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Paris & Barcelona

For our honeymoon in October 2011 we explored the museums and famous landmarks in Paris, then strolled around the Gaudi-inspired architecture in Barcelona, and finally returned back to rent a car and drive to Loire valley. Nothing’s nicer than the French countryside, dotted with castles!

Click on the montage below to explore Paris & Barcelona.

Paris & Barcelona
Paris & Barcelona

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Banff in 9 Photographs

As I sit and write on today, Canada Day, I’m reminded of a recent Canada Day adventure. In July 2009 we vacationed in Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta, spending a week hiking and trekking the Canadian Rockies. Keeping with tradition, I’ve distilled all the photographs down to nine that I especially like. Coincidentally, they’re all from Banff. (Sorry Jasper, but you had all the thunderstorm days.) So call this Banff in 9 Photographs.

Banff in 9 Photographs
Banff in 9 Photographs

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The Penang Diaries – Ringgits

I’m sitting in my hotel room in Penang, fighting off the urges to sleep. My bed looks invitingly comfortable and warm, but doing so would be counter-productive to trying to adjust for a full twelve hours of jetlag. I’m here in Penang for business for a couple of weeks, and there’s nothing like a bit of travel to get the old blog juices flowing…

I’ve gotten pretty proficient at dividing by 3.2, which is the conversion rate from the multicolored Malaysian Ringgit to Canadian dollars. Wandering through the brand-named stores at the multi-storied Gurney Plaza mall and doing this 3.2 division repeatedly, I arrive repeatedly at what I’d expect the price to be in Canada. (Just can’t escape the law of one price.)

Head where the locals head, and food is cheap. An exploision of hawker stands takes over an area just west of the Gurney Plaza. Dinner: char koay teow, a fried vermicelli noodle with cockles (some sort of local shellfish), pig fat, and duck egg: RM 4.80.

Canada has the worst mobile phone service in the world. It took all of 5 minutes and RM 8.50 to obtain a mobile SIM card to have a local Penang phone cell number. And RM 5.00 of credit for local calls (billed at RM 0.36 a minute). Let’s see you do that, Rogers.

It’s rainy season. Which means freak thunderstorms. Like, torrential rain thunderstorms, the your-umbrella-and-raingear-is-useless type. I learned this the hard way, but was luckily saved by a teksi (taxi) ride back to the hotel. Cost: RM 4.20.

You just can’t beat the prices in Penang. Now I’m out to look for koay teow th’ng and other tasty treats.

California in 12 Photographs

Instead of the usual dreary post-vacation monotony, I’m going to try something new. From over twelve hundred frames snapped during a February jaunt in California, I’m going to summarize my trip with just twelve. Call it California in 12 Photographs. It’s taken a few months to find the twelve, but it’s done, finally done… Read on for a flavour of the trip that they try to capture.

California in 12 Photographs
California in 12 Photographs

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Hello, iMac.

I bought a Mac. Shocking.

I have a history of running my computers into the ground. I’ve been needing a new computer for a while now. I’m currently using a Pentium 3 – 1.2 GHz 12″ Sony Vaio with a broken cooling fan (and a tendency to overheat), circa 2003. Prior to this was my 1999 Pentium 3 – 450 MHz, now acting as a Linux-based file and print server. Before that was 486 DX2 66 MHz PC, circa 1993, which wasn’t retired until 2004. (It’s still sitting under my desk, plugged in.)

I’ve been complaining about super-slow Photoshop and I’ve been muttering about a switch away from Windows for a while now, so I finally jumped on the newly updated 24″ iMac. Some thoughts on my new Mac, from the newly converted (please take with multiple grains of salt).

Hardware. The display is astounding. Some of the best color reproduction that I’ve seen; bright and vibrant right out of the box. 1920×1200 resolution, great for those downloaded HD TV shows. I’m pleased with form factor of the iMac; I love how it looks sitting, un-cluttered, on my desk. It’s also super quiet. Everything’s well designed yet functional — with the exception of the not-so-ergonomic standard keyboard. It’s also difficult to type at full pace on its shallow keys.

