Friday, April 30, 2010

The South Island in a nutshell

I’m back on the North Island and getting ready go back to Canada, via Sydney (remember: no jokes about how the return trip is going to go). I’ll be getting back to blogging about all the regular topics found here: i.e. war, porn and fast food, next week. In the meantime, a quick summary of my travels on the South Island:

Claudette and I were originally planning to drive down the west coast with the Milford Track being our eventual destination, with a return up the east coast. With crappy weather expected in the west, though, we decided to go down east instead. We started with a short stay in Kaikoura, which is known for its marine life. We saw some seal colonies lounging on the rocks outside of town, then went on a whale-watching trip where I saw my first whale (a sperm whale, huh huh huh).

From there, it was south to Christchurch, the biggest city on the south island. Christchurch was really the only place I didn’t get to visit while living in New Zealand, so it was cool to finally see it. Overall, I was quite impressed with the city’s hipness – lots of bars and a pretty solid arts scene. If you’re ever in town, I also recommend staying at the Hotel So; the rooms are tiny, but affordable and very funky. It’s also the only place in the country I’ve found to offer free, limitless wi-fi.

From Christchurch, we boogied on over to Mount Cook, a rather remote little mountain... well, you can’t even call it a town. There’s a hotel, a hostel and a cafe or two. Bad weather threatened and we had a flat tire to contend with, but we still managed to get in a decent hike to see the actual mountain (pictured above).

Onward we went to Queenstown. I think this was my third time there, and each time it’s been frickin’ paradise. Blue skies and sunshine, bars and beers surrounded by awesome mountains and a mirror-calm lake. It’s also a good place to stock up on hiking/camping gear, which I desperately needed after the nasty Tongariro Crossing. I got some new waterproof boots and other gear that proved invaluable on the Milford Track. We also took a crazy jetboat ride on the Shotover River, which got the adrenaline pumping.

After Queenstown, it was the disastrous Milford Track, which has been well documented elsewhere. Again, bad weather kept us away from the west coast on the way back north, so we zipped through Christchurch again on our way to Hanmer Springs, where we soaked in sulphur pools for an hour. From there it was back up to Picton and the ferry to Wellington and the North Island. I’ll post a highs-and-lows list of New Zealand next week. See you then!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Sex, Bombs and Burgers on Aussie TV

Just a quick update today. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (Oz’s CBC) this week aired a chunk of my Q&A on Sex, Bombs and Burgers at Gleebooks in Sydney earlier this month. Check out the video of the talk which appeared on ABC’s Big Ideas program:

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The great Milford fiasco

A good rule of thumb when you go on vacation is that you don’t want to be part of anything that makes the newspapers. Go figure, then, that in the past month I’ve made the news not just once, but twice. The first situation, of course, was the Qantas fiasco over the Easter weekend, where the airline couldn’t stop its planes from breaking down. (I still haven’t heard back from the Qantas’s customer service department in regards to getting some sort of compensation for the complete idiocy they subjected us passengers to. )

The second situation took place this past weekend with the flooding and evacuation of the Milford Track, for which Claudette and I and 118 other hikers had front-row tickets. The track is tough enough to start with – it’s 53 kilometres through some seriously ruggedly terrain. You need to take a ferry out to the start of the track, which goes in one direction only. Typically, you spend four days on the trail and three nights in huts, so you have to come well equipped with sleeping bags, warm clothes and all the food you’ll need. At the end of it, you take another ferry to Milford Sound, where you catch a bus back to Te Anau, the closest town and the place where you’ve probably left your car.

The track is immensely popular as it’s one of the most scenic in the world, so you have to book well in advance since only 40 people are allowed on each day. All the literature available warns you to prepare for rain as Fiordland National Park, where the track is located, is one of the wettest places on the planet. Of course, no advance warnings can prepare you for the worst weather the area has had in decades.

The fun began on Thursday, the first day of our hike. As soon as we arrived at the first hut, the ranger – Peter – warned us that heavy rains were coming and that there was a possibility we’d get helicoptered out. On Friday morning, after a night where Claudette and I got very little sleep thanks to the voluminous snorers in our hut, Peter updated us with the latest weather conditions. He chuckled disconcertingly that the heavy rains were coming in the west – directly where we were going. Day two was pretty wet, but bearable, and the scenery was indeed fantastic. The second hut ranger, Scotty, also warned that the weather was continuing to worsen.

Day three was pretty hellish – we got some sleep as we lucked into a bunkroom without snorers, but the hike up and down the track’s main mountain was killer (the highlight of which, of course, was my marriage proposal). The rain continued and we got wetter. When we arrived at the third hut, soaked and exhausted, the third ranger, Jen, told us the rain was about to turn get seriously heavy, and again mentioned we might have to get helicoptered out. In the morning, she told us that the trail had flooded in a number of places and, after teasing evacuation yet again, instead mandated we’d be staying an extra night.

That really ticked off a number of people, myself included. Staying an extra night presented a number of problems: many people didn’t have enough food; we were all soaked with no way to dry our clothes; we had onward travels and bookings to get to; and of course, there was the issue of total boredom – what does one do trapped in a hut all day?

The following day – the fifth of what was supposed to be a four-day hike – the Department of Conservation finally decided to send in the choppers. It seems somebody figured out that we might all be running out of food, and that chaos could break out in the huts if they didn’t get us out. The track itself was closed for the season after suffering heavy damage from the rains, overflowing rivers and hundreds of new waterfalls. The hikers in the two huts behind us were also rescued and we were all delivered to ferries waiting at the very beginning of the hike. As one last fun bonus, we had to hike through ten meters of waist-high freezing lake to get to the boats since the dock had disintegrated.

The rainfall – several feet in those few days – set all sorts of records and our evacuation was top news with virtually every outlet. TVNZ also flew out a chopper to cover it and interviewed a few of us, including yours truly. In the end, it turned out to be quite the adventure and certainly an experience we’ll remember all our lives. We made some new friends and got a pretty amazing helicopter ride out of it. The trade-off, of course, was several days of misery. The situation also threw off our travel plans, forcing us to hightail it back up the South Island in one less day.

