Sunday, August 12, 2012

Blind Spots

I have become a pretty big fan of Quora lately, especially with the weekly digest they e-mail out.  A couple months ago, I came across this question: Why haven't cars yet solved the problem of the blind-spot in wing mirrors?  The most upvoted answer details how to adjust your side mirrors to get rid of the blind spots, as "recommended at most driving schools, including the BMW Performance Center in South Carolina."  After reading the post, I decided to give it a go.  (The fact that a BMW Performance Center recommended this may have played into my decision.)

So I've been driving this way for a month or two and I'm still getting used to it.  Your wing mirrors are no longer as important as they were before (it's only for checking the "blind spot" area now), and instead the rearview mirror is where you always check first.  There has been one instance where I almost changed lanes into a car in my blind spot and I don't remember if it's because I didn't check properly or the car was elsewhere in another (supposedly nonexistent) blind spot.  One thing that's annoying is that I can no longer use my wing mirrors as effectively when backing into parking spots, something I do when parking (I back in more often than not).

I'm going to continue trying to get used to this configuration, but certainly the thought of switching back to my "normal" configuration has crossed my mind.  We'll see how this goes.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Travelling in the Web 2.0+ World

As the month of May and my vacation winds down (four more days!), I thought I would finally jot down a post I have been writing in my head for the past month.  (Also, even with a couple days down time in the past week, I have not been motivated to write about Amsterdam.)

There have been a handful of websites and tools that have been invaluable throughout this month of travel.  In no particular order:

TripAdvisor: This is essentially the de facto guide for ideas on what to do, eat, shop, etc, when visiting a city.  It's so popular now that even shows have TripAvisor stickers on their windows.  Reading others' experiences helps plan your own (like knowing to show up at the Catacombes de Paris hours early to wait in a line).  TripAdvisor also now has Facebook friend integration, so you can tell which of your friends have been to a city or attraction before--exactly how I (re)learned that Kush & Sonia had been to Paris a year prior to our visit--and ask for tips.  TripAdvisor also has these "Offline City Guides" that we used for Amsterdam and Paris, that download attraction & restaurant reviews, maps, etc onto Holly's Kindle Fire, which was super great, since we didn't have a cellular or wifi connection while walking around the cities.  Using the city guide for Amsterdam we managed to stumble onto several restaurants that were pretty darn amazing.  Caveat: TripAdvisor ratings for attractions are culled from those that have rated the attraction--usually those that visited it in the first place.  That means that, for instance, an art gallery might rank high because those that visit it (art aficionados) love it.  If you don't love art, you probably don't need to go, even if it's on the top 5 things-to-do.

TripIt: TripIt started in 2006 and I think I actually signed up in '07 or '08 after reading about it somewhere.  I don't think many people use it--certainly I didn't really, until this trip.  It essentially curates an itinerary for you and keeps all your important info (reservation & booking numbers, addresses, phone numbers, etc) in one location.  All you have to do is forward all your booking e-mails (flights, hotels, etc) to the e-mail: and they take care of the rest.  Most of the time it works pretty well.  You can then share trips with fellow travelers, as I did with my sister, or share the details with others (so parents know where you'll be and more-or-less how to reach you, etc).  They also now have apps on pretty much every phone and tablet platform, which was quite useful.  I no longer had to print out each reservation e-mail; just open up the app and my visit details for each day was just there.

AirBnB: I first heard about AirBnB last year; it seemed to be making quite a splash in the Valley (still is), but I couldn't really understand what the fuss was about.  Turns out that the travel industry has a lot of money, and the couch-surfing industry is taking quite a bite of that.  Since we were to be roaming Europe for a month, we wanted to (a) keep costs down, and (b) live in apartments that were closer to attractions/downtown cores--in other words, live more like locals than tourists (and have a kitchen if we needed it--we did!).  We ended up booking three apartments through AirBnB (Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris) and one through (Bruges), with the leftover being hotel stays.  AirBnB is such an amazing experience.  Because you pay upfront, you don't have to worry about having enough cash on hand to pay the host.  The photos people post are quite accurate as well, so there are no surprises.  Hosts are quite friendly (they have ratings as well), and can give you "discounts".  You can search on availability, location (albeit with a slightly clunky interface).  We were able to stay within walking distance to major attractions--living in hotels in these areas would be quite exorbitant.  (As I write this, I am in a flat about a 10 min walk away from the Eiffel Tower.)  My only gripe about AirBnB is that sometimes it wasn't clear what the address of the flat was, and getting to the flat without a cell was sometimes nerve-wracking (even with the hosts' directions--we happened to get lucky finding each apartment, especially in Brussels).  AirBnB is an amazing service.

