Thursday 26 June 2014

Dear Apple Maps: It's Not Me, It's You

An open letter to Apple Inc...

Dear Apple,

Has it really been less than two years since you changed your Maps iOS app to feature your own data, rather than that of Google?

I'm surprised, because it feels much longer.

I've tried to be patient with your shortcomings, I really have. Your mobile devices are otherwise excellent. My iPhone 4S is invaluable, particularly when travelling, and my iPad 2 has turned out to be more versatile and useful than expected.

But let's face it, your default mapping app is crap. It was crap when released, and it's still crap now.

Possibly in some cities (San Francisco?), your mapping data is up to scratch. But in Melbourne, Australia, where I live and work, it's still almost as bad as it was when the new Maps app debuted in 2012.

You want some examples? Fine. Here come three (and note that I'm using copies of small sections of your maps under fair use provisions here, in order to be able to review them in this blog post).

Here's a small area near where I live in the central city, a very busy part of Melbourne full of shops, restaurants, offices and other businesses:

The red lightning strikes indicate businesses and, believe it or not, streets which are no longer there or are in the wrong place. I've also zapped subsections of department stores, which I think are confusing at this level.

There are also numerous businesses in this area which are not marked at all, and should be.

There's no indication of major landmark buildings or malls in this area, including the Melbourne GPO, the Myer building on Bourke Street, The Strand and the new Emporium Melbourne.

On top of that, markers for businesses that actually exist are often poorly placed, so it's unclear how you'd approach them on the ground.

But at least you no longer have the former Myer building marked as Myer Albury (a city over 300km away), as you did in 2012. That's something, I suppose.

Another example. South of the city centre a light rail line runs to the beachside suburb of St Kilda, along a former railway line. Until a few days ago, you were very confused about the stops:

To clarify: these light rail stops are located in the suburbs of Albert Park and Middle Park, and their actual names are (from north to south) Albert Park and Wright Street. The real Richmond and Victoria Park railway stations are located kilometres away northeast across the Yarra River.

I notice this error has been fixed since I took this screenshot this week, but it was wrong for almost two years before that. Not really good enough.

Oh, and that big empty space to the right of the stations? That's the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre, a major landmark. But don't bother labelling it.

Finally, I'd like to draw your attention to a thing we have in Melbourne: the tram. In fact we have the most extensive network of trams in the world. They look something like this (at least the older ones):

Now, these "trams" run on rails, and I think it's handy to include these lines on maps both as landmarks, and as an indicator of routing.

You clearly disagree. The major intersection in this map section is known as Camberwell Junction:

You'd never know it from your map, but three tram routes intersect and cross in the centre of that star-like intersection: the 75 coming from the west then heading southeast; the 70 crossing west to east; and the 72 heading due north.

There are also stops for each route at the actual intersection, not that you could tell that from the map. And by the way, there are many many businesses along those roads, not just the two.

These are just three random examples, but they're indicative of your failure to promptly identify and fix problems with your mapping data and provide software equal in quality to your excellent hardware.

And yet your Maps app is set as the default on my Apple devices, and can't be overridden.

Every time I click on an address in any app, my heart sinks as your awful app opens. Then I have to waste time closing it and pasting the address I'm after into the Google Maps app, or switching to the highly accurate layouts of the Melway app.

Do something for me, will you? Allow us to set any other mapping app as the default. It's the least you could do.

Then go away and sort out this heaping pile of crap known as the Apple Maps app.

I'm sorry but it really isn't me, Apple. It's you.

Tim Richards

Saturday 21 June 2014

Eulogy to a Backpack

The backpack is dead, long live the backpack!
My new pack above, the old one below.
It's a sad day.

Not only has my old passport been cancelled while I await the arrival of a new one, but my old High Sierra backpack has also given way to a brand-new upstart.

I'm glad of the new pack of course, and it was necessary to supplant the old one because it was starting to malfunction.

One of the straps was fraying at the shoulder, and in Oman last month I had problems with the zips.

It was, frankly, time for a replacement.

But it is a sad day. That backpack has been with me since 2005.

It's flown across the Pacific, to New Zealand, Tahiti, Easter Island and Chile.

It's cruised between Patagonian glaciers inaccessible by land.

It's become intimately knowledgeable with towns and cities across Poland, especially the luggage racks of its trains.

It's taken a night bus to Lithuania; crossed the Slovenia-Hungary border by rail; entered Slovakia on my back, as I walked across the border from Poland; dropped into Stockholm and spent time in Moravia and eastern Germany.

It's travelled the entire length of Canada by train, from Vancouver in the west to Halifax in the east.

It's seen Montana, North Dakota, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Honolulu in the USA; and it's ridden in a bus past the enigmatic Area 51 in rural Nevada.

It's reclined in posh resort rooms in Jordan, Fiji and Oman. It's seen Shanghai, and floated down the Yangtze River from Chongqing to Wuhan.

It's been to Delhi, visited Kuala Lumpur and Borneo, spent time in Seoul, and travelled twice to Thailand.

It's fetched up in Norwich, Belfast and Dublin.

It's been to London more times than I can easily remember.

It's been all over Australia, including twice by rail from Sydney to Perth, and once from Darwin to Adelaide.

And now its travels are done.

I'm not going to throw the pack away. It's been an intimate travelling companion for so many years, I can't bring myself to do it.

Like my dog-eared, cancelled passport with the clipped-off cover and the colourful entry stamps, it'll take its place in my personal Travel Hall of Fame.