What really bugged me, though, is that much of all the misery could have been prevented if it weren’t for the business interests of the Department of Conservation. The rangers sent us merrily on our way each day knowing full well the weather was continuing to worsen. They knew on the very first day that there was a chance we’d have to be evacuated, yet they kept sending us into the heart of it. Worse still, they kept letting new hikers onto the track even as the rains kept building.

I’m sure the DOC’s rationale for this is that the weather is unpredictable, and it could have changed for the better. What’s far more likely to be at the root of it, however, is all the money they’d have had to refund if they had closed the track when they should have – Thursday night – not to mention the fees they’d have had to pay to their helicopter charter companies for picking up hikers (which they ended up shelling out anyway).

I’d also like to single out one special organization and individual for being absolute bitches. When Claudette and I finally got back to civilization on Monday evening, we headed to the Ridges Lakeland hotel in Queenstown, where we had a room booked on Sunday night. I explained what we had been through to Shaylee Crisp, an assistant manager, and asked if the hotel could honour our booking from the previous night. We had prepaid the room and obviously had no way of letting the hotel know we wouldn’t be able to make it. Despite us having been through hell and in dire need of sleep and a shower, and despite the hotel having three empty rooms available, Ms. Crisp had none of it. Tough luck, she said. Obviously, I’ll never even consider staying at Rydges again and I would warn any readers against it too. Shitty customer service and an utter lack of compassion should put this chain at the bottom of any traveller’s list.

I’ll post a couple videos from the track next week when I’m back in Canada and near a decent internet connection (it’s nice to see New Zealand’s broadband situation is still a mess). In the meantime, I’m not even going to joke about any further travels I have here down under. They seem to have an eerie habit of coming true.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Milford: an engaging hike

We made it through the Milford Track, or more correctly, we made it over the Milford Track. My musings on this trip have turned out to be eerily accurate. In my last post, I mentioned that we might get helicoptered out... which is exactly what happened. But more on this adventure in my next post...

In the meantime, I'm pleased to announce that I'm an engaged man. I popped the question to Claudette at the apex of the track, on the Mackinnon Pass. I'll post a picture as soon as I find a non-terrible internet connection here in New Zealand. UPDATE: Picture has been added.

I figured the Milford Track was a good place to propose because it would either be the icing on what was already an awesome experience, or it would brighten an otherwise miserable situation. Coming as it did on day three of the hike, it seemed to be somewhere in the middle.

Now let's not get too excited about the wedding, as neither of us is in a hurry to get hitched. When we do, though, we have mused about doing it somewhere exotic or cool. I've always thought it'd be awesome to get married in New Orleans...

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Milford Track beckons

Unless plans change, I’m going dark for the weekend. I’m not kidding – I’ll be on the fabled Milford Track by the time you read this, a four-day excursion into the heart of New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park. The track has often been referred to as one of the finest hikes in the world, which is why Claudette and I were keen to do it.

However, we were both pretty nervous this week about going, given our experience with the Tongariro Crossing, and given the somewhat ugly weather forecast for the weekend. Milford is one of the wettest places in New Zealand, after all. It’s puzzling why the Department of Conservation would plot a trail through such treacherous terrain?

In any event, I’ll post a full report on how we did next week. We’ll either get through it successfully, or we’ll get helicoptered out. Either way, it’ll be a good story to tell.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Lessons in wireless from NZ

Last week, I posted about Australia’s broadband situation, about how I like what the government is doing in paying for the rollout of a new state-of-the-art network. I’ll write more about what New Zealand is doing when I get some more time, but I had to share some observations about the difference in wireless internet – and mobile phones – between here and in Canada.

The difference is astonishing. When I arrived, I bought a SIM card from Vodafone for $30 NZ (just over $20 Cdn) and $20 NZ prepaid credit. Now, calling rates are a little obscene – on prepaid, it’s 89 cents a minute, but New Zealand has a really strange “calling party pays” system, where only the person who makes the phone call pays for it. What ends up happening is the person with a mobile phone sends a text (20 cents) to another person, who then calls back from a landline, which is free. In Canada and the United States, we don’t have calling party pays, but we do have both parties pay... meaning that if you’re on a cellphone, you use minutes regardless of whether you make or receive a call. Neither way is perfect, but they probably end costing about the same in the end.

Where NZ has Canada and the U.S. beat hands down is in mobile data. On the pay-as-you-go service I signed up for, I spent $10 (about $7 Cdn) for 100 megabytes of data to use on my smartphone. As anyone who owns an iPhone can attest to, that’s a fantastic deal - most iPhone users use about that much data in a month, yet we get charged at least $25 for it. If we had a decent $7-a-month data plan available to us in Canada, you probably wouldn’t hear too many complaints about our mobile carriers.

Oh, and not only is that a good deal, Vodafone’s network is also fantastically fast. I’ve been getting HSPA speeds, often referred to as 3G+, in even the smallest towns. We only recently started getting HSPA in Canada, ever since new competitors started threatening the big three.

The key lesson to be learned from all of this is who’s been driving mobile wireless technology in New Zealand. It hasn’t been the local incumbent Telecom New Zealand, it’s been the British-based multinational Vodafone. I’ve said it a zillion times before – the reason we’re behind in Canada is because our doors are closed to such foreign companies. And, unlike what I said about wired fibre infrastructure in the Australia post the other day, fixing competitive problems in wireless is as simple as removing those foreign ownership restrictions because building a cellphone network is comparatively cheaper and easier.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

NZ book chain a woeful display

There’s a lot to love about New Zealand, but the bookstores ain’t one of ‘em. And when I say bookstores, I mean Whitcoulls, the main chain. Whitcoulls is the equivalent of Chapters/Indigo in Canada, or Borders or Barnes & Noble in the U.S. Interestingly, Borders competes with Whitcoulls in New Zealand with a few stores of its own. From what I’ve seen, I don’t know how Borders isn’t completely cleaning up against its local rival.

