Friday, April 04, 2014

Stonehenge and Salisbury

Stonehenge is a well known UNESCO world heritage site. Mention the name Stonehenge and many people will associate it with druids in robes doing sacrificial ceremonies in this complex. But the true nature and purpose of this standing stones are still a mystery. The oldest stones date back to almost 5000 years ago. Some theories point out this stones were used for some astrology and time calculations. While others point it to a ceremonial building of some sorts. Whatever the purpose, you should visit this mysterious stones and be mystified.

I traveled from London by train to the nearby town Salisbury. Same day return ticket costs 37.40 pounds. From Salisbury train station, there is only one bus operator to Stonehenge. The bus ride which includes entrance to Stonehenge costs 26 pounds. Total is 63.40 pounds which is very expensive, but the only advantage is the tour bus will bring you back to Salisbury town which you can spend the rest of the afternoon. There is a cheaper option to visit Stonehenge direct from London. Many tour bus operators in London offer Stonehenge tour with entrance for just 40+ pounds.

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Salisbury is a very beautiful medieval town which you can spend the whole afternoon. The main attraction is the Salisbury Cathedral. The town itself offers vibrant shopping places, eateries and pubs. Many buildings are preserved from the medieval times which adds to the charm of this town.

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre (pronounced as cheenkwe tehrre) is a collective of  5 beautiful villages recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Site that were built on rugged cliffs overlooking the Ligurian Sea, part of  the bigger Mediterranean Sea. These villages started as fishing villages. Over time, people from outer region discovered the beautiful landscape and soon this place became a major tourist point. Starting from the north, the five villages in order are Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.

I started my trip from Milan by train which took slightly over 3 hours. There are many ways to get here by train from Milan, which runs frequently and hourly. Just visit trenitalia.com and input your departure and destination (any five villages) and it will return with multiple train choices. You can buy ticket in advance for super low fares from the website but I didn't know how to create an account. Therefore I bought the standard fare from the train station. You are advised to reach at least 30 minutes earlier because the queue at the ticket counter can be quite long.

The villages are quite small comprising of only few streets from the cliff top down to the sea. One day affair should be sufficient for tourists short on time. However, I recommend a night stay in any of the villages so you can take in the sights and sound. You can buy a local train ticket for just 4 euro that is valid for multiple travels for 8 hours. Then you can start hopping around the villages. Boat rides are available but only during summer period.

If you are the adventurous type, you can hike from the first to the last village. As the cliffs are very rugged, it will be quite strenuous and it will take whole day. Some paths are closed during winter so again, it is best to plan your trip there during summer.

If you find yourself left with too much time after done exploring Cinque Terre, you can consider hopping on the train down south to La Spezia which is just a stop from Riomaggiore. From this town, find a connecting train to Pisa which is just few stops away and you can visit the leaning tower of Pisa.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Mini Travel Log: Hamilton Gardens, New Zealand

Hamilton is a small beautiful town just 1 hour drive away from Auckland metropolitan. One of the main attraction of this town is the Hamilton Gardens. It is truly world class. It has gardens from different eras and parts of the world. The most beautiful ones I've seen are the Italian and Indian themed gardens. The best part is that entrance is free and you can also enjoy picnic on beautiful rolling hills and grass by the beautiful lake.

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Baby Damien

For frequent visitors of this blog, hello again. This blog is still alive. Just that I was very busy with the arrival of a new member to the family. Here, Baby Damien would like to say hello to all visitors. Happy New Year 2014 and may you have a fruitful year ahead.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Mini Travel Log: Hobbiton (Matamata), New Zealand

Hobbiton (located in Matamata) is a movie set place used in the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbits. In the movies, this place is called the Shire lived by the halfling race of Hobbits. Situated in the middle of nowhere, 99% chance you'll give in to pay NZD$75 for the entrance to the movie set; after 1.5 hour drive from Auckland and with nothing else to see here. Unless you're a big fan of the movie, some may think the steep entrance fee is not justified. The movie set is located off the main road, restricted access and hidden. So be assured there is no free sightings. After paying for the entrance at the ticket counter by the main road, the private buses will bring you into the movie set complete with tour guide. The tour lasts about 2 hours with a beer pit stop at the Green Dragon. You cannot visit the inside of Frodo's house, which may prove another disappointment. There is nothing inside except a hole in the ground. I'm sure the house interior that we see from the movies are filmed from Hollywood studios instead, as the actual hole is too small.

