Australia Twice Traversed, by Ernest Giles

It’s taken a long time, but I’ve finally knocked over an Australian exploration epic tome, Ernest Giles’ Australia Twice Traversed. The book documents his five expeditions throughout South Australia (which, pre Federation, included the Northern Territory) and Western Australia, through what was then completely unknown and uncharted lands.

Although he discovered some significant landmarks, most of the travel was perilous, unending and occasionally deadly, as they rode through some of the worst Australia has to offer. Couple that with navigation by the stars and compass, on horses that required constant wateringI and with various tribes of hostile Aboriginies keen to kill them, and you’ve got one hell of a true story adventure. Yet because he didn’t discover an inland oasis or otherwise, his name is largely forgotten, and the only landmarks that bare his name occurred after his death. The best known is the Giles Weather Station, named by another explorer, Len Beadell.

One of the greater achievements was the discovery of the Gibson Desert, named by GilesII in tribute of the first white man it claimed the life of. The story of Alfred Gibson and Giles’ travels in the desert would make for a film on it’s own.

It’s not all exciting reading however, and picking it as the first book to read on my Kindle might not have been the best decision, as Giles himself acknowledges in his appendix notes:

…and if I have any readers who have followed my story throughout its five separate phases, I may account myself fortunate indeed. A long array of tautological detail is inseparable from the records of Australian, as well as any other exploration, because it must be remembered that others, who come after, must be guided by the experiences and led to places, and waters, that the first traveller discovers…

Or if that wasn’t completely clear:

If my narrative has no other recommendation, it may at least serve to while away a vacant hour, and remind my readers of something better, they have read before.

Self-depreciation aside, he ought to have placed this disclaimer before unknowing readers plunge into what is initially (and generally)  a constant, unending search for water, in an endlessly identical landscape. I’m sure a great deal of people don’t get very far into the book because of the amount of repetition and relative unexciting progression. However, amongst the tautologies he mentioned, there is an amazing narrative and insight into what it was like to head into the great unknown with equal chances along the way of finding water or death, and it’s a far easier read than his peers’ dry journals.

Australia Twice Traversed is no longer under copyright and is a public domain book. You can download the book for free at Project Gutenberg in various formats.

  1. A phrase I still find funny to read. []
  2. As Gibson’s Desert. []
Posted in Books, Project Gutenberg | Leave a comment

Earth from Mars

If you were standing on Mars just after sunset, and looking for Earth:

Earth from Mars

The imageI is thanks to the Mars Rover Spirit, which lasted for six years, even though it was only expected to last three months. It’s now stuck in soft sand and it’s batteries are too low to transmit signals.

  1. Original link to Flickr image. []
Posted in Science | Leave a comment

Enkindled

Yes, that is an actual word. :)

A combination of the AUD nearing parity with the American Dollar and the low price finally made me bite the bullet and order a Kindle 3 with a lighted cover.I A mere four days later I had my hands on my first real eBook reader.II

There’s already more than enough unboxing photos, videos and reviews of the Kindle so I thought instead I’d take a few photos of the dead-tree killer with a microscopeIII so anybody curious could get a better look of it (and the official Amazon cover) much closer than they see with their own eyes.

Note: The following images lead you to larger versions on Flickr
The infamous leather tab on the elastic of the Kindle 3 cover A closer view of the e-ink screen on the Kindle 3Jane Austen's eye on the e-ink screen of the Kindle 3 The coloured stitching of the Kindle 3 cover The leather of the Kindle 3 cover The inside lining of the Kindle 3 coverThe edge of the Kindle 3 e-ink screen Amazon logo on the leather tab of the Kindle 3 cover A small hole in the Kindle 3 leather cover The font selection button (clay version) on the Kindle 3 Next page button on the Kindle 3 The groove for the elastic in the Kindle 3 cover The elastic cord on the Kindle 3 cover Amazon logo atop the Kindle 3 The plastic light logo on the Kindle 3 cover Where the light meets the leather on the Kindle 3 cover

For anybody interested in removing the Amazon logo,IV it seems to me to be the type of printing that you can remove with sugar.

If you couldn’t already tell, I decided on the burnt orange cover. :) At the last minute I decided on the light and am surprised at just how often I rely on it. It’s not the cheapest cover by any means but it’s certainly the most functional and minimal cover you can buy.

Also I thought I ought to provide a quick followup to my previous venture into eReaders, covered in The Pico-Life W960 and How I Almost Owned One, specifically comparing the two:

The Kindle tackles almost every shortcoming of the W960, including; Two dictionaries with easy lookup, both proper English and American. Full WiFi functionality with WPA2 support. A matte black finish that doesn’t attract fingerprints. Simple navigation with no accidental button presses. A range of covers that protect the device, as well as third party covers. Multiple fonts with scaled sizing and spacing.

The single best difference between the two is a real UI crafted especially for reading. Awake the Kindle and you’re greeted not with the base menu with a list of choices – just the last page you read. Simple things like that make it almost incomparably good for reading.

The only downside I can see is the always lamented lack of ePub support, which is easily solved by using the simple and powerful CalibreV to convert and upload any ePub books you have. Calibre will even send books to your Kindle email address if you don’t want to drop them onto the device via USB.

I’m happy to have returned the W960 and happier yet to be reading on the Kindle, I’m already devouring books faster than I ever have.

  1. I didn’t see the point of paying an extra $50 for 3G and opted for the cheaper WiFi only model. []
  2. Which has to be the single best postage time from USA > Oz I’ve ever experienced. []
  3. Not a real microscope mind you; a cheap glorified webcam 2MP USB gadget that mimics a microscope, and takes photos that are more detailed than our eyes can see. []
  4. It doesn’t bug me enough to worry about, some people have complained on forums about it’s “intrusiveness”. []
  5. Which is  open source too, so there’s no excuse! []
Posted in Books, Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

After the Thunderstorm

I hadn’t posted photos on Flickr in a long while so I thought I’d break with tradition and actually post a couple shots taken the very same day.I

It was humid as all hell yesterday morning, the first day of the year whereby everybody on the Gold Coast is reminded the weather will be hot for the remainder. What I’d forgotten was the almost tropical summers of years ago, where we’d have unbearable humidity in the morning, followed by a thunderstorm that would hurtle in and leave as fast, cooling down everything for a couple hours until old Sol came out again. We haven’t had that sort of weather now for at least five years, so today I was surprised to see the same thing happen again. If I remember, it’s nicer than the humid, energy sucking heat during summer we’ve had over the last few years. Here’s hoping it keeps up. :)

http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4083/5033129208_15b7cf86bf_b.jpg

Looking North-East towards the ocean.

I also haven’t posted any photos of my “new” placeII yet, so this can serve as a first for that as well. Looking at them today it’s hard to believe there’s hardly any post processing, they are basically straight-out-of-the-lens shots.III

After the thunderstorm

Our pool, with Coolangatta and Razorback (hill) in the background.

  1. It’s great to see they’ve improved geotagging, which was painful when I last tried. []
  2. I did move in just before the end of last year, so I’m almost due for the first anniversary. []
  3. Aside from minor sharpening and some exposure compensation for the weather. []
Posted in Photography | 1 Comment

NASA joins Flickr Commons

Although the photos are nothing new,I NASA are now sharing their archival photos on Flickr. Aside from exposure to a non-science audience, the main benefits are the well known annotation and discussion that follows with popular photos. Here’s one example; President Kennedy (along with LBJ and a slew of politicos) visiting the centre that would later bear his name. Click on the photo to see the annotations on Flickr:

Not all are so historic nor serious. Photos from the early days show a ramshackle and borderline-amateur organisation. Here’s the original Launch Control:

There’s nothing like the safety of a tin shed with sandbags to hold the roof down. Or the Langley Aerodrome, taking it’s final, ridiculous voyage:

As you’d guess, it didn’t end well for the Aerodrome.

Shortly after this photo was taken, the December 8, 1903, manned tests of the Aerodrome ended abruptly in failure, as it fell into the Potomac River

Shocking.

A great majority of the photos are of NASA pioneers and staff and of not great interest to everybody, but there’s enough good stuff to merit a browse-through.

  1. They’ve been available elsewhere for a few years now []
Posted in Photography, Science | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Prelinger Archives

In what seems like a long, long time ago,I I discovered the ephemeral films of the Prelinger Archives and enjoyed the random themes, historical hilarity and thinly-veiled propaganda films produced for all-but-forgotten reasons years ago, preserved against odds for everybody to enjoy well into the future.

