Escaping to Cape Cod

When the Pilgrim Fathers sailed to America in 1620, they were a touch cagey at first about coming ashore. The pilgrims sailed up and down Cape Cod for a month, eventually weighing anchor in Provincetown harbour where they wrote and signed their founding document, the Mayflower Compact.

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Four hundred years later their reluctance to make landfall could be even more pronounced. After all, Provincetown circa 2013 would prove pretty confronting for a boatload of fusty puritans. As well as being one of New England’s prettiest and most characterful seaside towns, P Town, as it gets called locally, is also Massachusetts’ premier gay tourist resort. My first day there I found myself idly browsing chocolate penises in the souvenir stores and dodging bicycle-riding drag queens on Main St. (In case you’re wondering, she was promoting her one-woman cabaret.)

The Cape Cod peninsula extends from the coast of Massachusetts not unlike a bony middle finger. P-town is located on the New England side at the northern tip of a large bay. Actually, P Town has quite a sedate vibe as it goes. While its distinct clapboard houses play host to a smattering of gay bars they are radically outnumbered by seafood restaurants and art galleries.

Liz Carney has a gallery selling her fauvist landscapes on Commercial Street.

“This is a place of exceptional natural beauty,” said Liz. “You can see it reflected in the paintings of Edward Hopper (Hopper had a home on the Cape). It’s also the reason writers like Eugene O’Neill and Norman Mailer spent a lot of time here, and the reason visitors keep coming back.”

SEAL SANCTUARY

Nor is the Cape only popular with human tourists. Frequent vacationers in recent years have been North Atlantic harbor and grey seal populations. The seals’ puppy dog faces are a feature as you walk the pristine white beaches of the Atlantic shore side, staring back at you just beyond the surf.

We visited a sandbar in the early morning that becomes a resting ground for a colony of a hundred-plus grey seals at low tide. Sitting on the beach listening to the seals’ haunting siren calls, just audible over the whip of a North Atlantic bluster, was a magical experience. A National Parks volunteer, clearly enjoying his position as purveyor of local seal lore, told a small flock of curious tourists that in recent months the seals’ presence had attracted unwelcome visitors to the Cape’s coastal waters in the form of great white sharks.

The sharks come to feed on the seals but don’t just stop there. Last summer a 50-year-old holidaymaker was bitten by a great white off Ballston Beach in nearby Truro, the first shark attack in Massachusetts since 1936. It has been followed by a number of sightings, as well as the first ever successful capture, spot-tagging and release of a great white by scientists and fishermen off the Cape.

ARTIST’S HAUNT

If the idea of man-eating sharks isn’t enough drama for you then the Cape has a lively theater tradition dating back to the 1920s when Pulitzer-prizewinning dramatist Eugene O’Neill lived and worked here.

O’Neill wrote his plays in a rickety wood shack south of P-town. The shack is one of a group scattered across the dunes built originally for lifeboat men in the nineteenth century. O’Neill’s residency lent the shacks artistic cache and since then the likes of Jack Kerouac and the poet e.e. cummings have had spells staying in them. You can enjoy a pleasant afternoon tramping from one shack to the other, communing with the spirits of the great artists who spent time here.

This artistic heritage is ongoing. The restaurants of P-town are overrun with jobbing actors who wait tables by day. Our waiter — Ben — was in the awkward early stages of a mustache he was cultivating for a part in a Tennessee Williams play. He advised we check out the Welfleet Harbor Actors Theater located a short drive south of P-town in the fishing port of Welfleet.

Aside from the theater Welfleet has a great lobster shack, which serves seafood delicacies like clam chowder, lobster rolls and a superlative oyster po’boy sandwich. The Cape is brimming with great seafood. It’s also reputed for its sweets and an over-indulgence of island fudge is a far more real and present danger to your health than the Jaws lurking in the deep.

REBEL STRONGHOLD

The Welfleet theater, which had a production of a Vietnam-era black comedy showing when we were there, is known for putting on cutting edge plays that belie the sleepy harbor setting. It was presided over for many years by Jeff Zinn, the son of the radical leftwing historian Howard Zinn. who is best known for his revisionist work, “A People’s History of the United States”.

Zinn’s book recounts US history from the viewpoint of ordinary citizens. The Cape too offers a retelling of the American story, in particular its historic role as a place of refuge.

In its earliest incarnation the Cape offered safe haven for the pilgrims. Since then the Cape has fulfilled the same role for artists and, in the present day, the LGBT community who – like the pilgrims — have faced their share of persecution.

In P-Town I meet Ward, a gay Bostonian with a sly sense of humor who came here 15 years ago and stayed. He loves the wide angle ocean vistas, the artistic tradition, but most of all the tight-knit community that is embracing, non-judgmental and “ incredibly supportive”.

I don’t think I could survive anywhere else,” he said.

A version of this story first appeared on the travel website travelmag.org


let’s shoot the word SUPER in the back of the head!

The girl in the cafe is excited. She’s not wickedly excited or outrageously excited or deliriously excited or giddily excited or awesomely excited. Or any of the other great qualifiers our language is blessed with.

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No she’s super excited and doesn’t she just have the jazz hands to show it. Why has this shit superlative suddenly become a vogue word? I don’t get it. Did I miss the meeting where we all got made honorary German exchange students?

