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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Pix Me Away: Imagining a Virtual Personal Assistant for Travel

What kind of traveller are you? Have you ever wished there was a website or app which understood you so well, it could choose where you went on your next trip away... and then find some buddies to go there with? PixMeAway might be just such a device... not quite the personal assistant of sci-fi movies, but definitely a step in the direction! PixMeAway relies on parlour game psychology (what the Japanese might call kokology) to determine your personality type, and then suggest to you the type of holidays you would be interested in going on. More specifically, it uses images, rather than text, and for this reason has been described as the world's first image-based search engine. As a community, PixMeAway is obviously aimed at those who relate more to images than text, especially when they are making travel plans. Upon visiting the site, users are directed to a screen of Polaroid style photos. Some of these photos are of famous icons (such as the Sydney Opera House), others show backpackers trudging along a beach, or snowboarders. You have to pick at least three of the photos which appeal to you, without thinking about it too much; in true kokology style, your choice is supposed to reflect your feelings. I chose, in this order, a photo of a church in a northern grassland, Stonehenge, and the Pyramids of Giza. I would have included something on an Asian or Indian bent, but for some reason I didn't notice the photo of the saffron-robed monks in front of an ancient temple (maybe that was subconscious omission, or maybe the pictures are too small.) Or maybe I am just all Asianed out at the moment! Anyway, PixMeAway concluded from my picks that I was a mix of Charlotte (85 per cent), Toby (74 per cent), Olivia (68 per cent), Amelie (27 per cent), Archie (28 per cent), Max (16 per cent), and Rocky (13 per cent), these being the seven archetypes it employs. Not quite Jungian archetypes, but definitely a step in the direction. Charlotte is described as a connossieur and a "culture lover", interested in "history of ancient civilizations, art & culture, first-class hotels, dining at the best restaurants, comfortable interior." PixMeAway informs me: "The way you travel is distinguished by exclusivity formerly known as mundane. You are convincing with your peers just as with your projects. Your weak spot for art and culture doesn’t stop at foreign destinations and lead you directly to the best museums, opera houses and much more. Interested as you are, you see travelling more than just a mere change of your everyday life. You also want to be part of the history of your chosen destination. You are also willing to speak the language and experience its traditions. But comfort is nothing to be neglected as you prefer to accommodate yourself in hotels with the brightest stars..." Spot on about the culture vulture stuff, wrong about the hotels... when I finally make it to Cambodia and Laos, I intend to practically live in youth hostels. Maybe I should have picked more pictures! But whatever... I'll take it. Click acceptance of your archetypes, and you're through to something a little more interesting, and practical: some actual travel destinations. According to the website, Harari (Ethiopia), Sonora (Mexico) and Wakayama Prefecture (Japan) are amongst the top recommended destinations. Since I am planning to spend the next 15 years in Asia/Africa, I narrow my search down to those two continents, and proceed to the next stage.


The Pyramids of Giza, Egypt, seen from the ground looking up.
After this somewhat hokey introduction, PixMeAway actually does pack some decent resources, once you get into it. It is sort of like an interactive Rough guidebook, with more pictures and less words, and driven by social media. If you ever want to stay at a pension in Eritrea or Benin, the website can help you make a booking, or direct you to the nearest bowling alley. You can read recommendations made by those with the same interests as you, according to your profile. Presumably you can meet up with some of these folk and travel with them, but I suppose you have to be a member to do that.


The canals of Venice, Italy.
PixMeAway's CEO points out that 500 million would be travellers are not sure where they want to go, and his community is intended to give them inspiration and ideas. As someone who knows very clearly where he wants to go (everywhere!), I don't think PixMeAway can really help me. If I need a community to hook me up, I would rather rely on Couch Surfing. Which is exactly the last place a true Charlotte would go looking for accommodation!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Pop Up Shops, and Art Incubators: A New Way to Utilize Urban Space

Last year I had the chance to talk to Lawrence Gibbons, plus some other concerned inner-city cats, about the sad and sorry decline of Oxford Street, Sydney's original Golden Mile. I must have missed this story while I was away in my 10 years in Japan; when I left Sydney in 2000, Oxford Street was one of the trendiest parts of the city, and certainly one of the most colourful. Nearly every March I would cram in with the throngs on the side of the road, shirts off and hopping, as the Mardi Gras floats made their hectic way beneath the rainbow flags. Mardi Gras is still held every year, but it doesn't seem the subversive festival that it used to be... perhaps somehow it is a little tired? Or maybe I am the one who is tired of it! Furthermore, back in the day, Oxford Street was the place you picked up imported dance music, trance and techno, drum&bass; throbbing beats spilt up dark stairways, out of shopfronts on to the pavement, promising rare treasures. I am sure those record stores are still around, but surely they must be a little redundant now, in this age of the digital download? Who wants to spin vinyl these days, anyway, when there is a whole universe on your iPhone? Who buys clothes on Oxford Street, when the prices in Australia are so obscene? According to Lawrence Gibbons, president of the LOVE 2010 Business Partnership of local businesses, there has indeed been a retail flight from the Golden Mile, and a collapse in daytime trade. Oxford Street still rocks at night, perhaps even more so than ever... but it takes more than pubs and clubs to make a community, Gibbons reckons. Exacerbating the problem, the Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) treated the Golden Mile like a thoroughfare, with cars and buses flying along it out of the city, to Bondi.


