in its traditional straw bottle jacket or fiasco. In 1971, the Antinori family broke with tradition in releasing a “Chianti-style” blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet called Tignanello. Because it didn’t fit the DOCG definition of Chianti at the time (which didn’t allow Cabernet and required at least 10% white wine grapes), it wasn’t officially Chianti Classico. Very quickly, however, the wine began to win awards and acclaim, prices rose and other producers followed. Thus the “Super Tuscan” wines were born. The success of Super Tuscans led the DOCG to change the rules of grape composition in the 1990s, allowing many Super Tuscans to be reclassified as true Chianti Classico.

Chianti Classico is what the French would call an “Appellation” — in other words, the grapes must be grown within a strict geographical boundary. Contrast this with a Napa wine, for example, which is more of a brand: the wine might be made within the boundaries of Napa, but the grapes could have been trucked in from the central Californian coast.

The original boundaries were laid down in 1716 by Cosimo III di Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and covered the Tuscan villages of Castellina, Gaiole and Radda. In 1932, Chianti was vastly expanded to cover seven different regions, of which Chianti Classico, the original, was just one. Today, the area of Chianti Classico is roughly 100 square miles.

Chianti wine regions

Chianti wine regions

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