Running a French Holiday Gite in Rural Brittany

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Windows 7 tried to turn my hair grey

At the end of October I received a pre-ordered copy of Windows 7 as I'd decided to take the plunge and upgrade from Windows XP.

Over the last month or so I have been uninstalling all the stuff I didn't need, then I manually backed up all our documents and photos to DVD and made a second copy on my NAS drive. Then I used VMware vCenter Converter to make a full virtual copy of my current Windows XP machine (as a single 16Gb image) which I could then run as a virtual PC within VMware Player. That way I still had access to the original machine build and all the original files and settings in case I'd missed anything in the backup process.

Then safely assured that everything was prepared a couple of weeks ago I put the Windows 7 DVD in and ran the installation process, reformatting the hard disk so that I had a clean installation.

And there the troubles started. To say that Windows 7 has been causing me problems over the last two weeks has been an understatement.

The install sort of went OK, it took ages, but it didn't seem to complete properly so after fiddling with it for a while I ended up reinstalling W7 again.

Second installation worked much better, got W7 up and running OK but it was "poorly" and remained so for the next couple of weeks whilst I tried to find the root cause of the problem.

The symptom was that it would take ages to boot and then would work properly for a couple of minutes but then unexplainably freeze. And when W7 froze it would stop completely for anywhere between 5 and 15 minutes. When a freeze occurred the mouse would still work but nothing else worked at all.

And there I was stuck. I've been through numerous Google found searches of Windows 7 problems, but none of them really worked. The core suggestions were to disable everything "special" in the BIOS, unplug any USB devices, remove any cards from inside the machine, then try step by step to put your machine back together until you found the problem area. This didn't work as even with a stripped down machine it still kept on freezing randomly.

I did find and fix a problem with the onboard sound chipset not being recognised by installing the latest Vista drivers, but other than getting rid of the warning symbol it didn't cure the freezing problem.

The only clue I had was that the freezing seemed to coincide with when I accessed the hard disk (but not all the time, sometimes it worked fine), and in the Windows event log there appeared an error code 11 from the atapi disk service pretty much every time the freeze occurred. Windows help didn't give any clues as to what this error meant (and the same hard disk had worked perfectly with Windows XP), but it did seem to be related.

Cutting the story short I'd resigned myself to having to buy a new hard disk drive (so had been searching on ebay for one at the right price), when I decided in a last ditch attempt to try swapping over the disk drive cable inside the computer in case for any reason that was at fault.

When I unplugged the drive cable I noticed that one of the pins on the hard disk drive wasn't in line with the other pins and was in fact pushed down and out of shape. Perhaps that was the problem, with a dodgy pin the drive was only working intermittently??

Carefully with a pair of long nose pliers I pulled the pin back into place and fortunately it didn't snap off, then I carefully and reverently plugged the hard disk back into the computer cable, switched it all on and held my breath.

Result! Windows 7 works perfectly, not a single jitter, freeze or error message at all, even after running a hard disk benchmark that stressed the hard disk to its maximum 10Mb/sec throughput rate, everything was rock solid.

So that's it all fixed. All I've got to do is to plug the PC back together and sort out any remaining driver problems. From what I've seen of Windows 7 over the last few hours of finally getting to us it, it looks quite good and looks to be a massive improvement on XP.

Moral of the story is to look for the obvious physical problem first.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

We're waiting for the Big Fella in a red suit

Just after 10 o'clock and we're still trying to get the boys to go to sleep.

We've all been enjoying tracking Santa on his Christmas Eve trip around the world courtesy of a little help from Google and Norad who track Santa with radar, satellites, Santa Cams and fighter jets.

Happy Christmas and a great new year to all my readers.

Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année.

Brittany Ferries and Barfleur say "Farewell" to Poole

Brittany Ferries

Earlier this week the BBC reported that Brittany Ferries had quietly dropped the Barfleur conventional ferry service from Poole to Cherbourg, terminating the daily ferry service to France that has operated for the past 17 years.

Not surprisingly the Bournemouth Echo reports the town's "Bitter disappointment" in loosing the Barfleur service although Steve Tuckwell, a spokesman for Brittany Ferries, is quoted as saying that the service has been "haemorrhaging money" and that "The Poole to Cherbourg route using Barfleur has lost us money since 2003”, so it's perhaps hardly surprising that the route is being axed.

Later in the week the Bournemouth Echo reported rather nostalgically about how loosing Barfleur is the 'end of an era', and recalled Brittany Ferries optimism when the boat was commissioned in 1991 to compete head-on with the forthcoming Eurotunnel service.