The biggest problem with Whitcoulls is that it’s a bookstore that seems very uninterested in selling books. New releases are often a challenge to find, as the front of the stores tend to be stacked with non-book items, ranging from board games to DVDs to umbrellas and even sewing kits (I wish I was kidding). This means finding the book you’re looking for akin to an Indiana Jones adventure, akin to exploring a cave or ancient ruin.

In Canadian and American (and even some Australian) bookstores, this isn’t so much of a problem as you typically have handy touch-screen computers everywhere around the store, where you can find the specific book you’re looking for, and what section of the store it’s in. If the store doesn’t have it, the computer will typically tell you which nearby stores do, or even let you order it online.

Not so in Whitcoulls. There wasn’t any computerized system I could find, much less a fancy (or, as the Kiwis say, “flash”) touchscreen. And there often weren’t any staff around to help either, so it really was an exploration adventure.

So what book was I looking for? Well, Sex, Bombs and Burgers of course. You might think it egotistical, but it’s really hard to resist the urge to walk into bookstores when you’re on the other side of the planet to see if they’ve got your baby!

Will the poor organization affect sales? I have to believe it will, and obviously not in a good way. Alas, there isn’t much I can do as a lowly author. The big-name writers have their flashy displays, but we nobodys have to dwell in whatever obscurity Whitcoulls deems.

I must admit, however, that the slap-dash organization has resulted in some pretty cool results, given that my book seems to be stocked and displayed different in each store. In travelling around New Zealand, I’ve seen it share shelves with the likes of Hulk Hogan, Neil Gaiman (my favourite author), Barack Obama and Sarah Palin. Maybe their sales will rub off on mine?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Sex, Bombs and Burgers at Google

At long last, the folks at Google have put up the video from my talk that I did last month in Waterloo. If you've got some time on your hands, check it out: it's a pretty in-depth talk about Sex, Bombs and Burgers, with some good audience questions as the end. The YouTube video also stars my first ever Apple Keynote presentation!

Monday, April 19, 2010

NZ's North Island in a nutshell

I’ve been in the southern hemisphere for over two weeks now, so it’s probably about time for a travel update (no Sex, Bombs and Burgers-related stuff in this post). It all started out with the nightmare from hell that is Qantas, which I wrote about a couple weeks ago – interestingly, that post has proven to be one of my most read, a fact I’ll be sure to pass on to the airline (customer service has not yet responded to my request for some form of compensation).

Other than that, though, things have been mostly good. Sydney was nice and humid, and I didn’t get much free time given that Qantas got me there a full day late. Brisbane was also pretty cool – very hot, but nice and sunny. Allen & Unwin put me up in some swanky hotels in both cities, which made me feel like a princess.

I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I arrived in Auckland. It was sunny with blue skies, with temperatures in the mid-20s... or just about how I remembered every day there. First thing I did was head down to the food court at the Westfield mall downtown to have a meal of roast beef and potatoes, which was my standard Monday lunch while working at the Herald. From there, it was drinks at the Shakespeare pub across the street from the Herald with a few old “mates.”

Claudette arrived the following day, and I was thoroughly jealous because her flight went absolutely smoothly (she flew Air New Zealand). We spent the day touring around Auckland, then took the ferry the next day to Rangitoto Island, a volcano in Auckland’s harbour, and hiked around.

I spent last Monday doing interviews on the book in Auckland, two of which are found here. On Tuesday, we finally headed south, where he had a blast doing cave tubing in Waitomo. Basically, you put on a wetsuit and float around inside caves on an inner tube, checking out the glow worms on the ceiling while doing so.

After that, we arrived in the National Park Village and set out for the Tongariro Crossing, which is touted by many as the most amazing one-day hike you can do in New Zealand. I did it years ago while living there and it certainly was awesome – volcanoes, mountains, lakes and rainforest, all in one seven-hour walk. The bus driver took us and a bunch of old ladies out to the trailhead but decided she was going to turn back because it looked a little windy. Well, bollocks to that, I said! (I’m finding my language usage is changing the longer I’m here).

When I did the crossing five years ago, the trailhead was pretty gloomy and foggy, and it was no less so on this particular day, so Claudette and I decided to go, as did Isabella, a computer science PhD student from Germany who was also on the bus.

The first portion of the hike was great. The clouds and the fog cleared and we were having a swell day, mocking all the way the bus driver and the grannies who had retreated. But when we started to near the volcanoes at the top, the weather changed again in a big way. The clouds and fog rolled back in, joined by some nasty winds and rain. Alas, we saw virtually squat along the top and I got drenched even through my evidently crappy Kiwi-made rainwear (Claudette was nice and dry in her Mountain Equipment Co-op stuff).

On my first trip through the crossing years ago, I saw this sort of thing too – the weather changed quickly and often, so I pretty much experienced it all. But this time around, the weather just didn’t want to change back to good, so onward the three of us marched through wind and rain (pictured above), which really sucked. Things did get better, though, once we got back down the mountains somewhat. When we were out of the clouds, the sun came out and it got nice and warm, making for a nice descent through hills and rainforest for the last few hours.

Overall, it was a bit of a disappointment, but still worthwhile. The beginning and end of the trip bookended a pretty hellish middle, but then again, this is the stuff that travel stories are made of.

We spent the next day recuperating and caring for our aching bones in Wellington. The crossing is hard enough on the body without all the extra weather thrown in, so it was a pretty slow day. We took in a quick visit to Te Papa, the really cool national museum, and rode the cable car up one of the mountains surrounding the city to take in the view.

That’s our North Island adventure in a nutshell. One thing the Tongariro Crossing taught is that we’ll probably enjoy our vacation more if we head to where the good weather is. We had originally planned to drive down the stunning west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, and then drive back up the east on the way back, but we modified those plans as the east seems to be getting the good weather. I’ll post another travel update once we’ve had a chance to take in some of the south.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A few New Zealand interviews

Making my way through New Zealand... barely survived the treacherous Tongariro Crossing the other day, followed by a day of recovery and catching up with my old friend Peter Griffin (no relation to the Family Guy) in Wellington. We're off to the South Island today and are looking to change up our plans given the poor weather forecast for the west coast. It looks like we're going to drive down the east coast instead. More on the travels later.