Operating System. As a former Linux devotee, OS/X is great. I love the native UNIX-based operating system, with the ability to pop open a terminal to do whatever file-moving, bash-scripting, dirty-work that needs to done. I find OS/X incredibly smooth and polished, definitely a breath of fresh air after working on a Windows PC all day.

So I’m happy after my first five days. But will the Mac stand the test of time? Will the switch to Mac be permanent? We’ll find out for sure the next time I upgrade computers, which, if the past sets a precedence, should be sometime in 2013. Stay tuned.

Reflections on Rome

The sun was setting on our first day in Rome. We’d just arrived earlier that afternoon, leaving just a few hours to explore the city in a relaxed, unscheduled fashion.

We’d braved the Roma Metro, infamous for teams of thieves and pickpockets, and made it to Piazza di Spagna, the Spanish Steps. From there, it was a short walk to the famous Fontana di Trevi, the Trevi Fountain. Built during the Renaissance era, both are pretty, and full of people. But quickly boring: a few minutes and pictures and you’ll be wanting to move on.

We started to get hungry. At about nine o’clock, the umbrella-covered al fresco tables lining the streets started to fill with energetic diners, drinking wine and nibbling on overflowing plates of antipasto. We found a restaurant recommendation in our guidebook, and proceeded to get lost in Rome’s twisty labyrinth of side streets trying to find it.

A few turns later, still solidly lost, we found ourselves walking down a narrow street lined with gelaterie and trattorie, and the occasional bar. In the distance, white marble emerged into view as the buildings on the narrow street yielded into a wide piazza. One Corinthian column, followed by another, eight in all, the white marble glowing in contrast with other buildings lit with yellow-tinted incandescents. A beautiful triangular portico framing enormous doors, in front of a wide dome that seemed to dwarf neighbouring buildings, set against a beautiful twilight sky. With each and every step, more of the meter-high block letting slid into view. “M. AGRIPPA FECIT…”

I became rooted to the very spot I was standing, my feet firmly affixed to the cobblestone pavement, my mouth agape as I gawked at the pantheon, beautiful in its simplicity and perfect symmetry. My knees weakened and threatened to buckle. A sea of locals and tourists flowed past me, as a brook parts around a newly placed pebble. Juxtaposed against the umbrellas-lined ristoranti, the hustle and bustle of the piazza, and a street busker playing stereotypical Italian music (for the tourists, of course), the Pantheon surely did not belong. It felt as if the two-millenia old building had been rescued from the past and unceremoniously dropped in the middle of the piazza.

How fragile human life and human civilization are! This building, this mass of marble and stone, has existed on that very spot for a hundred generations of man. It’s witnessed the fall of an ancient thousand-year-old civilization, centuries of turmoil, and recently, the dawn of “modern civilization”. We are but insignificant blips when measured against this relic, a behemoth of time. Where will you or I or “Western civilization” be in two thousand years? I don’t know; but the Pantheon will be in Rome.

A few minutes later, I finally remembered to take a photograph. It’s the one you see at the top of this page. We visited the Pantheon a few more times over the course of the week. Any routes we picked would inevitably detour to the Pantheon, just because “it’s so close” (everything’s close by in Rome). On the eve of our departure from Rome, the final destination of our night walk across was the Pantheon, “one last time”. But even after we forlornly walked away, that magical image of the Pantheon, and all it embodied about Rome, accompanied us on our long trip home.

Recently…

Well, it’s been an awful long time since I’ve written anything on this blog, so I figured I’d throw an update.

Recently addicted. Addicted to Facebook. I’ve been avoiding social networking sites like the plague for the last few years, refusing to sign-up on Friendster or MySpace. Then along came Facebook. And now I find myself checking it multiple times a day, like everyone else. You’re probably reading this blog entry as a syndicated note on Facebook, you addict you.

