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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.

Winter nights in the Alps

Posted: 2011-03-24 21:52:14, Categories: Travel, Austria, Hiking, 493 words (permalink)

Bad Kissinger Hü at night. Most of the mountain huts in the Alps close their doors and send their staff home for the winter, approximately from mid October until mid April. However, many have a winter room which is either unlocked or accessible using an alpine club key. The winter rooms are wonderful places to cook a simple but enjoyable dinner, to look at the stars, to sleep and to wake up to the morning sun with spectacular views.

This winter we visited three different huts, for four nights in total. Twice there were nobody else, once we shared the room with a group of three others, and once on a weekend with particularly good weather there were about 20 hikers and the warden staying in the same hut. However, in that case the whole hut was open so there was enough space for everybody.

The photo of this blog entry is of Bad Kissinger Hütte, which is located in the Tannheimer valley, Austria, about 80 km south of our home in Memmingen. That's one of the easiest huts to reach with about 700 meters of altitude to climb along an easy path. It's also located on the south slope, which means less deep snow, particularly when the winter is already turning towards spring. For us it took around 2,5 hours to climb up including a couple of short breaks, and we did not have snowshoes or skis.

In contrast to the summer when the huts have full restaurant facilities, the winter rooms operate on a self service basis. Mattresses and blankets are usually provided so one could go just with a thin travel bedsheet, but we always carry our sleeping bags to be sure of staying warm. We've also taken a camping cooker which generally has been unnecessary: all the winter rooms we've been to this far had a cooking possibility with either wood or gas. In Bad Kissinger Hütte we did use our own kettle though, as there were two pans but no pots. Nowadays the winter rooms also commonly have an electric light powered by a battery, which is recharged by a solar panel during the day.

The cost of an overnight stay is usually 5-10 euros for alpine club members and 10-20 euros for non-members, depending on the place. Payment works on a basis of trust: people are expected to write their names in the visitor book and make a bank transfer afterwards to the account of the organization which takes care of the hut.

One piece of equipment which we found out to be a nice addition on the winter hikes is a snow glider, a piece of plastic just big enough to sit on, with a handle in the front. When coming back, we can often have fun by gliding down on the snow instead of walking during part of the way. The gliders are lightweight to carry so even if the slope is too icy, bumpy or otherwise unsuitable for using them, it doesn't matter very much.

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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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