Monday, December 31, 2012

The Never Ending Vacation Continues

I write this on New Years Eve from what has become a regular house sitting visit to Melbourne, Australia. This is the fourth house sit for the same owners in as many years, and I have begun looking forward to my stay in the city as I explore its numerous alleys and cultural institutions (and bookshops), more and more. Here in no particular order are my favorite Melbourne haunts - places I return to again and again on each visit.

The National Galley of Victoria
Each year I return to the National Galley of Victoria to take in the latest exhibition, and to reacquaint myself with the permanent works of art on display there. However, like all major museums and galleries, the NGV pulls works out of storage and returns some of the items currently on show back to their storage vaults, so visitors never see exactly the same artists or work on return visits.

Australian Centre for the Moving Image
I wrote about the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) after my first visit there in January 2010, so I won't repeat myself again. Suffice to say, that I always enjoy returning to the Centre, not least because there is an excellent cinema complex on site, showing an eclectic mix of classic and contemporary movies.

Federation Square
The heart of Melbourne's revitalized downtown area, Federation Square features live music and arts performances on a regular basis throughout the summer months, and the giant outdoor screen is used for a variety of live broadcasts including tennis, Australian Rules Football, the Grand Prix, and numerous other events. Oh, and both the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, and the National Gallery of Victoria are part of this massive complex.

Melbourne Museum
Completed in 2001, and located in the Carlton Gardens, the Melbourne Museum is the largest museum in the Southern Hemisphere, and "provides a place for education, history, culture and society to engage with each other in a contemporary setting". The museum has seven main galleries, including a Children's Gallery and temporary exhibit space. Along with a couple of theatres, the museum is also home of the city's IMAX Theatre.

Queen Victoria Market
The QVM is a Melbourne institution covering several city blocks. There are hundreds of stalls selling everything from tea to T-shirts, exotic soaps, faux aboriginal trinkets, CDs and DVDs, and so much more. A section of the market is devoted to fresh fruit and vegetables, and the indoor food and delicatessen departments are a gourmands delight.

Arts Centre Melbourne
While I have never been to the Arts Centre to catch a performance in any of its venues, I have made a point of visiting to see free exhibitions that take place over the summer inside the main building. Over the past couple of years I have seen the raucous AC/DC exhibition and the wonderful Reg Livermore Take A Bow exhibition which I wrote about in an earlier post. I don't know who or what the current free exhibits feature but I am looking forward to checking them out as soon as possible.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

My Top iPad Apps: Part 2


The story so far… In two previous posts, I wrote about travelling across America with my iPad 2, and listed my favourite apps in terms of their usefulness in part one of this series. Now read on…

Maps (the original Google app)
Ah, maps. I wrote recently about just one of the problems facing the new Apple Maps app, and I won’t repeat myself here. However, it is pretty much impossible to travel anywhere, let alone on an extended journey, and not refer to a map of some type. Thankfully, I was able to use Google Maps throughout my trip before the app was dropped from the latest iOS6 upgrade, a fact I am very grateful for.

Since I was travelling without a car, and by necessity had to make I use of public transport in the cities I visited, Google Maps was indispensable for pointing me in the right direction, and for working out which buses or subway routes would get me to my destination in the shortest possible time. And because I didn’t have a permanent WiFi connection, one of the iPad functions I made regular use of, was the ability to capture screen shots (when I was online), of street maps and any city neighbourhoods I wanted to explore. These were stored in folders for offline referral. Once I moved on from the city I was visiting, I would delete the maps to make space for new ones.

The TripAdvisor app provides access to more than 75 million reviews and opinions by travellers in every corner of the planet. TripAdvisor makes it easy to find and compare car hire and airfares, hotels and restaurants, and learn about galleries, museums, and other attractions wherever you might be visiting. I have added my own modest hotel reviews, and reviews for some of the places I visited, but there are many more I can – and should – add. The app is ideal for searching out last minute places to visit while on the road, but of course, one should have conducted this type of research well before arrival in some far-flung location.