Recently purchased gadgets. I finally bit the bullet and bought that lens I’ve been eyeing for the last few months: the Canon EF 70-200 f/4L IS USM telephoto zoom. I love it. It’s oh-so-sharp, and I’ve been taking it around on walks around Toronto. It takes beautiful portraits, and great photos of random people, which has been nice with all the nice weather! In the past, I’ve never been able to take pictures of random strangers, but it’s much easier with this lens since you’re usually standing 20-30 metres away. See recent photos, amongst others, at photos.grchiu.com. I’ve also recently loaded up on 10 gigabytes of compact flash. This should be sufficient for about 1400 photos in Rome… enough, I hope?

Recent reading. In preparation for an upcoming trip to Italy (next week!) I’ve been reading Rick Steves’ Rome and Rick Steves’ Italy. Both excellent reads, packed with information and lots of nice maps of the different sight-seeing venues. The Lonely Planet Best of … guides are also nice and small for carrying around.

Before that, I rediscovered the public library system and borrowed Conspiracy of Fools: A True Story by Kurt Eichenwald, a surprisingly gripping and outrageous true store of the boom and subsequent demise of Enron in its corporate accounting scandal. It’s a great read, offering a unique look into the politics and inner workings of big corporations. On the lighter side, Spin, the 2006 Hugo Award winning novel by Robert Charles Wilson, is captivating, with an interesting premise and memorable characters full of vigour. Also recently read was the classic The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. I’m looking forward to reading The God Delusion.

Recent Listening. In the past few months I’ve started listening to vocal/instrumental jazz. It all started when I saw Melissa Stylianou, a Toronto jazz vocalist, perform at Hugh’s Room on the home stretch of her tour. Her latest album, Sliding Down, is great. Check it out.

Italy next week. Some stories and pictures to follow when I return. Arrivederci!

60 days of Wii: is there life after Zelda?


Some Wii Four-play

A short recap for those who weren’t paying attention: It’s been about sixty days since I got the Wii. This may explain why I have appeared to drop off the face of the planet. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time rescuing Hyrule, bashing Raving Rabbids, and perfecting my tennis game. Now I can write a semi-meaningful review of this console (and a few popular games)… Does the Wii live up to its expectation as Nintendo’s big next-generation console revolution, or does it fizzle, falling into the “Nintendo is for kids” stereotype?

The hero returns. Discussed first and foremost has to be The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. If A Link to the Past was the pinnacle of 2D Legend of Zelda success, Twilight Princess is truly its 3D counterpart. The game is masterfully designed and the gaming experience presented is smooth and polished. Dungeons and the puzzles within are designed to be amazingly compact, every object serving a purpose, with minimal time-wasting “running around”. Mini-bosses and bosses are astounding: in scale and how they spring to life on the screen. The plot is endearing, one of the best I’ve ever seen in a Zelda game, with truly emotional moments. The soundtrack contributes greatly to the action and is quite memorable (if only they orchestrated all of it!). I also much prefer using the Wii-mote for control: shooting arrows feels much more natural with the pointer, and the motion-sensing for slashing or shield blocking adds significantly to the realism of the game. Buy the Wii just for Twilight Princess.

But the question on most minds is, what about other than Twilight Princess? Finishing Twilight Princess took fifty hours of play-time over a month and a half (I do have to work, you know). Although Twilight Princess has many things to challenge and entertain you with even after main story completion, it can’t entertain forever. Does the Wii hold its own aside from this blockbuster launch title?

The old can play too. I arrived home one day and was astounding to find my father playing Wii Sports Tennis. Now, this is a man who hasn’t touched console games since Super Mario Brothers on the original NES, and couldn’t, try as hard as he might, get past the platform jumping in World 1-3. It’s amazing how accessible the Wii is to just about anyone: bring a Wii to a party and people of any age, even those who have never played a console game, want to give the Wii-mote a shot. Take that, PlayStation.

Wii Sports, the pack-in game for Wii in North America, is surprisingly endearing. Although it was quickly abandoned at first (trumped by Zelda, of course) I find it a nice short game great for some quick entertainment. Bowling, tennis, and golf are realistic and enjoyable and the rating system offers motivation to return and play frequently. However, the true gem of Wii Sports has to be the training mode, with 15 mini-games to hone your skills on. Hitting home runs in baseball is gratifying, but unfortunately the simplifications such as automated defense make the game not so challenging. Also not so hot is boxing, due to iffyness with depth-detection on the Wii-mote. More on that later.

