Adventure of Flo on Everest

“Welcome, Flo, to Everest. Well, sort of. This is Everest Base Camp”, I said in Zee.

“Beeeeeei plisssh grrraw breep?”, sputtered Flo.

Let me translate that for you. Flo was asking, “What is this?”

***

My name is Nick, and I’m the only person on Earth who can understand Flo, my literally little alien friend. One day I woke up to find a green… thing the size of a big toy poodle standing outside my window staring at me.

Continue reading “Adventure of Flo on Everest”

My Millennial Impression of the Typewriter

Oh how naive I’ve been.

About two years ago I declared that I needed a typewriter so I can write more. I told my wife (then girlfriend) that if she really wanted to—but nope, she didn’t have to, of course—buy me a birthday gift, let it be a typewriter.

Like many others born in the 90s, I’ve never used a typewriter. Ever. But that has never stopped me from wanting one. They look so old school, so “simple”, so… built for one thing.

Best of all, I imagine there’s really no way to get distracted when typing on one. No Youtube, Gmail, or photos sitting on the virtual desktop to detract me. That would be pure awesome.

But the OverType web app blew my impression to smithereens. Boy was I wrong about the typewriter.

OverType is an ingenious web app whose code must have been very difficult to write. It is true to its bones on its mission, which is to simulate a typewriter true and true on a digital computer. It comes complete with the following (unbearable) features that most traditional typewriters came with:

  • Ding! carriage bar ending sound
  • Diminishing ribbon ink
  • Misalignment of text
  • Backspace that does shit (it merely moves the paper one notch to the right, letting you type over your mistake — hence the name OverType)
  • One letter at a time typing

OverType is outrageous. It’s insufferable for a millennial like me. I now know how ridiculously backward real typewriters are, and can’t help but wonder how authors in the past could stand writing seminal works with them. Seriously…

But OverType is at the same time oddly delightful. Right after trying it out (I only managed to muster the patience to write half a page), I started writing this post, and guess what? I continued to type one letter at a time. My writing style is noticeably more deliberate, a change I welcome wholeheartedly. Backspacing and N-key rollover? Such luxuries!

I don’t know what else to say about the app at this point, but my mind is blown. Ben meshed modern technology with the old and gave the result to us as a gift (it’s free to use, and you can export your written work as-is in PDF format).

Thanks, Ben, for writing this app and giving people like me an education about typewriters. I’ll be looking at typewriters with a different expression the next time I see one. Can’t promise I won’t end up buying one just for fun. You know, the kind where you’ll high-five yourself for just because you managed to do something with it.

What We Mean When We Say ‘Home Automation’

There are at least two kinds of home automation:

  1. Internet of Things
  2. Mecha-tronic Things

1. IOT! IOT! IOT!

Can you hear the crowd of geeks chanting? (In my mind I sometimes imagine a group of geeks cheering a geek supreme leader to the tune of “USA! USA!” that we all find silly [just me?] but hear all the time.)

This is what the internet is going head over heels about. The Internet of Things (IoT) is a geek’s wet dream come true, because it opens up a completely different realm of connected electronics.

At the current point in its nascent history, IoT devices are mostly connected to a master control that lives in our pockets: the smartphone. It’s the enabler at this point due to its ubiquity and tremendous computing power.

But IoT is at a really early stage in my opinion. As a result, a whole bunch of things that do not require connectivity are now connected. Worse still, their creators hardly ever admit that they’re making these things just because they can. Many of time, I observe, see connected things as a logical step forward. You be the judge:

Eggminder. Egg tray + reminder. Sent to your smartphone.

eggminder
“Eggminder” smart eggtray that reminds you when you’re low on… eggs

Then, the HAPIfork. Don’t eat too fast or you’ll… get fat. But please don’t worry, we’ll take care of that for you with a smart fork and an app to track your every mouth.

HAPIfork
“HAPIfork”, a smart fork that teaches you the pace to eat

Of course, to be sure, I picked the most horrible of the lot. The senseless use of technology in making products that nobody ever said they wished existed.

I don’t doubt the potential of IoT. For now, for me, we’re just playing around. If you think about the Nest smart thermostat, which is just about the biggest IoT device (and the closest thing to actually being “smart”), it’s really not that game-changing.

Besides connecting everything together and slapping “smart” labels on everything, home automation is also possible without internet connectivity. How did self-stop kettles work before people started embedding internet chips into them?

2. Mechanical Electronic (Mecha-tronic) Things

My kettle has an electrical switch…

Whoa, you have an IoT kettle?!