HRS: Thanks to Kush for the heads-up on this website, which allowed me to find some cheaper hotels in Luxembourg than I was about to find on Orbitz or Expedia.  It was, though, somewhat sketchy when my first reservation didn't send a confirmation e-mail to my inbox (the second one did, however).

RailEurope: De facto train timetable/schedule site. Works great, until that one day in Luxembourg the site just would not return any results for trains from Lux to Reims the next day and instead kept returning back to the query page. Turns out the trains it was showing several days before were no longer existing. Strange.

Facebook: Just for sharing where you are and what you're doing.  Good for keeping in touch.  I kept updating my "Places" and the "Cities I've Visited" app for fun.  I like to colour in my world.  Also interesting to compare with others.

ATMs:  We used a money exchange in London, but after looking for some places with good rates in Amsterdam, we decided to try the ATMs, and they do indeed give the best exchange rates.  My credit union charges 1% as a foreign exchange fee (without any ATM fee), which was still better than any "bureau de change" we found, in any city.  The only catch was that I could only withdraw max US$500/day. The Weather Channel has a bunch of smartphone apps that, in the Windows Phone case, allowed me to pin each city in a Live Tile on my start screen.  Invaluable for at-a-glance weather information.

SkyDrive: Finally, a shameless plug for SkyDrive.  I used the SkyDrive desktop client to backup all my pictures every night to SkyDrive.  (Yes, it's not meant to be used as back-up software.)  This gave me peace-of-mind, since the last time I was in UK (2004) my laptop completely died after visiting Scotland and I thought I had lost all my pictures.  (I managed to save them all afterwards by pulling out the hard drive.)  I have taken some 25 GB of photos (with a handful of video clips) this month.

We didn't have cell phones this month (though I have the codes to unlock them).  Turns out that free wifi is more or less readily available (all McDonalds!).  Smartphones + Kindle Fire was sufficient for on-the-fly browsing.  We did bring a netbook and this was certainly useful for uploading pictures and doing research in the evenings.

I can't imagine what travelling without internet access would be like anymore.


Edit 6/4/12:
I completely forgot about HipMunk (mostly because it was more useful during the planning of the trip)!  Hipmunk is awesome (who can say 'no' to that cute little chipmunk mascot?).  I've been using them ever since they announced years ago; I used them primarily for their innovative flight display/comparison format.  It's so much better than anything else out there.  Recently they also added "heat maps" for hotels, attractions, etc.  (This was interesting because I had been wondering how they were going to innovate in the space.)  Highly recommended tool.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Stafford, UK

We headed up to Stafford, UK, next via train for the event that was the entire reason for this trip--Trina & Joel's wedding.  Joel was one of my closest buddies in high school, having taken the bus home with me every day after school.  We would have these insanely long philosophical discussions about "stuff" (and girls) standing ouside by his apartment.  After high school he went to Penn State (home of the Nittany Lions) for Aerospace Engineering, then to the UK for his Masters degree, and managed to find a job in Manchester, UK.  We kept in touch sporadically; certainly more so intially during undergrad when we were in the same timezone.

Stafford is a very small town north of Birmingham.  It even has its own castle (which we didn't get to visit).  We walked through the city core in about 15 minutes.  'twas cold.

Our hotel included breakfast, but they also offered a "breakfast in bed" option for free that we took full advantage of.  You checked off everything you wanted on a door-hanger and hung it outside before 4 AM, and in the morning they delivered everything you asked for on a massive tray.  It wasn't anything special (plain and fruit yogurt, toast, cereal, tea, croissants, etc--full english breakfast for an extra £3), but having free room service was really something.  They also delivered the morning paper (any paper I wanted; I just got the Times) to me complimentary.

Joel & Trina got married at Sandon Hall, in the All Saints Church.  Joel had arranged a couple shuttles (driven by an older couple) to ferry people from our hotel, the Swan Hotel, to the estate just outside the city limits.  The ride took about 15 minutes due to the winding roads and roundabouts.  Sitting in a stone church was pretty cold.  Watching a wedding from a very small, twelth century church is quite something.  Standing outside while people are taking picture of the couple while a cold wind blows is quite chilling.

