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Travels of a Laptop

Yes, that’s right – Travels OF a Laptop, not Travels WITH a Laptop. Let me explain.

Apple recently released a new version of one of their best-selling computers, the MacBook Pro 13″, and I was immediately tempted. I’ve been without a laptop for almost a year. I used to have a 2014 MacBook Pro which I mainly used for travel – quite apart from the whole browsing & email thing, it was good to be able to do some initial processing of images while I was still on a trip, and of course I was also able to write blog articles (both here and in the Cruise blog). However, when the time came to replace the old laptop I was seduced by the idea of using an iPad as a laptop replacement, and so I bought an 11″ iPad Pro, a Smart Folio keyboard, and an Apple Pencil. (I also part-exchanged the old laptop.)

In the event the “iPad as laptop replacement” idea didn’t work for me. Well, it worked, insofar as I was able to use it, but I didn’t get on with the key piece of software that I had to use, Lightroom Mobile. So I had been thinking of going back to a laptop anyway, and when Apple announced the 2020 13″ MacBook Pro I was¬†interested.

Apple has improved the base specification of the new laptop over last year’s model in some areas – double the storage and an improved keyboard, for example – and for the same starting price, but I decided to enhance the spec by going for a further optional upgrade, an extra 8Gb of memory making a total of 16Gb. I knew that this was not a standard build and that therefore delivery would be slightly delayed, but I had expected that it would still come from Apple UK – my assumption was that Apple themselves must order small numbers of the various optional configurations for onward supply to customers. Not so in the case of mine!

In addition to the usual deluge of order confirmation, etc, emails that I got from Apple, I was surprised to receive a tracking notification email from UPS showing “the package” (my new laptop) starting in China – “Label created” was the first entry in the list, on 29 May. “The package” spent the rest of that day and a couple of following days in China. The first entry just said ‘China’ but subsequent ones said ‘Shanghai’. Here are steps “the package” went through:

  • 29/5 to 31/5: Order Processed in China, then customs clearance and various scans in Shanghai (presumably, this location refers to a UPS facility in Shanghai);
  • 1 June: a Departure Scan ūüėĀ at Shanghai at 3am, followed by an Arrival scan at Incheon, South Korea at 5am on the same day;
  • 1 June: more progress! At 7:30am there was a Departure scan at Incheon, followed by an Arrival scan at Anchorage, Alaska, at 9:25pm – date 31 May. This was initially confusing – had “the package” travelled back in time? could this be how UPS meets its deadlines? – but then I realised that the journey from South Korea to Alaska would have taken it across the International Date Line, and that’s what caused the date reversal;
  • It didn’t stay long in Alaska – less than two hours later, at 11:17pm, still on 31 May, there was a departure scan from Anchorage;
  • Next was was an arrival scan at Koeln (Cologne) in Germany, at 18:15pm on 1 June (again….). There’s a 9 hour time difference between Alaska and Germany, so actually it arrived in Germany just 8 or 9 hours after leaving Alaska. Interestingly, the Great Circle route between Anchorage and Cologne passes across the Arctic, so “the package” went close by the North Pole, albeit at 35,000 ft or so;
  • It had an overnight stay in Germany before having an Exit scan from Koeln at 4:48am on 2 June, followed by a Departure scan at Stanford-Le-Hope at 8:48pm the same day. Stanford-Le-Hope? Well it turns out there’s a huge UPS facility near to St-L-Hope which I believe handles packages arriving both by sea at the new London Gateway container port, and by air at Stansted airport;
  • After Stanford-Le-Hope came an Arrival scan at Tamworth late on 2 June followed by an Arrival scan at Sheffield early on 3 June….
  • ….and finally “The Package” was delivered to me at home just before 1pm on 3 June.

So my laptop entered 5 different countries – China, South Korea, the USA, Germany and the UK – passed over several more (the Great Circle route from Alaska to Germany would include Canada, Greenland, Norway, and maybe Denmark), crossed an ocean, a pole, and the International Date Line. Not a bad trip! – I wish I’d been with it.