At the time there were few people willing to review and rate the films, including those not already reviewed and especially those without catchy titles. The most popular films had scores of reviews and a huge amount of views. Without a single review, most of these films lay undiscovered, whereas even one or two reviews seemed to boost viewership. In my then spacious spare time I thought I’d make quick reviews of films that I thought interesting enough to watch, that were previously ignored and unreviewed.

This was two years before YouTube, so while streaming video was already well established, it had really not hit the mainstream and nobody expected embedded videos on any website. To watch a Prelinger film at that time, you had to pick a download option in various format flavours and watch it after you watched it download, so aside from a few screenshots there wasn’t a simple way to browse and watch anything without committing to downloading the entire film.

Since 2003 there’s been an explosion of reviews, primarily due to the aforementioned technologies,II and thankfully now it’s harder to find Prelinger films that don’t at least have one review. Everything I’ve reviewed has at least one other review and generally four or five reviews since then.

After suffering some data-loss earlier in the yearIII I have a new appreciation for self preservation, so I’m posting my old Prelinger reviews here to be sure. Thankfully in 2010 you can watch the films without any fuss.

Be forewarned; the films are neither high-definition, great quality, and in some cases not even in colour. Most are at least fifty years old. Some were not even made for the public, or with an audience in mind. The worst of it though; you might even be bored.

My reviews aren’t the longest nor in-depth you’ll find, but they serve a purpose – to give meaning and promotion to these ignored ephemeral gems that I picked at random from what was then an ocean of unreviewed and ignored Prelinger films.

This is Prelinger Archives

A perfect introduction…

This is a perfect introduction for anybody not already familiar with Prelinger Archives, although still quite an interesting watch for those who are familiar with either this site, or the actual Archives in New York.

Narrated (somewhat expectedly) by Mr Rick Prelinger, this film gives an overview of the archive itself, the services it provides, and a great explanation and history of Ephemeral films. It remains interesting the entire time, and features plenty of films contained in the archive.

This is worth the download purely to better grasp the idea and realisation of Prelinger Archives, no matter how much you already know, or how long you have been visiting this site.

http://www.archive.org/download/ThisIsPr2001/ThisIsPr2001_512kb.mp4

Source for this video: Archive.org.


World Trade Center

An all too brief look…

It’s really a shame that this has no audio – the original recording clearly must have had some kind of soundtrack.

We see the construction of the World Trade Center, which is (for me anyway) still quite eerie, especially where they lift the now iconic frame into place. Watching cars drive around the dirt foundation (which looks as it is today) is another example.

It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on in some parts, like when people are shown operating what looks to be power/security/phone systems. The imagery surely makes up for it in any case.

The entry escalators and the lobby are shown as are businesses trading.

Even with the lack of sound this is one thing in the Prelinger Archives which you shouldn’t miss.

http://www.archive.org/download/world_trade_center/world_trade_center_512kb.mp4

Source for this video: Archive.org.


Another Cup of Coffee

This is clearly a promotional film to drill into insurance salesmen the importance of prospecting. It’s easy to tell this as the word ‘prospecting’ is uttered every 15 seconds at least.

A model insurance salesman (slimy, over-confident) arrives at a café and orders a cup of coffee. It’s explained that he’s already canvassed the place and needs more (you guessed it) prospects.

So where does he look? Into his coffee cup of course! This is no ordinary coffee cup though. His even-more confident image appears amongst the coffee, and he begins to hold a conversation with himself.

It gets pretty boring from here on in; basically keeps reminding the viewer to treat everybody as prospects, not people. Nobody in the cafe thinks it odd that he talks to himself, or that he puts out his cigarette out on the floor.

Funny, but not nearly enough.

http://www.archive.org/download/AnotherCupOf/AnotherCupOf_512kb.mp4

Source for this video: Archive.org.


Corn’s-A-Poppin’

What’s-A-Poppin’?

Not to be confused with Hellzapoppin (although it might help), this tells the story of, well, it doesn’t tell any story in particular. Instead, there’s a few throw-away lines about popcorn stirred badly into what’s ultimately just Song’s-A-Poppin’. The song’s themselves cover the full gamut, be it the desire for a balloon or traveling to Mars in cowboy hats.

Most of the cast never starred in another film again (including the slightly unnerving Little Cora Rice) but it’s surprising to see Robert Altman credited as a writer.

Enjoyably awful, but watching the entire feature could take years from your life.

http://www.archive.org/download/corns_a_poppin/corns_a_poppin_512kb.mp4

Source for this video: Archive.org.


Your Police

A sometimes funny, sometimes boring police farce…

This blatantly one-sided film is sometimes humourous but goes a bit too far trying to sell police as the honest, hard-working protectors of all, that we should trust and obey.

It’s explained how police use modern science to help us, such as photography and two-way radio. A policeman is shown in firearms training which is plain comical. We then follow a rookie cop who just walks around helping people with directions, kids across the road, and generally helping people out as he travels around town.

Also if you are going on vacation, let the police know and they will check your house regularly, and if there is anything amiss they will call you straight away to notify that you are needed.

There’s a few times when some smart stunt driving is used which makes things a bit more interesting.

Confusing is a part which states that finding deceased people behind the wheel is an everyday occurrence. Why they both have to get in the car with him is another mystery.

Police frequently check playgrounds, making sure molesters don’t harm children. I only spotted one policewoman, and she was behind a desk questioning a teen couple.

Overall, it’s just not that interesting, but funny in the aspect that most of it is so far from the truth.

http://www.archive.org/download/your_police/your_police_512kb.mp4

Source for this video: Archive.org.


Atoms for Peace

Atoms are safe and good for you, okay!

“The peaceful atom” we are told has plenty of justified uses in the world. Because this film is primarily out to try to prove this point, there’s no mushroom clouds to be seen here (or talk of military for that matter). Instead you see industry uses with benefits for the everyday man/woman/child.

A lab guy handles dangerous isotopes safely, the kind of safely where the only thing between him and deadly radiation is a pair of pliers. And when not in use, people are protected from deadly radiation by placing the isotopes in lead containers, because clearly lead is no harm to us.

It goes on to explain how tagged atoms are used to identify oil. I have no idea as to if this is true nowadays, or if it ever actually happened as it seems a little way out an idea. There’s a few more uses for radiation shown, some are scary to think might actually still be used.

Good historical content comes in the shape of the initial operation of the first nuclear power plant, which is quite interesting.

Atomic farmers with radioactive crops are promoted. One guy drinks a ‘safe’ radioactive iodine atomic cocktail for a medical test. A cobalt teratherapy unit (sp) is used on a guy, using “a sharp effective beam of atomic radiation” which doesn’t hurt good tissue, just cancer cells.

After watching this you seriously doubt the claims they make about just how great radiation is for us all.

http://www.archive.org/download/atoms_for_peace/atoms_for_peace_512kb.mp4

Source for this video: Archive.org.


As We Like It

Shameless promotion of Beer by the industry…

This opens up with a very quick history of ‘malt beverages’ as they are referred to, before moving on to a bunch of statistics showing how the industry is big, assists the economy and employs a lot of people. Strange though; if you divide the $350m paid to 100,000 workers, you get $3500 each (and that’s assuming everybody is on equal pay). I’m unsure of what year this was made, but it sure doesn’t sound like much.

A now interesting old style can of beer is shown, obviously before the invention of the ring-pull.

It fobs off the tax on beer explaining that your money is infact going to help places like schools and the government. An interesting sticker on the side of a truck shows this films age, “Fight Polio – Join the March of Dimes”.

It moves on to cover all the great types of places where you can go to drink, and settles on the community tavern where ‘ordinary’ folk can go. After explaining how great these places are, an illustration of what could only be termed as a spook stands at the door, and it is explained that he is one of the types of people who, “tries to magnify every mistake” and use it to ban these refreshing malt beverages, “which add to the enjoyment of gracious living”. Nothing more is said of him.

In closing we’re told beer is another product that has made America great.

Although there are some good illustrations, it’s just not interesting enough to want to see more than once.

http://www.archive.org/download/AsWeLikeIt/AsWeLikeIt_512kb.mp4

Source for this video: Archive.org.


Management of Mass Casualties: Part X

“Bad TV” military style

While utterly hilarious at times, this gets very bogged down in technical information for much of the 23 minute running time.

Not much else is shown apart from soldiers charging along, only to stop to try to get other soldiers (the Psychological Casualties) to charge along with them.

Features some incredible over-acting by some participants who (some) clearly aren’t real soldiers.

