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What is Philosophy Anyway?

Philosophy: What the heck is it?

Update: 1-April-2014

My brother recently asked me…is a Zebra white with black stripes or black with white stripes? Here is my reply:
There are two types of Zebras. A white one has black stripes and a black one has white stripes. As with most things in this world. …. Lau Kean Lee, 29-March-2014

399px-Paris_2010_-_Le_Penseur : What is Philosophy
This photo is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license, by Daniel Stockman.

Have you at some point in your life waxed lyrical over a seemingly profound statement or article? And did that P word, “Philosophy”, come to mind? In my case, my first brush with a profound idea must have been the time (when I was 12 or 13 years old) I saw a picture of a “thinking man”; a bronze sculpture by Auguste Rodin of a naked man sitting on a rock with  his chin resting on a hand, deep in thought. The caption on that photo read, “I think therefore I am”, by René Descartes. “Wow, that sounds pretty deep, but what did it really mean?”

“I think therefore I am” – René Descartes

I thought to myself. And that started a life-long journey to understand and make sense of this thing called Philosophy.

Most people, and I am one of those, would just go through life without really digging deeper into Philosophy and just take whatever small doses that may come along in our day-to-day living. Sometimes it comes in the guise of comedy, as when Charles M. Schulz made his Linus character in Peanuts say, “I love Mankind; it’s people I can’t stand!”. Or sometimes it gets splashed in my face as when watching my favourite SciFi, Star Trek and Spock spoke the memorable line, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”. And in later life, one finds that spirituality is steeped in profound ideas, as this website’s by-line ascribed to the Buddha, “Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”

I am now making an effort to actually understand what exactly is Philosophy. In my library, I found three books to educate myself on this nebulous subject.

1. The Story Of Philosophy – Bryan Magee

The Story of Philosophy
The Story of Philosophy by Bryan Magee


Prof Bryan Magee from the Oxford University was also a Fellow of the Yale University. He wrote this surprisingly readable book on a difficult subject.
In just four pages, the prelude “An Introduction To Philosophy” pages 6-9, the meaning of Philosophy shone with clarity. In any field of human activity, we can question the fundamentals normally taken for granted. Prof Magee introduced the concept gently by giving simple examples in diversed subjects or disciplines, like when one asks what is Freedom and what is Equality and are they in conflict, as in politics (Political Philosophy); or when one asks what is Justice in law and is that the same as social justice (Philosophy of Law); or when one asks is there perfect health, and if not what is the meaning of cure (Philosophy of Medicine).

“What is the nature of whatever it is that exists?” “How, if at all, can we know?”

While this demonstrates that there can be a philosophical discourse in any subject, the greatest philosophers go deeper than that and questioned the most fundamental aspects of our existence and our experience. The two fundamental questions at the heart of Philosophy are: “What is the nature of whatever it is that exists?”  (ontology) and “How, if at all, can we know?” (epistemology). Prof Magee then rounds off his introduction to philosophy by stressing that Philosophy, Science and Art are not at odds with one another. All three confront the mystery posed by the two fundamental questions to try to achieve a deeper understanding. All three rely on inspiration and criticism and make their findings public to be shared. And yet because they follow different methods and different paths, they appeal to different temperaments. (Note: this last word, “temperament” makes for interesting reading by itself… ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_temperaments). The rest of the book then delves into the different great philosophers and their respective era.

2.  The Dream of Reason – Anthony Gottlieb

A History of Philosophy
The Dream of Reason by Anthony Gottlieb

Anthony Gottlieb was from Cambridge University but he was a professional journalist having served as Science Editor and Executive Editor of The Economist even though he was also a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University. So it is interesting to read Anthony’s take on Philosophy from a journalist’s approach, viz. “…to rely only on primary sources, whenever they still exist, to question conventional wisdom, and … to explain it as clearly as possible.”

And so you find in “The Dream of Reason” (A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance), a readable journalistic account of philosophers’ stubborn or obstinate effort to think clearly.

I found his Part 3, Chapter 13, “Three Roads to Tranquillity: Epicureans, Stoics and Sceptics” particularly interesting.  Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BC marks the start of a new era, the “Hellenistic age”.  It means that Alexander’s former domain became Greek-ish rather than purely Greek. It brought a new era in philosophy as well, with three main schools of thought; the Epicureans, the Stoics and the Sceptics. If an Epicurean said one thing, a Stoic would say the opposite and a Sceptic would refuse to commit either way. How interesting!

In the final Chapter 14, we learn that in AD 529, a Christian emperor, Justinian, put an end to the philosophical squabbles by closing down the philosophical schools in Athens in favour of his own imperial university in Constantinople and wanted to ban non-Christian philosophy throughout the Roman Empire. And so philosophy languished in the “haven of piety” for the next thousand years.