Though in reality it'll be up in a cupboard behind the new backpack, slowly being forgotten.

But it'll be indelibly ingrained with the residue of its days of the road. Just like me.

Disclosure: I was supplied with my new Access backpack for review purposes by High Sierra. A review will follow when I've had a chance to break it in.

Monday 16 June 2014

Indie Theatres of Melbourne 1: Red Stitch

Kate Cole in Grounded. Photo by Jodie Hutchinson.
One of the great attractions of Melbourne, for visitors and locals alike, is its lively theatre scene.

Most theatre-going tourists in Melbourne will see a stage performance in one of two locales.

The Arts Centre in Southbank, south of the Yarra River, is the home of the state-subsidised Melbourne Theatre Company, and also hosts opera, dance and the odd musical.

Nearby are the Southbank Theatre and the Malthouse Theatre, two more venues hosting quality theatre.

In the eastern half of the central business district (CBD), there are a number of privately owned theatres remaining from the 19th and early 20th centuries, some of them former cinemas.

They include Her Majesty's, the Princess, the Comedy and the Regent. These magnificent West End-style venues host big commercial productions, particularly musical theatre.

They're all great places, on both sides of the river. However, there's another layer that many visitors have no awareness of - Melbourne's vibrant independent theatre companies and venues.

Via a series of occasional posts, I'm going to profile some of these. First up is Red Stitch.

Red Stitch Actors Theatre was founded in 2002, during a lean time for Melbourne theatre. Many mid-sized companies and venues had disappeared, making it difficult for professional actors to find work outside the large theatres and companies.

One solution was the creation of a company with an ensemble approach and its own dedicated theatre. At first this was a space on Inkerman Street in St Kilda. At this venue, Narrelle Harris and I reviewed various early Red Stitch plays for our theatre website Stage Left, including Brilliant Traces.

As you can see from Narrelle's review, that production began unforgettably as actor Kate Cole plunged through the door of a set representing a snowbound Alaskan cabin, wearing a full wedding dress.

Last weekend, and 12 years later, we're at Red Stitch's second venue (and longtime home) in St Kilda East, again watching Kate Cole on stage. This time she's alone, wearing a US air force pilot's uniform, and standing within a simple grey set which resembles a concrete bunker.

It's the Australian premiere of Grounded, a one-woman play in which Cole portrays an American fighter pilot. After giving birth to a daughter, she's reassigned from overseas combat flights to remotely flying a drone from a desert base in Nevada.

It's a fascinating situation, and Cole's larger-than-life onstage persona is perfect for wringing every drop of tension from the set-up. Going into battle every day then clocking off to return to her suburban Las Vegas home every night, the contrasts between the two worlds start to wear away at the character's commitment and sanity.

This strange new tech-born conflict is beautifully portrayed by Cole, in a nonstop 80-minute performance which seems much shorter as we're pulled back and forth between disgust and sympathy.

Red Stitch's tiny venue, a renovated former scout hall behind a church, is perfect for this sort of theatre - even the most distant audience member is only ten metres or so from the actor, enveloped in the world of the character on stage.

Grounded continues to 12 July 2014 and is much recommended; you can find details and make bookings by clicking here.

For more information about Red Stitch, visit its website.

Friday 6 June 2014

LA Beaches (In Transit)

In the course of my journeys as a travel writer, I often make notes about ideas for articles which I hope will sell later on.

Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. Sometimes they surprise me by selling years later.

Occasionally though, an idea goes nowhere.

Such was the case with my half-day in Los Angeles, USA, back in September 2009, when I was en route to Montana with a group of journalists for a hosted tour.

I didn't want to venture too far from the hotel near LAX, given time was limited, so it occurred to me that a walk along the nearby beaches might make an interesting story for Australian travellers similarly transiting LA with time to kill.

I started from the shopping strip at Hermosa Beach. It was about 8.30am on a Wednesday, not a time you'd expect much street life; however, there were plenty of joggers, walkers, dog exercisers and cyclists passing by.

There were some fun business names here too: Baja Sharkeez, Cafe Bonaparte, Fat Face Fenner's Fishack.

The pier looked attractive, stretching out into the Pacific. I was surprised though at the flatness and depth of the beaches, quite different from the dune-backed Australian beaches I was used to:

This spaciousness lent itself well to beach volleyball courts, and I could see plenty of these...

... along with a statue honouring local lifesavers (known as lifeguards to Americans):

From the pier, I could see a real-life lifeguard setting up traffic cones to mark the patrolled swimming area:

Walking south along the shore toward Redondo Beach, I passed by houses which were built right up to the edge of the sand, no doubt occupied by the rich and/or famous. A good opportunity to examine some of California's distinctive Mediterranean-inspired architecture:

After an hour or so I reached Redondo Pier. This was quite different from the fingerlike Hermosa Pier - instead it was an enclosure of concrete, timber and steel, sheltering an off-limits stretch of rocky beach.

Redondo Pier clearly had a lively personality at a more festive time of week. Along one arm were arrayed a number of small timber restaurants - Chinese, Italian, seafood - with views over the water.

There was also a Great White Shark exhibition, and a stall selling hot dogs on a stick. The atmosphere was definitely that of a popular seaside pier from a century ago.

But it was mid-morning on a Wednesday, and entirely the wrong time to witness its energy in full flow. So I prepared to leave.

But before I caught a taxi back to the hotel, I ordered a hot dog (sans stick) for $2.50, laden with mustard, onion and pickles. It was good.