It’s such a prissy, buttoned-up word. Every time I hear it I feel like cutting off my own balls and wearing them as ear-rings as I prance around the room singing The Sound of Music.

(Don’t worry, professional help is being sought).

It just seems to me that in the past we were more inventive with our superlatives.

When I was growing up a good thing could be: sweet, smart, ace, tops, fab, the bomb, the business, lish, mad, class, crucial. Or if you fancied more bite: wicked, savage, nasty.

Compared to this super’s like the kid with the scrubbed face in the corner whose been told his hands will drop off if he touches himself.

If you’re not convinced about what a bad word it is take a look at where it was getting used before its current vogue.

The supermarket. Oww that’s a fun place to hang out. Superman. What a charismatic, multilayered character he is. The Super Bowl. Idiots running headfirst at one another. The superego. My parents controlling me still through my own unconscious. Sounds a hoot!

And why do we need another superlative anyway? Especially one that’s been floating around in the detritus at the bottom of the word barrel for so long. Isn’t it about time we reined in this culture of false hype? It’s turning us all into first-grade morons.

Take the girl in the cafe. I don’t know what she was so super excited about but I can imagine that in all likelihood it probably wasn’t that super exciting. It probably wasn’t even just plain exciting. She was probably going to Target to get a new coat.

But these days there’s an unwritten social contract where we all have to pretend like the mundane events of our daily life are so great we should be spluffing in our pants at the very thought of them (“You’re going to get a coffee! Wow! Nice!”). Either that or they’re so awful they hardly bear thinking about (“You’re doctor says you can only have decaf. Man, that’s tragic!”).

If you offer no enthusiasm either way, people will assume you’re depressed. Which is depressing.

But it’s important to keep things in proportion. Otherwise when something truly impressive happens you’ll have trouble naming it for what it is. This happens all the time in 24-hour news. They expend so much energy spewing out fevered hype about non-stories that when a real story comes along – like the Boston bombings last year – everyone goes into shock and doesn’t know what to say.

Don’t get me wrong. I like a bit of hyperbole now and again (witness the title of this piece) but hyperbole all the time is rubbish. Witness the way the word ‘love’ has become so hackneyed through over use.

So let’s all take a deep collective breath, find some perspective, and…. deep breath out…. stop saying that shit word.

And don’t even get me started on super dooper.


that joke isn’t funny anymore

Laughter’s the best medicine. At least that’s what we tell ourselves. But is it true?

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Bill Hicks

Like most of you, I suppose, I tend to subscribe to the idea of a good laugh being a panacea. Science seems to back this assumption. Laughter, it’s said, helps decrease stress, support the immune system, improve blood pressure, even to reduce pain.

In Britain, my homeland, you can’t survive without a sense of humour. The playwright Alan Bennett described it as being the amniotic fluid of the English. He’s right. We swim in it.

It was strange for me when I first came over to the States to find how much more literal Americans are. There are English who are also very literal. But they tend to be those dull, let-me-tell-you-about-the-intricacies-of-my-route-to-work types, whose conversation is best avoided.

Most English infuse their chat with mockery, irony, satire: a full arsenal of comedic devices that is so part of the way the English communicate that no one even stops to question it.

But perhaps we should.

The only other culture I’ve been around in which humour serves such an integral role is Jewish culture.

Why is that, I wonder?

When I think about those cultures and what they share in common the thing that comes to mind first is an abiding respect, bordering on obsession, with knowing things. It’s been said that when Jews turned secular they replaced faith with a veneration of knowledge. I’d argue that something similar has gone on in England. You can see this through the widespread popularity of the quiz. English TV is filled with them and if you go to an English town on any given day you’re certain to find a general knowledge quiz going on in a pub somewhere.

It makes sense to me that these twin obsessions of being smart and being funny run hand-in-hand. It’s a connection we already implicitly make when we call someone quick-witted. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who values a great comic as much for their insight as for their ability to make me laugh.

The Jews and the English are comic cultures, but my favourite ever comedian hailed from neither of those worlds.

Bill Hicks was from Austin, Texas, from a family of God-fearing Republicans. He wasn’t a God-fearing Republican himself but, luckily for us, he did have a sense of humour about it.

When I came to the US I assumed everyone would know him but, aside from a small devoted following, he’s mostly overlooked.

This piece was originally going to be just about Hicks. He died 20 years ago this year and I was going to start off saying how even though it’s two decades since he’s gone he pops into my head nearly every day. That’s a crazy thing to say isn’t it! I mean, I don’t think about my family that much and I lived with them half my life. The closest I got to Hicks were his videos, a collection of diaries and many many repeat viewings of his standup on Youtube.

There are many things I love about him. His passion, his integrity and the way that, in common with all great artists, his work transcended his art. He created standup that was not only funny, but also artful and poetic, meaningful and confronting.

He challenged his audiences to free themselves from the straight jacket of modern consumer culture, and to think for themselves. In one trademark routine, with reference to the movie Basic Instinct, which had just come out, he talks about how our critical faculties are being assaulted by manufactured hype.