Great statistics run throughout:

“In from 15 to 20% of the survivors, actual danger will produce alertness and increased efficiency.”

I’d really like to know how they came about these relatively specific statistics for surviving a nuclear blast. :)

Overall; enjoyable in parts, but it runs a bit thin in some stages.

http://www.archive.org/download/Manageme1958/Manageme1958_512kb.mp4

Source for this video: Archive.org.


Animals in the Service of Man: Part I

An enjoyably corny left-wing film

Interestingly brought to you by the American Humane Association. This is a short film that wants you to believe that animals are just as important as machines to humans, and tells you all the great things we get from them. The transfer is a little dark but the quality is great otherwise.

“Beef, we’ve come to realise, is far more necessary than automobiles.”

Great quotes like that run the length of this, some of which seem tongue-in-cheek but it really is hard to tell.

There’s a look at what we take for granted with clothing that comes in some way from animals. A man stands on a corner and gradually (through movie magic) loses articles of clothing. He is initially spared his underwear, but in the next shot he’s lost it, although luckily found a barrel, cigar and a dog from somewhere. The narrator says, “but of course, we all could wear barrels”. Who would have guessed.

Other great wisdom ensues; “But you can’t herd cattle with a jeep”. It also suggests that a camel is just as complex as an airplane, just “generally more docile”.

On a much more serious note, also shown is a horse dragging a load too big for itself on a carriage, which is a little disturbing to say the least.

http://www.archive.org/download/animals_in_the_service_of_man_1/animals_in_the_service_of_man_1_512kb.mp4

Source for this video: Archive.org.


Animals in the Service of Man: Part II

Not as enjoyably corny as Part I…

This second part covers indifference toward animals. It is explained that a nail that should have been removed from the truck carrying cows, as it might skewer a cow and make that section of meat useless. Of course the cow feels nothing. :)

It goes on to really trumpet the American Humane Society (proud sponsors), for improving the condition of animals. Goes deep into the history of the Society and is a lot more boring than the first half for this reason.

There’s a bit more disturbing footage, this time of a stray dog barely strong enough to walk. Later he gets taken away to be put down.

It goes on to talk about how education is helping both children and adults treat animals better. In one bit a vet is shown, who looks suspiciously like the doctor from the first part.

All up not as funny by any means, but still worth a watch.

http://www.archive.org/download/animals_in_the_service_of_man_2/animals_in_the_service_of_man_2_512kb.mp4

Source for this video: Archive.org.


The American Road: Part I

A slightly one-sided history of the motor car

The overly depressing introduction, a view of the country from the perspective of somebody moving to the city, really does confuse the viewer as to what you are actually watching. Once in the city (New York from what I can tell) you are treated to some really great footage, but it still remains unclear as to what you are watching.

It’s not until the seventh minute that the actual story starts; Henry Ford is introduced (and dramatised), invents his ‘quadrocycle’ and tests it out on the empty dark streets of the city.

From here on it’s a semi-promotional vehicle (pun) for Ford, but has enough dramatised history in there to still be of interest.

While telling the story of the Model T we get to revisit the farm again, seemingly only to paint another bleak picture of country life. After that a progressive look at the evolution of the production line really makes this worth watching.

Humour wise there’s a few good laughs to be had. The complex story of ‘your sick mother’ is overly harsh, and the footage of the sailwagon in use is particularly hilarious.

Narrated by none other than Raymond Massey, composed by Alex North, and Robert Downey Sr. is one of the credited cameramen.

http://www.archive.org/download/american_road_1/american_road_1_512kb.mp4

Source for this video: Archive.org.


The American Road: Part II

The history of automobiles by Ford continues…

Part II of this documentary continues more on a straight line than the prior, starting off explaining the problems faced by poor roads and the subsequent road development that took place.

More comical in parts now (and worse off for it), a lot of the storytelling makes way for what seems to be a very long advertisement for the Model T. Some great lines are said; to paraphrase one, “it not only saves you time, it gives you a way to spend the time you save”. It’s so consistent that after watching I almost want a Model T.

There’s some scary footage this time around. A guy feeds a bear some food from the ‘safety’ of his automobile and footage of people taking the Model T places where cars should just not go.

It picks up again pointing out the sociological affect of larger boundaries for everybody; you were no longer longer confined to the one environment and could travel anywhere and still make it back home in no time at all. This is something that you’d never think if you are anybody who didn’t experience the change at the time – this part alone made it worth watching.

Toward the end it slides into advertising mode for Ford again, but gives you a good idea of how far they had come since you saw Henry Ford working away on his first car in Part I.

http://www.archive.org/download/american_road_2/american_road_2_512kb.mp4

Source for this video: Archive.org.


The American Road: Part III

Conclusion to The American Road…

In this final part we see a bunch of footage of Henry Ford late in life with his family, at home, at work or on the farm. Also mentions his work to invent the tractor too, which probably isn’t common knowledge.

It’s all very nostalgic. The music turns up a notch, Ford rides around in his quadrocycle with his wife, and toward the end we see how roads look ‘today’ with montages of 70′s cars and roads.

This is good to watch as an ending to the three parts, but it doesn’t really stand up on its own.

http://www.archive.org/download/american_road_3/american_road_3_512kb.mp4

Source for this video: Archive.org.

I have to say if you’ve made it this far, you’ve done very well.

Each one of these films sat relatively unnoticed until there was a review, and they are all now enjoyed by a large audience. There’s still a veritable pool of unreviewed films that remain inaccessible to regular folk, so if you have the time watch a couple and post a short review – it’s far easier to these times of video streaming, and you might even find a few gems.

The best way to find unreviewed films is to search by average rating, and travel to the very last page.

Corn’s-A-Poppin’

  1. It was 2003 after all. []
  2. In my opinion, anyway. []
  3. Saved by Google’s cache, thankfully []
Posted in Film | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Christopher Hitchens diagnosed with cancer

As widely reported online and hardly mentioned in media elsewhere, Christopher Hitchens has announced via his Vanity Fair column that he’s undergoing chemotherapy for esophagus cancer. Sadly and predictably, some quickly jumped in to claim divine retribution for his diagnosis of this terrible disease, while others slyly mock with their condolences of prayer for his recovery. To the credit of VF they seem to be cleaning out the hate speech comments now as only a few remain.

With the prognosis of this form of cancer so low, here’s hoping they caught it early and the treatment works.

The Wikipedia article covers the disease in great (albeit gory) detail.

Posted in Atheism | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Pico-Life W960 and How I Almost Owned One

Update 8th October 2010: I’ve since bought a Kindle 3, and have posted a followup, Enkindled, featuring a comparison between the two readers.

When I’ve been asked about buying an eBook readerI I say I’m simply waiting for colour e-ink displays to become available and cheap. My plan is to demolish my dead tree book pile and simply switch to eBooks, and with the colour display I can stop subscribing to magazines too. But with the selection available recently, I’ve been getting eager to forget all of that and buy into e-ink.

The hardware has been around for a while now and prices seem to be creeping down at the same pace as the technology advances – which is to say incredibly slow. Not helping matters, one leading pioneer company filed Chapter 11 in the USA recently, and more importantly the dedicated eBook reader has taken a massive hit in the form of the ubiquitous iPad, which trades the readibility of e-ink for an LCD screen and the shortened battery life, while providing eBook reading as just one of it’s many features.

Still, I just want to read. Knowing how bad reading on my Blackberry’s screen becomes I couldn’t cop out on an iPadII one of the ever-growing selection of the new LCD readers. Until recently you couldn’t even buy a reader in Australia, but now with Amazon offering up it’s Kindle overseas, Borders and Angus & Robertson serving up the barebones Kobo, and a few stores offering rebadged OEMs from Asia, eBook public awareness is growing.

OfficeworksIII to my great surprise advertised three readers in their latest catalogue. The first was a scary 5″ LCD model with an equivalent price, and two seemingly identically featured e-ink models for under $300. The details were vague, so I took the trip to my local to find out more.

Located inexplicably with the laptops and hidden at ankle height were the three readers. I asked if they had display models, to which I was told they were too easy to steal. I’d almost decided against it when she mentioned taking the already-opened box to the counter to have a look, “…like the last bloke did”.

An immediately disappointed checkout lady opened the box while asking what it was and how it worked, and seemed more interested once she knew what this strange thing did. I obliged, hoping she might help people in future.