Screenshot of the Choice Hotels iPad app.
I stayed in eight hotels during my last trip, but it wasn’t until I was at my third hotel that I remembered that on a previous round the world trip in 2010, I had signed up with the Choice Hotels group of companies to try and take advantage of their rewards program.

iPad in hand, I checked the apps store and found the Choice Hotels application which made searching for, and comparing the more than 6,000 hotels within the group very easy and convenient.

I spent almost five weeks in various Choice Hotels racking up more than 20,000 reward points – which I have yet to redeem – and for which I will eventually add reviews on this blog. I loved having the ability to filter and sort hotel search results by price and location (see screenshot); book hotels from within the app, and even cancel reservations if needed. You can also view hotel details, amenities and photo galleries, and find various points of interests in map view along with hotel search results

Facebook
I think it is fair to say that Facebook has become the de facto website for keeping in touch with friends and family members at home, or elsewhere in the world, whether or not you are travelling. The iPad app is constantly being improved and is easy to use. Uploading trip photographs and adding messages is a breeze, and as much as I have ongoing concerns about privacy issues with Facebook, it is still probably the best way (apart from mass emailings) to keep in touch with a large number of people with the least amount of effort.

Skype
Millions of people around the world have signed on to Skype, the company that has helped revolutionize the online phone business. The Skype iPad app allows users to make free voice and video calls to anyone else on Skype – providing both callers have Skype accounts. Even calling family or friends via Skype’s pre-paid service is much cheaper than using your mobile/cell phone company’s global roaming service. Or global rorting, as I like to call it. Just add a few dollars of Skype Credit to your account and away you go.

World Clock
I stopped wearing a watch when I first bought my by now ancient iPhone 3GS. Since the phone was rarely out of my hands, I made regular use of the device’s Clock app, thereby allowing me to leave my watch unused. For some unexplainable reason, Apple chose not to include the Clock app on the new iPad’s (a mistake that has now been rectified), which of course gave app designers around the world a chance to fill the gap with clock apps of their own design. World Clock has become one of the most popular of these apps, and I found it to be perfect for keeping tabs on time shifts as I travelled across America, and for keeping in touch with family members in Greece and Australia. Now that I am back in Adelaide, the app is just as useful for checking the time in Tucson (Arizona,) New York City, Athens (Greece), and elsewhere.

And last, but by no means least. Since All work and no play, makes Jack (or Jim) a dull boy, my game of choice was, and still remains Backgammon. I have a love/hate relationship with this game: I love it when I win, and I hate it when I lose. Either way, it is endlessly challenging, and the version I have seems to be one of the better Backgammon apps around, although it does have its idiosyncrasies.


I also had a bunch of apps which many travel sites often recommend. These included TripIt, Evernote, Priceline, Urbanspoon and Yelp. However, I made no use at all of these apps during my travels.

Friday, December 14, 2012

My Top iPad Apps: Part 1

Apple’s Pages app. Image courtesy of Apple.com

In a previous post, I wrote about my experiences travelling across America with my iPad 2. Today, I thought I would write about my top iPad apps. That is, the apps I used most during my trip.

Camera
What is a vacation without photographs to remember it by? I must say while I was quite happy with the quality of the video footage obtainable via the iPad’s built-in camera, as a stand alone device for taking photographs it is basic to the point of useless.

In the end I alternated between using my digital camera and the iPad for shooting video, but used my digital camera for photographs. While I agree that neither a digital camera or the iPad are ideal for shooting video, I had no intention of carrying yet more weight across America in the shape of a digital camcorder. After all, I am not a documentary film maker! I just wanted to be able to record some scenes and vistas that would complement my photographs and memory.

Pages/Numbers
Both Pages and Numbers are two more very useful Apple apps that enabled me to maintain a daily trip journal (on Pages), and spreadsheets (using Numbers) to keep track of my expenses and ongoing costs. This was essential since I was travelling on a limited budget of around AU$1,000 per week. Documents in Pages (see image at the top of this post) can include photographs, videos and many other elements. Of course, you can email, or export both Pages and Numbers files to any email address or online backup service for retrieval later. Both apps cost AU$10.49 each.

iPhoto/iMovie
Once I had taken my photographs and video footage, I wanted to edit and enhance both before uploading the finished work to either Facebook or YouTube. I downloaded both of Apple’s excellent iPhoto and iMovie apps (AU$5.49 each), and within minutes I was able to edit and put together several short films and upload them to YouTube. The following clip was filmed and edited using only the iPad and iMovie. The footage shows scenes from the National September 11 Memorial.
...


