Picardie, or Picardy in English, is the part of northern France that everybody drives through on their way to the Loire Valley or beyond. However it’s an attractive area with a lot of history, both ancient and more modern. It’s quite well known to the French as a holiday area and its proximity to the channel ports is an added bonus.

Getting there, accommodation and getting about

The obvious way of getting there is via the channel ferry or Eurotunnel. It’s only an hour or so’s drive from Calais, either via the A16 autoroute or more inland via the N/D roads.

Being a French holiday destination there are the usual camping, gîte or hotel options. As is normal with a seaside area the coastal locations are more expensive and a few bargains can be had by going further inland. We stayed in a gîte in a small village called Étinehem, in a wing of a very large old farmhouse. There was a framed postcard on one of the walls showing the house with a postmark date of July 1904 ( below together with the modern view ). We stayed in the wing on the left hand side of the picture and the rooms were enormous with vast, high ceilings. I’m not sure what’s happened to the rather fine edifice on the right hand side though.

There are a few bargains to be had out of season as well. We also stayed for a few nights in a comfortable, modern apartment in Cayeux sur Mer at the beginning of November. You’re obviously at the mercy of the weather and most of the restaurants are shut but it was a pleasant break.


Somme estuary

Lighthouse at Le Hourdel

For general seaside activities there are many fine beaches along the length of the coast. For a slightly different experience the estuary of the Somme river is well worth a visit. It stretches from Le Crotoy through Saint-Valery-sur-Somme and to Le Hourdel. It’s very flat and there are plenty of cycle paths and even a restored railway – Chemin de Fer de la Baie de Somme.

There’s no beach as such partly because it’s a river estuary and partly because the tide comes in amazingly quickly due to the flat terrain which makes bathing a little hazardous. As might be expected it’s a prime bird watching area, especially for winter visitor. The estuary is also home to the biggest seal colony in France.

This part of the coast was heavily fortified during the Second World War. A lot of these fortifications remain but some are slowly being eroded by the wind and weather.


Amiens is the largest city in the Picardie region. It’s situated on the Somme river about 60 km inland and its most famous landmark is the huge Notre-Dame Cathedral. It was built in a Gothic style and during a period when the architects were trying to get more and more light into the building. The result is the largest cathedral in France and one into which its more well-known namesake – Notre-Dame de Paris – would fit with room to spare. The photos below don’t do justice to its enormous scale and it’s well worth a visit.


The area around Amiens is very marshy and this has lead to development of “floating gardens” or hortillonages where local market gardeners grow fruit and vegetables. A tour of these gardens is possible via boat. Elsewhere in Amiens the waterside is very pleasant with restaurants and cafés backing onto the river and plenty of trees for shade in the summer.

Froissy Dompierre Light Railway

In addition to the Chemin de Fer de la Baie de Somme there is another restored narrow gauge railway near Bray-sur-Somme called the Froissy Dompierre Light Railway ( also called Le p’tit train de la Haute-Somme )

It was originally built by the French Army during the First World War as a supply route. After that it was used to transport the local sugar beet crop before finally closing in the 1970s. Now restored, a round trip takes about an hour and a half including a short tunnel and two reverses to get up a steep hill. When we visited the steam locos only ran at weekends with diesels being used at other times.

I think that this is the railway that the Salvage Squad ( series 2, episode 5 ) tried out their restored Simplex armoured locomotive.

I find that narrow gauge railways normally have much more unusual rolling stock and the small on-site museum has a fine collection of these. Even my long-suffering wife commented that this was much more interesting than the normal stuff that she gets dragged along to 🙂 This article has many more photos of the rolling stock.

A short video of parts of the train ride, apologies for the low quality, it was taken on my point and shoot camera.

Scars of Battle

The name “Somme” is now linked with the brutal battles of the First World War rather than the medium sized river that runs through the region. There are a number of local museums dedicated to the battles of 1914-18 but the one in Albert is particularly good.

Military cemeteries and memorials are relatively commonplace all over France but are particularly numerous in this region. Even the small village of Étinehem has its own immaculately kept cemetery containing over a thousand graves.

Being in the French sector of the front the cemetery at Étinehem has mainly French graves. However it was close to the British sector so, inevitably, there are graves of other nationalities as well. The text on the right hand gravestone, “A Soldier of the Great War – Known Unto God”, is a grim reminder of the harshness of trench warfare.


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Nerd Books

Modern computer books seem to be about either learning an advanced technical skill in 24 hours or biographies of the current industry luminaries. Neither category interests me greatly. The former suffer from being rather superficial and the latter try to pad out “I had one good idea and I got lucky” to many hundreds of pages.

My selection of books below take a different approach and cover the development of a product or concept from its inception to delivery or acceptance by the general public. Because of that they’re all a mix of technical, social and political. Anybody who’s worked on a multi-department project at a large organisation will feel right at home with any of these.

First published in 1981, The Soul of a New Machine describes the progress of a team of engineers at Data General as they struggle to develop a new generation of mini computers ( Eclipse MV/8000 ) to compete with the Digital Equipment Corporation ( DEC ). Tracy Kidder does a great job of balancing the content to include enough technical details to keep the nerds happy but still make this an enjoyable read for non techies.

Accidental Empires is the history of personal computing from its earliest days when you had to solder the chips together yourself up until where every desk has a PC on it. Written by Mark Stephens (as Robert X. Cringely) the second edition was published in 1996 and also formed the basis of a Channel 4 / PBS TV series The Triumph of the Nerds. The book focuses more on the personalities rather than the technology but it is very well written and doesn’t pull any punches regarding some of the leading lights of the industry. Since the publication of this book other histories of the period have been written but, for me, none are as entertaining as this one.