“I was struck by the large number of falsehoods I had accepted as true in my childhood.” – René Descartes

Enter the French philosopher and mathematician, René Descartes (1596-1650), who developed the rigorous mechanistic model where he “consider(s) false any belief that falls prey to even the slightest doubt”. This is considered “Rationalism” and Descartes earned the title, “Father of Modern Philosophy”.

Gottlieb intended to write a second volume to continue the tale from Descartes to the present day, but as far as I know, it has not been published until today. Hopefully, it will be witten and published in due course.

3.  Sophie’s World – Jostein Gaarder

The History of Philosophy
Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder

Jostein Gaarder was a Norwegian high-school teacher of Philosophy. He used his teaching capability to write a popular novel which effectively covers the 3,000 years history of philosophy from Socrates to Sartre. Very much like how modern-day management books are written as business fables, Gaarder first published his novel in his native Norwegian in 1991, revolving around a 14-year old girl, Sophie, who progressively learnt Philosophy through a prolonged correspondence with a fifty-year-old philosopher, Alberto Knox. The novel begins with Sophie receiving a mysterious letter with a question,  “Who are you?” and then a second letter with an equally intriguing question, “Where does the world come from?” The third mail came in the form of a postcard addressed to another girl, Hilde, c/o Sophie.

“If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.” – Francis Bacon

What followed were a series of philosophical lessons taught to Sophie by Alberto. How Hilde fit into this story, if told here, would be a spoiler. Suffice to say that in the course of the novel, Sophie and Hilde (and thus we the readers) are taken on a grand tour of the history of Western Philosophy.

Where Gottlieb left off, Gaarder continued from Descartes, Spinoza, Locke and others to The Enlightenment  (the Renaissance) and Romanticism until the Present.

The novel is reputed to have been translated into fifty-three languages, with over thirty million copies in print. In 1997, Jostein Gaarder and his wife, Siri Dannevig, established the Sophie Prize (named after the book), a USD100,000 annual international award for environment and development. Unfortunately, Gaarder found himself embroiled in allegations of anti-Semitism  after he wrote an article in 2006 criticising and condemning certain aspects of Israeli politics and Judaism.
(ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jostein_Gaarder)

Footnote:
I was intrigued by Francis Bacon (1561-1626), and read up on him on Wikipedia.

“Bacon has been called the creator of empiricism. His works established and popularised inductive methodologies for scientific inquiry, often called the Baconian method, or simply the scientific method. His demand for a planned procedure of investigating all things natural marked a new turn in the rhetorical and theoretical framework for science, much of which still surrounds conceptions of proper methodology today.”

As it turns out, while Descartes and Rationalism were widely populart in Europe, Francis Bacon’s Empiricism in England can be seen as a counter-point to Rationalism.
Leibniz, a rationalist, said “There are two kinds of truths: truths of reasoning and truths of fact.” While John Locke, an empiricist, said “No man’s knowledge here can go beyond his experience”. It must be noted that Prof Magee wrote that Locke is considered the chief founding father of empiricism.

Related reading:
Rationalism vs. Empiricism


How Not To Be Embarrassed By Your DSLR

budgetcameras

So you want to be a hot-shot brilliant DSLR photographer?

Update 16-Jan-2014:  See the related gallery “The Shootout Between a DSLR and a Point-N-Shoot”.

There are very few things in Life that are as humiliating and demoralizing as when a guy with an expensive, massive, mean- looking DSLR takes pictures beside his spouse who is snapping away on a tiny point-n-shoot camera and then friends go “wow!” looking at the spouse’s snapshots and saying “uh ah, not bad” at the guy’s should-have-been-awesome photos. What is wrong with this picture!? … pun intended. If that sounds familiar to you and you can relate to it, or better still- if you do NOT wish to be that guy, read on.

DSLR_AE First attempt with DSLR in AE mode.

 

 

 

 

No-one is DSLRFullAutowatching, set the DSLR to full auto.

 

 

 

compactSpouse’s compact point-n-shoot camera.

 

 

 

iPhone4Same scene taken with iPhone 5, just for the heck of it.

 

 

 

From the above, it is easy to see that except for the first photo, the rest are actually quite acceptable “keepers”.

What went wrong?

If you attend a photography class with a live instructor to guide and hold your hands, so to speak, this scenerio may not apply to you; lucky you! For the gung-ho, teach-yourselves (almost everybody else), this one’s for you. Remember, this is strictly for the NEW newbie. If you’re already ahead of the class here, just shut-up and post your comment at the end of the article.

Here goes:

1. Forget about everything that you’ve read elsewhere or what other “lessons” you’ve been taught about the creative modes of your DSLR.
The absolute first thing you’ve got to focus on is how to get a really “tack-sharp” image. That’s pro-speak for a super sharp in-focus image.
You can try everything that the books or instructor tell you, but you will lose heart and interest if your photos turn out any less sharp than someone’s simple auto camera.