He warns the audience not to get caught up in the controversy surrounding the movie’s lesbian sex scenes (which were perhaps more scandalous then than they would be now). Instead he countenances you to take a deep breath, step back and have another look.

“Ahhh…It’s a piece of shit!”

His point being that we already possess the skills to judge. We just need to shut out the white noise of the culture and get back in touch with our own instincts. Our basic instincts, if you like.

A lot of his act is like this. Him critiquing culture and then offering you new ways to think about things. His mum once told him that his act was very near preaching, a point he apparently acknowledged.

In another part of his act he tells the people who work in marketing in the audience that they should kill themselves because “you’re fucked and your fucking us”. He tells them that this is their world, and imagines them sleeping untroubled after they’ve just decided to market cyanide as a baby food.

It’s an aggressive broadside and not altogether fair and when he keeps repeating the idea that they should kill themselves you can almost sense the discomfort among the audience as they ask themselves, ‘Is he being serious? Or is he joking?’

Hicks’ marketing rant is a good example of the ambiguity of humour. On the one hand, he’s telling you in fairly bald language his hatred for a segment of the population he feels are poisoning our collective psyche. But because everything he says is in the context of a comic performance, ultimately we can walk away knowing it was all just meant as a joke.

And that’s the problem with laughter. While it might be a good way to lighten your worries, it can also be convenient avenue to avoid dealing with them.

Comics and their defenders (of which I’ll admit I’m usually one) often use the self-justifying argument that comedy is a good vehicle to talk about serious issues in a way that is more accessible. But by telling us it’s okay to laugh about things maybe comics are actually making it easier for us to get off the hook from worrying about them.

I know in my own life I’ve frequently been in the habit of turning my problems into a joke. And while that might provide half an hour’s entertainment for your friends in the bar, I can’t help feeling in retrospect I’d have been far better served soliciting my friend’s advice rather than their laughter.

There are times these days I’ll find myself surrounded by laughter at the movies during scenes that I am certain are not even meant to be funny. I get the impression there are people so afraid of not getting the joke, they’ll laugh at anything. I used to be more that way. And I don’t think it’s a good thing. To me it suggests an emotional disconnect. A nervousness.

Maybe an appreciation of humour should be more like an appreciation of sex. If you spend all your time shagging then the act becomes bloated. But when you have sex when you really feel like it and with the person you really feel like doing it with then the act can be intoxicating and charged with meaning.

It could be that comedy doesn’t always have to be funny (in Shakespeare’s time comedy referred to a relationship drama that ended in marriage). So maybe we’re missing out on something when we regard shows like The Office only as comedies. Maybe the seriousness of Michael Scott (David Brent in the original British version) is just as important as his ridiculousness.


confessions of a hypochondriac

Last year I went to see a specialist about a problem with my throat.

Aside from learning that the best way to get a fibre-optic camera down your throat is by sticking it up your nose, and that acid reflux is, in the opinion of the doc, “the illness du jour”, the visit was inconclusive.

The doc found nothing troubling. If he suspected that the problem with my throat was imagined he didn’t let on.

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Even so I left feeling pretty stupid. I had forked out $175 for the visit, and I’m certainly not making the kind of money where I can afford to toss off a few hundred dollars on every paranoid whim that comes my way.

But the issue with my throat had been building up in my mind for weeks and weeks and was seriously impacting on my quality of life so that, in the end, I wasn’t paying for the diagnosis, I was paying for the peace of mind.

Hypochondria is an old word. Its origin is Greek and it refers to the soft body area below the ribs that was originally thought to be the seat of melancholy.

It was believed for a long time to have both a physical cause (centered around this area) and an emotional one. Famous hypochondriacs include Charles Darwin, who underwent daily bouts of being drenched in water, which was thought to be the best way to cure the crisis of nerves that was causing the illness.

It paints quite a funny picture to imagine old Darwin sitting in a bath complaining about his glands while some quack tips a bucket of ice cold water on him. But there’s something inherently comic about hypochondriacs. They make you think of those types you meet in offices who forever have blocked up noses and allergies to everything.

My mum, where I get the obsessive nature, used to come up to me in the middle of the day and say stuff like: “Paul. Feel my neck.” Then expect me to give my verdict on whether one side of her neck seemed larger than the other, which of course it never did.

I used to laugh at this behaviour but then it happened to me and – to paraphrase Morrissey – that joke wasn’t funny anymore. You see, when you’re in the middle of a hypochondriac episode it’s impossible to see the lighter side. When I had my throat thing, for example, I spent an entire work shift obsessing over every… single… swallow.

Since then I’ve spent time at work obsessing about a rib thing, a gland thing and, most recently, a mole thing.

For me hypochondria is a lot like body dysmorphia since you have this totally distorted sense of your physical body which no amount of rationalizing can get you to amend.

The creation of the internet was a disaster for the hypochondriac. All across the internet you find proof of that maxim about how a man armed with a little knowledge is dangerous. For example, if you put ‘lump in throat’ into Google you’ll get loads of those Yahoo Answers feeds filled with know-it-all hypochondriacs freaking each other out in ways that are borderline sadistic. Sooner or later someone mentions the ‘C’ word, which for online hypos is tantamount to the money shot moment in porn.