In the meantime, here's the interview I did with Kiwi FM on Monday with Glen "Wammo" Williams. Wammo's got a nifty set up in that his show streams video live online, and it's then instantly converted to YouTube. Check it out:

Also, here's an audio interview I did with Paul Deady on bFM, one of the radio stations at the University of Auckland. Paul's was the last interview I did on this tour and he did a very good job at asking me some unique questions. Thanks to everyone who expressed interest in Australia and New Zealand!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

How much of porn is gay?

A little while ago, I promised that I'd further look into the numbers behind gay porn. The situation arose from a the talk I did back in March, where I was asked why I didn't use any male imagery during my presentation. For a defense of my straightness, see here.

The exchange got me curious as to what percentage of porn is gay, or geared toward a homosexual audience. As with trying to get a straight-up demographic estimate of the population at large, such a figure is somewhat hard to come by, largely because of definitions. I checked in with a couple of people in the porn business who I know and the best answer, as is often the case, came from Kim Kysar at Pink Visual. Rather than paraphrase, here's her whole unabridged answer:

Just as there's a huge glut of straight porn out there - gay porn seems to follow the same trends; gross quantities of gay productions, cheaply made, poor quality, fly by night studios - which are actually starting to dwindle as these weaker companies get weeded out due to the industry/economic downturn and piracy issues that are hitting us all. Even with these ups and downs over the years, gay porn has maintained a steady 5-15 gay scenes for every 100 straight scenes shot.

The gay market is unique in that they will pay for quality, they tend to be much more brand focused than straight porn consumers, and much more tech savvy. Half-assed gay production companies don't survive. It's very hard to penetrate the market dominated by the likes of Falcon, Lucas, and Mustang due to their quality, ethics, and the gay consumer's brand loyalty. The gay consumer is much more likely to vote with their wallet when it comes to issues like 100% condom use, or supporting their favorite talent, director, or brand.

So, as Kim says, the best estimate would be that gay porn amounts to five to fifteen percent of the market, which is roughly equivalent to the best estimates for population.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Lessons in telecom from Australia

Australia has certainly provided me with a lot of food for thought on a number of subjects. One of the big things I've been thinking about, not just in Australia but for quite some time, is the issue of broadband internet and how it's the basis of the future economy. It's a subject I've focused on for years, ever since I lived in New Zealand, so it's kind of appropriate that Australia has broadened my thinking on the subject.

Let's start with South Korea, though. South Korea is already a world leader in mobile phone technology and broadband internet speeds and pricing. I've posted before about how the country is also taking a very progressive attitude toward robots, which is going to be the next big technology market. Put all of that together... and it's kind of scary. When a country equips its people with such infrastructure and attitude, it's hard to see how they're not going to excel, which could mean bad things for us in the West.

South Korea is far from the only Asian country to be on this path. Japan, China and India all seem to have a much clearer view than we do in the West of how important and transformative these technologies are. Canada and the United States seem very lost when it comes to building the infrastructure of the future. The recently unveiled American broadband plan was roundly criticized for not really addressing the important issues, like competition and a lack of choice in internet access for most citizens. Canada, meanwhile, doesn't even have a bad broadband plan... we've got nothing.

I used to think Canada's broadband problems could be solved simply by removing the oppressive ownership restrictions we have (in a nutshell - foreigners need not apply in building wired or wireless networks). But Australia, where foreign companies are allowed, has shown me it wouldn't be that simple.

Australia is in the midst of building its National Broadband Network, a $30-billion-plus project that aims to connect most Australians with 100-megabit internet connections. There's been a lot in the press here about it in the last few days, with tests beginning in Tasmania and the usual huffery from big internet providers about how this whole thing is bad for the country. The NBN, for those who don't know, is being rolled out by a government that is fed up with Telstra, or Australia's equivalent of Bell Canada or AT&T. Telstra has fought the government for years about letting its rivals - smaller companies such as iiNet - use its network.

The problem is, of course, that a big internet network like the one Telstra has is extremely expensive and difficult to replicate. Most countries have opted for so-called "open access" rules that let other companies rent the network for reasonable rates, so that they can then compete with the main network owner and therefore bring prices down and speeds up. This is how places like South Korea and Japan have such blazingly fast internet for such rock-bottom prices. But Australia, like Canada and the United States, has for the longest time bought the argument put forward by the big phone company: that the network belongs to the company, and competition is or will happen through "market forces" rather than via open access.

The Australian government has very wisely seen through that crap. "Market forces" do not properly exist in telecommunications because it is a very difficult and expensive business with many barriers to entry. It is far more difficult, for example, to start an internet service provider than it is to open up a clothing store or a coffee shop, which are businesses with virtually no barriers to entry.

In Canada, where many people complain about the lack of competition between our ISPs, opening up the market to foreigners wouldn't necessarily mean that more companies would come in and set up shop. Building networks is still prohibitively expensive and difficult. That means more must be done - like what Australia is doing.

If a country truly believes its future economic fortunes depend on broadband, then it can't allow such important infrastructure to be left solely in the hands of private enterprise. I very much like what Australia is doing because the government is building a network that will force Telstra to compete. If Telstra doesn't want to lose all its customers to the superior NBN, it's going to have to upgrade its services. Yes, it's an "artificial" way of spurring competition, but it may actually be the only way. As pretty much everyone in Australia has figured out, Telstra's way definitely wasn't getting the country anywhere.

In Canada we have a bit of a different situation, in that phone companies compete for internet customers with cable providers. In the early days of broadband, this legitimate competition made us a world leader. But in recent years, the phone and cable guys have settled in and milked their existing customers with steadily increasing rates, with only marginal improvements to services. Yes, they periodically improve those offerings, but only when their lagging services start to attract attention. Ultimately, it's a go-slow situation that's going to cumulatively leave us behind countries that are making bold plays, such as Australia.