2. The secret to a beginner’s DSLR camera getting a sharp image is Shutter Speed. Some experts will tell you something like shoot at your len’s sharpest aperture. Right, but what’s that and why? Think about it: the reason your picture is blurry is usually because of shaky, unsteady hands. The second most likely reason is because the subject is not perfectly still ( the kid/pet is simply behaving as a kid/pet or the breeze simply will not pause for you or life is just being unkind to you ) .  So you see, as long as you have a sufficiently fast shutter speed, much faster than your hands can shake, much faster than the kid/pet can move, much faster than the flower can flutter in the breeze, you’re already 95% home. OK, I made that up. I don’t know the percentage but I certainly know that you are more likely to get a decently sharp image than not.

3.  Yes, there are probably myriad other reasons why a picture is not sharp, but I dare say the above 2 reasons account for 98% of all new-newbies’ bane. Yes, I made up that percentage, too, just so you can get the picture, get it? And don’t tell me the problem is “out-of-focus” because I’m assuming you’re humble enough to engage your camera’s auto-focus. You just have to check that the auto-focus is indeed focussing on your subject of interest. My Tamron wide-range (18-270mm) lens is notorious for its misbehaving auto-focus at critical times. Yet, I can’t bear to part with it. Sigh! But that is another story.

4. And, oh, the book/expert tells you to use a tripod to eliminate that shake and vibration. But I’m addressing the 99% of new-newbies who have just unwrapped/unboxed  his brand new super duper DSLR and who can’t wait to create the highly anticipated brilliant photos he sees from his books/magazines. Who uses a tripod in the first 100 days of trying out his DSLR for the first time? C’mon!

5.  Here are the guidelines for Shutter Speed priority or Time Value (Tv) on the dial of a Canon DSLR.

  • A good rule-of-thumb is that the minimum shutter speed, secs., = 1/focal length (mm) of the lens used.  For example, if you are using a 50mm lens, then the minimum shutter speed is 1/50 sec. In practice, a new newbie is well-advised to use 1/125 sec for a hand-held shot. And as your focal length gets longer, the vibration risk gets higher with the increased magnification. So while the guideline prescribes  min. 1/200 sec for a 200mm lens, say, push the shutter speed as high as your aperture will adjust to maintain correct exposure. If you find that you need a higher speed than your aperture will allow, you may need to adjust for a higher ISO setting to get that speed.
  • Save in RAW, if possible, so that your less-than-perfectly exposed picture has a chance to be saved. On the other hand, if you used too slow a speed and your picture is blurry due to shakes, it’s game over.
  • In Tv mode for Canon (S-mode for Nikon), set the shutter speed faster than the rule-of-thumb prescription and check the exposure to see if the aperture can handle the selected speed for a given ISO. If not, then dial downwards the speed until the aperture value stops flashing. If that is not possible without going below the rule-of-thumb value, stop! Increase the ISO and try again to get the fastest possible speed.
  • Remember, we are talking about a new newbie just wanting a tack-sharp photo and it’s not about stop-motion, panning, special effect or whatever. Just a tack-sharp photo that you won’t be embarrased to show off, side-by-side with your spouse’s P-N-S photo. So just start with the fastest possible shutter speed. Aperture Priority (Av) and everything else can wait.
  • If you still get rubbish blurry shots, then maybe take a step back and dial in “Full Auto” on your DSLR. Look, no-one needs to know. It’s your own private classroom, after all. After each shot ( quite nice shot, isn’t it?), check the photo information to see all the data and learn. Use your DSLR in Full Auto as your  private tutor. You can’t fail.
  • And I just have to add this parting shot: take as many shots as you possibly can. Memory storage is cheap now, not like expensive films in the past. You could even set your  camera to take continuous shots. I read somewhere that even the Pros do it. It’s not a matter of “kia-su”. It gives you the increased odds of getting a keeper. The rest you can just delete before you show off your terrific photo to everyone, right?

There you have it. Your first 100-days of embarrassment-free, confidence-boosting DSLR photography adventure begin.

You’re welcome.


You ought to be able to do better (with your fancy DSLR) than this shot taken with my iPhone 5, while a steady breeze is gently rocking the flower.

grasshopper


Footnote:
On the issue of gender. This article refers to a male DSLR-hotshot-wannabe simply because I’m male and I’m writing largely of my personal experience. No disrespect is meant to any female reader.


TV: Bullet in the Face

bulletinthefaceWhen I first watched this on Astro, I didn’t know what to make of it. The opening minutes already had buckets of bloody violence and layers of not-so-subtle profanities, such that my immediate instinct was to change channel. However, I was transfixed and amazed that somehow the gore and gory and vulgarity seemed familiar. I stayed glued to the screen.

Then it struck me that the characters and action and dialogue seemed to be a MAD Magazine episode. In fact, I began to enjoy the show immensely as soon as I view it as a spoof episode very much like a MAD Magazine story.