We were eventually shuttled to the Hall, where there were some really good sandwiches and desserts.  The éclairs and macaroons were really something; normally I don't care for either.  I was the only representative from Joel's high school years, so we didn't know anyone.  Holly chatted up an aunt of Trina's, and I wound up talking to her husband, who is from an area north of London and whose name was also Richard:

Me: Hi, I'm Richard.
Him: <...> Richard. <...>  Echo.
(Note: <...> may have contained other words in a British accent that my mind couldn't process quickly enough.  To be fair, other people were talking in the room so it was somewhat noisy.)
Me: Echo?  Wow, what an interesting name.
It took a while before I realized the guy's name wasn't "Echo" but was the same as mine.  o_O

Dinner was pretty fancy.  They alternated dishes between people (like, for the entrée, duck for one person and roast pork for her neighbours), so there was a bit of swapping between people.

Afterwards there were some good speeches, then dessert (fruits, chocolate), and the dance floor opened.  We were pretty tired so we caught the first shuttle back to the hotel in town.

We got a slightly later check-out in the morning, and when I got to the front desk to check-out, I found out that the bride's father had taken care of the bill for me (well, everyone left).  Wow!

We trained from Stafford to Birmingham, where we took a flight to Amsterdam.

London, UK

To rewind a bit:

We started off in London for 4 days (but effectively 3 days of exploring). It was my second time visiting (first in 2004), so I could tour guide without much trouble. The first evening we had dinner in Chinatown with Crystal (my sister), and two of my father's cousins' families. (We were actually staying at Uncle Kay's place in southwest London, near Wimbledon.)  Everyone looks older now.

Crystal managed to join us for most of the first day (Tower of London) before whisking off to Rome, Italy. Holly and I watched the Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace (in the rain) and Westminster Abbey the next day, and St. Paul's Cathedral and the British Museum the day after. One thing I found different from my first visit was how much time we spent *in* these attractions--I covered a lot more ground in '04 when I was visiting alone. This time we spent more time actually touring entire facilities (especially the paid ones).  Eight years ago (has it really been that long?) I must have spent only half the time in each attraction just to make sure I covered everything.

On the second evening we also headed to the Olympic Park for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games (in July/Aug).  I had managed to score some tickets to women's water polo matches for the London Prepares Series--a series of sporting events to test the venues (security, crowd control, scoring, etc) before the official Games.  We had never watched water polo before.  The matches were the first day's games: USA vs. Hungary, and Australia vs. UK.  It is such an interesting sport; the fact that you could physically push/pull opposing teams' players under water so that they don't receive the ball was astounding to us.  These ladies were quite athletic, even though the USA team's players were somewhat hefty and round.  Perhaps this helped with the objective mentioned earlier.  USA and Australia won their respective matches for the evening, and to our untrained eyes it looked like USA was by far the best team and UK the worst, though in checking the final matches it looks like Australia beat out USA for gold.

The Olympic Park seemed nice and new, but we really had no time to explore (not to mention that it was cold and windy).  Massively new shopping centre (yes, reverting to UK spelling here) built by Westfield (apparently an Australian company), reminding me of the one back home in Tukwila, WA.

Marks & Spencer was everywhere.  They sell food too?!  In little, extremely convenient packages for take-away (or to-go) packages.  Very affordable too.  Same for a japanese/sushi place we went to near the London Stock Exchange & St. Paul's.  They should bring this style of store back to the USA.

People smoke a lot.  Ugh.

Londoners were also a lot more rude than I remember.  Some lady came off the underground and seemingly purposely bumped into Holly.  wtf.

There really wasn't enough time to explore London properly; such a big city.  Even with full day travelcards, we were already walking a lot, short on time, and bushed by the end of each day.

Uncle Kay and his wife were super gracious hosts: ferrying us around in his car, driving around downtown in the evening just to show us sights, treating us to dinner and dim sum, cooking a home-cooked meal for us on Friday, and of course, letting us stay in their house.  I've always liked them since meeting them the first time I visited London.

On Vacation

I was going to try to blog from the road on vacation, but we've been in such a time crunch that I haven't had any downtime up until now.  We're currently in Brugge, Belgium, about 12 days into our month long vacation.  This is a quick snap I took last evening walking back to our flat after dinner:

It's a beautiful little city full of chocolate shops, churches, canals, cobblestone streets, ... how many other c-words can I think of?

Monday, March 12, 2012


I was trying to log-in to my internet provider's website this weekend and no password I tried seemed to work. When I went to reset the password it asked for the answer to a security question: "In what city where you born?" I tried every single combination that I could think of and nothing worked.
  • Toronto
  • toronto
  • North York
  • NorthYork
  • Willowdale
  • Scarborough <-- Actually I think this is the only accurate one.
Eventually I broke down and called customer service. After answering a couple questions the rep told me the password was "password". I was dumbfounded. I realized this was probably because I had never logged into this account before; it was set up by the rep several years ago and I never found a reson to log-in.

After logging-in to the account I found the answer to the security question was in fact "toranto".