I was surprised just how small the unit is; there’s only the screen and a few navigation buttons below, so the whole reader ends up smaller than a Penguin Classic paperback. As the battery was completely flat I couldn’t test any of the features that might help me decide on it, so I asked about their return policy. Begrudgingly I was informed that I could return it up to a week later, but I’d have to keep the box and receipt. Still amazed by the size I decided to take the punt, knowing full well I could change my mind.

Once home and charged, I could try out the reader in detail. The positives:

  • It feels great in your hands, and the weight (a mere 156 grams) is evenly balanced and considerably lighter than anything else on the market.
  • The page turning buttons on the back are a welcome change from most readers, and even being a southpaw they’re still more handy than front navigation.
  • The internal 2GB memory seems more than enough for a dedicated eBook reader without having to use an SD card.
  • Plugged into USB it becomes a mass storage device, so it’ll play friendly with Linux and anything else you throw at it. Even though you could drag and drop books onto it, you’ve got full Calibre support to make life easier.

Unfortunately, the many negatives:

  • The obvious kickers with a no-frills reader; no touchscreen, no WiFi, no 3G, and no dictionary.
  • Piano black finish is a terrible fingerprint magnet, but great for forensically proving who deleted your bookmarks.
  • The screen, although bright (and with that trademark light-catching background) has a fair degree less contrast than a regular book.
  • The feather-touch navigation buttons on the bottom are all too easy to press accidentally while reading, and recovery is made more difficult by the confusing menu system.
  • Format-wise, ePub worked fine as did plaintext, but I couldn’t get plucker books to work at all. I didn’t test PDF, although the manual states that PDF rendering is so intensive that MP3 support is turned off during reading.
  • Forget trying to change the font if it’s not your style; the only one available looks a lot like Arial. There are five sizes, although anything beyond the smallest two are laughably impractical for reading.
  • Although the page turns are what you’d expect from an e-ink screen refresh, there seems to be a distinct lag to certain operations such as changing the font sizes.
  • There’s no slipcase or cover to protect the screen, and with it’s odd size and protruding navigation button, you’ll be hard pressed to find anything off the shelf to fit well.
  • The operating system is not designed for readers, with several confusing levels and really ugly UI.
  • The box states that you expand the memory with micro SD, yet the slot is for regular SD. Worse still…

The single worst negative is the false advertising – both on the box, online and in store. The W960 screen both Pico and Officeworks would have you believe is 8 shade greyscale, which simply isn’t true. Here’s a jpeg of a black-to-white gradient I made with GIMP displayed on my unit:

The big screen lie

As you can see, it’s the cheaper 4 shade greyscale screen. For reading this might not be a big deal, but for books with illustrations or browsing your own photosIV it’s nowhere as good as the newer screens available in more expensive readers.

The only way I discovered this is because Pico are simply rebadging this unit for Australia, and all the other rebadges around the world (including the manufacturer) state that the true 4 shade screen in their specs. Elsewhere The Pico Life W960 is also known in other countries as the Teclast K3, the Mediacom Jerry-Book E60, and the Oaxis W960.

The only other dubious claim is of the 1500maH battery, as other brands state there’s only a 1000mAh inside – something completely impossible to verify either way without breaking the unit apart. There’s no accelerometer in this model either (to switch between portrait and landscape) which is unusual as a video online of another rebadged unit clearly demonstrates that handy feature.

I was at odds on whether or not to keep or return the W960 – for every thing I liked about it there seemed to be another reason as good to rebox and return the thing. With a few days up my sleeve on the return policy, I read a book on it. The very next night I went to continue where I’d left off and found the screen blank.

The battery is supposed to last 20 hours, but from all other readers I guessed that would mean twenty hours of reading. This wasn’t the case; you will have to charge this device at most every day, and at least every second day if you use it or not.

This was the nail in the coffin; I didn’t want to spend more time charging a device than I was to use it. Repackaged as good as newV I returned it for a full refund, with only a few cursory questions as to why.

I think the most important aspect of the current selection of eBook readers is the interface, and while the asthetics and hardware of the W960 (sans the screen) are great, the awful software and resulting battery life make it a poor choice. While writing this both the Kindle and Nook took big price dives, making this reader all the more redundant, and me happier that I returned it. Now all I have to do is finish my dead-tree books.

More photos available on my Flickr

W960 Front cover W960 Back cover Contents W960 Rearview W960 Frontview The navigation buttons Rear buttons Underside of W960 Charging E-ink screen E-ink screen Displaying JPEG Main menu Size comparison The big screen lie

  1. Only once or twice, mind you. []
  2. Or forgive myself for spending that sort of money on one either! []
  3. A sad, expensive version of OfficeMax in the USA []
  4. No idea why anybody would bother, though. []
  5. Although there was no real factory reset, so the two public domain books I added were still there, along with my bookmarks. []
Posted in Books | Tagged , , | 16 Comments

Hong Kong Wanderings

A quick introduction; I’ve finally whittled down my notes to what you read below, which consists of our quick adventures in Hong Kong, and reads best after continuing from the previous article from Macau. It is however as unfortunately long as the last entry even with merciless trimming, so I’ll sprinkle it with photos to make it more palatable in the future. Oh and all money is in HK$, before anybody gets excited…

We disembarked the uber-ferry and weren’t too keen on lugging our bags a few blocks to the hotel. We already had our bags inside the first cab on the rank when he asked us our destination. He backed off, raising his hands:

“Oh no. Kowloon Hotel just over there. One way tunnel. I don’t go through”, he said, pointing off in the direction of the hotel.

Not knowing cabbies legally can’t refuse a rideI we hauled our bags back out and started walking in the gestured direction.

We walked through a hodge-podge of roads, constantly weaving through throngs of people, dragging along our bags and picking them up constantly due to large “Uneven Ground” plastic coverplates which littered the sidewalk, no doubt covering holes to the core of the earth. After not recognising any street names, we finally found a bus stop checking the route, I noticed between the street we stood on and our hotel read a stop called Tunnel. It turns out that we arrived at a different ferry terminal than we’d planned and were on the wrong side of the harbour.

We hailed a cab, almost missing it due to the driver preferring a suitcase-free lady behind us, who was kind enough to yield to these desperate tourists. $130 and one tunnel under the harbour later we arrived at the Kowloon Hotel. After checking in and magically losing one of the room keys inside the room (still not found) we decided to do battle with Nathan Road before peeling off into a sidestreet to find food.

The first big difference with Hong Kong today compared to the last time I was here (in 1988) is they’ve finally banned spitting in the streets. It used to be awful walking around through a mass of people who (as a kid) appeared to all be contributing to Spitoon City, all the time ensuring your shoes didn’t catch a prize as you walked.

Also (since SARS I’m guessing) they’re more aware of spreading contagions. There’s government billboards extolling the virtues of covering your mouth when you cough and sneeze (something a lot of older locals still enjoy) and a step by-step-on how to wash your hands properly. A few buildings even have guards with heat sensing guns to stop hot people entering.

As with all unfortunate travelers on Nathan Road you soon learn ways of dodging and dismissing the hawkers, although traffic stops (and people inexplicably stopping dead in front of you, another fun pastime for people here) effectively trap you with the pitchmen. You have to give it to the watch guys though, promoting their fakery on the steps of Omega and Rolex boutiques, offering to take you to their “shop”, gesturing off along Nathan Road. Nearly all of them are cheerful and don’t seem to hold any grudges against tourists, although the occasional one mutters under their breath as you walk away.

As is common knowledge, you buy nothing from the stores on Nathan Road. We picked a side street and got out of the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd that’s typical at night. After five minutes we’d screened a dozen restaurants and not feeling adventurous we settled on a hotel restaurant at the Ramada Inn, where my salmon portion (although melt-in-the-mouth) matched in portion of the duck I had in Macau.

In the morning we tried the breakfast buffet at our hotel with what seemed like half of England, then visited the Space Museum on account of it being across the road. It was the first thing I’ve seen reasonably priced here, costing a mere $30HKD for a seven day pass which gets you into eight of the museums in the city.

We arrived just in time for screening a film in the Stanley Ho sponsored planetarium/theatre above the museum, “Stars; The Powerhouses of the Universe”. The planetarium was a larger and more modern than the only other one I’ve visited, in a museum in Oahu. The show itself was good, covering basic space fundamentals but never really getting into any detail. The largest problem was the focus and time spent on the horoscope, no doubt due to how superstitious the locals are.