The setting is in a fictional city, Bruteville.  Gunter Vogler (Max Williams), a psychotic hitman was shot in his face by his lover, Martine Mahler (Kate Kelton) who is also the partner and lover of his Boss, Tannhäuser. When Gunter awoke in the hospital, he discovers that he was saved by the Police and given a new face; the face of the cop he killed just before he was shot by Martine. The Police figured on leveraging Gunter’s desire for vengeance to help them take down Tannhäuser.

Gunter’s police partner is Lt. Karl Hagerman (Neil Napier) who probably was his dead partner’s gay lover, and whose face is now transplanted on Gunter. The local police commissioner, Eva Braden (Jessica Steen) who is sexually frustrated may have been in love with Hagerman’s dead partner and now hits on Gunter.

The creator and producer is Alan Spencer and filmed in Montreal, Canada.

Catch the show before the censors start butchering it. It is a short series of merely 6 episodes.  Strictly above 18 only.

Music : Travelling Wilburys

220px-Traveling_WilburysWhere were you in 1988 when the Travelling Wilburys Vol. 1 débuted? It sold over 5 million copies, certified triple-platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America and won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group in 1989. Rolling Stone magazine named Traveling Wilburys, Volume 1 one of the 100 Best Albums of All Time.

And where was I? Why, I was a Sales Manager busy building my career and I must confess, the album passed me by completely. I wasn’t even vaguely aware of the Travelling Wilburys. And that was pretty amazing, considering that my wife and I considered ourselves pretty knowledgeable about the music scene.

It was in early 2011 when over lunch, I enthused about Jeff Lynne and his ELO (Electric Light Orchestra) to  Bob, an American retiree friend. Bob asked whether I knew that Jeff Lynne was also with another band called The Travelling Wilburys with George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty? No, I did not. Bob declared The Travelling Wilburys as a must-listen-to, and Bob went on to describe how this awesome motley of legendary stars met and formed The Travelling Wilburys. He told a fascinating story of how George Harrison was driving along LA one day when Roy Orbison stopped next to him at the lights. They got talking about how George was on his way to make a recording and would Roy care to come along? Then Roy got hold of  the rest of the guys and one thing led to another and they ended up forming a new group, The Travelling Wilburys. Little did I know then that as I delved deeper into this fascinating story and tracked down the album, that Bob’s story was one of many interesting legendary tales about the history of TTW. The real history was even more interesting and just as accidental as that imaginary meeting of George and Roy at the traffic lights. More of this later.

Thanks to Bob, I was so intrigued that I had to seek the tunes on the Internet and managed to listen to some MP3 recordings and  knew then that I simply had to get the original album. In 2012, my wife and I went to Liverpool for our son’s graduation and I tried to find the album in the music stores there but to no avail. Finally I found it online at “That’s Entertainment” and ordered it to be delivered to our apartment. Unfortunately, it didn’t arrive in time when we left our apartment to return home about 5 days later. It has to be assumed lost. Actually I found an original  copy for sale in a Liverpool flea market store shortly after I ordered a copy online.  I declined to buy the flea market copy, to my everlasting regret. I had to wait a full year before I finally found it in London’s HMV, the sole copy in the store, lucky me. And what a bonus! It was a 3-discs “The Travelling Wilburys Collection”. Vol. 1 and Vol. 3 are the songs with bonus tracks while Vol. 2 is a DVD with “The True History of The Travelling Wilburys” and the making of five songs. And boy! What a treat it is for Rock-n-Roll rockers.

titles800x600

Here are some off-beat info about The Travelling Wilburys.

  • It started with George preparing a song for the B-side of his new A-side single, “This is Love”.  He knocked off a tune called “Handle With Care” with the help of his friends, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Bob Dyland and Roy Orbison, for the B-side. But the head of Warner Bros Records, Mo Ostin, liked it so much that he and Lenny Waronke (head of A&R) asked George to turn this into a new album. The rest is History, as they say.
  •  George and Jeff Lynne were co-writers at that time and whenever there was any recording error caused by faulty equipment, they would say “We’ll bury them in the mix”.  In time, they would say the same thing  for any small performance error. And so it came to be that when they needed a name for this new group, George suggested “The Trembling Wilburys”, but Jeff offered “The Travelling Wilburys”, which the rest agreed.
  • Together, they were such an off-beat motley crew, that in the album they attributed the credits to: Nelson Wilbury (as George Harrison), Lefty Wibury (as Roy Orbison), Charlie T. Jr. (as Tom Petty), Lucky Wilbury (as Bob Dyland) and Otis Wilbury (as Jeff Lynne). Their drummer was Buster Sidebury (as Jim Keltner).
  • TTW Vol. 1 debuted in 1988. The second album was released in 1990 without Lefty Wibury (Roy passed away on 6-Dec-1988), and George Harrison called it Vol. 3.
  • The combined volumes, together with a 3rd disc (Vol. 2 DVD), called The Travelling Wilburys Collection was released in 2007.