At the time the new boat was actually delayed by 3 months as Brittany Ferries ordered the Finnish Kvaerner-Masa yards in Helsinki to "stretch" the new boat at a cost of an additional £5 million by welding an extra nine metres into its mid-section, increasing the ferry’s length and weight, and providing 200 more cabin berths, and more public and car deck areas.

Barfleur will complete its last sailing on 7th March 2010 and will be taken out of service afterwards. Poole will still retain the high speed Normandie Vitesse catamaran service to Cherbourg which operates through the summer months from May through to September.

In slight recompense Brittany Ferries have also announced that they're increasing sailings from Portsmouth to Cherbourg, and will also increase the Portsmouth to Santander (Northern Spain) service from 4 crossings a week to 5, having purchased the Superfast V cruise ferry for £75m from Greek company Attica to boost their capacity on this route.
Brittany Ferries have been strongly promoting the benefits of cruising to Spain rather than driving down through France and by 2012 are predicting to be carrying 250,000 passengers each year to from the UK to Spain.

I noticed that the Brittany Ferries website now offers services from "Poole / Portsmouth to Cherbourg" rather than there being separate routes from "Poole to Cherbourg" and "Portsmouth to Cherbourg" - despite the fact that it's an hour or so's drive between the two ports.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Four brief bits of ferry related news

I'm trying to clear the dozens of tab's of "interesting" things I have currently open in Firefox.

When I come across something I mean to Blog about or read later I tend to leave the website open in a Firefox tab and as the number of open tabs has now exceeded 70+ I need to try to clear things down a bit by clearing some of the Blogging backlog ....

(By the by, about a dozen of the tabs are currently open because I've been doing numerous Google searches to resolve the treacle-like performance I'm getting with my new Windows 7 upgrade ... but that's a different story and not one for now, but suffice to say that I'm having a lot of problems and I am not a happy bunny just yetawhile).

Anyway, back to the ferry items,

First up a couple of news items from BBC who reported on Celtic Link's Norman Voyager being detained in port after failing "basic safety tests" and all Portsmouth/Cherbourg crossings being cancelled as a result. There's not much detail of what the actual safety problems were, but the later BBC news item a couple of days later when the Norman Voyager was released by the safety authorities does say that it had been impounded because of problems with ".. fire safety, the watertight integrity of the vessel and staff safety training".

Slightly worrying and as a regular channel ferry user myself you kind of take for granted that the ferry company have proper safety control systems and processes in place and all the staff are well drilled with them. Memories of the capsizing of the Herald of Free Enterprise in 1987 and all that.
Glad the Maritime and Coastguard Agency's safety inspectors were doing a thorough job; better to be safe than sorry and suspend the service until the problems were rectified.

Next up, a number of French newspapers covered the story of an 84 year old man being helicoptered off Brittany Ferries' Bretagne after complaining of chest pains when the ferry was 40 miles off the French coast.

And finally, and on a more lighter note, Kent Online covered the story of a French musician who setup his piano in Dover's Eastern Dock Travel centre and tried to busk his way to raising the £109 ferry fare he needed to take himself, his camper van and his piano back to France!

Unfortunately it seems his aspirations were greater than his playing abilities and he was soon persuaded to leave by Dover Police.

Update 24th December: Further news on the passenger airlifted from the Brittany Ferries service to Santander, reporting that he's now OK and back in home in the UK after being diagnosed with Angina. He reported that "all of a sudden I felt ill, I went to reception and they fetched a doctor, who took me to the surgery and took two electrocardiograms. The doctor looked at one of them and said, 'I'm sorry but you can't continue this voyage'". The captain then arranged a helicopter airlift to a French hospital.
Good one BF!

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Friday, December 18, 2009

Google BrowserSize - Making it easier to see how others view your website

Last night Google announced on their Blog the launch of Google BrowserSize which was developed as a "20% time" project my employees of Google and has now been publicly launched in GoogleLabs.

The idea behind Google BrowserSize is quite simple, and reflects the importance of having the most important text on your webpage at the top-left hand corner.

Using a sample of browsers sizes from real users of, Google BrowserSize overlays onto your website a series of coloured zones to show what percentage of users would be able to see that part of your website.

So if for instance you've got some important text or action button that's part way down the page or across to the right hand side then you can see just how many users would have to scroll their browser to see the 'important' bit. Obviously most people will read and act upon the text immediately in front of them when they view your website so if you're relying on them having to scroll to read and act upon your website then you're going to lose impact and potentially of course loose customers.

