From July 2009

Ngong Ping 360

One of the highlights on my previous weekend in Hong Kong was taking the Ngong Ping 360 cable car up Lantau Island (from Tung Chung). It nearly didn’t happen due to a thunderstorm which shut things down for about half an hour but on the plus side did shorten the queues considerably!

Going Up / Down

The 5.7km journey takes about 25 minues offering spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and airport (which was built on reclaimed land). It’s a bit pricy, starting at 96 HKD for a standard cabin and 157 HKD for a crystal cabin (one with a glass floor) – even more on “special days”. We choose the latter, primarily because the queue was much shorter and we were on a tight schedule.

Don't Look Down

Don’t look down now – floating on about an inch of hardened glass. In 2007 a cabin fell off and crashed into the mountainside. Luckily it was during a test run and nobody was hurt but subsequently the operator and brand name were changed…

Overlooking HK Airport

If you’re afraid of heights or flying then this might be something you want to avoid but otherwise it’s an exhilarating ride and an impressive feat of engineering. After reaching the top you arrive at the Ngong Ping Village which is a ‘cultural attraction’ of sorts but doesn’t hold much interest as an unauthentic re-creation aimed squarely at tourists.

Big Buddha

One thing which is worth taking a closer look at is the giant bronze Tian Tan Buddha which sits next to Po Lin Monastery nearby (built 1993). At 34 meters tall and weighing 250 tonnes it certainly makes an impression on the surrounding landscape. When we first arrived it was shrouded in mist but after climbing the 260 steps to the top things began to clear up providing a beautiful vista over the other small islands below.

Misty Islands

Descending by the same way we had come up I was able to shoot a short video to give you a feel for the sort of dizzying heights we’re talking about (luckily the weather had cleared up at this point):

Ngong Ping 360

Well worth the visit if the skies are clear and you have a few of hours to spare (be warned the queues can get very long either end).

More Hong Kong Moments

Signs of the Times

An old friend from uni was in town last weekend so I popped over the border to Hong Kong to act as tour guide for a couple of days. I always enjoy exploring the city with its endless nooks and crannies to discover amidst the hovering neon signs all vying for attention at the bottom of the canyons created between towering buildings. There is something intoxicating about the endless spiral of growth and decay here where the old coexists in relative harmony with the new in as much a vibrant mix as the inhabitants themselves.

Here are a few more Hong Kong Moments from my wanders:

Extreme Gardening

The lack of space in HK can lead to some unusual hortological endeavours. Check out the woman perched on the ledge above the shop tending to her pot plants. What’s even more incredible is when you see a guy hanging off the side of a 40th floor apartment to attach a new air con unit sans-ropes. I hope those guys have life insurance!

Smoked Meats

Fag in mouth and knife in hand a man chops up freshly preserved meat for sale in the local market (Sheung Wan).

Proud Owner

In the mid-afternoon heat a shopkeeper waits for customers outside his shop selling expensive dried fish and fruits. Des Voeux Rd West has countless shops just like this which provide a living connection to Hong Kongs rapidly disappearing past. Quite how you cook/eat these foods I’m not sure. If anyone could enlighten me I’d be most interested.

High Rise

The Yat Tung Estate nestles on reclaimed land between the shore and mountains of Lantau Island (close to Hong Kong airport) providing an impressive backdrop to the otherwise fairly featureless apartment blocks. Where man cannot build outwards he builds upwards and, while it takes a bit of getting used to living in, apartments like these can be quite pleasant (although I do miss having a private garden). As sea levels rise and the demand for habitable land increases these sorts of dwellings are likely to become more common around the world.

Augmented Reality is Here

Sekai Camera Evolution

If you like cool technology that looks like it could have come from the future then this is for you. Augmented Reality (AR) uses the combination of real-world and computer-generated data to blend computer graphic objects into real-time footage. The best way to understand this is to take a look at a few examples:

New York Nearest Subway

The acrossair iPhone app overlays directions to the nearest subway station on live video using GPS and compass data to guide you. Forget boring 2D tube maps but just be careful you don’t trip down the escalator while using this! There’s also a version availiable for the London Underground.

AR Business Card

This ingenious concept shows how a business card has been designed with a symbol printed on one side which can be tracked by a camera to spatically overlay a video message (or just about anything else). Make magazine has an article which shows how you can do something like this yourself. If it was combined with QR codes (visual hyperlinks) the applications could be even more interesting (update: looks like someone has already done it).