I found this to be an interesting insight into the world of global logistics. I was surprised that my order was being handled as a separate, discrete package, on its own – clearly, it wasn’t in a container with thousands of other Apple laptops. I discovered that the facilities at Incheon, Anchorage and Cologne are mega-hubs for their continent, and that it’s normal for packages to be routed from one such hub to another if their journey requires it; my little laptop would never have been sent from Shanghai direct to the UK. I can only imagine the cost of doing this – while I’m sure that Apple doesn’t pay the rate I would to send a 2.9kg package half-way round the world, there must have been some cost. (Which I didn’t see, btw – my order included free delivery.)

And thereby hangs a bit of a tale, perhaps. A couple of days after I’d ordered my new laptop, and had the order accepted, Apple doubled the price of the memory upgrade that I’d included, from $/¬£100 to $/¬£200. There’s no official reason for this, although it is suggested that the lower price was a mistake. Really? By Apple, the most price- and market-conscious corporation on the planet? Well, perhaps; but is it also possible that one month into the new product’s life they were finding that there were so few orders for that particular upgrade that they were having to be handled as one-offs? Increasing the price would have two effects, perhaps: a) it would increase the revenue from orders for that configuration and thus meet the shipping costs, and b) it would narrow the price difference gap between that bespoke configuration and the next standard configuration up, and thus encourage customers to order the higher-priced standard config which would always be shipped in bulk. But we’ll never know the truth.

Over the years I’ve read about a number of epidemics in various parts of the world – SARs, the various Ebola outbreaks, the Zika virus, Swine fever – I’m sure you all remember reading about them just as I do. I certainly did, but they all seemed fairly academic, and while of course I empathised with the sufferers as much as I could, it all seemed rather remote.

Now we have Covid-19, the official name for what has generally been referred-to as the Coronavirus, and this one has hit home much more with me. That’s because one of the places at risk is Singapore, which is a country and city that I have visited and enjoyed several times, and have come to – yes – love. It’s one of those places where I just feel at home. And now it faces great risk, of at least significant economic and social disruption, and possibly major health risk to its population.

There are many reasons why Singapore is especially vulnerable. It’s a very small country, physically, with a significant population, and the population density is therefore high. The nature of life in Singapore is to be very sociable – eating in restaurants, hawker centres or food courts, going to coffee bars, shopping either in the glitzy malls along Orchard Road or in more local shopping centres, and just generally socialising are all key aspects of life in Singapore. There is a huge amount of international travel, in and out of the country. A significant number of non-Singaporeans with PR (Permanent Resident) status are from nearby nations, especially Malaysia, and frequently travel back and forwards. Then there is tourism. In 2018 almost 15m tourists visited Singapore. That’s not very high for Asia, but it has to be remembered that all of those tourists will be heading to the same places in that tiny country – Marina Bay, Gardens by the Bay, and so on. And finally there are the business travellers; Singapore is one of the greatest international business centres in the world. A single sales conference in January, attended by 100 people from all over the world, resulted in 7 new cases of Covid-19 infection among attendees, and of course they passed it on to others. In one well-documented case a British attendee contracted the virus at the meeting and himself passed it on to at least 11 others. The numbers of people infected in Singapore is steadily rising, though not yet at the rate that has been in China, and restrictions on travel to and from Singapore are beginning to be discussed.

I’m confident that Singapore, in common with other affected countries, will beat this infection eventually, and of all the affected countries in Asia I would expect Singapore to do so most quickly – the small size and low number of international gateways can be an advantage here. Indeed it might even be best to accept a medium-sized, temporary hit and quarantine the nation in order to stop continual re-infection from travellers from infected areas. In the meantime, I can only hope that they can stay on top of it. And finally – and selfishly – I ought to report that I am now pleased that I visited Singapore in September last year instead of February/March this year. If I had followed the patter of previous visits, I could well have been there now!

 

I was interested to read recently that, as part of the continuing investment in the future of the Singapore tourist industry, two of the main players, Universal Studios and the Las Vegas Sands corporations are planning on a further investment of some S$9Bn in the next few years.

Universal Studios will be adding more content to their Universal Studios theme park on Sentosa Island. I’m more interested in what Las Vegas Sands Corporation, the owners of the Marina Bay Sands hotel and facilities, are planning for that site.