TTW800So where were you in 1988 when The Travelling Wilburys wrote a chapter in Music History? If like me, it passed you by without you even being aware of it, get the classic collection now ( Traveling Wilburys (2 CD / 1 DVD) )

It was Samuel Butler who said, “The oldest books are only just out to those who have not read them.” This will apply equally to music, such as in this case of The Travelling Wilburys.

My Travels : UK-Europe 2013

We spent almost a month (July 12- Aug 10, 2013) in UK and Europe and in that time, we added a number of experiences we would like to share here. The information may be useful to someone.

Scroll down for my reviews on the Hotels or for my suggestions of useful travel apps.

1. Weight System vs Piece System checked baggage

MAS practises the Weight System for all it’s flights except those to and from the Americas.
That means your check-in total entitlement of 30 kg (economy) can be shared out into as many bags as you wish subject to certain max dimensions. Also note that even if you wish to pay for excess weight, there is a safety consideration of not exceeding 32 kg per bag.
For MAS flights to and from the Americas, the Piece System applies and not more than 2 pieces of check-in baggage are allowed.

If you travel as a family or group, you may be able to spread out your TOTAL weight entitlement among the combined pieces of baggage (MAS allows this).

Be careful on code-share flights. Different airlines practise different checked baggage systems. For example, if you fly KLM (ie. you bought your return tickets entirely through KLM), and say, if the outgoing leg is on a MAS code-shared flight, you will be allowed multiple pieces of checked baggage so long as the combined weight is within your entitlement. However, on the return flight, say it’s now on a KLM flight, KLM practises the Piece System, and you will be charged for extra pieces of checked baggage exceeding your entitled 1-piece of checked baggage (economy), regardless of size. Be warned….if there is a code-share flight, check its baggage policy!

One of the best documents on Baggage is from MAS:
http://www.malaysiaairlines.com/content/dam/mas/master/en/pdf/book-plan/Baggage-Information.pdf

2. Airport transfer to and from Heathrow.

If you have a party of more than 3 people, it may be more convenient, if not more economical, to pre-book a private vehicle (eg. Great Britain Cars http://www.greatbritaincars.co.uk/ ). You can book online and select the date, time and type of vehicle. The GB Cars Co has an online live helper to chat with you and walk you through your requirements, including making your booking. An MPV with driver, for 6 adults (we had 4 adults, 4 cabin bags, 7 large check-in bags) costs GBP60.00 for home pickup to Heathrow T4.

Disclaimer: I have no connection with Great Britain Cars. I merely used them in my last trip and I am happy with the service. You can search online for other similar airport cab services.

3. Budget Airlines easyJet (EJ) vs RyanAir (RA)

From my personal experience:

a. Website and Online Booking
EJ’s website ( http://www.easyjet.com/en/ ) is more user- friendly and certainly looks and feels more modern than RyanAir’s ( http://www.ryanair.com/ ). This was in 2012. The websites may have changed.

EJ requires documentary record of identity at online booking and after that they only check the identity document (eg. Passport) at the check-in gate before boarding. RA requires you to go to a separate counter at airport (if the airport has one) or join the check-in queue (eg. at the Ciampino airport in Rome), to verify your passport/visa before you go past security. Be aware of this!

b. Airports
EJ appears to use the main airports whereas RA seems to use low-cost terminals/airports.
eg. London-Venice
EJ departs Gatwick and arrives Venice Marco Polo.
Venice-Rome
EJ departs Marco Polo and arrives Fiumicino ( Leonardo da Vinci )
Rome-Barcelona
RA departs Ciampino and arrives Barcelona T2
Barcelona-London
RA departs Barcelona T2 and arrives Stansted.

Incidentally, the Ciampino airport does not have a jetway so we still have to board a bus from the gate to the plane.

By the way, there are only 2 sandwich shops after security at Ciampino airport.

c. Seats
EJ pre-assigns seat numbers and kept our party of 6 together even though we did not pre-book our seat numbers. This allows more orderly boarding. RA does not assign any seat number if you do not pre-book your seat number. As such, the boarding for RA is more chaotic.
Since it is free seating on RA, the queue forms very quickly as soon as the gate number is announced or opened.
Incidentally, EJ’s planes and interiors are bright cheery orange-white whereas RA’s planes and interiors are dull black-blue-yellow.

d. Landing Cards
RA did not give out the UK landing cards on board the plane from Barcelona to Stansted, so be prepared to fill in the landing cards as you queue. That gave a bit of inconvenience at Stansted’s immigration.
I do not know if EJ hands out landing cards on their flights.

e. Cabin Baggage
easyJet allows up to the maximum size of 56 x 45 x 25cm including handles and wheels, but on some busy flights your bag may have to go into the hold. But if the bag is no bigger than 50 x 40 x 20cm including handles and wheels, EJ guarantees it will travel with you either in the overhead locker or, if necessary, under the seat in front of you.