Great for Parties. Nothing beats four Wii-motes (if you can find them!) at a party. Wii Sports, Rayman Raving Rabbids, Wario Ware: Smooth Moves and Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz are excellent in multi-player mode, creating many opportunities for pictures of your friends and family doing ridiculous things with a Wii-mote and nunchuk. Bowling and tennis are group favourites in Wii Sports. There are a few enjoyable, truly interactive multi-player mini-games: in Rayman‘s Bunnies Can’t Herd, you compete against the other players to collect farm animals faster than they can; in Bunnies Can’t Slide you attempt to get closer to the center with curling-esque bumping. Monkey Ball’s split-screen Goldeneye style first-person-shooter Monkey Wars is a real winner, as is their hoovercraft bumping mini-game. Unfortunately, the rest of the short collection of multiplayer mini-games are “do this action faster than the other people” and get pretty boring pretty fast.

It is also unfortunate that the single-player modes of these games also leave much to be desired. Don’t get me wrong, most mini-games are truly innovative and fun — like Rayman’s DDR-style dancing. It’s just that after playing through the game in single-player mode, there’s little or no challenge or motivation to revisiting single player minigames.

Where’s the online multi-play? One of the highly touted features of the Wii is WiiConnect24, which provides 24/7 WiFi connection of your Wii to the Internet through your existing 802.11b or g wireless network. So far, it’s been used to allow surfing the Internet on your Wii, purchasing virtual console games through the Wii Shop, getting weather updates straight to your Wii, and receiving Wii-mail. Wii-mail makes your Wii’s disc slot glow a cool blue. Unfortunately, although these features may impress, they don’t provide lasting entertainment beyond the first week.

This one feature could have saved single-player mode in Rayman and Monkey Ball with some sort of online stats or multiplayer mode. The ability to play with friends or random strangers, proudly display high scores and stats, or design and trade levels would add instant replay value to games. As it stands, after trying Banana Blitz for a day at a friend’s, I have no intention or motivation to purchase the game.

Although you can hardly blame the 3rd-party developers Ubisoft and Sega for this. It was recently revealed that Nintendo didn’t make the API for use of WiConnect24 available to 3rd-party developers. That means it’s up to Nintendo to release a title (Animal Crossing Wii? Pokémon? Battalion Wars?) that makes use of what’s been one of their most touted features. Smart move by big N, since that first title sets the momentum, and online multiplay can make or break the Wii console. The jury is still out.

Where are you pointing, anyway? The Wii-mote accuracy has been surprisingly good. When the Revolution was first announced, we spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how the Wii-mote and sensor bar would work. The solution is refreshingly simple. (The sensor bar is an array of IR LEDs; the sensor on the front of the Wii-mote triangulates distance, uses an internal gyroscope for determining orientation, and notifies the console via Bluetooth.) Side-to-side and up-and-down pointing is surprisingly accurate, although the first few minutes are indeed awkward. The one major problem has to be depth (towards and away from the screen). Only a few mini-games in Banana Blitz and boxing in Wii Sports make use of this feature, and their control leaves much to be desired. Other than that, the Wii-mote’s performance is stellar.

Virtually Console? Virtual Cashcow. I’ll admit, I was suckered once or twice into giving money to the big N through the virtual console. Generally, it was late at night, and a case of “I’m bored” was instantly gratified using a credit card (or store-purchased Wii points). So far I’ve purchased Mario 64 (for Nintendo 64) and Gunstar Heroes (for Sega Genesis), two games on two consoles I never owned.

It’s fun and a great idea, and the classic controller adds to the gaming experience. Unfortunately, I don’t feel generous enough to purchase all the SNES games I already have snes9x ROMs for; the same goes for the NES games I already have for my old console. Although it would be much more convenient than digging out and reconnecting the NES whenever I have a craving to play Legend of Zelda or Super Mario 3.