Basically, they’re going to build a fourth tower. The image above is from Las Vegas Sands, apparently, although I couldn’t find it anywhere on their site. However, it’s generally available elsewhere so I reckon there’s no problem showing it. There are other (poor quality) images floating around that just show a fourth tower stuck on the end of the existing three, with the sky park extended to it, and that looks really unattractive. I actually think that having the fourth tower separated (as in the image above) but obviously part of the same group will be effective. However, this is just an initial image – it’s possible things may change. The architect of the original set of towers, Moshe Safdie, will be involved in the design of the new tower. I should also say that the development will include a 15,000 seat entertainment arena – I think that’s the dome/bubble just to the left of the new tower as shown above.

No word yet on when construction will start or how long it will take.

 

I’ve just realised that there were a few other things I did in Singapore that I haven’t mentioned, so this post will cover just two of them – the NUS Baba House, and Singapore City Gallery.

The NUS Baba House

The NUS Baba House is the sole surviving intact house from the Peranakan community. This isn’t the place to describe or define the Peranakan identity or culture – here’s a link to a Wikipedia page that does so. In Singapore the Peranakans emerged as merchants and traders and thus were at least reasonably wealthy, and with this wealth they built distinctive and high-quality houses. Almost all of these have either been demolished completely, or (once Singapore recognised the importance of preserving them) have been been preserved externally but gutted and modernised internally. The NUS Baba House is thought to be the only house that is preserved internally¬†as well as externally. Visits have to be booked in advance, and there are only a limited number of places available.

The National University of Singapore (NUS – the owners and managers of there house) don’t allow photography inside the house so I don’t have any pictures to display. I will say however that it was beautiful and individual. The house, which has been conserved as it was in the 1920s, is narrow and deep – three rooms deep, plus a courtyard at the front.. The courtyard features an ornately decorated exterior – the image above shows this. Then you go through the door and enter the front parlour. This was where the merchant did business, entertained guests, clients and customers, and where receptions were held. It’s furnished in a business-like but quality way – there are lots of high-quality paintings and decorations. This was the space in which an impression would be made! At the back of this room is a screen, and behind that is a living space, much more domestic in feel – still luxurious but more comfortable. For a visitor to be invited beyond the business area into the living area would be a mark of either real friendship or possibly deep respect. it’s also the case that the screen was not solid, so someone – the merchant’s wife, perhaps? – could sit behind the screen and listen to the business conversations while remaining hidden. Behind this living space was the kitchen. Upstairs were either two or three bedrooms, all furnished beautifully. One was very traditional, another was furnished in a modern style – as in 1924! Continue Reading »

While I was travelling around Singapore on the MRT I started noticing various signs that struck me as distinctively Singaporean. There’s no doubt that that the Singaporean authorities like to admonish or advise their citizens, over many things – in Brit-speak, they’re definitely a nanny state.

So here are some examples of those signs. Most were found on the MRT, but later during the holiday I started to see funny signs in other places, and there’s a collection of those as well.

 

And now a few I saw in other places…

Changi airport is frequently and widely regarded as the world’s best airport. Not only does it do its basic job efficiently – be an airport and handle around 60 million passenger a year – it seems to do it with style and panache. And of course it’s very ‘Singapore’ – like Apple stuff, everything a) works and b) looks a million dollars. Over recent years Changi has continually upgraded not only its fundamental facilities (to handle those 60 million passengers, and more in coming years) but also the soft stuff – keeping them entertained and, dare I say it, delighted. I haven’t yet been to the terminal with the butterfly garden, for example….

The latest facility is Jewel. It’s actually a shopping and entertainment mall. It’s Landside, not Airside, so people can go and visit it from the city, as I did, even when they aren’t flying; and from the number of people I saw there with luggage, they were also visiting it on their way out of the country or even on their in.

The most obvious aspect of it is the enormous waterfall in the middle, surrounded by terraces of trees and greenery. (Officially these are known as the HSBC Rain Vortex and the Forest Valley.) There are a couple of forest walks laid out – you can walk up and down the terraces, enjoy the views, sit down and rest (yes – benches! not associated with restaurants!!). Access to this area is free of charge. Up on the top floor there are a number of chargeable attractions, for young and old. There’s a scramble net up in the ceiling; a mirror maze which, I gather, some people have found seriously disturbing; and a host of other things. You can find the full list here.

