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Mountain view at home and other changes in life

Posted: 2012-06-21 12:09:54, Categories: Travel, Work, Germany, Hiking, 469 words (permalink)

Sandra enjoying the view on our balcony. In our new home in Halblech in Southern Germany, we have a direct view to the Alps. We moved here in the end of April after Sandra sold her food store. I quit my job at the same time, so we're both now free to move around and start any new projects we get excited about.

The changes had been in preparation already for some time. Like most small entrepreneurs, Sandra had endured stress and long working days for many years, and felt she needed a longer break. One of her employees was quite interested in taking over — a perfect opportunity to give her the chance of running the shop instead of a much harder decision of shutting it down.

I had continued working for CSC from home after moving to Germany. From a technical point of view it worked quite well, my employer had a positive attitude and I was able to make useful contributions to the projects. However, during one and a half years the lack of social contacts became more and more evident. I was more motivated to study German or help out with simple tasks at Sandra's shop than to work alone on a technical document in the corner of the living room. Therefore it was eventually not a hard decision to call an end to it.

The nature around Halblech is beautiful. On the east and south side are the Alps with high peaks up to 2000 meters and a large network of hiking and cycling trails. Towards the west and north are hills covered by meadows and forests, with rivers and lakes in between. I hadn't thought about it before, but a location at the foot of the mountains offers more varied scenery and opportunities for outdoor activities than a place deeper in a valley between high mountains would.

During the first weeks after moving in we didn't have to think about what to do with our additional free time. On sunny days we explored the nearby hiking and cycling trails, otherwise arranging things at home kept us busy enough. Building the kitchen was the largest amount of work.

In Germany it's common that apartments don't have any equipment in the kitchen: there are only connections for water and electricity. So we packed all our kitchen appliances, cupboards and the sink in the moving van, transported them to our new flat and reinstalled them there. That was already the second time within one year, including a new variety of small surprises during installation. In any case, after all the planning, cutting, drilling, screwing and sweating we have a functional and quite nice looking kitchen. And if we continue moving often, we'll do it faster and better each time. :)

Now it's time to enjoy the summer - and to have a housewarming party next week!

Every day a little bit more light again

Posted: 2011-12-23 16:50:48, Categories: Travel, General, Germany, 200 words (permalink)

Christmas bells in Memmingen, Germany. Two days ago was the shortest day and longest night of the year on the northern hemisphere of our planet. Now the light has won again, every day is a little bit longer than the previous one.

The autumn here in Southern Germany has been mostly sunny and beautiful. In November my mother Helena and brother Erkki came for a visit. They had a chance to see how Sandra and I are living nowadays, and we got to hear how things are going in Finland. We had a nice tour to the Alps and a couple of nearby towns, including Oberstdorf and Füssen.

The last couple of weeks have been busy especially for Sandra. She organized a series of small product tasting events in her shop. I helped a little bit at home by packaging small presents for her best customers, but mostly it was her and her employees who were taking care of all the Christmas preparations.

I will spend the Christmas and New Year in Germany together with Sandra, visiting and hosting friends. We both wish you all peaceful holiday times and lots of happiness for year 2012! Our card is available in English, in Finnish and in German.

Couchsurfing Corporation

Posted: 2011-09-06 01:08:11, Categories: Travel, Hospitality exchange, 780 words (permalink)

On 24th of August CouchSurfing, the most popular hospitality exchange site, announced a switch from a non-profit status to a corporation, collecting a 7.6 million USD venture capital investment. Quite a few members have expressed disappointment and reacted to the announcement as betrayal of the community. Some have closed their CS profiles and switched to alternative sites such as BeWelcome. Is there a reason to panic? I don't think so.

CouchSurfing has been publicly presenting itself as a charitable organization, but it hasn't really been practising charity nor been poor for a long time. The site has raised millions with a questionable verification/donation scheme during the last few years. In addition to maintaining the site, the money has been spent in salaries, free travel and wild lifestyle for a relatively small and closed inner circle of people. Criticism towards the leadership and management has been presented widely, including a a dedicated site and long detailed articles documenting the problems. In the end, after failing to get officially accepted as a charity, the switch to a corporation didn't come as a surprise. The new legal structure of CS is the so called B corporation, which requires a level of social and environmental responsibility, but it's a for-profit entity nonetheless.

I think the switch is actually a good thing. It's better to be a corporation than claim to be a charity. New venture capital money and guidance from the investors will most likely help CS to improve their service and respond more promptly to user wishes and complaints. And members are less likely to have false expectations that all their donation money would be responsibly managed and used for good purposes.

The income stream from user address verifications will probably reduce so CS will have to come up with something else. Sure, they may continue the verification business, but they cannot label it as a donation any more. My guess is that CS will sooner or later introduce some kind of targeted advertisements, even if they currently have decided against it. People are already used to advertising on many social networking sites, and 3 million registered users with lots of personal information in their profiles would be a good base to start with. Advertisements like “Didn’t find a host? This hostel in the same city would still have rooms available” could even be attractive for users who are mixing various forms of accommodation on their trips.

Another path would be to offer extra features for paying members. This is more tricky as people are used to web sites being free. However, instead of extra features there could be related services which require a company behind them. Two simple examples coming to mind would be insurance covering damages caused by guests (similar to what the paid home-stay site airbnb offers) and phone hotlines helping guests to find alternative accommodation in case they have problems with their host. Such services wouldn't make much difference for a seasoned hospex enthusiast but might make the average new member feel safer.

A lot of work at CouchSurfing has always been done by non-paid volunteers. An interesting question is how the new CouchSurfing corporation will succeed in keeping up the volunteer labor. Programmers and other core people will probably become paid employees from now on. On the other hand, local volunteers (ambassadors in CS terminology) are likely to continue volunteering as before. Organizing meetings and events and hanging out with other CS members is fun, and there's no reason to expect such activities would die just because the status of the main organization changes.