After that we walked through the museum (which wasn’t quite as good as what NASA has to offer in Florida) it was surprisingly devoid of what China is doing in space now. A live view of the sun (courtesy of a machine I forgot the name of) was interesting, as was a gunpowder pigeon that blew an hilarious grey plume of smoke to propel itself.

On the way back we discovered the subway and underground shortcuts that make it easy to avoid the crowds and traffic, and were surprised to find even more boutique shops underground. It’d be interesting to see just how many of the same boutique stores are in the Kowloon. Of these Chanel stands out with an interesting gimmick; they only let four or five people in their store at any one time, and make everybody else wait in a line outside. It seems to work as every time we passed there was at least ten people willing to excitedly wait to impart with their cash.

We braved Nathan Road again (which is less busy during the day) and thought we’d try to find some sort of food court in a shopping center. Instead we found more exotic restaurants, so we settled on a Korean place. Knowing the sort of spices we were in for, I asked and was assured my dish wasn’t hot. I’m glad I picked mild. After lunch we walked through an expensive wine shop that fills you with dread as you carefully shuffle around trying not to break any holiday-ruining bottles.

Along with the endless boutiques and electronics stores, Nathan Road has natural medicine stores which have open air boxes of what I can only describe as dried dead things. We passed one as the shopowner was carefully rearranging horrible yellow sticks with his bare hands, making them into neat rows. Immune systems here must be invincible.

The main difference between our hotel here compared to Macau seemed to be an unwritten dress code. We stopped for a quick drink in our hotel bar and got ignored by the bar staff on account of not being dressed well enough. Everybody in a suit got top service, free finger-food and good seats, while everybody else (the few Aussies) had to fight to be served at all. The doormen were also of the same opinion.

The next day to orientate ourselves we took the open-top Big Bus Tour which does a full loop of the tourist district in Kowloon. Aside from near decapitation from tree branches, we had a better idea of the area afterwards. They generously included free Star Ferry transfers, which turned out to be worth a whopping $2.20HK each. Across the harbour we caught the other bus and got off at The Peak. Catching the gravity-defying train to the top, we ascended through the smog into clear air before entering more smog near the top. Unsurprisingly we were greeted with another four storey shopping center. With the bad smog we didn’t pay for the viewing deck, and managed to find our way outside. As it turns out there’s just another three storey shopping center, although to be fair it had an unusual assortment of stores and took an enjoyable hour to browse through. How these storeowners make a living is anybodies guess, as hardly anybody was around and they hold such a completely eclectic selection of goods.

Catching the train back down the hill, our bus driver decided to do a u-turn in a space about as wide as the bus. For the next fifteen minutes we Austin Powers’d back and forth, gaining a half-degree of turn every time, missing parked luxury cars by a hair every time. Traffic backed up and turned around in either direction to avoid us. We were laughing too hard to notice that he’d finally made it.

After the tour concluded we noticed everybody running for the ferry – not knowing how often they came we decided to join the fun-run and only just made it through. What we didn’t realise is that there’s two decks on the ferry, and tourists normally take the upper deck. We’d ran onto the lower deck and were greeted with diesel fumes from the engine bay, spewing out of the center of the boat. Not the nicest way to travel, but it got us back across the harbour.

Also included in our bus deal was the night tour, which takes you on a slightly different route than the day tour on account of the city lights. The single best part is you enjoy Nathan Road without any hawkers bothering you, and take in the seemingly endless neon madness above.

The driver told us to check out the “spectacular lightshow”, which happens at 8pm every night on both sides of the harbour. Hundreds of people lined the shore, and with them we watched the single crappiest public display I’ve ever seen. A few green lasers dance around the sky and harbour, as buildings twinkle and do their own thing, none of which seems to go with anything else. We were so unimpressed we couldn’t tell if was about to start when it was announced that it was over. Perhaps our side of the harbour (all but impossible to see) was better.

We’d seen an American restaurant advertised and with my insatiable love of baby-back-ribs decided to try Dan Ryan’s Chicago Steakhouse. The ribs (although pricey at $218 for a full rack) were quite good – not as nice as the rib houses in the states, but this was a steakhouse in HK. Speaking of steak, it’s amazing how expensive a good slab of beef costs here; depending on the cut you’ll spend between $350 to $700 for what you’d pay a pittance for at home. When I see tourists here taking cryopack steak home on a plane I will laugh no more.

After making it out of a tailors building alive we walked up Mody Road, headed for more museums. On the way we stumbled upon and into a a bar called Sticky Fingers, where we managed to arrive at happy hour. Two drinks later ($90HK) we were back on our way to the Science Museum.

The museum is a collection of practical exhibits that let people experience science, not just read about it. Hanging proud and imposing from the ceiling is Betsy the DC-3. It was Cathay Pacific’s first plane (bought second hand after WWII ended), which they sold then later searched for. Turns out it was still flying in Australia in 1981, but now it’s in retirement as the second largest exhibit at the museum. The largest, which I will call The Big Marble Machine, is a four storey mechanical maze that orange-sized marbles navigate. We asked an attendant when the next show was, and she led us half way across the museum floor until she found an exhibit that was out of order. Pointing at the sign she smiled and nodded until we did too.

In another section, the occupational health and safety exhibit (which is laughably ignored in HK) there’s a frankly morbid sound of a worker falling to his death from scaffolding, made worse by a mannequin lying contorted and dead on the ground of a worksite. It got the point across, but I doubt how many construction workers pass through here.

Aside from that the whole museum is aimed at kids, so we didn’t spend much time there. The kids themselves though don’t seem to get much out of it either, racing around pressing buttons just to see what happens, with no attention to why or how.

We tried to visit the History Museum (located opposite) but for some reason it closes on Tuesdays. Walking a block we picked out a little Cantonese restaurant off Science Museum Road, which served authentic meals on tiny wooden tables (with tinier wooden seats) and was the cheapest lunch we had, coming in under $40HKD each with drinks. Along with the local dish I tried their Grapefruit Green Tea which was one of the more interesting tastes so far.

Night had fallen so we made our way to the night markets on Temple Street and the Ladies Markets (which are now ladies only in name) after that. As you walk through shoulder to shoulder foot traffic you’re treated to an huge selection of tourist trinkets, iPhone accessories, weird dried food, counterfeit clothing, odd electronicsII and counterfeit watch and bag stores.

The big name counterfeit brands are still available, but not out on display here. As you shuffle through the markets there’s small card-tables between stalls, with one or two men sitting down looking busy or drinking tea. If you seem interested they whip out a laminated book of their wares. In the case of watches they have a glossy magazine filled with at least a hundred different models. These blokes rely on warnings from one of their lookouts (whom patrol both the market and behind on the sidewalk) whereby the books and the men disappear into the crowd. Police walk by, then the men slink back out and set up shop again. It all happens on the long established drug-dealing model – all orders are given to a runner who runs off somewhere to the drop, returns the goods to the seller, who is then handed the money to run off again.

After the markets we walked into what must be called Shoe Street – almost every store on both sides is a different named but identical store with various brands, with oddly shrinkwrapped samples lining the walls. The prices are high enough that you can’t know if they’re genuine, but low enough to be cheaper than in the USA. Interestingly, they run a co-op of sorts; I asked to try a pair on and was told they were at another store. A runner was sent who arrived ten minutes later, exhausted, with the shoes. Unfortunately they were too big, so I asked for the half size less:

“They are at another store, please wait a minute!”, they said again, and another runner was sent off. I sat down this time. Ten minutes later the runner jogged back inside and handed me the shoes. These ones fit, so I asked if they had two pairs:

“No”, was the reply, without consulting the computer. I don’t blame them. Somewhere between the first and the hundredth shoe shop the night had got away on us, so we caught a cab back and retired.

The next day we bought prepaid Octopus cards, which have to be the best public transport idea ever. Aside from subway traveling (swiping your wallet to pay) you can also grab an icecream from the many vans around the streets, buy from convienience stores and no doubt more things we never discovered. It’s almost a second currency in the tourist districts.

We took a trip to Happy Valley to check out the track, which for the most part is a public ground you can wander around in as you please. We didn’t realise that various Rugby teams were practicing there for the Sevens, and so ducked a ball from England as we walked past, wondered who the green & black team was (the Kiwis geve thumselves uwey) and caught the start of an exhibition match between two others, being held sadistically on astroturf.

The historic trams operate in the area so we caught one for a mystery tour of the area, of which we were the only tourists aboard. Strangely enough you pay on exit, so although I was interested to see what happened if you didn’t have the cash, we had somewhere to be. Making our way back to the hotel in time, we caught the small cushy tourbus that would take us to the races at Sha Tin. The entire bus were Australian sans a singular strange American, the driver and our seriously unfunny guide Ross, who plied us with jokes so pathetic they passed below the bad-funny range.