The other reason why I like what Australia is doing is that it sends a message loud and clear, that's it's the government - elected by the people - that is in charge, not the companies. Telecommunications is an industry that seemingly can't exist without an army of lobbyists swaying the ears of politicians to their own desires, so it's very refreshing to see a government - any government - effectively take a stand. In North America, it's clearly the lobbyists, and not the people, who run the show.

Now, with all those nice things about Australia said, there is also the completely ass-backwards attempt to filter porn from the internet here. The U.S. government and Google are among the critics of the plan, which seems designed to make Australia's internet regime much like China's. The only thing I can say about this is that it's such a stupid idea, it's bound to fail spectacularly.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Whatcha gonna do, brother?

There are many amazing things to see in New Zealand so I realize it's kind of sad that one of the biggest kicks I get is from seeing my book in stores here. Still, it's probably one of the weirder things I'll ever see... until Sex, Bombs and Burgers goes on sale in South Korea, of course.

I got a good chuckle out of seeing where my book was placed in Whitcoulls, one of the book chains here in NZ. Just a few books away was Hulk Hogan's biography. For those who know me, you understand the incredible irony.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Sex, Bombs and Burgers on MSN

It looks like I'm going to resort to some rather short posts over the next little while, with the occasional longer piece thrown in whenever I can corral up some time. Hey, I'm on vacation, so why not!

Here's something to tide you over. I've done a guest column/slideshow for MSN, featuring a couple of cool teasers from Sex, Bombs and Burgers, including the back story of Barbie. Check it out here.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Media schedule for New Zealand

I'll be honest - I've wanted to go back to New Zealand almost since the day I left (back in 2006). It's such an amazing country, full of natural wonders and genuinely the nicest people I have ever met. I can't wait to see old friends and have some new adventures over the next three weeks.

But before I can get to that, there's some business to be dealt with. I'll be doing a little bit of promotion for Sex, Bombs and Burgers on Monday. If you're in New Zealand, I'll be live on TV3 at 8:20 a.m. and then on Kiwi FM with Glenn "Wammo" Williams at 9:20, and also on bFM at 1:30. I'll be talking to a few esteemed bloggers as well, including David Farrar, a fellow I used to speak with quite regularly in my time at the Herald. Looking forward to it all.

Interestingly, although New Zealand feels like a second home to me, I almost feel like I'll be stepping onto enemy territory. Theresa Gattung, the former chief executive of Telecom New Zealand, has apparently taken a swipe at me in her new memoir, the cleverly titled Bird On A Wire. In light of that, I'm going to be looking over my shoulder while walking the streets of Auckland and Wellington. Here's what she wrote:

One journalist in particular went for me during June: Peter Nowak, a Canadian at that stage living in New Zealand and working as a journalist for the Herald. I didn't understand the source of his hostility, except perhaps the analogy that if the dragon was being slain, how could you be sure it was dead if the dragon handler was still there? But if the dragon was slain and the maiden saved, what was the maiden? More investment in broadband?

Now, not having read her book as of yet, I'm not sure of the proper context or what she means by all this Dungeons & Dragons stuff. My best guess is that she's talking about how I was critical of her after the government cracked down on Telecom in May, 2006. Fed up with the company and its monopoly over broadband internet, the government enacted a host of measures designed to haul New Zealand out of the cellar of international broadband rankings. Part of those measures included the eventual split-up of the company, which caused the share price of Telecom to tank.

So in a nutshell, under Theresa's leadership, Telecom alienated its customers (wholesale and retail) and turned the government hostile against it, leading to shareholders seeing their investments sink. There's also the legendary speech she gave (in Australia) where she admitted that telcos all over the world, her's included, had used confusion as their chief marketing tool. That speech alone must have caused the International Consortium of Telecommunications CEOs to revoke her membership (I made that organization up, but you get the point).

Hmmm. Does all of this sound like an effective CEO who can be trusted to steer the company into a newly competitive environment? Of course not - she clearly had to go, but it evidently didn't stop her from now playing the victim card and claiming that I "went for" her.

You know what they say about "denial" - it makes an ass out of you and me. Wait a minute, I think I messed that one up...

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Australia was a blast (eat it Qantas)!

My time in Australia is drawing to a close, with one more event to go as of this writing - an in-store visit at the Avid Reader bookstore tonight in Brisbane - before I head off to New Zealand. Aside from the Qantas fiasco in getting here, I've had a fantastic time. All of the journalists and bookstore people I met were very supportive of my book, and they all seemed to enjoy it, which I hope bodes well for sales. I even met a couple of fans, some of whom have been following this blog. Particularly cool was the "heaps" (one of those curious words they use here) of sympathy I got over the whole Qantas affair. It seems that hating the airline is a national sport here in Australia.

I'll post links to the various interviews and events I've done here as they become available. Two more highlights were a Q&A session I did at Gleebooks in Sydney last night, and an interview on ABC Radio's In Conversation with Richard Fidler in Brisbane. At Gleebooks, a cool independent book shop in one of Sydney's more hipster neighbourhoods, I was interviewed by Peter "Gadget Guy" Blasina while an audience of about 30 people looked on, which just blew me away. It's very humbling to think that anyone would take the time to come on out just to hear me yap. A huge thanks to Gleebooks for putting on such a great event - some of which will be on ABC Television's Big Ideas show (I'll link to it when it airs) - to Peter for some great questions, and to everyone that came out.

Talking to Richard in Brisbane was equally amazing as he just loved Sex, Bombs and Burgers. The conversation, which you can listen to here, was lots of fun, if a little bit exhausting. We went on for almost a full hour with no breaks, so I was staring to lose my voice at the end, but it's always fun to talk with someone who's so enthusiastic about the topic. I understand Richard has a huge following, so once again, hopefully that'll mean some good sales.

I also finally had a chance to meet and dine with my Allen & Unwin editor Sue Hines, and her husband David. The three of us talked about a number of topics, including Australian politics, technology, the state of the book market (which I'll post some thoughts about at some point soon) and, of course, some future projects I have in mind. Ultimately, Allen & Unwin have been fantastic hosts (thanks for everything Kelly!) and I consider myself very lucky to be one of their authors. In what is a pretty serious time of uncertainty in the whole publishing business, I don't think it's possible to be in better hands.