Also surprisingly missing is the support for multi-player in the virtual console. Emulators like snes9x have been supporting over-TCP/IP multiplayer for years. Why not support this on the Wii? This would be the one feature that would convince me to shell out for more games. Four-player online Super Mario Kart or Super Mario Kart 64? Wowsers, Bowsers.

Wrapping it up. Nintendo’s Wii rides on the success of its flagship game, Twilight Princess. Its next big hero, Mario, returns in Super Mario Galaxy, planned for later this year. Will the Wii hold its weight until then? My opinion is that multiplayer support in games (both major and virtual console) will be a defining factor in the Wii experience. It’s the only thing missing now, and would keep me (and others) glued solidly to my Wii and TV for hours on end. I hope Nintendo heeds this call. If not, I could always just wait for the next Zelda, Legend of Zelda Wii, whose release will likely be delayed until 2009 or beyond. Surely that game will have at least fifty more hours of awe-inspiring entertainment.

wii-day: wii is for wiictory

4:32 AM. Wii Day. My phone rings. I roll over and check the clock. It’s a good 12 minutes before my alarm clock is set to go off. “I’m awake,” says Jenn. “I am too,” I say. My head spins. It feels like I haven’t slept at all. “Ok. 4:32 AM. Next time I call, I’ll be heading out the door,” Jenn sets up the communication protocol succintly. This, after all, is a military operation.

4:41 AM. I suit up for battle. Three shirts, a sweater, and a heavy down-filled jacket. I rummage through a bin of old ski gear. A scarf, a pair of ski gloves, ski mask, and a nice woolen hat. I also find ski goggles I thought I had lost years ago; I consider wearing them as well, but then reluctantly return them to the bin.

4:48 AM. Weather channel. Zero chance of precipitation, but a balmy 2 degrees Celsius. I quickly add a second pair of pants to my wardrobe. They barely fit over my other pair. I look at my baggy self in the mirror, ski mask and all. I look like I’m about to rob a bank. I wisely ditch the ski mask.

5:00 AM. Driving. The theatre of operations is Newmarket. Forward reconnaissance the previous day indicated that Richmond Hill and Markham locations were likely full: about twenty-five or so lined-up at 10 PM. The drive to Newmarket at five in the morning is uneventful: local roads all the way up, one red light, two other cars, and a family of raccoons just north of Aurora. Maybe they’re out to get a Wii too.

5:15 AM. I arrive at Best Buy (48 units, opens at 8 AM). I’m sweating profusely in the car with my five and a half layers of clothing. I see about 60 people standing around. “There’s 48 people here,” a guy calls out to me from the car, “I’ve got a list.” He suggests that I try my luck online at Best Buy (20 units per hour) or at Future Shop, down the street. I neglect to ask him which street, and which direction is “down”.

5:20 AM. Three streets and two very illegal U-turns later, I’m at Future Shop (40 units, open at 10 AM). I see about 50 people standing around. “There’s 43 people here,” a guy calls out to me. Not to mention a four-and-a-half hour wait. I pass, in lieu of the Walmart across the plaza.

5:22 AM. Walmart. I sign the list, in 46th position, one behind a guy named Vince, who arrives moments before I do. I ask around about stock levels. Rumours galore. 40-something, 54, 48. The lady with the list says they counted 44 Wiis this morning. That puts me at missing by two. Drat. I also ask when Walmart opens. 7 AM. On Sunday. Amazing. At least that’s only a ninety minute wait…

5:28 AM. Jenn arrives at Walmart, having explored all of Newmarket with my awful direction giving capabilities. She sneaks into line behind me, with a bag of granola bars. They’re frozen. I chow down anyway, starved. The clothing keeps me warm, very warm. The line starts to fill out behind me, starting with a young girl immediately behind. Rumours persist that there are only 44 Wiis; this is a disconcerting fact. I am on the bubble.