The track and grandstand at Sha Tin are simply massive (making Happy Valley look like Melbourne), and the night races were a good experience coupled with the free-flowing alcohol, odd mix of Aussies (even by Australian standards) and a surprisingly good quality buffet. I got value from the Haagen Daz freezer. Three races along we were herded down long hallways filled with hundreds more tour groups (nearly all Australians again) down elevators and into the area where the horses parade before the race, where the singular American told me his master betting theory:

“This is how I bet right here. The one that takes the biggest shit right before the race, he’s feeling good after that shit, so my money’s on him.”

Laugh all you want, but there was a large group of Australians disappointed by the lack of bowel movements afterwards.

Our esteemed Ross, hopelessly ineffective to control us was welcoming who I can only describe as an asian Conan O’Brien, who usurped our group into his (Ross joining us as a silent peer) as he worked his best stand-up routine while taking us out to the track itself to watch the still emboweled horses run a race. After watching a few hilarious winners jig around in circles we followed Conan back upstairs to our tables to watch the rest of the races.

The next day we caught the train out to Chai Wan, then boarded one of the many green minibuses for an hilariously rough ride speeding along the cliff-faces and one way streets towards Stanley, to see the markets everybody raves about. Turns out you really can skip the markets, with the same amount and type of fakery available in the city, albeit cheaper. The genuine watch, sunglasses and videogame shops led me to believe there’s been crackdowns; the watch shop even had a sign, “Do not ask us where you can buy fake watches. We do not know anything about them”. Except that they’re fake. And we don’t sell them.

The real reason people should visit Stanley is the little turquoise-watered harbour and the restaurant strip surrounding it. We decided to try The Boathouse, where I consumed the HK take on African Chicken. After walking lunch off around the foreshore (and missing the museum by ignorance), we caught the 16M green bus back on an equally rough ride back to the train station and managed to get home without taking one single misstep. By the time we got back it was time to hop to Monkok for dinner, where we picked a nameless local bar/restaurant where we managed to eat and drink for $200HKD total. There really is a lot to be said for eating away from the tourist restaurants.

The next day we decided to train to Aberdeen, but figured we’d see the previously closed History Museum before going out. Five hours later we left the museum and gave up on Aberdeen. If there’s one museum you don’t miss it’s this one. Amongst a crazy assortment of themes, priceless artefacts and stuffed animals, they’ve relocated entire historic stores (complete with furnishings and contents) into a street you can walk down and peruse inside as if you were there. You can even board a 1:1 scale Junk. Once through the main museum they have a completely separate wing for traveling exhibitions of which we walked through the Han Nobility Exhibition, a small sampling of the main artefacts held on the mainland, which date from 206BC to 8AD.

The next morning we decided to take the train out to the furthest station on the MTR red line to have a look around. At the station there’s a real shopping centerIII with local prices (some a quarter of the cost of the city) amongst an enormous hi-rise complex of at least twenty identical towers. After which we saw the sign for the UK Museum and paid them a visit, to find out it was actually the Uk Museum, an interesting (if basic) historic walled village that had been restored.

Catching the train back to the city we stopped off to experience yet more more markets, and ended up afterwards inside the Golden Center; a crazy computer market on two floors, with shoulder to shoulder people snaking through single-file corridors between narrow shopfronts selling identical products. The claustrophobia here was a little much (even by HK standards) so we slowly made our way out into fresh air. Catching the train back we found ourselves in what must be afternoon peak hour and sardined our way into the carriage.

The trains must really jolt to start when full, as it caught a lot of travelers by surprise, including an elderly chap who was saved only by swinging from my arm by both of his. We spoke not a word of either’s language, but shared uncontrollable laughter for the rest of the trip.

Knowing I’d seen the last of the subway, I decided to regain my arm strength by using up the last dollars in my Octopus card on an icecream. As we’d neglected to have lunch, I ate a red bean flavoured lamington (surprisingly nice), and a green tea lamington (not so nice) for lunch on the run. Sadly it was time to pack our bags, sleep, eat our last breakfast with stuffy England, and catch the airport shuttle to the huge, shiny new HK airport. Bizarrely we had to travel an extra kilometre to terminal two, and once checked in travel by subway back to terminal one. After a great flight back we found ourselves seemingly back in time at KL airport.

It truly is an awful airport, with slow customs and even slower baggage. Nobody stops people from piling up just outside the exit, and every time I’ve been through at least five-hundred people crowd around four doors, unwilling to move an inch to let you through. Catching the courtesy bus to the nearby Tune Hotel, we discovered courtesy here means you pay $1. We tried to tip the driver but he told us he had no change for a five. Electing to use our paid airconditioning (extra) instead of sitting outside in the blaring heat drinking semi-chilled drinks, we took it easy for while.

Being me I’d packed by bag so I could whip it open in KL for clean clothes and close it again, without mucking around. I noticed water on the outside of my bag in odd spots in airport, and figured it got wet somewhere. Opening the bag I realised my folly; in the last minute in HK I decided not to throw away a twenty cent can of Coke and packed it instead. The can had erupted somewhere along the line, with the inner top of the bag soaking most of it up, with my clean clothes doing the rest of the job. I was angry enough to check that all the dirty clothes in bags were completely fine.

We returned our wet bath towels when checking out to get our towel deposit back (I kid you not) and caught the $1 courtesy bus back to the airport.

Bidding a fine farewell for us, KL turned on a thunderstorm which put a good two inches of water on the tarmac – not enough to stop the pilots, but enough to make fun of running to the plane a wet goodbye to the damned place. The flight after takeoff was non-remarkable, and some hours later we were tired, but glad to be home.

  1. Although that was the least of our problems as we soon discovered. []
  2. One stall sold only calculators. []
  3. Incidentally owned by the MTR. []
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Macau in Three Short Days

We landed in Macau late enough to see the lights of a few casinos from the window, yet leave us with absolutely no idea of the general topography. Looking through the airport for a free tourist fold-out map I stumbled upon what looked like the tourist information desk. Aside from a few foreign-language tourist books I spotted a poker magazine and with a lack of price I figured it was complimentary as were the others. Taking one step away I heard a shout from another counter:

“You pay! Magazine, you pay!”. I looked up to see a previously hidden guy behind the counter in front of me busy reading a book, but a glance around revealed a lady two desks down, shooting her meanest frown at me and holding an angry crooked finger in the air. I walked up to her to make sure I wasn’t mistaken.

“Magazine! You pay one US dollar!”. Call me crazy, but for some reason I didn’t bring any greenbacks to Asia. I was out of luck and I didn’t like my chances of reasoning with somebody both angry and foreign, especially when I was tired and foreign. Holding an eyeline with my new best friend, I walked back to the other counter and exaggeratedly placed the magazine back on the pile. The guy behind the counter still didn’t acknowledge what was happening. He might have coughed.

As we passed her desk she pointed in the air again; “You pay! One US dollar!”, to which I just shrugged, smiled and walked away. Soon after we found the real tourist information and I picked up a map after making absolutely sure I wasn’t being followed by a crooked finger.

Map in hand, we took a trouble-free taxi ride to our hotelI and took in the mix of hotel and casino lights of the city along the way.

It’s hard not to compare Macau to Las Vegas on account of the score of casinos that light the cityscape. Macau at night seems more like a real city than Vegas’ over the top facades, which hide smoky caverns of free drinks and people paying for the city through slot machines. Not that you can’t find that here; somehow the Macau city center still manages to come off as classy.

I wanted to stay at the Grand Emperor on account of the location, but it was eventually decided that a hotel a block and a half away, the Royal Macau Hotel, would be our base. We soon realised during the cab ride that we were half way up Guia Hill toward the old fort and lighthouse, so any trip into the city center would be an easy walk down and a hard walk back up.

The hotel itself was palatialII ; they use natural stone extensively on floors and walls,III almost as if it were the cheapest and most plentiful way to decorate. At any time there seems to be at least twice as many staff as there should be, who are for the most part cheerful (doormen are a little worn-down understandably) and can usually understand you the first time you speakIV .

Somehow we received a room on the Premier floor (although we weren’t entirely sure if we’d paid for it), which greeted us with more marble mania and opulence all the way to our door. The rooms were surprisingly large for Asian standards, and you could actually walk around without moving bags or doing the typical door-shimmy to get into the bathroom. More marble flooring and a completely marble bathroom was impressive, as was the modern room itself. Outside the window we had a small view toward the lighthouse and harbour, with bamboo scaffolding across our window and stretching over the entire side of the hotel.

