Friday, September 30, 2011

Rolling and roaming in New Zealand by camper van

My husband, Nolan, and I had pulled in next to a train station to make coffee in our rented Volkswagen Vanagon camper when a wiry, red-haired man ambled over and knocked on our sliding door. It was our first morning in New Zealand, and we assumed he was going to tell us we couldn't park there.

Hands in the pockets of his fleece jacket, he smiled apologetically at interrupting our breakfast, and leaned in.

"What year is it?" he asked, meaning our bright orange van (a 1982). We'd hired it the day before in Christchurch from Classic Campers, which we'd found on the Web as renting "stylish retro campervans."

It was then that we noticed an almost identical orange Vanagon across the parking lot.

Kiwis, as New Zealanders call themselves, are notoriously friendly, but our new friend Dave was more than a Kiwi. He was a member of the club.

Classic Campers owner Bevan Beattie was right:

"It's more than just transport," he said of his collection of eclectic VW vans. "It becomes part of the trip."

Because we're members of the club ourselves, we never considered anything but a VW camper van for exploring New Zealand. Back home, our 1987 Vanagon, Hanz, has taken us from Los Angeles to Maine and back again. And in trips to France, Spain and the Netherlands, we've found that renting VW campers makes even vacations abroad affordable. This was especially true for New Zealand, where, thanks to a favorable exchange rate of 55 cents U.S. to $1 New Zealand, our rental cost just $66 a day.

No taller or longer than an ordinary van, a VW camper -- or Kombi, in Kiwi-speak -- is more fuel-efficient than an RV and far easier to park. And for the price of wheels, you get a bed and meals.

A pop-up top allows room to stand, revealing a loft-like sleeping area. The campers come with a propane-powered stove, a sink with a water tank and a refrigerator with Barbie-sized ice trays.

Friends who favor nice hotels (or at least accommodations with bathrooms) think we are eccentric. But finding a campground with toilets and showers is rarely a problem. And a cabin on wheels allows us to roam at will without worrying about hotel bookings, restaurant hours or timetables.

On the Classic Campers website, we'd coveted a 1966 cherry-red Splitty, the iconic split-windshield model with jalousies and tiny round headlights. But it was taken.

Our orange van wasn't quite old enough to be retro. And, with patches on the canvas sides of the pop-top, it wasn't quite spiffed up enough to be stylish. But Kiwis are known for their make-do ways. Consider the humble bach (pronounced "batch"): an everyman's vacation home, often made of recycled construction materials or old buses. Our van, we decided, would be our mobile bach.

Plus, Beattie had swapped in an Audi engine, which meant we could climb winding mountain roads without a trail of honking cars.

Imagine the most beautiful places you've ever seen -- Grand Teton, Big Sur, Alaska's Inside Passage -- cram them all into a skinny strip of land, and that's New Zealand. We'd wanted to visit the Pacific island nation even before director Peter Jackson made the landscape a star as the setting of the "Lord of the Rings" movies. One friend told us that of all the dream destinations of his childhood, it was the one that proved every bit as glorious as he'd imagined.

Classic Campers is based in the North Island city of Auckland, at 1.3 million people the nation's largest city by far. Because we wanted to spend about two-thirds of our trip on the more rugged, sparsely populated South Island, we arranged to start our adventure at its satellite office in Christchurch.

After a 12-hour flight from Los Angeles to Auckland and an hour and a half hop to Christchurch, we picked up our van near the airport and headed for Arthur's Pass National Park, about two hours west. Kiwis, like their British forebears, drive on the left side of the road, and we decided it would be better to start off on a lonely country lane than in a city, even a small one.

The flat plains gave way to tussock-covered hills, then steep, forested slopes as we made our way to the highest pass in the spine of mountains known as the Southern Alps. The zillion fluffy sheep we passed along the way gave us wide berth.

After breakfasting with Dave, we hiked through a mossy beech forest, a kea -- a rare alpine parrot -- screeching overhead. Then we spread out our map to decide where to go next.