Sekai Camera

Sekai Camera

The Sekai Camera iPhone app from Tonchidot in Japan, which first wowed the audience at the TechCrunch50 conference, takes AR to a new level with functionality that allows you to tag and view contextual information about anything in the world through the live camera window. In essense it combines virtual worlds with the real world using the iPhone as a viewer. It’s usage is almost endless and ranges from being able to see product information, to restaurant reviews, directions and notes from your friends but basically anything you can think of.

The video above is worth watching alone for the hillarious presenter answering questions at the end. “Remember look up! Not look down. Please don’t forget imagination!“. I can’t wait to play with this once it’s availiable.

Much of the innovation we’re seeing can be attributed to the combination of a number of key technologies packaged in todays smartphones: video cameras, GPS, digital compass’, accelerometers, touchscreens, and 3G/wifi/bluetooth. One thing which will have to improve is battery life if this becomes popular as currently you’d be out of juice in a couple of hours or less.

AR Translation (idea)

I’d love to see an application where you could point your camera at some text in a foreign language and it would do OCR then auto-translate it into your language. I’ve created a basic mock-up above. There would probably be quite a bit of heavy lifting involved in getting the character recognition working but could be extremely useful. Anyone interested in a collaboration to make this a reality?

Augmented Reality is opening an exciting new world of possibilities which people are only just beginning to realise and explore. The list of current and future applications on Wikipedia are enough to inspire anyone and once the viewing tech is built into your specs we’re only one step away from having a working holodeck (see concept video below)!

This is going to be big (if we don’t all die from information overload first).

Typhoon Molave Approaching Shenzhen

Typhoon Molave

Right now Typhoon Molave (category 1) is making its merry way towards where I’m sitting in Shenzhen and by the looks of this satellite  graphic we could be in for quite a show. It’s expected to make landfall tonight (in the next few hours) and should bring with it wind speeds in excess of 100 km per hour (force 9). Right now we’re experiencing the calm before the storm and the streets are eerily quiet – time to batten down the hatches.

Something tells me I’ll be spending tomorrow at home watching safely from my balcony window!

Thanks to Asian Ramblings for first spotting this.

Storing Sensitive Data In The Cloud

Being an expat with multiple bank accounts in different countries, important documents such as passports, visas, life insurance and other contracts I seem to have amassed a huge collection of important but private information which is essential to the smooth running of my life. Whatever the documents may be if you’re like me then keeping track of it all is a headache made even it’s made even more complex as conventionally it’s a bad idea to store it all in the same place which would make identity theft much easier if that information was compromised (i.e. stolen). Added to this you need this information to be easily accessible as it would be pretty difficult to memorize it all (e.g. online bank credentials, emergency contact and policy numbers etc).

So what’s the solution for keeping your personal information secure but accessible at the same time?

One solution I’ve found which works well is to use a combination of the cloud storage service Dropbox and disk encryption software TrueCrypt:

Dropbox TrueCrypt Cloud

Whilst this might look a bit daunting it’s simpler than it appears. TrueCrypt allows you to create a  virtual encrypted disk within a file which can be mounted on your computer as an ordinary disk (like plugging in a USB drive). Dropbox allows you to sync your files online (in the “cloud”) and across multiple computers.

The basic step for setting this up are as follows:

  1. Sign up for a Dropbox account & install client (2gb of storage free, works on all platforms)
  2. Download and install TrueCrypt (opensource, works on all platforms)
  3. Run the TrueCrypt Volume Creation Wizard to create a new virtual encrypted disk within a file (default option). When selecting the volume size be sure to keep it <5mb depending on your internet connection speed as this will have to be updated each time you unmount (disconnect) the disk.
  4. Save the virtual disk file to your Dropbox (usually within My Documents on Windows or your Home Directory on Mac OS/Linux).
  5. Place your secret files within the virtual disk and mount/unmount as needed.

Dropbox encrypts all files with AES-256 before being sent to their servers over an SSL connection (similar to when you make a credit card purchase online). Combined with TrueCrypt this essentially “triple encrypts” your files so in the extremely unlikely even that someone compromised the Dropbox servers or your computer then your files would still remain safe.

There are other all-in-one solutions which do similar things (like 1Password) but the problem I have with these are that you’re still entrusting your security to other people and most are platform dependent. With this solution you have multiple levels of protection and you’re still in complete control.

While this works quite well for me there may be better methods so if you know of one please leave a comment below!