Even when you don’t seek it out the internet is a minefield for those paranoid about their health. You don’t need go far to find cheery headlines like the one I saw this morning on the Weather Channel, under a picture of a chemotherapy patient saying, “Five signs you’ll get cancer.” Even reading that headline back just now there’s a masochistic part of me desperate to click on the ad so that I can find out which of one of those signs I definitely have.

Leaving aside the deplorable ethics of the people behind these ads, these things are the nasty end of a far broader trend in the medical industry of sowing fear.

My girlfriend is pregnant, which has meant my first longterm interaction with the US healthcare system. The impression you get is that they treat pregnancy as if it were an illness. For the first few months we went to an OBGYN clinic in Manhattan. They took endless blood draws and scans in the name of ruling various diseases or deformities. As a result we were constantly being reminded of everything that could go wrong.

I understand why they do this, of course, but it’s very dispiriting, especially when there’s no counter-balance. Why not, for example, give us regular updates about all the incredible developments that are going in my girlfriend’s womb? Or talk to us about all the things you can do to make your pregnancy more pleasant?

The trend for fear-mongering in healthcare mirrors society’s more general obsession with scaring ourselves witless. The news does this. Men do it in bars. Women do it over a glass wine. Its the ‘we live in dangerous times’ mantra which on a global scale looks about right, but when you apply to your own life generally holds no water.

Because let’s face it, most of us are going to live to old age without incident. Few of us will die in warfare or get mown down in a gangland killing, or get wiped out by a Tsunami or a flesh-eating virus.

For the vast majority of us it will be a gradual fade to grey, a slow decline into soft-headed dotage. And while that doesn’t give good copy for the headline writers, it should make for some peace of mind.

There. I feel better already.


will drones soon be delivering your mail?

A version of this story was published in Postal Technology International magazine in Spring 2014.

When Amazon head Jeff Bezos unveiled a fleet of unmanned robot helicopters that his company plans to use to make parcel deliveries it was a masterstroke of PR.

The announcement came last November over the Thanksgiving weekend, one of America’s biggest shopping periods, and made headlines around the world. But while the timing led cynics to deride Bezos’ drone delivery test project as little more than a cheap publicity stunt, others saw the plan as the true taste of things to come.

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Technology geeks predicted that drone delivery could help usher in a whole new era where the half-hour deliveries Bezos was promising could enable the creation of a ‘sharing economy’ where goods could be rented and returned rather than bought outright. Others were worried about the safety impact of thousands of drones buzzing around our home towns, with one observer noting wryly in the Washington Post, “It’s all fun and games till Sally loses a finger.”

But while there’s little chance our streets will be swarming with postal robots any time soon, the signs are that drone delivery is being looked at seriously by postal companies worldwide.

Just a few weeks after Amazon’s announcement DHL used a quadcopter to fly a package of medicine from a pharmacy in Bonn to the company’s headquarters on the other side of the Rhine river. Emblazoned with the DHL logo the ‘Paketkopter’ – as the drone was called – flew at a height of 50 metres for one kilometre, taking just two minutes to complete its journey.

DHL said its test flight was for research only and, like Amazon, insisted they have no plans to begin drone deliveries any time soon.

In Australia, however, the concept will soon become a reality thanks to student textbook delivery start-up Zookal, which will launch its own fleet of delivery drones in Sydney this year “pending final regulatory approval”.

Ahmed Haiser, CEO of Zookal, says that due to the location density of most Australian universities they will focus initially on “hyper local” delivery.

He says: “The drones are equipped with a unique delivery mechanism that lowers the parcel to the consumer to collect. The parcel is not dropped to the ground and the drone hovers above the consumer’s GPS location safely lowering the package through our delivery mechanism.”

Zookal has been helped by a friendly regulatory climate in Australia, one of the few countries that permits commercial drone use. Despite Amazon’s announcement commercial unmanned vehicle use remains illegal in the US. That looks set to change in the near-future however.

An aviation law enacted by President Obama in 2012 already allows the use of unmanned aircraft by public safety entities like the police, firefighters and other emergency services. Among the agencies that have taken advantage of the law are the US Coast Guard, who used a drone in a recent raid on a boat trafficking over 560 kilos of cocaine in the eastern Pacific, and the Department of Homeland Security, which uses Predator drones for border surveillance.

The other main non-military use of drones right now is for scientific research. They are being used to perform ice cap studies in the Arctic, track coastal erosion and monitor populations of endangered species.

According to Les Dorr, a spokesman for the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), the signs are that the 2012 law will be extended to include commercial craft by 2015. Dorr says the FAA ruling due next year is likely to include authorization for “small unmanned commercial aircraft under 55lbs”.

“There’s a real growth in this area,” says Dorr. “The FAA is already predicting 7,500 small unmanned aircraft in the air in the next few years.”

The FAA announced in late December the creation of six US test sites where it will the generate data that will inform how the commercial drone industry will be regulated.

High on their priorities during the testing phase will surely be how to make the craft safe and secure. While most drones have built-in anti-collision technology to keep them clear of trees, buildings, birds and – assuming the technology becomes popular – skies filled with other drones, towns and cities throng with people and if something were to go wrong the consequences could be serious.