Oxford Street, Sydney's famous "Golden Mile" (Australia, 2005)
Sydney's Lord Mayor Clover Moore (the woman they should not ignore) agrees that Oxford Street is in a bad state, and said she sees art as being part of the solution. "It is a centre of intense night-time activity yet suffers from perceptions of a lack of daytime trade, imbalance in the business mix and safety issues," Moore said in a 2011 mayoral minute. "The intensity of daytime traffic, which includes more than 200 buses per hour, and exacerbated by RTA's removal of parking and creation of clearways, also severely impacts on Oxford Street as an attractive destination." Another mayoral minute put out in 2011 goes on to say: “Artists living and working in an area bring a vibrancy, diversity and bohemian feel. Due to the high cost of living, gentrification and increases in the rental market artists are being forced out of the City. The City of Sydney owns a number of buildings in the Oxford Street Cultural Quarter that may be appropriate for conversion into use for the creative industries as retail, studio and exhibition spaces.”

In line with this vision, the City has announced cheap rents for artists in 16 underused areas on Oxford Street. On top of that, enterprising creatives are colonising otherwise vacant spaces with a new style of retail, known as the "pop up shop". This year we have seen, springing up like beautiful weeds in a discarded parking lot, pop up cafes, pop up boutiques, a pop up Nike outlet, and now the most innovative of them all, a Pop-up indoor camp site. These shops and cafes and urban camping sites are not supposed to last forever; they are meant to be ephemeral.

There is something Hakim Beylike in this process of moving into the cracks and crevices, left empty by the retreat of High Capitalism, and creating something beautiful. Even especially if they are fleeting. Pop ups are transitory, nomadic, Vagabondist... just like me really! Now, I know a Nike outlet might not exactly satisfy Bey's vision of the Temporary Autonomous Zone, but I still think it is kind of cool. A lot cooler than parading around on Mardi Gras, anyway, pretending that you are changing the world!

Friday, August 31, 2012

Ayr, from the Air

The little town of Ayr and its distinctive peninsula, viewed from our Qantas flight yesterday home from Cairns, on the way to Sydney.


Ayr, from the Air (Australia, 2012)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Gravy Train

Flashy fast trains are not a feature of Australian life. Like the broadband speeds, or the service in the shops, trains are on the slow side here. Maybe that is the way they like things: clunky and oldschool. For some reason, Australians think you have to be poor to use public transport. This prejudice is reflected in the quality of the rolling stock, and the folks that roll upon them. In all of the Australia, the fastest and most prestigious passenger train is the XPT, which connects Sydney with the other eastern capitals, and attains a magnificent top speed of 160km per hour. Last month, I travelled with my Mum and Dad on the XPT to Maclean (return ticket: AUS$180), to attend the 60th birthday party of my "Auntie" Heather. Less than a year earlier, in the aftermath of the cataclysm there, we three had roamed northern Japan by shinkansen, and developed a taste for the finer aspects of rail travel. We have been spoiled, that is true, but we have been left with a reduced tolerance for excuses. And excuses, sadly, come all too often when travelling in Australia.


Not exactly a shinkansen, but it is the fastest train in this part of the world (Australia, 2012)
Maclean sits on a bend of the Clarence River, one of the numerous rivers of north-east New South Wales which cascade down from the volcanic plugs of the Great Dividing Range, to plunge into the frothy waters of the Pacific. To me the whole northern rivers region is a strange imposition of English rural idyll on a landscape which is borderline tropical, and ready to revolt. Maclean proudly promotes its Scottish colonial heritage, yet the town is ravaged by fruit bats. They hang from trees on the approaches to town, littering the streets with stinky sweet grind. If you could imagine what the United Kingdom would be like if it was overgrown with sugar cane and bananas, you would be on your way to understanding the NSW north coast. It is also, to be honest, one of my favourite places on Earth!