London Calling

Keep Calm And Carry On

I spent the weekend in the fine capital city of London, once my home for three years, catching up with old friends and family. Whilst bouncing between Waterloo, Esher, High Street Kensington, Bank and Canary Wharf I came across this rather intriguing poster. While the slogan is rather appropriate for the current economic crisis the poster actually originates from 1939 and was commissioned by the British Governments Ministry of Information during the Second World War (but never used publicly). Since its rediscovery in an obscure bookshop it’s become somewhat of an icon spawning many derivatives online (as well as opportunists ready to flog you a copy). I’ve created an iPhone wallpaper version here.

London 2012 Concept Poster

It reminded me of these concept poster designs for the London 2012 Olympic Games by Alan Clarke designed to help people find the right tube stations for various events. It’s just a pity that it’s unlikely these will ever be seen by the general public either.

Classic British sentiment and design, I love it. Anyone from the Olympic committee listening? (hint: hire this guy)

Reverse Culture Shock

Norwich International

Last Thursday I arrived back in the green and pleasant land I call home on my private Fokker 50 turboprop plane weary from the flight and the previous four hours spent stuck in Schiphol airport. Nevertheless it was good to be back on British soil and as my driver pulled up on the runway tarmac to greet us I reflected on how much I had personally changed in the past year since leaving the UK. It was fast becoming clear that you don’t realise what you’ve got until you loose it…

Overgrown Tavern

Back on my country estate I had a dull feeling like something was missing and after about half an hour of wandering around aimlessly it hit me: where had all the people gone? No longer was I surrounded by crowds giving me dodgy looks or asking why I was there and I felt strangely lost. Later on I had another revelation when I realised the only sounds I could hear were that of birds singing in the trees and my own breathing: was I in the mythical garden of Eden?

Tideway

These strange occurrences continued throughout the day but it wasn’t till I was meandering down the river in the family yacht that it suddenly hit home: I was no longer in China and didn’t have to battle my way through millions of cars honking their horns or people spitting on the street or children emptying their bladders in the gutter or breathing noxious fumes omitted by factories or… my mind imploded. What hell was this I had been transported to?!

Golden Grass

Joking aside it’s nice to be home and as the saying goes “the grass is always greener on the other side” (or in this case a shade of golden yellow) but going from an urban city like Shenzhen (15 million people) to a rural city like Norwich (200 thousand people) highlights just how diverse a world we live in. The two mindsets required to exist in either are almost completely different but somehow mine has to span both and I was in for a bit of a shock coming back to it – whilst nothing had changed much on the ground I most definitely had.

DSC_8293

Trying to explain it is a little difficult and perhaps the shock will lessen over time but a part of me now exists in a parallel world, 6000 miles away, which another small part of me is already looking forward to returning to. The UK will always be my home but I think my perspective has changed to somewhat of an outside yet hope I’ll never be a stranger here. Rule, Britannia!

Reflections on 10 Months in Shenzhen

In Flight

Tonight I will be returning to the UK for a short break from China but fear not I’ll be retuning in two weeks time. My flight goes from Hong Kong via Amsterdam meaning it’ll be a rather long journey (17 hours) which I never look forward to but hopefully should lessen the jet lag as I basically fly through the night of 8 time zones.

Through the window

It’s been 10 months since I moved to Shenzhen and so far it’s been a great experience. Although I have developed somewhat of a love-hate relationship with the country it continues to fascinate me and I’ve managed to see and learn a lot more since my previous shorter trips as well as met some interesting people. Shenzhen might not be the cultural hub of China but I certainly appreciate its relative cleanliness and convenience as a gateway to the rest of China.

Flying Trolley

I’ve managed to pack in a lot of short trips into the time, visiting Guangzhou, Yangshuo, Hong Kong (5 times), Xi’anShanghai, Beijing (again), Xiamen and many more smaller places besides but there’s still a lot more to explore. Next on my hit list would be central/western China and in particular Tibet would be dream destination if I can find the time to do it justice.

Tangled Web

I intend to spend my time in the UK catching up with friends and family, working on on a few work-related projects and generally enjoying some non-Chinese food for a change! Here’s hoping I don’t catch H1N1 on the way 😀

In case you wondered the pictures here are from the He Xiangning Art Gallery and OCT Art & Design Gallery which are both located in the Overseas Chinese Town. Neither had particularly interesting exhibitions on and for the entrance fee (20 RMB each) it felt like a bit of a con. Still, if you fancy seeing some strung up shopping trollies this might be for you.