Ron Tolido, chief technology officer for application services at the consultancy firm Capgemini, says that well-established industry safety standards are already in place to help ensure public safety.

Tolido says: “A sensor can sense its surroundings thousands of times within a second so that drones can adjust their position and course. And even complex swarms of delivery drones should not lead to collisions. Just look at a flock of perfectly synchronized birds (or fish) and you start to get the point.”

To minimize the chance of collision Haiser says Zookal use set flight paths that avoid residential areas where possible. Along with multiple fail-safe mechanisms and collision avoidance technology, Haiser claims the safety features make the risk of accident “the same as a commercial airliner falling from the sky”. In other words, very small.

But it’s not just safety issues that concern the public. Ask most people what comes to mind when you say drone and they’ll likely think of the technology’s original use as a weapon of war. In conflict areas drones are used to spy on and, in the case of the US military’s campaign in Pakistan, to kill the enemy.

Mario Mairena, government relations manager for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a trade body representing 8,000 members in 60 countries, admits that the technology’s military background has led to an image problem.

“There’s too many negative connotations because of how they are used in the theatre of war,” says Mairena.

As a result the AUVSI never uses the word drone in its literature, preferring instead the term unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

“Some people are against drones because they think they’ll be used for spying but when you think about it telephoto lens are used for surveillance but no one talks about banning cameras,” says Mairena, who says all AUVSI members sign on to a set of guidelines that expressly forbid the use of drones for surveillance.

The public perception aside, there are other important obstacles to drone delivery.

Richard Wishart runs the Delivery Management technology consultancy, advising posts on new technology solutions. He sees unmanned drones as a potentially disruptive technology but only if the “practical issues around the edges” can be ironed out.

Wishart says: “Weather is a detrimental factor. From my understanding most drones don’t perform well in high winds. So what happens to your deliveries when it’s blowing a gale outside?”

Added to this, he says, are the weight, size and range limitations of the drones. The octocopters favoured by Amazon can carry a maximum payload of 2.3 kilos and can travel no more than 10 miles. Meanwhile the payload boxes showcased in the trial could fit parcels of no more than about ten inches in length.

“Logistics relies on variability so a delivery system with such a narrow range of capabilities will struggle to succeed,” says Wishart.

It’s early days of course and there’s every chance that future generations of delivery drones could extend their range and payload capacity. What may be more difficult to get around is the problem of where to leave parcels. In a suburban, semi-rural or rural areas the drone could drop parcels on a driveway or in front lawn or even – as Wishart suggests – on a specially-designed helipad.

But what about inner cities? Short of flying in through the window there’s no obvious solution for how a drone would get a package to someone on the tenth floor of a London high rise, for example. Tolido suggests an “intermediate phase” where parcels could be delivered to local hubs.

“Door-to-door consumer delivery will clearly take quite some more time,” he says. “Both hubs and eventually homes will need specific equipment like docking platforms and storage facilities. Positioning can be done very precisely so this will not be an inhibitor.”

None of the obstacles to drone delivery are unsurmountable, says Wishart, whose keen to point out that the concept fits well into the emerging trend in logistics, spurred by the rise of eCommerce and omni-channel retail, for moving warehousing closer to the client.

“Their short ranges mean drones will need to operate from local warehouses,” he says. “Because of this they integrate well with the new paradigm.”

Advocates offer other advantages drones have over traditional delivery methods. For one thing they can work all the time and they are relatively cheap. Twenty drones costs equivalent to a single FedEx truck, and while Haiser won’t reveal the Zookal drone’s operational costs he expects it will come in at less than current same-day delivery fees.

If postal companies choose to invest in drones they’ll be joining a burgeoning market, says Mairena. A report by the AUVSI projects that regulations to expand drone technology to the commercial sector will help create more than 100,000 new jobs and generate more than $82 billion for the US economy in the next ten years.

Around 80 percent of this growth is predicted to come in agriculture. Drones can be used to more precisely spray crops and identify possible outbreaks of disease before they spoil a harvest. The companies Mairena represents look longingly to Japan where all the agricultural crop-spraying is now managed by a fleet of 2,300 unmanned helicopters.

The agricultural bias aside, Mairena sees no reason why drone delivery won’t be part of this Brave New World.

“I definitely see drones being used in this way,” he says. “I think it’s one of the smartest commercial applications of the new technology I’ve heard of.


china’s online explosion

A version of this story was published in Postal Technology International in Spring 2014. 

On November 11 last year a new record was set for the highest ever online sales in a single day.

There were several startling things about this record not the least of which was that it happened, not in the West, but in China.

Another two remarkable things were 1) the sheer scale of the shopping event – with $US5.75 billion in sales it eclipsed the amount sold by US retailers on so-called Cyber Monday the previous year by two and a half times. And 2) that all these sales were processed by a single company.

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If you were to assume from this that China is undergoing an eCommerce boom you would be very right.

The stats speak for themselves.

According to the consultancy Forrester Research, the number of online shoppers is this year poised to exceed the entire population of the United States, making China’s eCommerce market the world’s largest. The 356 million shoppers set to be online in 2014 will help push the market value from $US294 billion in 2013 to $US604 billion in 2017, Forrester’s predict.