That's all for now. Next stop: New Zealand!

UPDATE: Just got back from the Avid Reader, and what a fantastic event! Again, there were somewhere between 20 and 30 people there to hear me chat about Sex, Bombs and Burgers with journalist and author Phil Brown. It was a lot of fun, if a little hot. Thanks very much to Phil, as well as Paul and the rest of the staff at Avid for organizing it. These events have helped me formulate some thoughts on independent bookstores - another topic for another day.

(The photo above is of the sign advertising the event.)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

My kingdom for a meat pie

One of the peculiar tastes I developed while living in New Zealand a few years ago was for meat pies. Originally a British thing, the meat pie - which is basically what it sounds like: a pastry shell filled with some sort of meat - is now a staple in both New Zealand and Australia.

Naturally, one of the first things I did when I got to Sydney was wolf down one of these babies. And it wasn't just any ordinary meat pie - it was one of Harry's famous Tiger Pies. Harry's Cafe de Wheels is an institution in Sydney, having originally opened in 1938, only to be shut down by World War II. Harry re-opened after the war and his creation has been in operation since, at several locations. He's even got his own Wikipedia page.

As you can see from the photo below, Harry's goods are much more than simple meat pies. The Tiger pie has beef on the inside, with mashed potatoes, mushy peas and gravy piled high on top.

For a full rundown of this uniquely Down Under culinary experience, check out the awesomely named Food Pornographer blog.

I have no idea how much of a nutritional nightmare these pies are, but quite frankly, I don't care. That's just two much goodness in one pile to forego. Speaking of which, it has been suggested that these pies bear a striking resemblance to KFC's bowls, a.k.a. the "failure piles" that I love to mock so much.

I'm afraid I'm guilty as charged on this one. I realize it's completely hypocritical to say that KFC's bowls really do look like an example of mankind simply giving up, yet the Tiger Pies are just a tower of awesomeness. I guess it's all about context.

I think the reason I developed a taste for these things is that, in New Zealand at least, there was a relative lack of familiar, nasty-yet-tasty snack food that you could make in a pinch at home. There weren't, to the best of my memory, anything like my beloved Pizza Pops, nor where there frozen burritos, another of my faves. There were, however, frozen meat pies, which are basically the equivalent of Kiwi (and Aussie, I imagine) junk food. So of course I got hooked on them.

It's funny because food is probably one of the biggest reasons I moved home to Canada. New Zealand has a great mish-mash of Asian and Polynesian food, but its European heritage is almost strictly British. (And as we all know, the Brits aren't exactly known for their cuisine.) It was actually a visit to Melbourne that broke the camel's back for me - the city is a pretty multicultural place with foods from many different cultures: Greek, Italian, etc. I also had Polish food - kielbasa and rye bread - for the first time in ages in Melbourne. Ultimately, the city reminded me of the tremendous multiculturalism we have in Toronto, which made me pretty home sick.

If there's one thing we have going for us in Toronto, it's that multiculturalism, which I've yet to see matched anywhere in the world. Mind you, I'm not sure it makes up for the crappy weather, the atrocious traffic and some of the extortionate service companies we have to deal with.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Qantas and the great Aussie clusterf*&^%

Well, that didn't go as planned. To say that my trip down to Australia was anything less than a giant clusterf*&^% would be an understatement. Before I left, I joked that the journey would take something close to 90 hours. You know what they say... be careful what you wish for.

The first problem was my L.A.-Sydney flight was cancelled, and the lovely folks at Qantas (and when I say "lovely" I mean "assholes") failed to let me know. Rather, they booked me onto a flight to Brisbane, where I'd have to make a connection to Sydney. That's pretty much where the whole shitstorm began. First there was an hour-long delay on that flight. Then, as we were on the plane and about to shove off, a problem with the fuel pump was discovered. They kept us on the plane for three hours before deciding the problem couldn't be fixed, so it was off to a hotel for an overnight stay for us.

We were ushered back to the airport on Sunday afternoon where a new jet awaited us. It had to be cleaned, so another delay. Then a number of passengers cancelled so their luggage had to be located, which meant another delay. Then, one of the engines wouldn't start, so another delay. All told, it was another 2.5 hours of delay. We finally took off around 4 p.m., or 17 hours after we were originally scheduled to. I've experienced delays before, but that takes the cake by an order of magnitude.

By the time we got to Brisbane, it was too late to make any connecting flights to Sydney, so yet another overnight stay. By this point, things were coming down to the wire - I had to be in Sydney for my first interview at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday. As if Qantas hadn't reamed us enough, they decided to bump a number of us from a 7 a.m. flight to one at 8:15. I actually almost got booted off that 8:15 flight because I lost my shit on the ground staff... there's only so much a person can take! I literally got off the plane in Sydney and took a taxi to the ABC studios, arriving with five minutes to spare.

All told, I racked up 27 hours in delays, with a total travel time of 48 hours on what was supposed to be a 22-hour journey.

I know what you're thinking: "Oh, boo-hoo, so Nowak had a few problems on this trip." Perhaps, but this whole fiasco was enough to warrant national headlines in Australia. Qantas, apparently, can't seem to field working planes. Bottom line: NEVER FLY QANTAS.

Anyhow, I've had zero time to take in any of Australia in my brief time here, two days late as it is. Hopefully I'll be able to squeeze in some sights before heading to New Zealand on Friday (a trip I am dreading because my flight is with, you guessed it, Qantas). Tuesday was completely filled with radio interviews, which I'll post links to as they come up. One of my favourites was a lengthy talk on The Guest Room, where the host Leon Compton asked some really incisive questions. They also actually played some of music suggestions (Pearl Jam, Jane's Addiction, Beastie Boys), which surprised me as I was told they're more of an easy listening station.

More on the land of Oz tomorrow...