RyanAir allows one cabin bag per passenger weighing up to 10kg with maximum dimensions of 55cm x 40cm x 20cm, plus 1 small bag up to 35 x 20 x 20 cms.
Due to cabin space limitations only 90 cabin bags (55 x 40 x 20 cms) can be carried in the cabin, any remainder will be carried free of charge in the aircraft hold.
(Up to August 2013, when we travelled on RyanAir, the cabin baggage allowance was strictly enforced for a single bag of 50x40x20cm. From the new allowance stated above, it looks like RyanAir has changed it to be more competitive.)

The key point to note is that if you are flying mixed carriers (eg. easyJet and RyanAir), you will have to be careful that you take along your cabin bag based on the smaller dimensions allowable. An obvious point but one that could be overlooked.

4. Stansted Airport

Long walk and narrow passage leading to immigration area.
No landing card given on board RyanAir, so be prepared to fill in the landing cards as you queue.

Two hotels nearby; Holiday Inn Express Stansted and Premier Inn Stansted. Both are served by an airport transfer bus, 24-hours, GBP3.00 1-way to either hotel ( they are next to each other ).
Although on the map they are only about 1 km away, it is not possible to walk as there is no pedestrian path from Airport to Hotel.

5. Venice
venice800x600

a. Airport transfer
Basically you can take the AVTO Express bus, ACTV Local bus or Alilaguna boat service which takes you from Airport to a few landing spots in Venice. There are also other modes which you can check online.

b. Travel Card
Buy the TravelCard from the Tourist Information booth or the Helovenizia booth. When you come out of arrival, it is on the right. We reached at 5.30pm and the Information Booth did not have lights on. You can easily miss it and instead end up buying the AVTO Express Coach transfer on the left of the arrival as you exit. The AVTO express costs EUR6.00 1-way and EUR11.00 return. The ACTV local also costs the same, but see the Travel Card below.

We found the Information Booth and bought our travel cards for 48-hours at EUR30.00 (was EUR28.00) which gives unlimited rides on the vaporetto (waterbus) and land buses (with some limitations).
For an extra charge of € 4,00 for one-way journeys only, or of € 8,00 for return journeys, all tourist travel cards (12, 24, 36, 48, 72 hours and 7 days) may be used on the land-bus routes for journeys having Venice Marco Polo Airport as departure or arrival point. We paid the extra for this airport transfer, by the ACTV bus no.5 which took us to the Piazzale Roma (main bus station in Venice). Because this is a “local bus”, it made a number of stops along the way. Students and Senior Citizens may have a discount.

b. Hotels
The bus station and train station are across from each other on the Grand Canal but connected by the Ponte della Costituzione (English: Constitution Bridge) Bridge.
If you arrive by bus, maybe it’s better to get a hotel on the West side whereas if you arrive by train, it may be better to get a hotel on the East side.
We arrived by bus but our hotel was on the East side ( just beside the train station) and it was not exactly an easy walk lugging baggage across the bridge.

Venice’s “streets” are generally very narrow, more like a narrow lane than a street. Keep an eye out for the street name or you can easily miss it.

If your hotel offers “private bathroom”, check to see it is internal (ensuite) and not external.

c. San Marco
Since this is one of the must-see sights, it can be convenient to take a water-taxi there. It will take about 25 minutes by water-taxi. Daytime is better than nightime. It is actually only about 15 minutes walk from San Rialto, so a good idea could be to go here by the water taxi and then to slowly walk towards San Rialto and see the sights along the way.

d. City Guides
Be sure to get the updated latest versions.
I found the TripAdvisor London City Guide to be accurate and useful, but in Venice, one of the recommendations in a suggested walking tour, the Drogheria Mascari (spice shop) appeared to be closed for good. The opening time of the Rialto Fish Market was also not mentioned and we found ourselves there too early (before 7.00am).
A number of establishements (hotels, restaurants) display the TripAdvisor sign. Mention to the service provider that you came on the recommendation of TripAdvisor and you will get noticeably better service and attention.
The restaurant recommendations in Time Out London Guide are also useful.

e. Gondola
The Grand Canal is very busy and crowded with vaporetto (waterbus) and other boats. The slow moving gondolas are in very precarious situations.
On 17-August-2013, just after 2 weeks after we left Venice, a gondola and a vaporetto waterbus collided on Venice’s Grand Canal, killing a 50-year-old German tourist and badly injuring his young daughter, near the Rialto Bridge as the waterbus manoeuvred toward a stop.
There are several other places in the inner city’s less busy canals where one can board a Gondola. You are advised to avoid the gondolas on the busy Grand Canal. I have seen them with passengers at night, hardly visible except for a small lantern. The water buses are passing by them at relatively high speeds and I shudder to think what would happen if the lantern goes out.