Goodreader
Goodreader, AU$5.49 in the app store, is described as a “…super-robust PDF reader for iPad, iPhone and iPod touch.” Further; “With GoodReader on your iPad/iPhone, you can read virtually anything, anywhere: books, movies, maps, pictures.” And so it proved. I had a number of PDFs and Word docs on my laptop which I wanted to be able to make use of during my trip, and Goodreader imported them without issue and made them available with a couple of quick taps and swipes.

iBooks
An important factor in my decision to buy the iPad was the ability to download and read books on the device. Currently, I have over two hundred books available through the iBooks app (included with all iPads), most of which I have downloaded for free from that great repository of public domain books, Gutenberg.Org. I don’t know if I will ever get to read everything I have downloaded, but no matter, I love having these books, and those that I have bought via the Apple store at my fingertips.

Safari/Google
Where would we be without the modern web browser? Both these apps are indispensable. Safari is preinstalled on the iPad, and the Google app is available free from the Apple app store. ‘Nuff said.

That will do for now. In a follow up post I will write about a number of other apps (Maps, TripAdvisor, Choice Hotels, Facebook, Skype, and World Clock), which also proved to be invaluable during my trip.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Have iPad – Will Travel


Just before my last trip, I made a decision to leave my heavy 15 inch Toshiba laptop behind. I simply could not be bothered dragging along the extra weight and other bits and pieces, such as the power pack, cables, and back up drive, etc. I did that in 2010 with my small Sony VAIO laptop (which finally gave out while I was in Greece), and that was bad enough. So this time I thought I’d at least try travelling lighter, and bought myself a pre-trip gift – a 64 gigabyte iPad 2 for AU$578.00.

One major drawback I had with the iPad was the fact that it was not SIM card enabled. This meant I could only make use of free WiFi hotspots whenever I needed to go online for any reason, and of course, when you are travelling, there are always reasons to be going online. However, since I knew that I would have access to WiFi in the New York apartment I was staying in, and also access in the numerous hotels I would be staying in, I figured that with some forethought and planning, the lack of access to WiFi at other times would not be a major issue.

I also knew that many businesses and government departments in America, seem to have recognized that providing free Internet access is good public policy. This meant that with minimal inconvenience I could get online at any number of Starbucks, McDonald’s, and other such establishments, as well as public libraries, city squares and parks (Bryant Park in New York City, especially), and many other areas of Manhattan.

As time went on, one other aspect of the tablet turned into something of an annoyance – I am a reasonably good touch typist, but no matter how I tried, I just could not get used to the iPad’s virtual keyboard. Eventually, like many other iPad users, I got around this issue by buying a separate Bluetooth keyboard which made writing my trip journal much easier and quicker. I eventually chose a Kensington KeyFolio Pro 2 Removable Keyboard which comes in a case with a built-in iPad stand.

Apart from the Bluetooth keyboard, one other small piece of equipment became indispensable throughout the trip. This was the iPad Camera Connection Kit. The kit enabled me to transfer images from my camera’s SD Card on to the iPad. I had initially planned to use the iPad as a back up device, hence the need to transfer images and video from my camera to the tablet.

It has always been axiomatic, that when it comes to technology, one should always purchase the largest capacity hard drive, storage device, SD Card – or similar, because you can be sure you will eventually need that extra capacity. And so it proved early into my trip. Despite having bought the largest capacity iPad available, it soon became apparent that I would run out of space on the iPad if I transferred all my images and video clips to the unit.

In the end, I decided to purchase extra SD cards for my digital camera, and only transfer images and video to the iPad in order to work on them before uploading them to Facebook or YouTube. That way, if I had to delete files from the iPad, I still had the original untouched files on the SD cards, and ‘enhanced’ files online. Of course, I also used the iPad’s built in camera to shoot video as well as my other camera, which also ate into the free storage space on the device.