It's easy to overestimate how much you can see and do in New Zealand. The two main islands are deceptively narrow; you are rarely more than a few hours from either the Tasman Sea or the Pacific Ocean or both. But top to bottom, the North and South islands stretch almost 1,100 miles. ( California, by contrast, is 770 miles long.) And the South Island is 65% mountainous, meaning twisting two-lane roads that narrow to one-lane bridges, even on the main highways.

We had a luxurious 19 days for travel, but because we wanted to savor our time, we had agreed on three goals: to hike, to sample New Zealand wines and to soak up the country's culture, be it Maori history or Kiwi kitsch.

Diamond stud

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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Shanghai subway train crash injures 271

SHANGHAI - Hundreds of people were injured yesterday when a subway train slammed into the rear of another train in a sprawling transit line that opened just last year. The accident cast new scrutiny on the safety record of China’s rapidly modernizing mass transit rail systems.

The state-run media reported that 271 people were injured during the afternoon accident in the Shanghai Metro system. Xinhua, the official news agency, said that equipment failure was believed to be responsible and that the accident was under investigation.

There were no deaths reported, but the government said late yesterday that about 20 people had serious injuries that were not considered life threatening. Images from the crash site posted on blogs and social networking sites showed some people bloodied and badly injured.

The accident came just two months after a deadly crash involving two trains on China’s high-speed rail network for which officials blamed bad weather and a signal failure. The July 23 crash in the eastern city of Wenzhou killed 40 people and injured nearly 200.

The Wenzhou accident unleashed public criticism of the nation’s high-speed rail program amid concern that the government had not ensured its safety. Since then, the government has slowed the speed of trains and announced a thorough review of its safety program.

As part of its rapid urbanization efforts, China has spent billions of dollars over the past decade on building huge subway systems and a national high-speed rail network.

The pace of construction is unprecedented, with even second-tier but fast-growing cities like Wuhan racing to build underground subway systems to ease congestion.

Up to now, China’s transportation systems have proved to be a boon to its economy, with few fatalities. But there have been increasing reports over the past few years of substandard roads and bridges and worries that subway and high-speed rail construction may be moving too quickly and could pose safety problems.

The accident yesterday in Shanghai occurred around 2:50 p.m. on Metro line 10, which stretches from downtown Shanghai to Hongqiao, one of the city’s airports. The line also travels north, south, east, and west in the vast city of 23 million. The accident was near Yuyuan Gardens, a favorite Shanghai tourist spot.

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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Google Travel Site Doesn't Strike Fear Into Competitors

News flash: Google doesn't have all the answers.

At least that was the response from travel search-engine sites as they caught their first glimpse of a competing product launched by Google last week.

It's never a good sign for your business when one of the world's largest companies buys your chief supplier and seeks to muscle in on your turf.

So it's understandable why many travel engines — including Travelocity, Expedia and Kayak — suffered angst when Google proposed last year to buy ITA Software, the company that developed and provides their fare-search technology.

After the acquisition was approved in April, they were resigned to waiting to see what competitive threat Google Travel would unleash. But when the tech giant finally released its airfare search tool last week, the competitors were left underwhelmed and perplexed.

"We believe our flight search technology is superior," said Robert Birge of Kayak (which has a business relationship with USA TODAY).

Bloggers at, an anti-Google organization funded by travel search sites, wrote that the new product "raises a lot of questions," including whether Google will favor flights from its advertisers or mix sponsored ads with other search results.

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Friday, September 23, 2011

Mobile technology may affect future work trends

That new smartphone you just bought? It may well be the "most important technology" in your life.

A survey conducted by Cisco on 2,800 respondents found that 66 per cent of students and 58 per cent of young employees consider mobile devices such as laptops, smartphones or tablets to be the most important technology in their lives.

Part of this stems from the search for information online, according to the second annual Cisco Connected World Technology Report.

The survey reported that mobile technology has overshadowed older devices such as televisions (TVs) and newspapers when it comes to providing information.

Fewer than six per cent of college students and eight per cent of employees polled said TVs were important.

This downward trend is expected to continue as TV programming and movies become available on mobile devices.