6. Rome

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a. Airport Transfer
From the Fiumicino (Leonardo da Vinci) Airport, there are basically two ways to get to the Termini (main train and bus stations). The dedicated train service is called the Leonardo Express and costs EUR14.00 1-way, free for children below 12, if accompanied. A cheaper way is by bus. One of the more popular services is TerraVision, which costs EUR4.00 for 1-way. It also goes to the Ciampino airport. We bought our tickets in advance online ( http://www.terravision.eu/ ).
Airport transfer from Termini to Ciamponi airport bought online from RyanAir. Note: TerraVision also has service to Ciamponi airport. TerraVision is by far the bigger and better organized airport transfer service. It is also the only bus service that seems to have a passenger ticketing counter and waiting lounge in the Termini (Terracafe). In contrast, RyanAir’s partner, Autostradale, does not have any counter at Termini except for an alloted bay some distance away from Termini’s main entrance.

b. Roma Pass
Bought Roma Pass from a vendor stall in Termini. Costs EUR34.00 each and gives unlimited bus, metro and some rail lines but no airport transfers for 3 days. Also gives free entrance to two museums or archeological sites. We visited the Colosseum and the Castel Sant Angelo. For sheer convenience (and beating the queues at attractions), a travel pass such as Roma Pass is highly recommended.

c. Vatican
Booked online to visit the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel. May still have to queue to exchange voucher for the ticket.
May have to get guided tour which can also sell the Vatican ticket at a discount.
From the Vatican Museum’s website ( http://mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/MV_Home.html ), if we book just the admission tickets, each costs EUR16.00. For a guided tour, it costs EUR32.00 each, inclusive the admission ticket.
If you buy a guided tour service outside the Vatican, eg. Maya Tours ( http://www.mayatoursroma.com/ ), it costs EUR20.00 per person, not including the admission ticket.
From our experience to beat the queues as well as to understand better the sights and artifacts, it is strongly recommended to take a guided tour.

d. Pickpockets and Thieves
We were in London, Venice, Rome and Barcelona. We didn’t feel threatened (pickpocket, thief) in London and even Venice. However, from the moment we reached Termini (main railway and bus stations) in Rome, we felt uncomfortable. The first mistake was to ask a young man ( looked and sounded like a local Italian teenager, not a Gypsy) for directions to our Hotel. He had a beer can in one hand and a handphone in the other. He very willingly (too willingly) asked us to follow him and that he would show us the way. We followed him some way and then decided to ask a waiter at a corner restaurant to verify that we were going in the right direction. He pulled us to one side and whispered not to follow the young man as he was a thief. It was fortunate for us that we could shake off the young man by deciding to eat our dinner first at the restaurant. After dinner, the waiter kindly led us to our Hotel.

Other instances include the common scam of a group of gypsies making a commotion as we were boarding a crowded train and the pushing and squeezing against us. But we were ready for them and prevented them from picking our pockets. Frustrated, they hopped off the train just as it was leaving.

Another time, in the metro station, my group had gone ahead and left only my wife and I on the escalator. No-one else was around. My wife caught a fleeting glance of a young woman standing on the escalator behind me. When we both turned to look, she was crouched a step below me and started to pretend to scratch her legs. When we reached the top, she hurried off to go to another platform, while my wife and I exited the station. We can only surmise that the young woman (in jogging shoes) was getting ready to snatch either my handphone in my hand or my wife’s bag when we reached the top end of the escalator and then would run off. Why was she crouched so near behind me?

We were expecting the worst in Barcelona, but happily we didn’t feel threatened as we were in Rome.

7.  Barcelona

a.  Airport Transfer
The express bus service is called Aerobus ( http://www.aerobusbcn.com/index.php/en/discoveraerobus.html ) and serves both Terminal 1 and 2, to the city centre, Plaça de Catalunya, and takes about 35 minutes per trip.

There is a departure every 5 minutes from 07.30 h to 22.25 h or otherwise every 10 minutes.The fare is 5,90 € one-way and 10,20 € for a return ticket. From Pl. Catalunya, be careful to board the A1 bus for Terminal 1 and the A2 bus for Terminal 2.

b. Barcelona Travel Card
The Hola BCN! travel card ( http://www.tmb.cat/en/barcelona-travel-card ) provides unlimited travel on Barcelona public transport for 2, 3, 4 or 5 days with a single ticket. We should have booked this online in advance and get a 10% discount. We missed this; you shouldn’t miss it. We bought ours from a Tourist Information Kiosk at the Rambla de Catalunya. The 2-day card costs 13.40€ while the 3-day card costs 19.20€ and includes unlimited journeys on Barcelona public transport for one price.

c. Location
If it’s your first visit to Barcelona and you have only limited duration (advisable at least a 4-days, 3-nights visit), I recommend that you stay at the La Rambla, a tree-lined pedestrian mall, which stretches for 1.2 km, connecting Plaça de Catalunya at one end and the Christopher Columbus Monument at Port Vell, at the other end. It’s a street that never sleeps and has easy Metro connections to anywhere else in Barcelona. There are many hotels along the street, but my recommendation is the Hotel Husa Oriente ( read my review in TripAdvisor).  (update 14-Apr-2016: Hotel Husa Oriente is now renamed Hotel Oriente Atiram) Ernest Hemingway was reputed to consider this his preferred hotel whenever he visited Barcelona.

