All posts by joe

Forest, Beach, and River: A Solo Bike Tour of Normandy

[Note:  this is a long (but entertaining) story. If you’re just here for the pictures, here’s the gallery , or scroll to the bottom]

Preface: April 2017. This trip happened in July and August of 2017, but its story began in April. My wife and I had a one-year old, and had recently decided to have a second child. I could foresee the fun of being a family of four, but I was definitely not looking forward to the first year of having two very young children: lots of diapers to change, and not a lot of leaving the house for adventures.

Around that time Suzanne and I were sitting in our living room after our daughter had gone to bed, each doing our own thing. I was reading something about cycling, and I said aloud “I miss bike touring.”

Suzanne and I had gone on a bike touring honeymoon five years earlier, and we had plans to go touring with our children. A newborn, however, is not amenable to that, since most medical advice is to wait until one year old before subjecting a child to the bumps and vibrations of cycling. So when I said “I miss bike touring” it was with a degree of wistfulness, knowing that would probably be a few more years before I could do so again.

Continue reading Forest, Beach, and River: A Solo Bike Tour of Normandy

How To Find Campsites While Bike Touring In Europe

I have gone on three bike tours in Europe, mostly in France, but also in Germany, Italy, Ireland, and Switzerland. I just wanted to give a quick rundown of the ways that I have been able to find campsites, and also hopefully attract other people to this page you can tell me what to do for other countries. This is about commercial (or often municipal) campsites, not wild camping.

Wherever You Are: Try OsmAnd.

I have only done this within France, but there’s no reason that it wouldn’t work in other countries except that the data coverage might not be as good. OsmAnd is an Android and iOS application that shows OpenStreetMap data, which is sort of like the Wikipedia of cartography. It also has the best filter to show a particular feature type — like campsites — even better than the online OpenStreetMap.

Last summer I spent two weeks biking a loop in Normandy, and used this method almost every night in order to find a campsite. The main advantage of OsmAnd is that it has a lot of information, so it has both municipal and commercial campsites. The downside is that the data is not necessarily verified. One time I showed up at a campsite, and it used to be a campsite, but had become more like a trailer park. The people living there were friendly so I stayed there anyway. And the other ten times I used it I found a for-reals campsite. The idea is: there’s probably going to be a campsite where they are indicated, but is not guaranteed. Usually I did a quick Google search of the campsite name and town to verify that the campsite would actually be there.

The user interface of OsmAnd is decent but complex and it took me a few tries to figure out how to display campsites on the map. Here’s a video of me showing how to find the campsites using OsmAnd:

French campsites are rated on a star system, which sometimes is included in the OSM data for the campsite if you tap on it. Fewer stars is, of course, cheaper. One or two stars is like a field with a bathroom. Three stars seems to usually have a restaurant. Four stars and above seems to mostly involve kid amenities like waterslides and bouncy houses. Anything campsite that has “municipal” in the title (i.e., run by the town) is usually going to be one star and very cheap (once I found one that was free!).

I’d be interested in hearing from anyone else who has used this method in other countries, and how accurate the campsite data is. Using “drinking water” as the this method is also highly reliable at finding public water spigots, often hidden in plain sight.

Overpass Turbo

Overpass Turbo campsite example mapThis is another OpenStreetMap tool. I’ve only used it on a desktop computer, but it gives a view on the same data. Go to and replace “amenity=drinking_water” with “tourism=camp_site”, and then click “Run” and it will find sites in the current viewbox. If you move the map, you have to click “Run” again.

Country-by-Country Maps.

In Germany, another good way to find campsites are ADFC biking maps. The ADFC is the national biking organization for Germany, and their maps show bike routes, bike shops, restaurants, and… campgrounds. They also exist as digital downloads, which requires some navigation of their only-in-German website.

In France, Camping Qualite is a kind of campsite industry association that has its own map. They are usually going to be more full-featured and expensive campsites (so like twenty euros a night, with a pool and a playground).