Breakfast was included and was thankfully western; I’m happy to eat local food, but having a familiar breakfast is so much better than us experimenting with the strange eastern breakfast samplings in KL. The only side effect; I’ve developed a small grapefruit juice habit that I can hopefully lose cold-turkey when I get home.

Another pleasant surprise was the return of real bacon. In Kuala Lumpur you’re treated to what they call Macon, or manufactured bacon. It’s essentially beef pressed with little perfect squares of fat, and flavoured somehow so it’s not as beefy in taste. Thankfully here nobody is scared of pigs.

As we were leaving the concierge appeared from nowhere and gave us another map, this time with his special shortcuts to where we wanted to go.

Taking his advice we headed downhill through a maze of some great smelling (and a few bad smelling) streets, winding our way down to the city center. Even though the map he gave us was completely out of scale and without street names, we managed to stumble upon a few historic buildings that were bursting with tour groups.

We found ourselves on flat ground, and in front of the Grand Emperor. The lobby and ground floor made our hotel look like a three star joint, with it’s well publicised kitschy design. Beefeaters even guard the front door, although somebody ought to tell them that they shouldn’t talk to tourists or lean against the wall. Inside, the main desk is surrounded by gold bars behind a plexiglass floor, which (although impressive) serves as much purpose as any of the other wacky things this place does to look British.

In the next few hours we walked the streets snaking between casinos. It’s great they haven’t gone the path of the Vegas strip – you can literally walk out of any casino and get onto the street, without the need to walk through the Vegas maze of casinos, walkways, tunnels and overpasses to make your way walking across town.

The one casino that stands out is the Grand Lisboa, due to the architectural curiosity of the exterior. Greeting you inside is a bronze horse headV which Stanley Ho paid a whopping $69HK million for, then plonked down in his landmark casino for everybody to ogle over. Oh, and beside it the too-huge-to-be-real 218 carat Star of Stanley Ho diamond for good measure. Walking through the lobby (you have to pass security worthy of an airport to get any further) visitors are treated to scores of priceless eastern antiques. The majority of the pieces are large, and I can imagine Stanley Ho running out of room in his mansion garages and having to put these things *somewhere*. It’s great to be able to check it all out for nix, as most of it is better than you’ll see in the museums, although on the same token it’s sad to think of what’s still sitting in private collections.

After visiting both cities it becomes clear that casinos are really a different beast in Macau. The main difference that’s easy to spot is the layout. Everybody here seems to come to gamble and casinos are designed with that in mind. You can literally walk in and find where you want to go; restaurants this way, hotel rooms that way, but most surprisingly they don’t hide their exits, or force you through gaming floors to get anywhere else. The labyrinthine mazes found in Vegas simply don’t exist here, and it’s not by accident – people don’t need cajoling to gamble.

You could forgive the Stanley Ho monopoly-era casinos for this type of design, but it’s true even of the modern American imports such as Wynn, MGM and The Venetian.

The other (and more surprising for me) difference was that there seemed to be less smoking in the casinos, my pet peeve in Vegas. There were still people smoking all over the place, but it’s either less than Vegas or they have much better ventilation systems. In either case it’s great to walk through and come out the other side without smelling like you’ve got a pack-a-day habit.

There’s two other peculiarities that I can see that are different on casino floors here. The first was the automatic roulette tables, a strange asterisk-shaped table with touchscreens for each player, with a roulette wheel inside a glass bubble at the center of the table. You insert your notes and drag your chips around the screenVI before the ball is ejected mechanically onto the wheel. All the social fun of roulette is completely lost with these so-called tables, as everybody sits heads-bowed tapping away at their own screens in silence.

The other difference is their love of Sic Bo, which was only second to the horde of Baccarat tables for popularity on the casino floors. As I’d not even heard of the game before I couldn’t understand the cryptic domino-like display of the table, although the amount of happy and social crowds around the table seem to lead a lot to it’s popularity.

Passing more baccarat tables and an Omaha Poker tournament inside Wynn, we elected to find the bar and had a few drinks inside an expensively furnished yet completely empty cafe styled bar.

All I needed to see were Chicken Feet on the menu at the restaurant to look elsewhere, so we left for MGM Grand instead. We picked a half-full restaurant called Square Eight, where I ate what was supposedly a Macanese dish. The servings were huge, tasted great, and the price in no way matched the luxurious look of the decor.

In the next couple hours we trekked through every casino we came upon, and in the Sands I snaffled a free bottle of water from a tray that held at least a thousand perfectly aligned bottles for guests. As I walked away it was swiftly replaced with another.

Casino’d out, we reached the shoreline and walked past what looked like old Expo grounds at Fishermans Wharf, which now hold stores that must be ran by eternal optimists, as from the outside everything looked to be closed down. At one end stands a well made but ghastly fibreglass volanco, imaginatively entitled Vulcania, which holds a small volcano museum.

Mostly everything else was closed, so we poked around the exterior for a while then spent the next hour walking around trying to find where our shuttle bus stopped, before catching a taxi back to our hotel.

Why go back to our hotel in the afternoon? Well, on account of the unbelievable 2pm-8pm free beer, wine and snacks in the lounge, held every night of the week to a live pianist in the background. Again, only a handful of people turned out for it while we were there.

After a couple hours of that we formed the brilliant idea to ride the shuttle bus the entire loop, so we could see exactly where we could pick it up from town to avoid walking back up the hill (or more likely, the taxi ride).

The shuttle leaves every ten minutes, and they’d told us it takes twenty to loop so we were all set. Once aboard we told the cranky grimacing driver three times, gesturing a loop with out hands (not beside our heads, although that might have helped). Finally he looked away into the distance so we took that as a yes, and jumped on. The shuttle filled up with people and we were on our way.

The first stop was Wynn, and after cutting off another two buses he flung himself into a small car space, opened the door and glared at us.

“Wynn, you, Wynn, off!”. I looked behind me to see everybody else waving at us, laughing at the silly tourists who didn’t know their stop.

Shaking our heads, he managed at least three different frustrated face-pulls before shutting the door and cutting more traffic off as he launched the bus out into two lanes of traffic.

Then something strange; we skipped two stops, not even going down the streets. All at once it became clear why we couldn’t see the bus at fisherman’s wharf. Nobody got off so they skipped that whole part of town.

Entering the ferry terminal, the last of the others got off the bus, the last of which (speaking perfect English) asked us where we wanted to go. He laughed heartily at the idea and shared it with the driver, who cackled with him before screwing his face up and angrily shooing the man off the bus.

We were almost out of the terminal when out of nowhere the bus double-parked across another, the door opened, and two people emerged from deep inside a crowd of hundreds and jumped on the bus. Just how that happened remained a mystery our entire stay.

We eventually did the full loop, and thanked the bus driver as we disembarked. It was hard to see any reaction as he was all but hanging out his window to look away from us.

Another neat gadget that the hotels have here are digital replacements for the do-not-disturb door hangers – a button on the inside turns an electronic display on the outside of the door, that tells the cleaners whether you want the room made up or left alone. There’s even a doorbell on the outside.

Unfortunately for us we must have hit DND while looking for light switches, as our room was as we left it, so for the next hour and a half we called the lobby fruitlessly requesting fresh towels. The doorbill chimed around 11pm that night.

The next day we set out early in the direction of the historic sites, but partly through the gently winding streets (and our inability to read) we managed to get seriously off-track. This turned out in our favour though, as we got to see some of the non-touristy (read dirty, cramped and completely non-English) streets that you would otherwise miss on guided tours and walking trips.

It really is amazing just how much they utilise land here and how cramped their living space, shops, streets and life is. I’m sure they’d laugh if they knew how most Gold Coast high rise apartments cost equal or more than a house with a garden. One feature of a house for sale in a real estate window bragged, “Single Numbered Street Address!”. If you live in a house here, you’re doing very well – everybody else lives in small apartments with even smaller windows, no balconies, and hang their clothes out to dry across swinging arms in the dirty, hazy air outside their windows.

We reached the shoreline again and the Pontes (which I imagine translates to Piers) and were greeted with trucks offloading fish to dry on the footpath. Not a bird, pet or even fly touches the thousands of fish left to dry in these flat boxes of fish, some still trying to jump their way back to freedom.