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Thursday, January 09, 2014

Mini Travel Log: Hong Kong, China (5)

Once again thanks to my cousin, I explored a few more rural areas in Hong Kong. It was a great escape from the congested and polluted city during the Christmas week. I even spent a night at my cousin's house at Tai Mei Tuk, waking up to the morning of fresh air. We drove up the mountain scenic road, at one point even reached the border of mainland China. The main attraction of the day is at Fan Ling. It is one of the few walled villages from the old times. Around this area, there are few historical sites like the ancestor's hall and temples.

At night, I returned to the city and managed to catch the Symphony of Light show from Avenue of Stars, Kowloon. I was expecting a grand show with some dramatic orchestra music but it turned out to be less than expected. Nevertheless, still an experience to be enjoyed. Christmas decor and lighting at Heritage 1881 opposite Avenue of Stars is fantastic and must be visited during Christmas.

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Related link: Mini Travel Log: Hong Kong, China (4)
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Related link: Mini Travel Log: Hong Kong, China (1)

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Mini Travel Log: Christmas 2013 San Francisco

This year, my Christmas wish of taking city night light pictures of San Francisco came true. I was granted good weather and was very well rested. Without wasting a single minute, I explored the city from day until the city lights up with Christmas lightings at night. Day time was very well spent at California Academy of Sciences at San Francisco Park. If you have not experienced a real earthquake in your lifetime before, this is the place to visit. The earthquake house replicates the 1906 San Francisco earthquake up to a magnitude of 7. After sunset, the city comes to life with beautiful Christmas lightings. If you ask me where to find the most beautiful Christmas tree, I'd say the one at Pier 39 is not bad. From the pier, you can also walk a bit to Embarcadero Ferry Building. Here, you'll be able to see the beautiful Bay Bridge and also the city skyline.

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Related link: Mini Travel Log: San Francisco, USA (6)
Related link: San Francisco Time Lapse
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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

USB charging adaptors and cables

Have you ever encountered a situation where your phone charges very slowly or even worse, draining battery while plugged into a wall or car charger? Yes, you are not alone. I have encountered it as well and only understood why it happened like that after wasting money on many adaptors and destroying multiple USB cables. Now let me explain why and hope it helps you from going through all the hassle like I did. This has something to do with Apple devices (sorry Apple fanboys) for selfishly not following the USB specs and in the process screwing up the USB aftermarket charger specs.

Firstly, let's explore the USB specs in order to understand how it works. USB cables come in 4 lines. The outer 2 lines are for power supply while the middle 2 (green and white) is for data. When used with a computer, it works as a sync cable enabling data transfer while still able to draw power supply to power or charge the device. In my best knowledge, USB 2.0 ports only supply maximum 500mA while USB 3.0 ports up to 900mA. So in this case, your charging rate is limited by the USB port to either 500mA or 900mA. Modern smartphones drain power at more than 1.0A (1000mA). Therefore it is almost impossible to fully charge a phone while it is powered on and being used. It will only slowly charge to full if you leave the phone in idle state (display off).

Now comes to wall chargers and adaptors. Off the box, normally manufacturer's adaptors charge your phone at an amazing rate. Why? Let's go back to the 4 lines in the USB cable. If the 4 lines in the cable are connected to the 4 pins in the adaptor, your phone will sense that it is in sync mode as if being connected to a USB port. Therefore your phone will command a power draw of maximum 500mA. This has got to do with the USB specs and not to fry the computer USB ports by demanding higher power that it can supply. So does that mean if you connect the USB cable to the wall charger and the other end to your phone, you will only get slow charge rate of 500mA? This is where the manufacturer's adaptor works the magic. Their adaptors have been modified to exclude the 2 data pins so when plugged into your phone, your phone will only sense pure AC charging mode allowing it to draw current up to the maximum limit the adaptor can provide, normally in the range of 1.0A, 1.2A or 2.1A. You are able to charge your phone just fine so why did I mention Apple earlier?

Smartphones are so versatile and mobile now. Your charging woes start once you decide to invest in extra adaptors and car chargers to cater to your mobility needs. It is a hassle to carry only one adaptor so people invest in extra chargers and leave them in convenient places like cars and luggage bags. For years the EU had been pushing for a standardization in USB charging specifications considering the many brands and different types of adaptors available previously. Thanks to them, now we have a standardized mini USB and micro USB charging specs that all manufacturers can adopt. Looking for a charger during emergency is hassle free now since everyone is using the same kind of adaptors. You can easily borrow any USB wall charger from your friends if you need one to charge your phone. Now comes the Apple part. They selfishly ignore the USB standards to come up with their own specs. To charge an Apple device, you need all the 4 pins in the cable and adaptor. They work differently by using the data pins to communicate between the device and the adaptor, then only to decide how much current to draw from the adaptor. By having different standards, Apple is forcing the consumers to buy their overpriced accessories. And they had been using loopholes in order to bypass the EU for having a standardized USB charger.

