Penman No. 145: Another Watch to Watch

Penman for Monday, April 20, 2016

KNOWING WHAT an Apple diehard I am, friends have been asking me about the forthcoming Apple Watch, and if I’m going to get one. So I’m going to make another little digression today to answer that question—although, arguably, technology is art and culture in contemporary society, particularly when it’s something close and familiar enough to wear on your person.

As half the planet now knows, Apple announced the Apple Watch last September 9 in a splashy event helmed by the company’s new and nimble CEO, Tim Cook. It’s due to be released this Sunday in the US, and preorders opened last April 10; within six hours, most models—about a million units—were sold out.

That’s the kind of first-day frenzy and manic marketing that Apple might as well take out a patent on, because no other company even comes close in making people line up on the sidewalk a week before the store doors open. It’s also what turns Apple haters—and there are more than a few—apoplectic, refusing to understand how the mere whiff of a new toy from Cupertino, California could leave a fourth of humanity in a hypnotic trance.

Well, the Apple Watch is finally here, heralding Apple’s entry into the fashion market—make that high-fashion, with its top-of-the-line, solid-gold model selling for a toe-curling $17,000 (base models start at $349, or about P15,500). It comes in two sizes and a number of finishes, with an array of attractive watchbands (attractive to most people, anyway, who sadly don’t include old leather-loving codgers like me.)

Given those numbers, it’s safe to conclude that the Apple Watch was made to do more than tell the time. While hardly in the same stratosphere of high-end watch brands such as Patek Philippe and Rolex, Apple hasn’t done too badly as a horological upstart. Designed to work best with an iPhone, the Apple Watch can receive your email and text messages, and show incoming calls. It can do Facebook and Twitter, and perhaps most hyped of all, it can track your health stats. It can play your favorite tunes, and store some of your favorite pics. You can still use it without an iPhone for neat little tricks like Apple Pay (if and when that comes to our shores).

What are its downsides? It doesn’t have built-in GPS; you’ll need your iPhone for that. And with its touted 18-hour battery life, you’ll probably need to recharge it every night.

Many of these features, I should point out—except for the Apple-specific apps—were and are available on other smart watches, for a lot less than what Apple is charging for their sum total. Before the Apple Watch, Beng and I had some fun with our his-and-hers Pebble watches, which basically told the time and displayed our email and SMS messages on a monochrome screen. Eventually, we both got tired of charging the buzzing beasties, and went back to our analog Hamiltons.

Which brings me to my answer to my friends’ question. Am I getting an Apple Watch? Heck, no—and this will probably be the first Apple rollout since the Newton that I’ll be passing on. But why not?

I’ll admit that the price is a factor—the Pebble didn’t cost me more than $100, and it’s way below that now (feature-wise, of course, the Pebble can’t hold a candle to the Apple Watch). But in truth, cost never did turn back the Apple masses, who seem convinced that the pricier and sleeker something with an Apple logo is, the more compelling it must be to possess.

It certainly isn’t for any lack of features, either, that I’m not in the buyers’ queue (where I was for the iPhone 6; I had ordered mine as soon as the online counters opened, and received it via UPS last September 19, the first day of delivery in the US). The Apple Watch is abundantly capable and versatile, and we’ve only seen the barest suggestion of all the lively apps that are going to be developed for this device.

Instead, I may have to admit, as I’ll do now, to the onset of what we might call digital fatigue—that awful sensation of drowning under an onrushing wave of 1’s and 0’s. I’ve never felt this before, and it must be my biological age showing, but it took the Apple Watch and its kaleidoscope of colors to tell me that I’ve had enough. Please, not another device to tether and feed like a pet goat, and one that will bleat mightily when some silly text message comes in selling a condo I can’t possibly afford, and one that will remind me with a smug chirp about how overweight I am.

I know that I can talk to the Apple Watch, which will be the coolest thing for my students to see since I stepped into class with a Nokia the size of a shoe strapped to my waist in the early ‘90s. But I have trouble enough talking to my phone; I hate making and taking phone calls, because they usually mean problems to deal with. My iPhone is, first of all, a camera, a jukebox, a browser, and a datebook; and then it’s a phone (come to think of it, it’s also and already a watch, and a damn good one).

As it is, I don’t even use my iPad often enough, and I have to remember to charge it after letting it idle for a couple of weeks in solitary stupor. There’s a nest of charging cables at the foot of my bed, with phones, power banks, and digital recorders huddled like suckling pigs; I can just see the Apple Watch joining that blue- and red-eyed menagerie—but again, I’d rather not.

The ultimate reason for my self-denial is, I guess, the romantic one. I love my vintage and my two-handed watches too much to trade them for some blingy upstart. I believe a watch’s first and only duty is to tell the time. I believe a watch should have a clear, round, and honest face, from which I can read the time at a glance, without breaking my train of thought. I believe a watch should have a soft and pliant strap, like good leather; it should be beautiful, but quiet and undemanding, except for the occasional turn of the crown.


Kind of like the original Apple watch from 1995—I think the happiest watch ever designed—which everyone seems to have forgotten about in the mad rush to get the new one. I dusted mine off the other day, put a new battery in, and gave it to Beng. It tells the time, and puts a smile on your face. What more can you ask for?