I just walked around the forest area for a while, took loads of pictures, and then went back to the city. Seems a strange way to spend an afternoon, but it was in fact relaxing and fun. And that first glimpse of the Rain Vortex is truly stunning and, yes, delightful.

One of the more unusual things I did on this trip was to visit the HDB (Housing Development Board) Hub. I hoped to learn something about how Singapore has pretty much solved its housing problems. In the event I didn’t quite manage that, but it was interesting in a number of ways.

First, though, a bit of a recap. When Singapore became fully independent in 1965, it was not the place it is now. While it wasn’t exactly ‘3rd World’ it definitely wasn’t 1st world. It was a place of contrasts. On the one hand there was former colonial housing (think tropical bungalows) and modern businesses, and on the other hand there were traditional Asian enterprises: shophouses and waterfront go-downs on the one hand, and a number of traditional Malay villages or Kampongs. These were all badly over-crowded, had poor or non-existent sanitation, no connection to other central services – you can imagine the picture. Today these have all gone, apart from those shophouses and occasional Kampong house that have been preserved and re-purposed, and the population mainly lives in high-rise apartment complexes. Some of these are privately-built, but the great majority of the complexes, housing about 80% of the population, are provided by the HDB. And they work! – they are clean; they are well-maintained; there is no crime (actually, that’s true of Singapore generally); and there’s some strange way in which although these apartments are publicly provided, they are in fact individually owned. Continue Reading »

MBS hotel and lasers

Marina Bay is these days the central location of Singapore city. There are other popular locations: the various quays along Singapore River all of which are now converted to bars and restaurants, Kampong Glam and Little India, but it’s Marina Bay that dominates the downtown landscape.

This is actually a new thing – the whole of the southern ¬†and eastern side of the Bay is reclaimed land. I’ve tried to show this in the crude illustration below. Everything to the right of the black line is reclaimed (or new) land. The dotted section indicates that the quayside just to its left, Collier’s Quay, was the limit of the land, and faced the open sea. If you look at the road names you can get a clue about this – Esplanade Drive at the top of the map suggests that originally that was the shoreline, and Raffles Quay near the bottom suggests the same. (The roads themselves are new, of course – there were no dual-carriageway express roads until the last couple of decades or so – but they’ve inherited names from former roads and landmarks.)

So even the land on which now stand the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and the new business district did not exist until 30 years or so ago. Even after that Singapore took its time deciding what to do with it, and undertook various other required infrastructure works first – for example, the cleaning up of the Singapore river (which feeds into Marina Bay). Another huge project was the water management and the construction of the Marina Bay barrage – extraordinarily, what was once the mouth of a heavily-polluted river and the open sea into which it flowed is now a fresh-water reservoir, from which Singapore gets 10% of its water. So it was only in the early 00’s that serious construction started on the big projects around the Bay – Gardens by the Bay, the new financial district, the renovation of Colliers Quay, and the Marina Bay Sands hotel and its associated structures – and final development work continued until maybe 2015 or so, with the completion of the various components of the complete pedestrian route around the Bay.

It’s a popular area with visitors and Singaporeans alike. As I mentioned above it’s now possible to walk all round the Bay along dedicated pedestrian footpaths. Two dramatic footbridges cross open water – the Helix bridge near the hotel which crosses the lower end of the Bay, and the Esplanade bridge which crosses the mouth of the Singapore River. The whole walk is a few kilometres long, and, given that this is Singapore, walking it can be a hot sweaty business. Best to do it in stages, which is easy – there are air-conditioned restaurants, bars, and shopping mall every couple of hundred yards or so along three sides of the square.

For me, the big attraction is the scenery and the opportunity to take pictures. I had my camera with me and some lenses, and I’d even managed to squeeze my tripod into my suitcase (and my checked baggage allowance). I went out and took images around the Marina Bay three times. The first was in the daytime on my first full day. That was a very grey day (after the sun I got in Haji Lane) and turned to heavy rain in the late morning, so I regarded that walk round as just a location scouting exercise. The following evening I went back and took a number of shots as the sun went down and in the early darkness; and the evening after that I went back again a little later in the evening to catch the nightly laser show from the Marina Bay Sands hotel. Enjoy!