Similarly, only four per cent of college students and employees surveyed globally said the newspaper is their most important tool for accessing information.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Voltas in talks to buy Wipro's water business

Electro-mechanical projects firm Voltas Ltd is in advanced talks to buy the water purification and treatment business of India's No.3 software services exporter, Wipro Ltd , The Times of India said, citing unnamed sources close to the development.

The soaps-to-software maker has mandated investment bank Anand Rathi to find a suitor for the water treatment business, which it entered about four years ago, the report said.

Voltas, a Tata group firm, may be looking at this acquisition to expand its water treatment business, which undertakes works for local civic bodies and for Tata group firms, the report said.

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Monday, September 19, 2011

Businesses need a creative side

Recently there has been a lot written about Steve Jobs’ departure as the chief executive of Apple. As of this month, Apple is the largest publicly traded company in the world by market capitalisation and the largest technology company in the world by revenue and profit.

The fascination people have about Jobs is his ability to bounce back and have great breakthrough. He started Apple in 1976 with Steve Wozniak and Mike Markkula, which came with the first commercially successful lines of personal computer in the 1980s. After a tug of war with Mike Sculley, Jobs resigned from Apple.

During the years of his absence the creative output and the share price of Apple went down. In this period Jobs formed Pixar, an animation company, that he eventually sold to Disney. He returned to Apple in 1996 and the rest is history.

Jobs has become iconic as the best second act story in business history.

So my analysis will focus on the ever constant tussle between the creative view versus the accountant’s view of running business.

First, the creative view of running a business beats the accountant’s view of running a business. Without the creative side there is no business to even speak of.

The creative side requires imagination coupled with action to bring about the thing imagined into actual existence.

Accounting then comes into play to measure the impact of the actions taken, which is an after-the-fact phenomenon because the accounting process is focused on reporting factual historical information.

This is why it is easier to look at things based on hindsight about what actions should have been taken to yield the best results. Accounting reporting does not take the risk of predicting results arising from possible actions, which is the domain of the creative part of business.

Second, accounting reporting is a useful accountability tool to use to measure the impact of the creatives in the business in terms of rands and cents. It brings about controls that help to maximise value.

However, the value in a business is mostly attributable to the creative energy that is flowing within the key parts of the business. So this accountability function played by accountants makes them the hated part of the business because they ask the tough questions that affect the final output of the business and the efficient use of the company resources.

This also causes accountants to be risk averse within the organisation because they focus on the bottom line impact of every decision made within the company.

So why is this relevant?

In most companies where you have the creative types running it, great value is created if it is balanced by the proper accounting teams.

If you have one extreme it would be the tech bubble of the 2000s, which showed the impact of creatives being given unfettered freedom in running the business without the proper accounting checks and balances. This led companies to be overvalued even when they had no sustainable tangible revenue potential to speak of, but only showed the creative potential.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Google announces next Android OS, Jelly Bean

Close on the heels of GoogleExecutive Chairman Eric Schmidt announcing the arrival of the upcoming version of AndroidOS termed Ice Cream Sandwich in October or November, speculations have started on the next version of Android.

According to a report citing trusted sources in 'This is My Next', Jelly Bean is the working name for next incarnation of Android.

The name follows Google's tradition of calling its Android operating systems after sweets in alphabetical order. Earlier versions of Android follow a typical order -- Cupcake 1.5, Donut 1.6, Eclair 2.1, Froyo 2.2, Gingerbread 2.3,Honeycomb 3.0 and the upcoming Ice Cream Sandwich.

The report quotes industry source saying, that the "game-changing stuff" that had originally been scheduled for Ice Cream Sandwich will be being pushed to Jelly Bean. Jelly Bean could be dubbed Android 4.5 or Android 5.0, depending on the amount of features packed, says the report.

Ice Cream Sandwich is expected to be a universal operating system that will work on phones, tablets, TVs, and even phones that transform into laptops. Among other things, the OS is likely to bring an updated app launcher, holographic user interface, interactive and new homescreen widgets and a multi-tasking panel.

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