In Switzerland, the website Schweitzmobil has a configurable map that will show the Swiss national and regional bike routes, and various categories of accommodations. Probably the most useful configuration for readers of this post is showing national bike routes, camping, and farm accommodations.

What others sources for finding campsites for bike touring are there?

Options Beyond #DeleteFacebook : GDPR and Diaspora

I want to point to two things that exist already, and only need more adoption, that seem like the right direction after Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s phone-scraping practices. One is legal (the GDPR), and the other is technological (Diaspora).

Neither of them seems likely to become part of modern American life overnight, but I think it is important to continually be trying to imagine the world as you wish it were.

1. America Needs Something Like the EU’s General Data Privacy Regulation. 

For the last year and a half, every company in Silicon Valley has already been scrambling to increase their ability to give users more choice, control, and specific rights regarding how their data is used. Unfortunately, the protections are only for users in the EU. That is because the EU passed a extraterritorial (meaning applies to anyone in the world) privacy law, the General Data Protection Regulation, that applies to anyone processing personal data, but that seems extra-targeted toward social networks.

It is a rather large piece of legislation, and would be more than what I intend to tackle in a short blog post to say that the United States needs to copy it verbatim. However: it is already been operationalized; everyone in the industry is familiar with it; it’s better than what we have now. So it would be a good starting point for anyone looking for what strong privacy protections the United States might look like.

One of its particular clauses that I think would have prevented some of the damage from the Cambridge Analytica situation is that users have to give “specific consent” for each use of their data. That means that for each particular use that a company wants to apply user data to, they have to get a specific checkbox or other indication that the user agrees to it; you cannot bury it all in the privacy policy or terms of service. That might be more difficult to pass in the United States where the lobbying power of Facebook and Google would likely be turned against it, because it affects their profitability. After all, who is going to specifically consent to have targeted ads? (Maybe they could pay users a piece of the approximately $80 per U.S. user per year that Facebook gets, mostly from advertising revenue.)  On the other hand, if Facebook was thinking very long-term and wants to regain users’ trust, perhaps it would not be so opposed after all. If you want to read more about this this post on PageFair gives some additional information on how GDPR is likely to affect Facebook.

2. The World Needs A Decentralized Social Media Platform (Like Diaspora, Perhaps)

The operational model of email is a good example of network decentralization, which creates a market that buffers against the sort of monopolization that Facebook has. Right now there’s a lot of people who are angry at Facebook, but they find they are tied to it because there is nowhere to go; it is the primary data source for all of the social connections in our world.

Continue reading Options Beyond #DeleteFacebook : GDPR and Diaspora

In Memoriam: Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin died this week, one of my favorite novelists.

Her parents studied and worked extensively with the last member of the Yahi people, who occupied territory in the Sierra Nevada until they were massacred in the Gold Rush. I have never seen Le Guin say exactly how that influenced her, but a lot of her themes are about interactions between different cultures, and imbalances of power and domination. She was excellent writer, in both character and plot, always taking points of view that are unusual but very recognizably human.

My favorite stories by her are the Hainish Cycle: The Left Hand of Darkness, which explores fluidity of gender; The Dispossessed, which contrasted capitalism and communism; and the novella The Word For World Is Forest, which has environmentalist/anticolonialist themes. But the themes are rarely overt; there is nothing polemical. The storytelling approach is always a kind of “what if there was a place with people like this?” that sucks you in from curiosity. But then as you reflect afterward it’s like “wait, the world is kind of like that, at least parts of it, although I hadn’t thought about it like that before.” The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed each won Hugo and Nebula Awards.

She also clearly planned stories very well: while you’re reading, the stories cruise along, driven by plot and character. But then at the end, while you also have the usual climax and dénouement to process emotionally, there’s also this intellectual process you often have to go through to reconstruct exactly how the whole thing fit together. Sort of like the same feeling you get at the end of movies like Memento or Donnie Darko where you have to reconstruct some of the plot structure and parallel threads yourself at the end. May the world have more novelists like her that make readers study the world and imagine all the different perspectives within it, and all the ways it might be.