Rebel Code chronicles the history of Open Source software revolution starting with Richard Stallman’s work at MIT in the mid 1970s through to Linux in the early 2000s. Glyn Moody has painstakingly interviewed most of the people involved and has managed to compile a fascinating narrative about a period in recent history that few people outside the computer industry are aware of. The book concentrates more on the people and politics rather than the technical side but this is as it should be. This revolution is less about technical wizardry and more about social and economic concepts. In the unlikely event of you reading this Mr Moody, an update covering the period from 2001 to the present day would be most welcome 🙂

Revolution in the Valley gives an inside look on the development team responsible for the original Apple Macintosh computer. Written mainly by Andy Hertzfeld, who was one of the team members, the content of the book is also available online at http://www.folklore.org. The book is arranged as a collection of short texts and photos, each describing an aspect of the development. They vary from technical to team dynamics to company politics and give a fascinating insight into the development of a modern day icon.

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The Complete National Geographic DVD on Linux

One of the bargain purchases that I made a few years back was the 6 DVD set of the complete National Geographic Magazines from 1888 to 2012. That’s 1,400 issues, 8,000 articles, and 200,000 photos apparently. I bought mine from Amazon but the only link that I can find at the moment appears to be out of stock. I think that I paid around £60 but Ebay may come up with a better price these days.

The DVDs come with an Windows / Mac installer and take about 60 Gbytes of space once installed on a disk. Because I ultimately wanted to run on Linux I initially used a Windows PC to unpack the DVDs onto a 64 Gbyte USB drive which I could then easily transfer to my Linux PC. There is a reader application supplied which uses Adobe Air, presumably to make the Windows / Mac cross platform support easier. However Adobe also provide a limited support for Air on Linux and I was able to run the reader app fairly easily on my Ubuntu machine. I did find a forum thread about doing the whole install under Linux but I haven’t tried this.

After trying the reader app for a while I came across two problems:

  1. The app itself is not too bad but it has lots of unnecessary animations and graphics which I guess are great for sales demos but frankly get in the way when you just want to read the magazines. Adobe Air also had a tendency to max out one of the processor cores for no apparent reason.
  2. What I really wanted was to be able to download the magazines temporarily to my tablet for holiday reading. That was not possible with the Air app.

Having examined the files installed on the USB drive then it was fairly obvious that the directory structure was broken down first into DVD directories then decades ( e.g. 1960s ) and finally each month’s magazine had its own subdirectory. There was some strangeness where some decades were split across DVD but it was generally straightforward. Each “issue” subdirectory contained a number of “.cng” files which appeared to be the magazine content.

A bit of Googling turned up this very informative page which stated “The cng files are all jpegs, XOR’d bitwise with 239.” and also provided a TCL program to do the necessary conversion back to jpg. I’m not familiar with TCL but writing a C program to do the same thing was relatively trivial and proved that the Nat Geo “encryption” was indeed nothing more than an XOR with 0xEF 🙂

( Interestingly, according to the web link, the TCL program takes 3s per image to convert whereas the C version takes 0.01s. I have no idea why the TCL program should be so slow even allowing for processor speed improvements in the interim. )

Slightly more serious note – it’s possible that decrypting these files and viewing the resulting jpg is illegal in some countries. My view is that if I’ve paid for the content and it’s only me that’s viewing the “decrypted” images then there are no problems but IANAL so please be warned. Creating PDFs then making them available for public download is strongly discouraged.

Conversion to PDF

To convert all the magazines to PDFs would likely require 3 times the original disk space ( the jpgs and the PDFs take the same space each as the original images ). My approach was to copy 12 or 24 issues for reading on holiday to the PC hard disk and process them there. Once the PDFs had been copied to the tablet then I deleted these temporary files.

The C program and a short shell script for doing the conversion can be found in my GitHub repository – https://github.com/john-davies/Blog-code-files – under the “natgeo_script” directory. The script calls the cng to jpg converter multiple times and then uses ImageMagick to do the PDF creation.

Note that the “-density” option is used to set the dots per inch ( DPI ) of the PDF page – refer to the ImageMagick manual for details.

Reading on a Tablet

After the PDF has been created then copying it to the tablet is dependent on the tablet OS and the application used to read it.

To download and read using the iBooks application on an iPad then I’ve used the following options:

  • iTunes on a PC or Mac
  • Run software like Calibre on a PC to serve the PDFs
  • Run a web server locally to serve the PDFs ( this was probably the easiest )

For an Android tablet, using the Aldiko app I’ve tried the following:

  • Run software like Calibre on a PC to serve the PDFs
  • Run a web server locally to serve the PDFs
  • Connect the Android tablet using a USB cable as a media device, drop the files into the “Books” directory and import into Aldiko ( this was definitely the easiest )

Final Comments

Some final comments and thoughts on the whole process:

  1. I’ve seen a few reviews criticising the quality of the images of the scanned National Geographic pages. I don’t think that they’re too bad,  the text is certainly readable and while some of the photos would be better in higher definition they’re acceptable to me for the price I paid.
  2. The original link above discusses removing the ad pages to reduce the amount of conversion needed but I didn’t bother. As commented above the conversion using the C program is very quick and I rather like reading some of the older ad pages.
  3. The original link above also discusses joining any images that spanned two or more pages in the original magazine. However he also comments “… on some subsequent images, I found it did not work so well, because, apparently, many of the page pairs were not carefully scanned, and hence do not match up well.” Again I didn’t bother with this and found that it was no real problem having the images across two pages.
  4. In the install directories there is an sqlite database which contains a rudimentary set of search keywords and details such as article titles. It’s pretty useless really but I guess that, as an alternative, it would be possible to run each scanned page through an OCR program and build up a full text search for the magazines. This is a project for the future though 🙂



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