Nope, just a regular electric kettle. You know, the kind you can find in pretty much every hotel room in the world? Remember those?

Ok, enough jeering. IoT has its place in our lives, and increasingly so. But it has a long way to go before the technology frameworks and protocols mature, and before the user interface for making these devices melt into the background and enable an average person to understand and use IoT stuff intuitively.

In other words when it comes to IoT, we’re still years away from the level of acceptance and intuition we’ve developed for multi-touchscreens (yes, we used to call the first iPhone’s screen a true multi-touch screen, remember?).

Back to my electric kettle. It’s a simple device that (god forbids) involves me putting water into it, plugging it into the electrical socket, and pressing a ‘boil’ on-off button. It’s a simple device with a huge benefit: I don’t have to manually turn it off when it boils.

That, to me, is the most crucial part of the whole water-boiling process. I don’t want hot water spilling all over my kitchen counter top, overflowing onto the floor and accidentally scalding my feet (or my little Brownie), or short an electrical socket and cause a fire.

I can handle the rest with my limbs and a minute of time.

An electric kettle works because of a few simple but key components:

  • On/off switch
  • Heating element
  • Bi-metallic strip (two pieces of metals with different thermal expansion coefficients bound together)

Generally speaking this is how an electric kettle works:

  1. User pushes on/off switch to ‘on’ position
  2. Switch closes circuit, and heating element heats up
  3. Water starts to boil, and converts to steam (100 degree celsius water)
  4. Enough steam transfers heat to the bi-metallic strip that it expands, and because of different thermal expansion of the two metals, bends until just enough to mechanically push the on/off switch to ‘off’ position (from inside, ie. not visible to the user)

That’s it. Very simple, right?

Mecha-tronic devices occupy a lower position in the technology-sophistication scale, but they can be tremendously helpful to us in our daily struggles in life.

Washing machines take 95 percent of the effort off laundry, electric thermoflasks virtually eliminates the need to re-boil a pot of water for tea and, most recently, with electronic door locks, getting in and out of the home is at least 5 times faster and arguably more secure.

What’s important to realise here is the fact that none of these devices require the internet to work. They are made with mechanical parts and electronic components. And even though that may still be daunting, learning mecha-tronics has become a lot more accessible with the advent of cheap computer platforms like the open-source Arduino.

I’m an environmental scientist by training. That’s as different from mechanical and electrical engineering as it gets. But the Arduino platform has given me a chance to play around with electronics (and through motors and servos, mecha-tronics) and make interesting stuff.

A recent project was a small LED light that turns on automatically when I switch off my bedroom lights, which I wanted badly because it eliminates the chance of me stumbling over stuff on the floor (including my toy poodle, Brownie) when walking from the main light switch to my bed by illuminating the way.

nick arduino light project
My auto-on LED light project activates for 2 mins when my bedroom is dark

I’ve got many more (logical) projects I’d like to work on to make life a little easier at home, and have already begun working on a few.

In fact, I’m thinking this might be useful to a number of people and am toying with the idea of compiling my projects in an easy to understand compendium. (If this sounds interesting to you, let me know in the comments.)

In any case, I hope more people (you) will take to learning skills that can be used to make life a little easier for yourself, and in the process, begin to see the till-then invisible middleworld of bytes and atoms.

This is part of a bigger movement, called hacking, and it’s one that comprises more and more of electronics as we once saw it did with software. I’m feeling it. Are you?

On Buy-Baity Book Titles

I’m currently reading Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You. If you haven’t heard of this book before, I have to ask: Did you flinch when you first read the book title?

I sure did. And if not for the fact that it’s a book that is highly recommended by someone I respect, I wouldn’t even have picked it up, let alone read it.

Traditional publishing houses have always engaged in touch-baity (before the advent of click-baits) book titles since I could remember. How to Win Friends and Influence People, The Four Hour Workweek, The $100 Startup, and so on. These headlines are meant to snatch attention from the books beside it on a bookshelf, ultimately meant as a sales driver.

But with it comes an insidious side effect: some people, like me, sometimes don’t want to be seen as reading such books.

Consider How to Win Friends and Influence People for a moment. What does it say about its reader? That she is somehow socially inept and don’t have friends? That she is uncharismatic? That she’s someone who measures her self-worth by how many friends she has?