8.  Hotels

Read my reviews at TripAdvisor  for the hotels here:

Venice,  Hotel Alloggi Agli Artisti

Rome, Hotel Contilia

Barcelona, Hotel Husa Oriente   (update 14-Apr-2016: Hotel Husa Oriente is now renamed Hotel Oriente Atiram )

Stansted, Hotel Holiday Inn Express

9.  Useful Travel Apps

a.  TripIt
I use this app to organise my complete ( and rather complicated ) trip itinerary automatically. A must-have.

TripIt organizes travel plans into an itinerary that has all of your trip details in one place.

Simply forward confirmation emails toplans@tripit.com and TripIt will automatically build an itinerary for your trip that you can access anytime, either online or from a mobile device.

b.  TripAdvisor
I find the reviews in TripAdvisor useful to narrow down my choices of hotels when I’m planning  my trip online. Moreover, the mobile app also has free city guides with suggested self-guided tours.

TripAdvisor® is the world’s largest travel site*, enabling travelers to plan and have the perfect trip. TripAdvisor offers trusted advice from real travelers and a wide variety of travel choices and planning features with seamless links to booking tools. TripAdvisor branded sites make up the largest travel community in the world, with more than 260 million unique monthly visitors**, and over 125 million reviews and opinions covering more than 3.1 million accommodations, restaurants and attractions.

c.  Expedia
Booking hotels through Expedia is relatively easy and fuss-free. While I prefer to read the TripAdvisor reviews to narrow my choices, I use Expedia to book the hotels. Usually there is a choice to pay immediately through Expedia, or to pay the Hotel directly upon checking in. Call it my paranoia if you like, but I prefer to pay immediately to Expedia to lock in my booking, rather than risk turning up at the hotel and find that there is no room booked for me.

Expedia, Inc. is the world’s leading online travel company and operates localized websites for travellers in the US, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Austria, Belgium, Ireland, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, India, China (through a controlling investment in eLong) and Malaysia!

d. MapQuest Travel Blogs
And to keep a record of your trip, check out the Travel Blogs function of MapQuest. Install the app on your smartphone,and you’re good to go, but don’tforget to update your travel blogs everyday of the trip.

Create a personal travel blog to remember all of your favorite travel experiences. MapQuest Travel Blogs lets you upload photos, capture your memories and share your adventures anytime, anywhere.

Urena Lobata: A natural remedy for chronic renal failure.

Urena Lobata: A natural remedy for chronic renal failure.

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Update:

My mum-in-law passed away on May 8, 2010, at 90, because of old age; not because of her kidney. She had a good and healthy life for the 22 years since the doctors gave up on her. We sincerely hope this may help others in the same predicament.


My mother-in-law had chronic renal failure of both kidneys back in 1988. She was 68 then and she’s still alive and perky today at 89 (April 2009).

One kidney was declared completely failed and the other had only 25% functionality left.

She was put on various antibiotics which gave her bad reactions and she also had bed sores due to the prolonged periods she spent in bed.

After a prolonged stay at the hospital, came the ominous pronouncement, “She has only 3-months left; take her home, make her comfortable and give her whatever she wants.” (or words to that effect).

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Well, in a no-choice situation, an unexpected “choice” appeared in the form of a Chinese man (Mr Ong of Nibong Tebal; sadhu! sadhu! sadhu!) who heard of my mum-in-law’s plight from my brother-in-law. He introduced us to a wild shrub (Urena Lobata or Congo Jute or Pulut-Pulut) which was used to make a soup/tea for my mum-in-law to drink. That’s the miracle and the reason that she is still alive and well today, we believe. 

The recipe calls for the stems of the plant to be cut in lengths of 2-3 inches and air- or sun-dried for storage. Take a small fistful (say 5-10 stalks) and boil in 3 bowls of water until 1 bowl left. A piece of lean meat can be added for taste (or as I believe to “balance” the “coldness” of the plant). Drink once a day for a week and observe for any improvement, before continuing. The frequency can be reduced as the condition improves. My mum-in-law now drinks it once a week or even less frequently.

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The white flower of Urena Lobata

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The white flower – enlarged

The shrub grows best wild (too much care and attention tends to stifle it). Just scatter the seeds (like tiny hedgehogs; 3-5mm brown seeds that will cling to clothings, hair, like velcro) in a quiet corner of your garden and leave them to grow “wild”). The plant can grow up to 4-5 feet, but can be harvested as soon as it is about 3-feet tall. Just cut the larger stems and let the plant re-grow the branches. Remember to continually scatter the seeds for a steady supply of the plant. Note: there are two types; white or pink flowers. The recommended type is the one with white flowers.

We have introduced this to several other people and to the best of our knowledge, it works for them as well.

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The unripe green spiny seeds

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The ripe brown spiny seeds

If you have personally tried any of the above , whether positive or negative results, please share your personal experience here to help others make their decision.