I expect CouchSurfing to continue as the most popular hospitality exchange site at least in the near future. Only a small minority will quit because of the change, and more professional development of the site is likely to attract new members. On the other hand, there are also people who will prefer to use services developed and maintained on a non-profit basis. I see this as an opportunity for healthy diversity in the hospex scene. In order to make profit, CouchSurfing will need to keep growing and make the service attractive for as many people as possible. Meanwhile, alternative sites could gather lively communities of their own, focusing on other values than quantity.

Hospitality exchange has been part of my life for about six years now. During that time, the total number of members in the world has increased from one hundred thousand to three million. It's already a huge movement! The growth has had it's side effects, but the core idea has remained the same: opening your home to visitors and being welcomed to other's homes when traveling, without any monetary transactions. It's simply wonderful.

From library to library on two wheels

Posted: 2011-06-18 14:55:49, Categories: Travel, Work, Ecology, Cycling, Germany, Cyc4lib, Denmark, 641 words (permalink)

Cycling to
Libraries tour approaching the bridge to Møn island. The Cycling for Libraries tour was an experiment on what comes up in the minds of library professionals when they go out and ride bicycles for nine days together. Answer: far-reaching discussions about the future of libraries in the changing world, and a great team spirit as the group worked it's way 700 km from Copenhagen to Berlin.

In the beginning we got to know each other and figured out by trial and error how to travel in a group. We saw beautiful Danish seaside landscapes, enjoyed meals prepared for us by our cook, were warmly welcomed in a local libraries, spent much more time on the road that the organizers had expected, got tired fixing punctured tyres in the rain, felt the bliss of a hot shower and slept side by side on the floor in a school.

After a couple of days the weather became more sunny, daily distances a bit shorter, bicycles were in better shape and also other topics than cycling and survival started to pop up in the discussions. As we didn't have books, documents or Internet in front of us, it was easier to think of broader topics than details. We talked about our projects, library politics, online presense and social changes — and of course about cycling, traveling and other hobbies.

The organizers had prepared for each day a theme, which was announced in the morning briefing. That guided the discussions a little bit, but ultimately it was up to each participant if they wanted to follow the theme, pick some other topic or simply listen to the nature and enjoy cycling. In the evening we were usually too tired and at the same time excited about what had happened during the day, that it was not easy to focus on any common theme other than food, beer and sleep.

A topic I found particularly interesting was the role of libraries as participants in social and environmental issues. One idea which came up was to create a global warming information finding aid: a shelf containing books, dvds and other resources on the topic, including hints what people can do themselves in everyday life. Libraries taking part in the campaign would place the shelf in a prominent place where visitors would easily see it. Different viewpoints should be offered to maintain the reputation of libraries as an impartial and trusted source of information.

Just as media can influence the thoughts and focus of its audience by choosing the topics to write about, libraries have more subtle but similar power through choosing which books and other resources are most visibly presented - including recommendations given by librarians online. Whether or not and how that power should be used is naturally not a trivial question. In any case, libraries can provide resources which give both a broader view and go deeper than a single TV show or newspaper article ever will.

One goal of the trip was to get library folks outdoors and challenge them. Several participants were first time taking part on a longer cycling tour. Accommodation was modest so people were together also in the evenings instead of locking themselves in hotel rooms. Day by day the team spirit grew, people helped each other and made sure nobody got lost or left behind. Everybody made it until the end, and many wrote afterwards that in their minds they were still cycling several days after the trip.

The Kirjastokaista team with their video cameras were with us during the whole tour. Almost everything was therefore freshly documented in detail and a short video of each day's events was posted online every evening. In that way the tour itself was an example of rapid information sharing using modern channels. A half an hour documentary is planned to come out later in the autumn. I'm looking forward to watching it.

Cycling for Libraries

Posted: 2011-05-28 10:49:39, Categories: Travel, Work, Ecology, Cycling, Cyc4lib, Denmark, 341 words (permalink)

Cycling for Libraries logo. Today starts an interesting event called Cycling for Libraries. About 80 library professionals and other people, whose work is somehow connected to libraries, will be spending nine days cycling from Copenhagen to Berlin. The goal is to combine work, fun and healthy exercise outdoors in a new and exiting way. The welcome party was yesterday evening at the Copenhagen main library, featuring a pedal powered ice cream and coffee bar.

Cycling for Libraries is a moving conference, where the main focus will be on the informal discussions between talks and other organized sessions. Hey, those are often the most interesting bits in conferences anyway. There will be some seminars, workshops and visits at local libraries on the way, but most of the time the participants will create the event themselves. I'm curious to see how much of the discussions will be focused on library topics, how much on cycling and how much on everything else. The organizers don't have a clue either, they're also doing this the first time.

For me it'll be the second time to participate in a organized cycling tour. Cycling for Libraries will not be as ecological and down to earth as the Ecotopia Biketour I joined in 2006, but still relatively low on luxury for a professional event. Accommodation will be at campsites, hostels and schools. I like that — sharing the space in a dormitory room or in a tent is a good way to get to know each other.

It's also a great opportunity to get out from my home office. It's too easy to get stuck to routines there, and have too little communication with the outside world. I came to Copenhagen a few days in advance and have really enjoyed my time here. Almost everybody is moving around by bicycle and that gives a special spirit to the whole city. Already on the first day, crossing a canal on a big bridge together with dozens of other cyclists and only a few motorists, I had a great feeling of being part of the community.

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Copyright Arto Teräs <ajt@iki.fi>, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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