Very likely, even though most people wouldn’t admit to thinking that way of others. Of course, when given a moment to think people will realise that’s probably untrue. The woman just wants to become her better self! (Self-help is another terrible headliner for bookshop sections, which I’ve recently noticed Kinokuniya change to “Self-Enrichment”. Nice move.)

Nomenclature isn’t usually important unless we’re taking a science exam. In the case of books, however, publishers are doing authors a disservice by nudging them to choose a flashy read-this-and-be-you’ll-be-awesome title by repelling some genuinely interested reader. I imagine most people who fall into this group are slightly insecure.

The problem is, the last time I checked, everyone’s at least a little insecure.

Alas, it’s not a fatal disservice, as I’m still reading (and enjoying) So Good They Can’t Ignore You on my balcony this windy afternoon. But I ordered the book from bookdespository.com so I didn’t have to feel awkward at the cashier at Kino, and I silently vow to never read the book in public lest I be judged by others (something I genuinely don’t care about 99 percent of the time, but I do let affect me in that 1 percent, which is enough to make me lose focus and understand nothing I’m reading).

Then again, I suppose you wouldn’t buy it if it didn’t promise a good premise. Humans…

Thicker, please

Microground...?
Microground…?

I was sure I hated this brand of coffee.

It had a splashy entrance with free samples at the local movie theatres and ads on television. On its packaging it touts: “The Name for Microground Coffee.”

I was a barista for 8 months once but I had never once heard of “microground coffee”. But the packaging was enticing, so I gave it a shot (pun accidental). Since I recently became too lazy to make espresso-based coffee at home, I’d been wanting to find the perfect 3-in-1 coffee. Maybe this would be it?

It turned out to be mediocre. Sure, it had an interesting taste that’s unlike other 3-in-1 coffee sachets (probably because it’s “100% arabica” beans), but it wasn’t good enough to be the coffee.

At the supermarket, however, I was once again attracted to this brand of coffee because its packaging stood out, and its ads stuck in my mind. So I grabbed a bag of 20 sachets and went home. “It isn’t so bad… I’ll just make do with it for now,” I told myself on my way home.

Over the next few weeks I drank one sachet every few days and didn’t think much about it. Today, however, I made a cup that tasted like magic.

How? I made it thicker.

Our material should look good and deliver a punch at the same time
Our material should look good and deliver a punch at the same time

For some reason I told myself to add a lot less water this time. I think it’s my mind subconsciously deciding that it’d be a good idea to get caffeine into my body in the least amount of time and reduce the yucky-ness – like I always do with medicine.

Instead, it tasted wonderful.

As I was enjoying my new cuppa (and quickly finished it), I realised there might be a metaphor in this experience: things in concentrate tend to be better.

Thicker Material on Blogs

Blogging was the first thing I thought of. Of the 3 or 4 blogs that I regularly read, all of the authors write articles that homed in on specific topics:

  • Seth Godin on marketing, business and leadership
  • Tim Ferriss (Four Hour Workweek) on life hacks, lifestyle design and learning
  • Andrew “bunnie” Huang on electronics, hardware and tech business
  • Maria Popova (Brain Pickings) on books, writing and the arts

Entering their online space is like entering a temple for business, sociology, travelling, or any other fields. Within those grounds only ideas that fall under to their chosen niche are entertained. Each subtopic in their niche is then attended to with thoughtfulness arising from an artist’s detail and a surgeon’s precision.

(I’m sure these authors ponder other things, but each of them, by chance or design, have decided to focus on niche areas.)

This led me to realise that for a person to lead what Seth Godin calls a tribe, she needs to make her material thicker. By thicker I don’t mean more estoeric, but more… concentrated. Focused on delivering useful material to people.

Articles with titles designed to get people to click still make their rounds on the internet (especially on Facebook). But when platforms like Medium–where (mostly) higher quality articles circulate–combine with the general awakening and maturing of internet readers, this group of people who would succumb to click-baits is fast shrinking.

Readers, like coffee drinkers, now want something that is not just palatable, but strong. We were kids before, and now we’re adults, and watered-down coffee made by dreadful one-click coffee machines just won’t do anymore.

Also because thick is usually better. Anyone who’s consistently blogging should take a moment to ask: is my material thick or thin, and if it seems thin, where are the spots that are already thicker?

Oh, and good packaging doesn’t hurt. I bought another bag of 20 coffee sachets this week.

Travel: How to Decide What Cities to Visit

The eagle is landing
The eagle is landing

We’re going to the US for a month in April!