The boom in eCommerce has taken many by surprise including China’s domestic express delivery industry, which is struggling to keep up with demand.

The sheer the scale of the uptick would be reason enough for why the industry is swamped.

Last year express delivery companies handled 4.77 billion items, according to the express delivery industries own figures. That represented a 70 per cent increase on 2012.

To make things harder, there are no national delivery companies of the stature of FedEx or DHL in China and the market is fragmented. Added to this, transport networks and logistics services vary wildly in quality depending where you are.

Officials on the ground refer to the problem as China’s logistics ‘bottleneck’ and it’s something the eCommerce companies are seriously worried about.

In 2011, Jack Ma, the Chairman of Alibaba Group, the same online company that recorded the November 11 sales record, called logistics “a crucial link in the eCommerce eco-system” as he announced plans to invest $US1.5 billion to build a nationwide network of warehouses.

Last May, Ma’s firm clubbed together with other eCommerce companies and delivery companies to create the China Smart Logistics Network, a consortium that plans to invest $US16.3 billion over the next 5-8 years to solve the bottleneck.

“China is a unique market in that it is unlike any other in terms of geography,” a spokesperson for Alibaba Group told PTI. “The offline infrastructure is extremely underdeveloped, which is one of the contributors towards the massive uptake of eCommerce. And the logistics sector is fragmented and has no unified standards.”

The spokesperson identifies infrastructure, and in particular, technological capabilities as the biggest things holding back logistics.

“Many logistics companies lack the ability to efficiently allocate resources and manpower based on volume and location of incoming orders,” the spokesperson added.

Chee Wee Gan, a principal in the consultancy AT Kearney’s Strategic Operations Practice, says the current express delivery landscape in China can be divided into three distinct blocks.

“First you have the state-run company, China Postal Express. Then, you have the nationwide private delivery company Shunfeng Express, also known as S.F. Express,” says Gan, who is based in Shanghai.

“The third block is composed of logistics providers that operate through a franchise model. The biggest of these is S.T.O. Between them, China Postal Express, S.F. Express and S.T.O probably account for about two-thirds of the eCommerce delivery market.”

Companies like S.T.O oversee a network of locally-based courier services and, alongside S.F. Express, they account for about 80 per cent of the express delivery market, according to industry figures.

But Gan says that as the eCommerce market grows this model is being tested.

“A company like S.T.O has hundreds of small courier firms working under its franchise and this means the level of service can be inconsistent. It also makes certain services less efficient. For example, in the case of product returns, if a different company in the franchise handles the return there may be no financial incentive for them to do a good job.”

Concerns about poor service have been laid bare several times in recent years.

In 2012, the Chinese postal authority cancelled the permits of 116 express delivery companies amid growing reports of customers complaining about losses, theft, poor handling of parcels and massive delays, especially during peak times.

The most shocking case of malpractice happened last year when a Shanghai-based express delivery company sent out parcels coated in poison, resulting in the death of one recipient and leaving several others badly ill.

The company, Shanghai Y.T.O Express, issued a public apology after the toxic chemical apparently leaked on to other parcels during shipment, the Xinhua news agency reported.

Concerns about the domestic market have led some eCommerce companies to set up their own networks.

Online supermarket site Yihaodian has created its own last-mile delivery.

Yihaodian launched five years ago selling supermarket items but now offers a broad range of consumer products. It has 18 fulfillment centres in eight cities nationwide.

“We have around 3000 last-mile associates in 330 delivery depots, each associate owns a moped or bike,” says Harvey Wang, Yihaodian’s vice president of operations.

Wang says complaints about local couriers led Yihaodian to set up its own last-mile service.

He says the problems included “customer satisfaction on delivery services, including a stable lead-time, missing/wrong/damaged goods, and the attitude towards customers.”

By building their own network Wang says the company, which has a yearly turnover of about $US1billion and is half owned by the US retail giant Walmart, has achieved better delivery lead-times than in the US or Europe.

The undisputed king of Chinese eCommerce is the Alibaba Group.

Taobao, Alibaba Group’s giant eCommerce site, generates some 20 million parcel deliveries every day, accounting for 70 per cent of China’s total.

The site is often compared to C2C sites like eBay but in fact it’s more like store-hosting Websites like the arts and crafts site Etsy. Users set up their own online shops, selling goods to one another and to outside visitors to the site.

For Richard Wishart, from UK-based consultancy Delivery Management Ltd, the mass appeal of Taobao is no surprise.

“The Chinese have retail in their DNA,” says Wishart, who helped develop China Postal Express’ express delivery service, E.M.S. “They’re a nation of shopkeepers, and online is no different.”

Alibaba Group, which owns a number of other eCommerce sites including the highly successful B2C site Tmall.com, has so far resisted building its own in-house operation.

Instead it has focused its efforts on strengthening the existing logistics network.

“The reason why Alibaba chose to throw open its delivery arm to the market has to do with the type of company this is,” says Gan. “You have to remember it made its name with Taobao, an online marketplace. So the marketplace is where it feels at home.”

Alongside Alibaba Group the major shareholders in the China Smart Logistics Network are retailer Yintai Group, Chinese conglomerate Fosun Group, S.F. Express, and four other Chinese courier companies: Shentong, Yuantong, Zhong Tong and Yunda.