We found another casino hotel, Ponte 16, and walked through the metal detectors and guards (a fixture at most casinos and expensive hotels) into a simple, huge open space filled with gaming tables and an unusual amount of smoke clouds floating around. We stayed for a drink before the clouds floating down to eye level, then made haste outside. I’ll take smog over smoke any day.

We found ourselves (only literally) at Sao Domingos, a nicely built church with a series of steep, narrow staircases out the back that lead to the various floors of the Treasury of Sacred Art. The art unsurprisingly consists solely of religious artefacts, without title or explanation which make it more difficult to appreciate. The exhibits range from the impressive to the outright strange, such as a wooden box filled with carved timber crucified hands. The walk to the top to see the old church bells is worth the trip alone, if not the building itself.

We decided to follow the tourist street signs to Macau’s most well-known ruin, the ruins of Sao Paulo. As typical, there were around five hundred people on the steps up to the remarkably preserved facade, which you can walk up the rear of using the steel staircase and walkway. A guard slunk out of the crowd to tell me my water bottle wasn’t welcome up there for some reason, although you’re free to throw coins for luck onto the ledges. Looking through the windows leaves a view of older style buildings with the Grand Lisboa standing proud in the background.

Above the ruins lies the Fortaleza do Monte which is of the same age as Sao Paulo. Sadly we didn’t have the time (nor energy) to walk up to it, so it’s on the list for next time.

Deciding to retreat to the hotel for lunch at one of their restaurants, we again got lost in the maze of streets and before I knew it we’d managed to a full loop after an hour of walking. Deciding it was no longer a good idea to head in a direction, I had a good look at my map and charged off the right way, and found all the landmarks we’d seen this morning on the walk down. Before long we were sitting down for lunch at the hotel.

I chose the chicken with chestnuts, not knowing that the usual chicken served here is the variety that seems to have been hacked apart with a machete into cubes, bones and all. Not wanting to eat the fat, cartilage and bones I spent the next frustrating half-hour separating the meat from the rest with a fork and spoon – I have no idea how people do it with chopsticks, I’d bet they eat the lot bar the bones. It wasn’t all bad; the chestnuts were the highlight and it was otherwise a nice meal and a decent restaurant.

Finishing just in time for 2pm, we spent a bit of time in the lounge making use of the free wine until our twice-daily bus to the island of Taipa came along.

Crossing the harbour to Taipa you lose the sense of crowded space of the city, and the construction work everywhere makes it appear as if you’re amongst the future development of the country. The most recent of it is dubbed the Cotai Strip, a vast expanse of reclaimed swampland, some of which has been carved up into large blocks and is currently being fashioned into a casino strip.

Due to the double whammy of restricted visa laws in mainland China and the financial crisis, some casinos sit partially completed and most of the blocks are still virgin. There are however, the beginnings of what they are trying to achieve at one end of the strip.

Due to the limited amount of blocks (and money) a lot of the developments are partnerships between casinos, although most are owned by parent companies so it’s more brand-sharing than land-sharing. It’s an interesting fusion, with the Hyatt and Crown hotel’s perched above three different casinos on a single block. No luck at City of Dreams? Take the escalator upstairs to the Hard Rock Cafe Casino and try there. For somebody used to Vegas it’s a very surreal experience. And the floorspace is huge, at least as large as their American counterparts.

Outside it’s the usual glitsy lightshow everybody is used to, although the hundred of chandeliers visible in the Crown explains in part why it’s not very affordable to stay as a guest.

Crossing the road is amusing; imagine a six lane street with only the occasional shuttle bus and limo and no other traffic. I’m sure in years to come it’ll match the rest of Macau, but for now it’s almost as if the place has been abandoned.

Across the road are the only two casinos open on this side; the Four Seasons (which we skipped) and The Venetian, the American counterpart being my favourite styled casino in Vegas – though I’ve yet to stay there.

I always have trouble explaining the scale of Vegas to people, so there’s no chance I can get through the size of The Venetian to anybody, let alone people who have been to the American casino. According to the most accurate source of all time (yes, Wikipedia) it’s the fourth largest building in the world by floorspace (coming in at 250,000 acres), and the lake outside is beyond measuring – to me it seems they could place another building of the same size in the lake and double the size of the hotel. People were staring at the body of water in the same way people watch the ocean.

The domed entrance is similar to it’s counterpart, but again supersized. Walking through the entrance into the avenue of boutiques (in which the prices were suitably extreme) you’re led into the casino floor. At first it appears as if the walls are mirrored in a typical larger-than-life casino illusion. But then you realise that the room keeps going, and going, and you can only just make out the walls, which are too far away to walk to so you could make sure you’re eyes aren’t tricking you.

The gaming floor is the largest in the world, and there  is no way to describe how scarily huge the room is. Again, you see people just looking into the distance as they too can’t believe their eyes. It’s that big.

Walking through the gaming floor you arrive at a bar and two spiral escalators which is a mechanical marvel to watch. These lead onto two more floors of shopping and a top floor almost completely unused and screened with red cinema curtains, aside from a pricey health salon that they assure is filled with the, “Most well paid doctors in Macau”.

After spending $122 on drinks (one each, and that’s MOP) at the eclectic circular bar in the center of the casino floor, we checked the map to find there was no other casino in walking distance, so we caught the free shuttle that travels between it and The Sands. It was only after we left that I realised we hadn’t even seen the area with the famous canals and the full-size recreation of St. Mark’s Square.

In foreign countries it’s always a mystery on how safe the streets are at night, so it was welcoming to see women walking alone and families out walking the streets in the city beside us as we made the short stroll through the center and up to our hotel.

We started early to fill up on our last Macau breakfast, we caught the shuttle (different driver, same attitude) to the ferry terminal to pick up our Jetfoil tickets early before setting out for the day.

After the walking we’d done in the last two days we opted for a taxi to the Guia fort, up a road I’d figured was wide enough for one way traffic, until we had to park to let traffic downhill.

Throughout our holiday we saw a lot of unusual signs, most of them government and council warnings about what not to do. Along with playing ball games, walk on the grass or play soccer, around and inside the fort you can’t under any circumstances throw your fish away. Go figure.

The fort itself is a small, well built (it is a fort after all) structure perched atop the hill, with a much more modern lighthouse above it. The large, metal typhoon signals are on display in a plain room in the fort, used to warn locals of the various intensities expected when the weather turns ugly. I would have thought numbers would be more simple, but the odd shapes have been in use for a long time so they must work.

The only peculiar building on the hill is a little old chapel covered inside with frescoes that have been slowly chipped away where people can reach them. It’s completely empty, so aside from the paintings and structure there’s not a lot to look at. The small lighthouse is closed to the public, but the views across Macau make it a worthwhile trip.

We elected to walk downhill, as our hotel was a half-way point down to central. We tried the other restaurant, a semi-buffet where you pick a main and buffet the sides. I had the duck, which came in three slivers as big as your thumb and thin as your thumbnail, which were tasty but a bit of a cheat for a main. Afterward we had our last complimentary drinks and checked out. Lugging our bags onto the shuttle we made another stop-skipping trip to the ferry terminal and arrived just 45 minutes before the ferry left.

On the ticket it said to arrive just fifteen minutes beforehand, which doesn’t seem right if you’ve ever taken a plane anywhere in the last decade. Once there we had to wait thirty minutes before anybody showed up, then as if on cue, everybody arrived fifteen minutes early. One thing you learn in Macau (and HK for that matter) is that you can set your watch to public transport.

The deluxe JetFoil we chose (which cost something like $10 more than the regular one) was decked out like a first-class plane with leather seats and plenty of legroom. The ultra smooth ride was made even better with a complimentary meal, drinks and even the hot face-towel treatment. If there was a downside, it was the smog knocking out the visibility as you passed the hundreds of (I can only imagine picturesque) islands between Macau and HK. As with most boats I’ve been on, you only feel the swell when stationary, the rest of the time you could be on a bus or train.

An hour later we docked in Hong Kong, and the main body of our quick holiday was to begin. If I’ve learnt anything, it’s that Macau deserves a lot more time than we gave it, and I can’t wait to get back. :)

  1. Thanks to the nice lady at the proper tourist desk who wrote the name down in Cantonese for the driver []
  2. As is typical for hotels in Macau and also mostly Hong Kong []
  3. Sometimes ceilings are even treated to the large marble and granite tiles []
  4. On par with America, now that I think about it! []
  5. Godfather, anybody? []
  6. Resulting in a frantic tapping the first time as you get used to the system. []
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