Let me tell you, dear reader, that despite those few drawbacks, my iPad turned out to be the best pre-trip gift I have ever given myself, and it continues to give me hours of pleasure now that I am back home. I purchased the device eight weeks before my departure for America, which gave me more than enough time to familiarize myself with its idiosyncrasies and secrets, and plenty of time to research and download a bunch of apps which I thought might prove useful during my three month trip. I will write about the apps I found most useful in a future post.

By the time I take my next overseas trip in 2014, I expect tablet devices will be pretty much everywhere. If you are planning a vacation and you are tossing up between taking a laptop or purchasing a tablet device, my recommendation is to leave the laptop and go with the tablet. The convenience and versatility of the new tablet devices can’t be beaten.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Apple Maps Vs. Google Maps


Oh, dear. How could Apple get it so wrong? The problems with Apple’s new Maps app just won’t go away. In fact they seem to just go from bad to worse. Just today, Australian police have warned travellers using the Apple Maps app to be very careful about relying on the app to get them safely across this vast, and often unforgiving country.

This latest warning came after a number of travellers got totally lost on cross-country road trips due to the poor directions provided by the Apple Maps application.

A case in point: anyone travelling to the regional Victorian city of Mildura could end up miles from their destination if they use Apple Maps, as the screenshot below indicates. For both this, and the following Google Maps image, I sought directions from my home in Adelaide to Mildura.

Click to view full size
Mildura is shown here as being located somewhere in the middle of either an unnamed National Park, or in the Pink Lakes Conservation Reserve. It isn’t. As it happens, Route 3 in the image above is at least heading in the right direction (for most of the way), as can be seen in this next Google Maps screenshot.

Click to view full size
As can be seen, Apple Maps puts unsuspecting travellers smack dab in the middle of the now correctly named, Murray Sunset National Park. Google Maps also provide a lot more information including numerous highways, the names of country towns, and physical features in the landscape. Of course, as one zooms in to Google Maps, more and more useful information is revealed.

Hopefully, in the above example, people getting lost using the Apple Maps app should be able to find their way out of the National Park without too much trouble – providing other problems (lack of fuel, vehicle breakdown, etc) doesn’t stop them in their tracks. But as I’ve already said, Australia is a vast country, and the landscape, climate, and other factors have combined to trap unsuspecting visitors and locals on isolated roads, bush tracks, and even highways far from help, often leading to the death of more than one lost traveller.

The message the police issued today was clear –travellers embarking on long road trips this summer, should not rely only on the Apple Maps application. They should use a good highway map or atlas, and pay attention to highway signage.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Sidewalks Of New York


Last night (for the fifth or sixth time), I watched Sidewalks of New York, the delightful ensemble piece put together by the writer/actor/director, Edward Burns. Released in 2001, and written and directed by Ed Burns, the film is another take on the themes and subject matter covered so well in Sex And The City. However, in Sidewalks Burns is able to seamlessly weave the lives of a number of New York couples into a contemporary examination of the morés and beliefs surrounding sex and relationships in modern society.

The tag line for the film reads: In a city of 8 million people, what are the odds the perfect two will meet? And if the film is anything to go by, the odds are reasonably good.

The principle actors include Rosario Dawson, Heather Graham, David Krumholtz, Brittany Murphy, Stanley Tucci, and Ed Burns himself. Every actor gives a great performance, and even those actors in the more minor roles (Dennis Farina, Nadia Dajani, and Michael Leydon Campbell), play their parts wonderfully.