Amidst our slow preparation for the trip—finding friends to take care of our Airbnb apartment, to look after and love Brownie while we’re away—we’ve been asking each other where we’d go.

And we never came to any conclusion. We don’t know which cities to visit.

The US is huge, especially for someone from Singapore, and it’s impractical to stopover at more than 6 cities in a month (5 days per city). That’s pretty much what we know.

Aside from the occasional American drama series that we binge watch together (Friends, The Mentalist, Suits, Big Bang Theory), and the famous cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles that we’ve been before, we really don’t know much about American cities and the people who live in them.

So we’re in a rut, albeit a good kind: we have a potentially awesome trip planned, but if we don’t know much about the cities we’d like to visit, it wouldn’t mean much to visit them at all!

Being the millennials that we are, we Googled. Various search terms…

  • articles to read before going to united states
  • how to choose/decide on cities to visit in united states
  • how to prepare for a roadtrip to the united states

The results we got were a combination of the following, which are not useful to us one month before a big trip:

  • Literary works, like de Tocqueville’ Democracy in America
  • Travelogues, like Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways and Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley
  • Fact list-icles, like “18 Things Everyone Should Know Before Visiting The USA”
  • Categorical list-icles, like “10 Best US Cities to Visit on a Budget”
  • Other list-icles, like “20 Best Cities for 20-Somethings”, and preposterously widely casted list-icles like “10 Best Cities to Visit in the United States!” (with the exclamation mark)

Can’t recommend any of these as articles to base a true travel trip on.

If you have at least 2 months before a trip, however, I’d recommend Lonely Planet’s comprehensive list of “travel books to read before you go”, which covers practically any country anyone cares to visit. Reading books like travelogues or travel fiction is admittedly still the best way to dig deep into the idiosyncracies of a place and its people.

Truth be told, my gripe here is a little luxurious, but not one that’s unwarranted. Remember a time when travelling overseas was a big (big) deal? That was before online ticket bookings and budget airlines.

My wife and I—and I imagine, you—live in a world where it’s possible to be in New York one night for a meeting, and be Sydney the very next for a friend’s wedding – all without having to rob a bank.

What that means is that there hasn’t been a whole lot of build-up prior to us buying those tickets. We’ve always had the confidence that we’d one day go to the US and do an across-America trip, so we didn’t think much before today.

And because of this confidence and how accessible flights are to middle-income people like us, we book flights to places more sporadically, sometimes on an impulse. And why not? It certainly adds to its memorableness. (I remember fondly a trip to London and Paris with a friend in 2011 where we booked our flights in university campus without thinking twice, after realising the prices were really low and that we’d be on winter break. It is particularly unforgettable because of how we decided to travel on a whim.)

The problem with booking trips one or two months before the adventure is that there’s very little time to read up appropriately to decide where to visit. That is, after all, not a decision to made arbitrarily since… well, since the world is so freaking big.

So What Now?

I’ve started doing some research, which will probably involve a lot of reading to determine which cities fit our broadly-defined aims for the trip, which are really quite simple:

  • To observe people in different cities and see how different people can be in their unique environments
  • Learn history by seeing monuments and reenacting (in our heads) what happened in the past at which places
  • For the cheap-thrill in us, to see places often portrayed in TV shows that we spend a lot of time watching

Your aims will likely differ from ours, but probably not drastically. Unless you’re on a pilgrimage with a specific objective, the overarching reasons you like travelling are probably generic:

  • See the different parts of America with your own eyes
  • Observe the life of Americans in their homeground
  • Synchronise impressions of America with reality

I’d add one last point, which is to “see if we like a particular city”, because the truth is, it’s now easy (and exciting) to move abroad and start a new chapter of life. Well, easier than ever before, that is. And it could be for just a couple of years.

Wanderlost
Wanderlost

Cities to Visit (Not Go Blind)

I’d hate to go to the US—in fact, any foreign country—without first knowing more than a little about its history and culture. To me that’s like travelling as a blind person: I won’t know what I’m (not) seeing. A trip like that offers only a vague sense of the places we visit, which is not much at all.

So I’ll be posting updates on my blog on the research I’d have done. My approach is to use Wikipedia as the springboard to dive into specific cities and learn more about them along the way, which probably involves reading blogs, old and new news, as well as short travelogues.

We’re stoked that we’re going to (/across) America. But now’s the time to sink some teeth into articles that explain just what the US has been and currently is, and prepare for a(nother) trip of a lifetime. Do it now or risk going blind.

Photos by various photographers under CC Zero license found on Unsplash.