6:04 AM. “One hour left!” I proudly exclaim. I am very warm everywhere except for my feet. Jenn scolds me for not wearing warmer shoes. I was not aware shoes had varying degrees of warmth. To keep my feet warm, I do jumping jacks and other assorted calisthentics. The kids in front of us in line start playing Winning Eleven on a PSP, alternating between taking a turn at the controls and then thawing out their hands in their pockets.

6:29 AM. Walmart employee shows up and asks us to form a line. Some commotion at the head of the line; someone then shouts “Number One!”, thrusting a blue plastic card in the air. Applause. The ticket handout has begun.

6:36 AM. By the time they get to us, they’re at the 50s. Jenn gets 52 and I get 53. The list was completely ignored. The young girl, now replaced by her father, gets 54, the last one. “That’s it,” says the blue-smocked employee. Young girl can’t believe her luck. Talk ensues excitedly about the Wii and games. Everyone squeezes their tickets tightly in a death grip.

7:01 AM. Starting at the head of the line, five lucky blue ticket holders at a time get to go into the store and purchase their Wiis. They come out cheering and holding white Walmart bags. Many drive past the Future Shop and Best Buy, not to open for hours still, and taunt the others waiting in line.

7:55 AM. Even more people show up and join the line. It’s too late, we tell them. They go away, and are instantly replaced by more. Finally, I’m lead into the store, finally, with young girl’s father, as the last two ticketed persons in line. My Wii is waiting for me. It’s almost anti-climatic: I pay for it, Zelda, and an extra controller (no more nunchuks). I then wander aimlessly around the rest of Walmart for ten minutes, clutching the Wii box to my chest.

Unfortunately, young girl’s luck ran out. The 54th Wii had gone missing, and, being last, she didn’t get a Wii. What’s worse, for the last hour and a half, she had thought she was going to get one too. Shame on you, Walmart. I felt real bad. Jenn had already gotten hers for me, at 52, and we didn’t really need the second one (it was going to a friend), and so after a few minutes of wandering I tried to find young girl’s father to let them have the last Wii. But he was nowhere to be found. My only regret was not thinking about this earlier…

A bit about the Wii. It’s a lot of fun. Kudos to Nintendo for making a very playable system that’s accessible to both gamers and non-gamers alike. The Wii Sports game is simple but extremely entertaining — a great party game. Zelda’s gameplay is fresh, and easy to use; sword-fighting and shooting slingshots is insanely fun with the Wiimote. I was afraid about the sensitivity/accuracy of the remote control, but I find it quite good; some accuracy is still desirable but it’s much better than I had expected. The WiiConnect24 feature is a real winner, connecting your Wii to your friends’ Wiis even when it’s off!

And that concludes my Wii little adventure.

the wonders of San Jose

My co-workers in San Jose have a few nice things going for them. First, and likely foremost, for most, is San Jose is in California. That means it’s unusually warm. By Toronto standards, 20 degrees Celsius (that’s 68 degrees Farenheit, you Yankees you) in the middle of November is positively balmy. If this is November, I can’t wait to see summer, and I can probably accept January and February with no fuss.

There’s one other thing that’s instantly and casually apparent (besides the temperature). Mountains. Everywhere. Although there are probably countless wonderful sights and vistas around that area (none of which I had time to visit during my week-long trip), I am instantly floored by a panorama of mountains surrounding the city, rather large peaks of earth and trees, rising in the distance. Having grown up in the flat-lands of Ontario (i.e. Toronto), this is quite exciting for me. We drive on the freeway, my eyes transfixed on these giants looming in the distance — so large that fifteen minutes of driving does little to change their size. Amazing.

My co-workers are the real lucky ones. The view from the third floor, facing south, of our headquarters in San Jose is gorgeous at 5 o’clock on a crisp and clear Friday afternoon in November. All framed by a bank of floor-to-ceiling glass windows, a beautiful scene hangs like a painting just outside. A tree-lined valley of buildings, houses, parks and roads stretches before you, to the horizon. A mountain to the right, earthy tones glowing red in a Californian sunset. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and I’m instantly envious.