Here's how BrowserSize looks on my own rental holiday cottage website:

lines it enables you to graphically see representation of how many different web your website looks when viewed as seen through Google BrowserSize

One of the things that is immediately apparent is that because of all the hard work I put in when redesigning the website back in 2006 to ensure that the text automatically flows out to fill the full browser width, it means that even with quite small browser widths (e.g. set to 900 pixels to match a 90% browser coverage of actual Google users) the page is still quite readable.

And in the other direction, with the page width set to the same 900px, I can see that a good half of the navigation menu is straight away visible for everyone (i.e. in the '99%' zone), and the remaining navigation items ('Contact Us', 'Site Map', 'GuestBook Comments', etc) are in the 98-90% zone - i.e. 9 out of 10 people can see the whole navigation menu without having to scroll the browser at all.

And in the middle of the screen I've got my "Stop Press" late breaking news box, and then the main introduction to the holiday Gite starts.

So all in all I'm pretty happy with the results, shows that most of the time the key information I want people to see is visible without requiring scrolling.

But what this has got me thinking though is that I ought to resequence some of the menu navigation items to promote a few of the more important ones up higher on the page. 'Contact Us' is currently in the 95% zone - meaning 5% of website visitors would have to scroll to see it - and I can easily move this up and move 'Rental Rates' down.

In conclusion, another useful WebMaster tool from Google.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

GuideEuro - online European website directory

Our French Cottage
We're always looking for good value (aka cheap, or even better, free) places to advertise our Brittany Holiday Cottage, and I've written before about some of the different Holiday home advertisements we've tried.

One that we've recently joined is Guide Euro which is (ambitiously) aiming to create a comprehensive directory of European websites ... sounds like it might be a bit of a Forth Railway bridge painting job to me.

You can be included in the GuideEuro directory as either a Premium advertiser, a Basic advertiser or a Link Partner. The Premium and Basic are paid advertiser entries which give your entry more text, photos and details about your company; whereas the Link Partner requires a reciprocal link back from your own website.

We're on the French Travel resources section as a Link Partner.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009


This is the first time I've got out of bed and dressed for 8 days, and I haven't shaved in 8 days either.

No this is not some new slovenly mid-life crisis I've succumbed to, more a matter of the flu virus that I've had instead.

Felt tired last Tuesday evening but put it down to just having been standing up in Church whilst videoing Jack's school concert, but by the Wednesday morning I was clearly going down with something, and that something went from cold to flu with full-on aching joints, shivering, sweating, coughing until I thought I would be sick, etc, etc - you get the idea.

So I've been confined to bed until I got better. The worst of the flu went after a few days but it's left me feeling extremely tired and fatigued and although I'm up and dressed right now I think I'll be going for a lie down this afternoon as my head is spinning and I still don't feel good.

I've been through the inane questions that the National Pandemic Helpline quiz you with and have my very own course of TamiFlu tablets - with no prescription charge either which was nice.

This is not to be recommended at all.

Having grown an 8 day stubble the kids are intrigued as they've never seen me with a beard before. I've only ever grown a beard once before about 20 years ago so they've asked me to grow one now. Think I'll grow it for Christmas and then shave it off in the new year when I go back to work properly.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Smoke detectors soon to become obligatory in France

Smoke Detector
A quick pass-on of an article I read on French Property News about a new French law being introduced to make smoke alarms mandatory. The article explains that over 800 people die today in France due to smoke and fire-related incidents and currently only around 1-3% of all French homes have smoke alarms.

According to the results from a couple of quick Google searches I did, there's somewhere between 85% and 96% of UK and US homes that have a smoke alarm so you can see why the French government is so concerned about this issue.

I'm happy to be able to say that our French Gite has a fully working smoke alarm, it was one of the things I felt we absolutely must install before we let it out to guests.

As well as the smoke alarm we've also fitted a fire extinguisher in the kitchen, a second extinguisher at the top of the stairs, and a third much larger fire extinguisher next to the open fire in the lounge. Although it cost a lot of money for all these fire safety devices the old maxim "better safe than sorry springs to mind" and fortunately neither us nor the guests have ever had need of any of them.

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Thursday, December 03, 2009

"Checking out" Google Checkout (and Paypal) transaction fee structures for card payments

A few weeks ago I wrote about how Google Checkout had re-instated my seller account after they'd changed the rules about what was allowed to be sold and included timeshare and holiday rental properties.