Notes:

  • the Marina Bay Sands hotel is, in part, a casino (Singapore’s first). This is supposedly reflected in the architecture – if you look at the towers you’re suppose to think that each one is actually two playing cards on end and leaning into each other. The top deck includes an observation deck, and (for residents only) an infinity pool and various relaxation areas. But with 2,500 rooms, getting your turn in the pool is apparently a struggle;
  • The merlion is the symbol of Singapore. There are a few Merlion statues dotted around – I’ve seen a small one up on top of Mount Faber – but this is the official one. There are always crowds of people around it;
  • The Fullerton Hotel was built during the colonial period. It was originally the main Post Office for the colony. It stood at the mouth of the Singapore River and at the head of Collier’s Quay, the main landing point for passengers arriving by ship.

On my first morning I walked around Haji Lane in the Kampong Glam area of the city. I have in fact visited this area before, but it turned out that my hotel was literally at one of the lane. It’s an older area of the city in which the buildings are conserved/preserved, although in the case of Haji Lane it looks it’s just the exteriors that are original – and even then, a lot of the ground floor frontages have been modernised. What’s in these old buildings are a range of small designer stores, refreshment bars, and general moments shops. A unifying feature is that each shop has been painted as dramatically and colourfully as possible; the whole Lane is a swirl of colour. I was happy to wander up and down for a while before heading further into the city.

Then it was on to the Shoppes (horrible word…) at Marina Bay. This is an upmarket shopping mall associated with the Marina Bay Sands hotel. It’s just a mall, really – the usual over-priced stuff (when did buying and carrying a truly expensive, branded bag become a defining item of consumption?) but the mall itself has one interesting element – there’s a canal inside it…. See the image below!

Emirates A380 being prepared at Manchester

I mentioned in the previous post that I flew with Emirates again, and the main reason I gave was that I preferred to break the journey. That’s not the only reason, to be honest. Over the four trips I’ve made to Asia I’ve found the Emirates experience to be good, and value for money. I know from various YouTube videos I’ve watched that there are other Middle East and Asian airlines that match them – Singapore Airlines would certainly be in that list, as probably would Thai, Qatar and Oman airlines. (I’ve heard it suggested that Etihad, who fly to Abu Dhabi, aren’t quite as good these days, following their multi-billion dollar losses in the last few years.) I’ve been happy to stick with Emirates: since I know it’s good, and it gives me the routing I prefer, why change?

But it’s probably worth outlining the reasons why Emirates appeals to me:

  • first, it offers excellent value for money. Although I booked this last flight through a travel agent (Trailfinders) I could equally easily have done so online, and examining options as I write, I see that, as expected, I could get a return economy ticket from Manchester to Singapore for just over ¬£500 for dates in March next year. That would include 25kgs of hold baggage plus 7kgs of cabin baggage, plus all the onboard facilities. For an extra ¬£200 (i.e. ¬£700+ in total) I could buy an economy ticket with more options: this would include complimentary seat selection (standard seats only, not extra legroom) which would be worth ¬£80, more points for the loyalty club, and cheaper options to change the flight arrangements or get a refund. This compares with over ¬£1000 for a shorter economy return flight from Manchester to Memphis in the USA, on much older and smaller aircraft;
  • secondly, the onboard services are excellent. Each flight I’ve done has included two free meals (one full, hot meal, and one snack) with metal cutlery!, free drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), and one of the best in-flight entertainment system in the air that gives a selection of hundreds of films and TV programmes. I’ve included images of a meal tray from 2017, and a menu card from my most recent flight, below;
  • the aircraft they use are modern and well-equipped. The flights between Manchester and Dubai are in an Airbus A380, and Emirates have equipped them with comfortable seats and pretty good legroom. OK, I’m not tall so maybe it’s easy for me, but they’re a huge step up from Ryanair or Easyjet. Above all the A380s are very quiet. (The Boeing 777s that they use between Dubai and Asia aren’t quite as quiet, but the seats and entertainment options are every bit as good.)

Any 7 or 8 hour flight is going to be a bit of a trial at times. I’m sure that travelling in First or even Business class would make it so much more bearable, but Emirates do a pretty good job even in economy. I’m a happy customer.