Gallery: Normandy Bike Tour

This is a gallery of photographs I took to accompany story proposals about bike touring in Normandy. The ones that have me in them were taken with a tripod.  This post is un-indexed and un-categorized, so for all practical purposes these pictures have not been published. — Joe

Jet lag makes for a very early start on the second day of the trip.
Southern Normandy is full of national forests (forêts domaniales) that have many kilometers of low-traffic roads.
Southern Normandy is full of national forests (forêts domaniales) that have many kilometers of low-traffic roads.
Multiple croissants and a “petit cafe” — French the breakfast of champions – is available at most campgrounds.
Taking a rest in front of the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montligeon, an enormous church built in the middle of nowhere to accommodate 19th century pilgrims that flocked to the region for a charismatic priest.
One of many nearly-empty forest roads in southern Normandy.
Navigating one of the national forests with old signs and new.
Camping provides a low-cost way to stay while bike touring.
Greenways or “voies vertes” like this resurfaced railway are car-free and often stretch for hundreds of kilometers.
This family of four from Caen rode several hundred kilometers together on a voie verte. [I have their contact info for a release if necessary]
Mont Saint Michel is one of the top attractions of Normandy, for travelers on bikes or otherwise.
A perspective on Mont Saint Michel from the dam on the Couesnon River.
Riding around the back side of Mont Saint Michel abbey.
The typical French countryside scenery: clouds and fields.
Roads are always an option, but the unpaved route makes it easier to get away from all traffic and tourists. This is a segment of Eurovelo 4, a cross-continent bike trail. 
Riding alongside Omaha Beach.
Roadside haybales not far from Monet’s summer residence. [This is a composite of two bracketed exposures: one for sky and one for the rest.]

Bird Portraits

I have been working on taking pictures of birds using a portrait lens. These are all taken usually next to a dish of seed. Gear is a Olympus Micro Four Thirds camera (EPM-2) with Oly 45 mm f/1.8 lens (90 mm on a 35mm); Pixel Oppilas remote; Amazon basics tripod or Smallrig clamp tripod. 


Book Review: For The Soul of France

Sometimes it feels like it is hard to write engaging history books for any era that predates the 20th century. There is less cultural context for the modern reader: so much has changed that it makes it hard to imagine events, nevermind relate to them. Plus more details have been erased by the sands of time, so often the level of generality goes up. Brown does a good job getting around this. He uses a lot of newspapers and personal letters to give the reader primary sources to relate to: what people were actually writing and reading at the time. He often uses the universal expositions, which happened approximately every decade, to anchor things in time.

Based on the presence of “Dreyfus” in the title, I was expecting this to be more directly about anti-Semitism. The primary theme of the book is Catholic-Royalist versus Republican-Enlightenment, and Continue reading Book Review: For The Soul of France

Book Review: The Unwinding by George Packer

Something changed in America around 1970. If you read political economists, it might be variously characterized as the end of the New Deal, globalization, national productivity separating from average pay, deindustrialization, the beginning of the income inequality spike, or the rise of neoliberalism. Those are hard to digest in the abstract. Packer tells the story of these changes, but through biography. The chapters are fairly short and mostly independent, although some characters recur as the book progresses from 1978 to 2012. Each chapter is told as the stories of people: mostly ordinary people who were in a position to be particularly representative of a particular part of the power cycles of American life.

Tammy Thomas is a Black woman in Youngstown, Ohio, born at the apex of Black inner-city success, when well-paying blue-collar jobs in steel factories had been a fact for a generation; during her lifetime Youngstown collapses due to jobs moving to lower-pay locations, the short-sightedness of local elites, and the indifference of far-away capital that dismembers its industry. Continue reading Book Review: The Unwinding by George Packer