Since then I've finally had a chance to look at the fees charged by Google Checkout to compare them to other electronic card payment mechanisms.

When Google Checkout launched in the UK the fees were a very reasonable flat rate of 15p handling fee plus 1.5% of the transaction amount.

Then in March 2009 Google Checkout revised the fee structure to a tiered structure, and depending upon your monthly revenue through Google checkout you pay a lower fee rate:

Monthly Sales Through Google Checkout Fees Per Transaction
Less than £15003.4% + £0.20
£1500 - £5999.992.9% + £0.20
£6000 - £14999.992.4% + £0.20
£15000 - £54999.991.9% + £0.20
£55000 or more1.4% + £0.20

So unfortunately a rather substantial increase unless you're already doing serious business with Google checkout.

How does this stack up against the competition? Well the lead alternative contender for taking credit card payments is of course Paypal and the Paypal transaction fee structure is amazingly absolutely the same as Google Checkout.
(Well it's not quite the same as Google Checkout, there's 1p difference on each transaction band, so it's 3.4% + 20p for transactions valued from £0.00 to £1500.00, then 2.9% +20p from £1500.01, etc, but I'm not quibbling over this 1p difference!)

So in this age of the internet driving an open marketplace and price transparency with the smaller, newer and nimbler players being able to compete on a level playing field with the established big boys, it's surprising to see that these two companies have decided to price exactly the same as each other.

Where Paypal does come out cheaper is cross-border card payment transactions (e.g. an American guest pays to stay in the Gite), the Paypal fee is then an additional 0.5% higher whereas Google Checkout add on a full 1%. A small but noticeable difference.

So although I've now re-instated Google Checkout on the rental rates page as a method for guests to pay for their French holiday, if truth be told I'd actually prefer that our guests didn't pay by credit card because I lose such a large chunk in commission.

Given the choice I ask guests if they can send me their holiday booking deposit and the final rental payment by cheque, and it's simply because then I end up with the full rental amount in my bank account and don't give away a chunk to an intermediary. Pretty much all our guests do pay by cheque, the exception being those that book our Gite direct from VillaRentals (aka RentalSystems) to whom I have to pay a 10% commission.

Of course for guests coming from overseas countries (and over the years we've had guests from Ireland, Sweden, Holland, the USA and Australia) it's not practical for them to pay by cheque so I generally ask them to book and pay for their holiday via RentalSystems, and as RentalSystems treat the transaction as a referral from me I pay just 2% commission - saving me roughly 2% over Paypal.

As well as Paypal, RentalSystems and now Google Checkout, we also can take debit/credit card payments from (who charge 2.9% + 20p) or (1.9% fee for transferring money from a credit card).

As a "small business" there seems to be a plethora of card provider options out there but with some high fees to match. For now both us and our customers have been quite happy with cheque payment and whilst we do offer all these card payment options we're never asked "how do I pay by credit card?".

What's your view - would you expect to pay by credit card or are cheques OK, and are there any cheaper payment engines that come recommended (and are easy for customers to use)?

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Christmas in France

France Guide the official French Government tourist information website has just launched a Christmas in France section with a number of new seasonal sections. As well as the obligatory discussion of French yule-time cooking (including how to make a Chocolate Yule Log) there's details of French Christmas markets including two near our Gite in Brittany at St Brieuc and Rennes.

And to keep you in the festive spirit there's a French Advent Calendar.

According to the email I received there's loads of prizes to win including:
   * Return tickets to France
   * One week-stay in a ski resort in the French Alps
   * City breaks in a 4-star hotel in Nice in the French Riviera
   * A 2-night stay in a deluxe room at the Hilton Evian-les-Bains
   * One holiday in a 4-star hotel in the Caribbean
   * One Château experience in Normandy
   * A short break in a 4-star spa hotel in Vichy
   * Hamper bags with French delicacies
   * Free subscriptions to a British TV channel dedicated to French Films

... but I as at right now (at 1pm on the 1st December) it doesn't seem to be open yet!

If you fancy a break away from it all in front of a roaring wood fire (and we'll even throw in the Christmas tree and decorations as well), then drop us a line as we've still got free holiday dates for both Christmas 2009 and New Year 2010.

Happy new year and all that !

Postscript update, 11:30pm, 1st December: FranceGuide seem to have sorted their advent calendar out now and you can click through on the first of the advent buttons (number '1') to try to win a 2 night complimentary stay for 2 people in the 4-star NH Nice hotel.