Monday, April 5, 2010

Porn companies welcome the iPad

By the time this goes up, I should hopefully be landed in Australia. With any luck, I'll post something from Sydney tomorrow. And while we're in that neck of the woods, check out the lengthy feature story on Sex, Bombs and Burgers published by my alma mater, the New Zealand Herald, over the weekend. They've even included a nice sidebar on my "feud" with Theresa Gattung, the former CEO of Telecom New Zealand.

In the meantime, there's the news of the day - Apple's iPad - to deal with. The much-hyped device launched in the United States over the weekend to mostly positive reviews. I'm still a bit wary about this thing - I can recognize it's mainstream appeal (i.e. it's possibly the computer for dummies), there are still way too many limitations for my liking.

Firstly, there's this whole "it's a computer for my grandma" thing. Well, no it's not. Sure, the iPad looks like a breeze to use - like the iPhone or iPod - but it's pretty much useless without an internet connection. Which means one of two things: you either need to pay monthly charges to a cellphone provider, or you need Wi-Fi. The first option is unpalatable enough, but if grandma can't use a regular computer, she certainly doesn't have the know-how to set up a home wireless network. So how exactly is she supposed to get any use out of the iPad?

Anyhow... I'm not going to go into the device's many deficiencies here. What I did want to talk about was the porn industry's reaction to it. So far, it's been fairly positive. Digital Playground and Pink Visual, two producers that I talk about here regularly, wasted no time in announcing that their websites were fully ready for the iPad. They do have their reputation as technological leaders to protect, after all.

"We were prepared for the iPad release," said Digital Playground founder Joone in a press release. "Our new 2.0 system can handle any technology we want to throw at it. The iPad is just an example of how virtually agile and adaptable our company is to new technology." More on DP's features can be found here (not safe for work).

The folks at Pink Visual, admitted Apple nerds, went into considerably more detail. They're expecting the iPad, despite its limitations, to "sell like crazy" so they've made sure they're ready. Pink Visual has created an iPad-specific website (not safe for work) that has fewer images and loads faster over slower Wi-Fi connections. "We’re in a position where we’re waiting on Apple and other device makers to create new platforms for our deep content delivery," brand manager Kim Kysar said in a release. "It was that way with the iPhone, it is that way with the iPad, and the future looks no different."

Image aside, there are of course the practical issues, which the bloggers over at Fleshbot pointed out in January (not safe for work). They took issue with the iPad for two reasons: one, Apple controls the only possible input - iTunes - to get content onto the device. Of course, if you've got the proper software tools and some time on your hands, you can get around this, but the point is there is no easy way to get your own content (porn or otherwise) onto the device. But as the releases from Digital Playground and Pink Visual demonstrate, this isn't so much an issue because you can just get porn through the iPad's web browser anyway.

The second, more tangible issue, is that the iPad is not discreet. It may be ideal to watch a TV episode or mainstream movie on, but you wouldn't want to whip out Pirates II on an airplane or bus. Which means you have to use it at home... and if you're already at home, why wouldn't you just watch porn on your computer, like the good lord intended?

And lastly, there's also my favourite reason for why the iPad is not likely to be a hit with porn fans, which Fleshbot also pointed out - at 1.5 pounds, it's too heavy to hold with one hand.

Friday, April 2, 2010

How to write tech in 5 easy steps

Before we get going, just a quick reminder that The Globe and Mail concludes its five-part excerpt series of Sex, Bombs and Burgers today. Check out part five.

As I promised yesterday, today I've done a bit of an advice column on how to write about science and technology (both for news media and for books). To be honest, I don't really like doing stuff like this, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, everyone has different reporting and writing techniques, so no one set of rules can apply. What works for one writer, or what another reporter is comfortable doing, just doesn't go for everyone, so you always have to take such advice with a grain of salt.

Secondly, one can always come off sounding like a pompous ass when dispensing advice, which is something I'm wary of. I've been doing this for a long time and have obviously learned a trick or two but I'm constantly learning new things all the time, so it could very well turn out that anything I say now may prove to be utterly wrong down the road.

Now that you've been suitably warned, I hope that some of what follows is of use to anyone thinking of getting into science and technology writing, or who may just be starting out. If any of this actually helps you get a job or a book deal, be advised that I accept royalty payments in the form of beer.

1. Reach out and schmooze someone
The most important thing to do if you're going to report and/or write about technology (or anything for that matter) is: get out and talk to people! There's only so much you can soak in while sitting in front of your computer, and only so much you can glean from talking to people on the phone. You only really develop meaningful relationships with people when you meet them face to face and get to know them (and vice versa).

An in-person interview is always preferable to a phoner because you can get in tune with the other person's body language and nuances. They can also physically demonstrate things to you, or make use of props and the like. When I visited Google last year, the company's Search Engine Optimization guru Matt Cutts interrupted our conversation every five minutes to draw things on a nearby whiteboard, thereby greatly deepening my understanding of SEO and PageRank, which is something that just couldn't have happened on the phone.

Talking to people will also help you understand how things work and where they are going, and they're the ones who will (hopefully) feed you information down the road. They don't do that for strangers. In the world of science and technology, this means getting out to events or product launches and talking to the inventors, scientists, entrepreneurs and executives. Even if you don't write something about the specific product being launched, or whatever, you'll make a contact or two that you can call up for that story you're working on, and they won't treat you like a stranger. In the communications business, relationships are invaluable.

2. Don't be afraid to be an idiot
With that said, unless you have a PhD in several branches of science and engineering, you're more than likely to run up against things you don't know or understand. When the above-mentioned people are explaining it to you, one of the worst things you can do is nod your head and pretend to understand. If you don't understand what they're telling you, chances are good you'll either get something wrong or your readers won't understand either.

The solution is to take one for the team - don't be afraid to look like a complete moron. Scientists in particular are terrible at explaining things so that John Q. Idiot can understand, so you've got to be firm with them and ask them to explain things over and over again, and in as many different ways as possible, until you understand it. Fortunately, scientists and engineers are often pleasant people who are very generous with their time (they're usually just thrilled that someone outside a lab wants to talk to them).