Their goal is to build an IT-driven network capable of delivering packages anywhere in the country within 24 hours. To do this they plan to use technologies like cloud computing to create a shared data platform to serve eCommerce, logistics companies, warehouse operators and supply chain managers.

Creating such a network will be a major undertaking.

Among the difficulties to overcome is the massive variances in quality and technological advancement between some of the courier companies.

S.F. Express, for example, has 10,000 vehicles, 14 aircraft and a network of 7,600 service centres. It offers SMS pick-up notification, a re-direct service and security features that allow customers to see a photo of the delivery man before he arrives. Meanwhile, its 200-plus distribution hubs are equipped with automated sorting systems.

This is a far cry from some of the warehousing operations run by the franchised courier companies that Gan has visited where he says there are “very low levels of automation, no Warehouse Management System (WMS) and products strewn all over the ground with no clear sorting process going on.”

Another area where major variances in quality can be found is in China’s transport infrastructure. Currently about 80 percent of express deliveries are carried out on the road, according to analysts Anbang Logistics.

But the road network in China is patchy at best, says Wishart.

He says: “There’s a huge disparity between the eastern coastal cities and rural China. Once you leave the cities motorways disappear into dirt roads. You’re talking about two totally different worlds.”

China grades its cities with different ‘Tiers’ ranging from 1 to 4 according to their stage of development.

The coastal cities Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou are classed Tier 1, as they were the first to be opened to competitive economic development and have a large middle class and income levels well above the national average.

But the biggest growth in eCommerce right now is actually going on in Tier 2 and 3 cities, says Gan.

“This is because there are not the bricks-and-mortar stores on the ground in these places to offer the diversity of shopping experience you could find in, say, Shanghai,” he says. “As a result, eCommerce is plugging the gap.”

One group conspicuously absent from China’s eCommerce boom are the well-established Western courier brands like FedEx, UPS and DHL.

According to Gan, the main reason they have had little impact on the domestic market are low margins.

He says: “The price points are just too low for them to compete. DHL, for example, bought a Chinese delivery company a few years ago with a view to getting into the domestic market but sold it at a big loss a couple of years later.

“Companies like FedEx have focused instead on B2B delivery where the margins are higher.”

Low margins may not be the only reason, however.

Until recently Chinese government policy largely excluded foreign courier companies from its domestic market.

UPS, for example, has had a base in China since 1988 but it wasn’t until just two years ago that China finally granted the company approval to provide express-package services within the country, and even then the approval only extended to five cities.

FedEx, meanwhile, which already provides service to more than 400 Chinese towns and cities through joint ventures with Chinese companies, was granted sole access to serve eight cities.

Wishart says China remains quite proprietary about its domestic market and that within government there is still a culture of suspicion towards western companies.

He cites his own experience. He set up an eCommerce website a few years ago. Although created in the UK it was translated into Chinese and aimed at the Chinese market. When he traveled to China, however, he found that the website was blocked in much of the country.

“I’d come up against the Great Firewall of China!”


terminally stuck

A version of this story was published in the September 2013 edition of Passenger Terminal World magazine.

THE recent case of the American whistleblower Edward Snowden gripped the world’s attention. Snowden went on the run after leaking secrets about America’s clandestine spying program to The Guardian newspaper.

After the US government revoked his passport and with no documents to enter Russia he found himself trapped in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport’s transit zone. For a few breath-taking weeks the media scoured the terminal building frantically searching for him, as we heard that Snowden was stuck in a kind of legal limbo, forced to remain in transit, unsure if and when he would get out.

edward-snowden

The Snowden saga is extraordinary but perhaps the strangest thing of all is that it’s not unique. Nearly every year there are examples of passengers who get stuck in airport transit long-term.

Before Snowden, Sheremetyevo hosted Zahra Kamalfar, an Iranian women caught fleeing her homeland with false documents. In 2006 Kamalfar stayed with her two young children at the airport for nine months until her asylum claim was eventually regulated and she was allowed to continue on to Canada.

Last year, meanwhile, British national Gary Peter Austin spent a month at Manila airport without a flight home, and even as I write a Palestinian national has been living in Kazakhstan’s Almaty Airport for over three months, trying to get a flight out to Turkey.

The most extreme case of a passenger trapped in transit was Mehran Nasseri, an Iranian man who spent 18 years living at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. Documentary-maker Paul Berczeller spent a year filming Nasseri at the airport, often sleeping alongside him in the terminal.

“It’s quite possible to live in a large modern airport; they’re like cities, everything you need is there,” says Berczeller.

Nasseri’s residency at the airport began in 1988 after a briefcase containing his travel documents was stolen before a flight to London and he was returned to France paperless. Even though he had legally arrived in the airport he had no right to be in France. Hence the ensuing legal limbo.

His home was a bench in Roissy’s Terminal One. He lived on handouts, and as his notoriety grew, occasional money made from media interviews. His story was eventually turned in to a film, “The Terminal”, made by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks.

Berczeller says: “He once said to me, ‘I’m always a passenger’. I think people were drawn to his story because of the Kafka elements of it – getting trapped in this crazy bureaucracy. But also because it was like a metaphor for the rootlessness of modern life.”