My parents enjoying the ride, on our way north (Australia, 2012)
Possibly due to the climate, the far north coast of NSW shelters a degenerate community of freaks, dropouts and IT geeks. Byron Bay is the capital of counter culture Australia, and marijuana is openly smoked on its streets. It is one of the magnets for the campervanloads of raucous young backpackers who ply the east coast every year, from Sydney all the way to Cairns, in the canefields of northern Queensland. On Woodford Island near Maclean there is a guy who lives in a tent on the hill and makes his own surfboards to sell. The whole vibe is chilled and famously laid back. Dependent on social security payments, and unable to afford their own cars, many folk rely on the XPT to get around. We were carrying quite a few of them as we rolled, wheeling through Wyee (33°10′55″S, 151°29′06″E), with its big Aboriginal reserve, Fassifern finding it as leafy as its name implied, and then right through the industrial heartland of the Hunter Valley, grassy and bare, steelworks and committee buildings adorned with signs like "Proud to be Union!"  Through Broadmeadow and its attendant rustbelt, coal trains ambling towards the sea, Taree (31°54′0″S, 152°27′0″E), Seftall and thence to Grafton. Or so the timetable inferred. You can never quite tell in Australia, however, there is always something to derail your plans. I settled back in my seat, and tried my hardest to relax. The couple seated behind me were in fine spirits, and from snippets of their conversation which carried forward, I was able to ascertain that they were on their way to Coffs Harbour, a large coastal resort renowned for its bananas. We used to go up there, when we was kids.


Paddock bashing, up the east coast! (Australia, 2012)
Sitting on trains in Australia, you are often privy to some colourful conversations, passengers are not at all afraid to hang their dirty laundry out. Teenage girls discuss their recent court appearance on mobile phones, without the merest hint of shame. Burglars plan their next heists.


There be critters up here! Wallaby, on Woodford Island, near Maclean (Australia, 2012)
We were all riding the gravy train together: deadbeats, dreadlocks, restless desperates, trailer trash, jailbirds and single mothers. Straying into a rare pocket of data connectivity close to the end of the trip, I was astounded to discover that daily AdSense earnings had surged, to a healthy ¥1647. Could this be a sign of the long-awaited recovery, I wondered. Was this because I added that canonical tag to Tamil Girls? I was unable to see whether it was a one-off fluke, or the result of an upswing in traffic. But it lifted me in a good mood, for the short vacation which was about to start!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Cattle Station Hopping, on Cape York Peninsula, Queensland

Last September I was privileged to visit Cape York peninsula, one of the world's last great wilderness areas at the very northern tip of Australia. I traveled there with my Dad, a keen birder who was on the hunt for some of the Cape's rare and endangered species, such as the golden-shouldered parrot and the red goshawk. I just went there because I thought it was a good place to explore, and because my Dad was footing the bill. We both got what we wanted: my dad saw his parrots and his goshawk, and I experienced life in a remnant of (Ab)Original Australia, the truest Outback of them all. One of the first things which struck me driving up the deteriorating road from Cairns, into the wild savannahs, was the peculiar pattern of land use here. In other parts of the world there are farms, forests, villages and cities; in Cape York there are cattle stations, Aboriginal reservations, national parks, and mines. In that order of frequency, with the odd tiny town or two thrown in, hundreds of kilometers apart. The cattle stations are as big as feudal principalities, and take hours to drive across. As in the American Deep South, land equals power, although the station owners don't really own the land, they merely lease it from the Government. For all intents and purposes, however, they act as owners, and you feel you are trespassers on their domains. At the center of every station sits the Big House, where dispossessed Aborigines (called the Bama up here) work as station hands or riding horses, which they are apparently very good at. Many stations have their own airstrip, making this one of the most propeller-happy parts of the planet (along with New Guinea, of course!)


Brahmin cow near the runway at Musgrave Roadhouse, Cape York peninsula, Queensland, Australia
Brahmin cow near the runway at Musgrave Roadhouse, on the Cape York Development Road (Australia, 2011)
Once a week (on Thursday) the mail plane takes off from the airport in Cairns, to visit 15 farflung Cape colonies. One of the properties it lands at is Violet Vale Station, near Lotusbird Lodge. Another property on the mail plane run is Strathburn Cattle Station, 550km from Cairns. There are also airstrips at Musgrave Roadhouse, Moreton Station, the Chuulangun Aboriginal community, Laura and Lakeland, and proper airports at Coen and Cooktown. SkyTrans flies from Cairns to Bamaga, Coen, Lockhart River, Edward River, Aurukun, Kowanyama, and other destinations in Australia and the south-west Pacific. I have heard that Bama can fly for free if they are attending land council meetings or family events or to get to a job up in the Cape, but I am not sure if that is true. I do know that locals can receive discounted tickets for AUS$99, which is significantly cheaper than the standard fare. If you are not a local, then it ain't that budget.
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