What has it got to do with non Apple users then? As time passes, the aftermarket accessory manufacturers catch up to come up with their own cables, adaptors and car chargers. Now in order to kill 2 birds with 1 stone, they manufacture adaptors that can work for both Apple and non Apple devices. But by doing this, non Apple users will be short changed. This is because in order to work with Apple devices, the adaptors come in full 4 pins and the 2 data pins are not short-circuited. So when you plug in your phone, it will only sense USB sync mode and draw maximum 500mA even though your adaptor shows higher output. As a consumer, you will be fooled when you buy extra adaptors and car chargers for your needs. Most aftermarket adaptors are labelled to work with both Apple and non Apple devices. But what you don't know is these adaptors are not USB standard which must have the 2 data pins shorted. So thinking you may have bought a slow charger, you move on to buy multiple chargers at higher ratings but only to discover it is still not charging your phone. Your money is wasted and you're fuming, blaming non Apple products are inferior whereas the fault lies with Apple in the first place.

So what can you do? The safest way is to buy the original manufacturer's adaptors. But those come with a slightly higher price tag. And when it comes to car chargers, you won't have many choices unless you buy the aftermarket accessories which most likely are made in China and non-USB compliant with fake compatibility labels. As of this moment, there are only 2 solutions. One is to modify USB cable yourself to short circuit the 2 data lines. The method is available here in this video. The second option is to buy a USB charge only cable. These cables are modified to short out the data lines. But this is a niche market and finding USB charge only cables is hard. Beware of the many made in China cables that label USB charge only but they are not. One way to find out is to plug the cable attached to your phone into the computer. If it detects your phone and allows you to transfer files, then it is not USB charge only cable. I'd recommend you this cable by PortaPow from the UK. By using this cable, you don't have to worry whether the adaptor or car charger is USB standard or not. Just plug this cable in and your phone should charge at the full rated output. There is the 3rd option actually but finding it is like finding a needle in the haystack. You can buy a USB standard car charger but like I said earlier, it may be labelled misleadingly. PortaPow sells car chargers like these that are labelled USB standard but it is up to you to verify with the seller.

Final tips before I end. If you own Samsung phones or as a matter of fact any Android phones, you can easily check whether you are on AC charging or USB (max 500mA) charging when you are connected to the wall or car charger. Simply go to your settings and battery page. It should show you whether it is on AC or USB next to the charging status. If on AC, bravo your phone is charging normally at the maximum output from the adaptor. If USB, it's either your phone is plugged to your computer USB port, or your wall adaptor/car charger is not USB compliant. You've been ripped off, thanks to Apple.

Addendum 1: The downside of using USB charge only cable is you cannot use it for data transfer now. So be sure to label or mark your USB cables correctly to save you the trouble next time from using wrong cables for data transfer between computer and phone.

Addendum 2: Will my device blow if I connect a 2.1A charger (labelled/meant for Ipad) whereas my original manufacturer's adaptor only churns out 1.0A output? The answer is no. Smartphones are smart enough and well protected to accept higher current. In fact the higher amp the better because it will decrease the charging time. If the current exceeds more than the phone can take, it will be smart enough to disconnect while most probably showing a message or icon of incompatible charger.

Addendum 3: Thickness, length and material used in a USB cable also play a role in determining the charge rate. As like any other electricity cables, resistance in the cable decreases current as some escape as heat. Ideally, a 1 meter rounded cable is better than made in China 3 meter noodle thin cable. Less length means less resistance and a thicker cable allows more current to flow through. However there must be a balance between thickness and length. You can forget about those fancy China made colorful noodle thin cables. Not only they are long, the wires inside are just few strands wrung together shoddily. Even if you mod the cable to short out the data lines, a 2.1A input will only output less than 500mA when it reaches your phone.

Addendum 4: Newer phones like the Note 3 shouldn't have any problems charging in any chargers. I presume they have been modded to counter all these thrash aftermarket Iphone only and non USB compliant chargers. But that means they are deviating away from the USB standards. It's a sad day indeed to give in to just one selfish company.

Addendum 5: If you own any portable powerbanks, then you may be in luck finding the cable provided is most likely USB charge only cable. Go ahead and give it a try. Even though short, but hey it's better than nothing. You can use it for your in car charging.