To understand how a situation like Nasseri’s can come about it’s important to realize the unique legal status of transit zones. They are such a common part of the airport infrastructure we take for granted what a strange entity they really are.

With the exception of the US, which since the September 11 attacks requires all passengers transiting on their soil to have an American visa, most countries don’t make you cross a border when you’re in transit. As a result transit zones are regarded by governments as international territory.

The status of transit zones evolved accidentally. Originally they were set up to be tax and duty free areas. At the time, international travelers needed transit visas even if they stayed inside the airport. Processing all these visas became a burden, and the tax-free transit zones evolved to areas where immigration laws didn’t apply.

Human rights groups call them “a legal fiction”, saying their extra-territorial status has been exploited by governments as a way to shirk their responsibilities towards international law, particularly in regard to refugees seeking asylum.

Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen heads research at the Danish Institute for Human Rights, which has looked extensively into the laws relating to international borders.

Gammeltoft-Hansen says: “In the late 1980s you had rising numbers of refugees arriving by plane – the so-called jet-age asylum seekers. More countries began adopting the transit zones because they saw that they were a useful buffer against this type of migration.”

Many governments argue that the transit zone’s extra-legal status means international laws like

the principle of non-refoulement, whereby states are forbidden from returning new arrivals to countries where they face persecution, don’t need apply. International courts disagree, and in a landmark 1996 ruling the European Court of Human Rights rejected a claim by the French government that the non-refoulement principle did not apply to its transit zone at Paris-Orly airport.

In spite of this ruling many airports have expanded their transit zones massively. According to Human Rights Watch, the transit zone at Charles De Gaulle now stretches 12 miles from the airport to include hospitals and a court.

According to Gammeltoft-Hansen, while passengers tend to experience the transit zone as a designated area, governments themselves interpret its geographical range quite loosely. In the case of Snowden, the transit zone might have stretched to include a hotel or safe house some distance from the airport and could explain why he was never located by the media during his month-long stay at the airport.

Gammeltoft-Hansen says in recent years this expansion has also included locating more security checkpoints in the transit zone. These are usually operated by the airline or a private security firm sub-contracted by the carrier. This is because carriers face hefty fines from the destination country if they allow passengers to travel there without valid documentation.

“As a result of the sanctions carriers have become an important, though unwilling partner, in immigration control,” says Gammeltoft-Hansen. “At Istanbul airport, for example, UK border officials work alongside airlines checking travel documents. They want to catch people before they’ve arrived on UK territory when it becomes a far bigger headache to send them back.”

The same is true of passengers traveling to the States via Ireland, with US border patrol agents now installed in Shannon airport’s transit zone.

The transit zone in most airports is divided in to two sections. Most of us only see the open area, which is where you’ll find the duty-free shops, restaurants and airport hotels. Less well-known is the closed-off section where passengers without valid travel documents, most often asylum seekers, are brought.

These closed-off areas sometimes feature hotels though the guests in them may face prison-like security conditions. An Associated Press journalist on the trail of Snowden deliberately flew in to Sheremetyevo with a 72-hour layover and no Russian visa. He was taken to the airport Novotel where he was detained in his room without internet for the duration of his stay. For those with no resources conditions are far worse. Nearly all major hub airports in the US and Europe operate some kind of detention facility run by the host state or by private contractors.

A UK Home Office spokesperson said passengers at Heathrow who lack the right paperwork are held “at an Immigration Removal Centre whilst we try and get them documented”.

Depending where you are these detention centers range in quality. Rights groups have decried conditions in some of the detention zones in Eastern Europe as “inhuman”, with people sharing tiny cells and denied access to legal representation.

Even in cases where passengers are free to move about the airport, the experience of living long-term in a terminus can be harrowing. While many major hubs now have extensive retail and dining options the overall environment is not set up for prolonged stays.

“When you think about it an airport’s a pretty harsh living terrain,” says Cody Lundin, an outdoor survival expert based in Arizona. “The constant flow of people would make it very difficult to feel grounded.”

Lundin says that while getting stuck in an airport terminal might not seem to have a lot in common with finding yourself stranded in the bush, the key to making it through both scenarios is the same.

“Survival is 90 per cent psychology,” he says. “Getting stuck in an airport terminal is a form of prison and just like in jail, the hardest thing is when you don’t know when you’re getting out. Having an end in sight is critical for psychological well-being.”

A good example of this is Nasseri. By the time Berczeller first met him he had already been at the airport a decade and his mental state had deteriorated dramatically. He had taken to calling himself ‘Sir Alfred’ and telling far-fetched stories about his background. His legal status had evolved to the point where, had he wanted to, he could have left the airport and moved to Belgium under the care of a social worker. But he refused.

When he contacted Nasseri’s family Berczeller was told that he had none of these mental health issues before his time in the terminal. Nasseri left Roissy in July 2006 after he was hospitalized for several weeks. He now lives in a Paris shelter.

“Airports are romantic; they offer all this potential in terms of travel,” Berczeller says. “But when you’re trapped in one this same thing turns the experience maddening. All day you hear these announcements for departures to exotic locations, except you can’t go to any of them. You’re stuck.”

 


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