I've felt like an idiot pretty much every time I talk to Vint Cerf, the engineer (and Google vice-president) who often gets much of the credit for inventing the internet, yet he keeps taking my interview requests, so he's either an incredibly patient man or appreciative of my trying to understand things.

3. K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple, stupid, not the rock band)
One of the first things they taught us in journalism school was the KISS principle, and it doubly applies in tech and science writing. Technology is universal - it surrounds all of us and we all use it, so despite what you may hear elsewhere, everyone likes to read about it; it's all in how the story is presented to them. If you get overly technical and/or use jargon without explaining it, you'll end up excluding the vast majority of your potential audience. This doesn't mean you have to dumb things down, but it does mean you have to explain things and bend over backwards to make sure they're clear. A good rule of thumb is to write for your mom or your grandma - if they could read and appreciate your story, you've done your job.

This is perhaps the hardest part of tech writing: if you can take complex issues such as mobile termination rates or local loop unbundling* and get the average person to understand them, you'll go far. It really is the difference between writing for other techies and writing for a larger, broader audience. Also, it's okay to use jargon in your story so long as the specific terminology is closely followed by a translation into plain English. And just remember: what may not be jargon to you, because you use it all the time, may be to the general public. As an example, I remember that for years editors wouldn't allow me to use the word "broadband" in stories, but rather "high-speed internet." If in doubt, call up grandma and run it by her.

(*A mobile termination rate is a fee that one phone company pays another to connect its calls from one network to another - in New Zealand, for example, it's what Vodafone must pay Telecom NZ every time a Vodafone customer calls a Telecom customer, and vice versa. Local loop unbundling is where multiple service providers are allowed to use the phone and internet network of the company that owns it.)

4. Context is king
Further to keeping it simple, a technology story really doesn't mean anything unless you can tell the reader why it's important. This is often easy to do, as simple as a sentence or two in most stories. You could, for example, write a story about Canada's ridiculously high cellphone rates, but the story is just about bitching unless you add in the context about how those high prices are holding back productivity, which ultimately leads to a lower standard of living and higher prices for everything. The other thing to remember about context is that many people who read about technology on a regular basis are usually pop culture junkies, so feel free to explain concepts in your stories by linking them to TV, movies and the like. The folks at Wired are masters of this.

5. Sniff out agendas

The one other trick to being a good tech writer (particularly in news) is developing the ability to detect bullshit. Technology has more PR and hype going for it than just about any other industry, so you have to learn how to slice through all the crap. You can be sure that just about anyone who approaches you is trying to sell you something, and therefore ultimately trying to use you. You have to be cognizant of this and be able to figure out what it is they're really after, then weigh that interest versus that of your readers. If the net result is that the company will gain more from the story than your audience, you shouldn't do the story, or talk to someone else who will call out the bullshit on the record.

In that vein, one thing to do is limit how much "reactive" reporting you do and instead concentrate on "proactive" stories, which are the ones you dream up while showering, or going on a long walk, or sitting on the toilet. These are the stories that you seek out, and where you talk to people who weren't expecting you, which therefore means they may not be out to use you for their own gain. Some of my favourite (and most-read stories) have come about this way, like how Lego is made and the real deal on CNN's 3D holograms. Bottom line: it's always better to go find your stories than it is for them to find you, which once again goes back to the first point I made up top. Doing this always ensures that you'll also have original stories, which in this day of media overload, is an important way to differentiate yourself.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Sex, Bombs and Burgers Australian sked

In two days, I'll be on a plane for Australia where, ironically, it looks to be colder this weekend than here in Toronto. The fates are cruel indeed. For all you North American readers, I'll soon be posting from the future - let me know if want any sports scores or winning lottery numbers.

Just a quick note that The Globe and Mail continues its five-part excerpt series of Sex, Bombs and Burgers today with the fourth installment. Yesterday's part three was one of the most-viewed stories on the whole site, basically for one reason: sex robots. There were also some lively comments about the headline on the piece: "A smart slut." A few readers got bent out of shape about how such a reputable newspaper could use such an offensive and degrading word in a headline. I suspect they didn't fully read the excerpt, or their skins are simply too thin, because the headline was in reference to a piece of malicious software known as the Slutbot (aka CyberLover), which made the rounds on dating sites a few years ago and tried to part some suckers from their money.

In any event, I thought I'd outline a bit of my Australian itinerary for anyone reading this Down Under, and who may be interested in learning more about Sex, Bombs and Burgers. If you're in Sydney or Brisbane, drop by one of the scheduled bookstore events and say hi (or gidday)! (Schedule is subject to change, of course.)

Tuesday, April 6:
10:40 am: Interview with ABC Radio Australia Today (live)
11:00 am: Interview with ABC Radio 936 Hobart (live)
11:30 am: Interview with ABC Radio NT 105.7 The Guest Room (live)
12:30 pm: Interview with ABC Radio 720 Perth Morning Show (live)
2:00 pm: Interview with ABC Radio Triple J Hack (pre-record)
3:30 pm: Interview with ABC Radio National Counterpoint (pre-record)

Wednesday, April 7:
11:00 am: Visit to Better Read Than Dead bookstore, 265 King Street, Newtown
12:00 pm: Visit to Dymocks Sydney bookstore, 424 George Street, Sydney
1:00 pm: Visit to Kinokuniya bookstore, Level 2, The Galleries Victoria, 500 George Street, Sydney
3:30 pm: Interview with 2MCEfm 92.3 Bathurst, 94.7 Orange (pre-record)
6:30 pm: Visit to Gleebooks bookstore, upstairs at no 49-Gleebooks, 49 Glebe Point Road Glebe

Thursday, April 8:
11:00 am: Interview with ABC Local Radio Conversation Hour, Brisbane (live)
6:00 pm: Visit to Avid Reader bookstore, 193 Boundary Street, West End

As per a great suggestion from the folks at Gleebooks, I'm going to post a bit of a "how to write about technology" advice column here tomorrow. Come on back and check it out!
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