The plot (thanks to John Reeves and the Internet Movie DataBase) can be summarized thus:

Six New Yorkers have an interrelated series of relationships. TV producer Tommy [Ed Burns], who's just broken up with his girlfriend, has a short relationship with commitment-phobe Maria [Rosario Dawson], who he meets in a video store, and also hooks up with married real-estate agent Annie [Heather Graham], who he meets while apartment hunting. Annie is open to a relationship because her husband, Griffin [Stanley Tucci], is cheating on her, which she slowly comes to realize through talking to her friend/co-worker who's gone through the same thing. Griffin, a 39-year-old dentist, is cheating with 19-year-old waitress Ashley [Brittany Murphy], who he picked up in a park; she realizes she can do better when Ben [David Krumholtz], a hotel doorman and aspiring musician, tries to pick her up, in a belated attempt to recover from his divorce a year ago from schoolteacher Maria (the same Maria from the video store).

I love the naturalistic performances that each of the actors brings to the film, especially that of the late Brittany Murphy. She brings so much vulnerability to her role as the 19 year old Ashley, and this performance (and subsequent film roles), only highlight how much the film world lost with her death on December 20, 2009.

The other key ‘actor’ in this film is New York City itself. Having been to New York on several occasions, I loved being able to relive some of my visits by playing ‘spot the location’, as the film progressed.

Sidewalks of New York was filmed mostly around the Lower East Side and the East Village, with key scenes set in Katz’s Delicatessen on East Houston Street; the Housing Works Bookstore Café on Crosby Street; the entrance to the Prince Street subway station; and the now long gone Stingy Lulu’s luncheonette. Another scene takes place in front of the Naumberg Bandshell in Central Park. However, I have not been able to locate the video store (assuming it is still open) in which two important scenes are set. And then of course, there are the numerous faux interviews that take place on the sidewalks of New York City.

The film also offers a poignant reminder of what New York City lost on September 11, 2001, as we glimpse the twin towers of the World Trade Center in the background of numerous scenes. Apparently, the original film poster, which showed the pre-9/11 New York skyline, was pulled after the terrorist attacks.

If have yet to see Sidewalks Of New York head down to your local video/DVD store, or download it from NetFlix or wherever, and take a look at it. I hope you love it as much as I do.

More Information:

Saturday, December 8, 2012

This Reading Life



Is it possible for me to motivate myself to start writing again for this blog? I seem to have lost all enthusiasm for the task, but have instead rediscovered my love of reading. Like most book lovers, I have more than one book under way at any one time.

As of this moment, I am part way through the eBook version of Rolling Stone Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life. My current toilet reader (everyone has a toilet reader, don’t they?) is The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. And finally I am also reading Eric Moffatt’s 1983 collection of essays examining aspects of American culture: Blood On The Nash Ambassador.

In the past month or so since my return from travelling, I have completed the first two volumes of Robert Green Ingersoll’s Works of Robert G. Ingersoll (of which there are twelve volumes). These are available as free eBook downloads via the Gutenberg website. I have also read Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace; Jim Rasenberger’s High Steel; and Thunderstruck, by Eric Larson – all in their eBook versions. And finally, I finished reading The Alienist, by Caleb Carr, a book I started reading before I left for my trip at the end of July. Oh, that reminds me – I am also about half way through Edward Rutherford’s work of historical fiction, New York, another eBook begun back in July.

And they are just the books I have read or am currently reading. If I add to these a growing list of online sites I monitor on a daily basis: New York Magazine; The Huffington Post; Daytonian In Manhattan; amNY; and numerous others, then quite frankly, I really have not allowed myself time to write anything on a regular basis for this blog. And yet…

And yet, here I am, taking time out from all the reading to write this. So maybe the fire has not completely gone out. Something keeps drawing me back to the blog, but that has not been enough to get me to sit down and write. And yet…

To my amazement, the visitor numbers to The Compleat Traveller continue to rise, and despite my tardiness, those numbers have topped one hundred thousand visits, which leaves me gob smacked. I am left to assume that visitors are searching for information that continues to draw them to the site, and hopefully, the information and entries they find here continue to be relevant months after I have written them. Hopefully.

Anyway, enough of this pontificating and soul searching. I am still here. Still writing (if this post is any indication), and still waiting for the Muse to return from her extended break to inspire and motivate me again to write. In the mean time, I have a pile of books to attend to.

More Information:
Gutenberg.Org…
New York Magazine…
The Huffington Post…
Daytonian In Manhattan…
amNY…

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