[Apple Watch pic from]

Penman No. 101: The Digital Tourist (2)

photo 2Penman for Monday, June 16, 2014


LAST WEEK I wrote about some websites that you could check out if you’re planning to go on a trip, especially to some place you’ve never been before. Practically everything today can be planned online, from choosing destinations to booking flights and hotels and buying travel insurance. But what about when you’re already on the road?

This is where travel apps come in—“apps” being those small programs or applets (little applications) that come with your tablet or smartphone, or that can be downloaded to them. These apps can be lifesavers—literally, when you’re lost close to midnight in the bowels of a subway station in a strange city, without the foggiest idea how to get back to your hotel. Some will require an Internet connection, but many won’t, after their initial installation—and that’s when you’ll be happy and relieved that you had the foresight to install them when you could, before you even left for the airport. Whatever I’ll list here won’t be your only options—in many cases, there may even be other, better apps other will know about—but these are the ones I’ve roadtested myself, over many years of traipsing around the planet, with PDA (remember those?) or smartphone in hand. (Do note that I use an iPhone, but many of these apps gave their Android counterparts. For IOS devices, go to the App Store.)

Trip planning. If you travel often, you’ll need an all-around planner to organize your trips—remind you of your itinerary, make your bookings, check your flight status, provide weather forecasts, convert currencies, and such. Your datebook can take care of some of these things, but not all. For many years now, my reliable sidekick in this department has been an app called WorldMate, which can do all of the above, and more (it can also calculate tips).

WorldMate’s strongest feature is its flight planner and notifier, which comes in really handy when you have a string of flights to take in a mad dash from one airport, one terminal, and one gate to another. Let’s say you’re flying Delta to Detroit via Tokyo Narita, or Cathay to London via Hong Kong. As soon as you make your booking and receive it in your email, all you do is forward your confirmation email or e-ticket to WorldMate will automatically digest that email and reflect your itinerary on the app on your phone or tablet—and, if you’ve configured WorldMate to sync with your datebook, it’ll show up on your calendar as well. If your flight gets delayed, WorldMate will advise you of it. It will give you your terminal on arrival and departure. (WorldMate has a free basic version and a paid Gold version with more features.)

Flight tracking. You’re dashing to the airport in a cab, late for your flight, and you don’t even know which terminal or gate it will be leaving from (and if you’re really unlucky, you’ll be in Madrid, where Terminal 4 is several kilometers away from Terminal 2, and Terminal 4S takes another 20 minutes to get to); you’re praying like mad that your flight’s delayed. At this point, your friend is an app called FlightBoard, which tracks scheduled flights—arrivals and departures—at airports all over the world in real time. A similar app called FlightAware allows you to track all the flights between two airports for a given day, and to zero in on a particular one; if it’s up in the air somewhere over Siberia, it will show exactly where it’s supposed to be on a global map, much like you’d see on those onboard monitors. Both FlightBoard and FlightAware are free. (These apps are also good for when you’re meeting someone in Arrivals.)

photo 3

Getting around. Once you’ve reached your destination, there are two things you’ll almost certainly need to get around: a city map, and a local transport (subway and bus) guide. Many airports will give you free city maps on arrival, and they’re fun to spread out on the table over breakfast to plan the day, but they’re a hassle to unfold at streetcorners and in the middle of the plaza to locate where you are and where you’re going (and at that instant, you might as well wear a T-shirt saying, “I’m a lost tourist—please, victimize me!”).

A good map stored in your digital device—without needing to go online, as you would with Google Maps—can save you a lot of anxiety, if not a lot of footsteps. On our recent sortie around Europe, I was glad to be guided by one invaluable resource: Ulmon maps of Barcelona, Venice, Florence, and Paris. All of these maps were free, and could be blown up to the level of individual streets and even alleys; if you feel lost, you could input the name of the nearest street, and it will locate your neighborhood in relation to popular landmarks. Clicking on the name of a hotel will give you rates; public transport stops are also indicated.

Speaking of public transport, nearly all the major cities of the world have some kind of subway or metro rail line, and this gives me an opportunity to introduce my favorite travel app of all time—and I mean that almost literally, because I’ve been using it in its various incarnations since 1999, or 15 years, an eternity in digital time. It’s called Metro, and it’ a guide to the world’s subways, metros, and bus lines. I first used Metro on my Palm Pilot when I was navigating around London, and the app—though regularly updated—has remained essentially the same. You choose a city (say Paris), and decide that, from your hotel on Avenue Foch, you want to go to the weekend flea market at the Porte de Clignancourt. You input “Avenue Foch” and “Clignancourt” and tap an icon, and Metro will yield the information that the shortest subway route will take 16 stops involving one change (at Barbes-Roucheouart—thankfully, you don’t need to know how to pronounce these names), for approximately 33 minutes total. Each subway stop is identified, as well as the direction of the train you should be taking. The best thing about Metro? It’s absolutely free, and works offline.

photo 1

This list of apps could go on, but as travel is complicated enough, let’s keep it simple: for as long as you have these apps (WorldMate, FlightBoard, Ulmon Maps, and Metro), your next trip will be much less of a headache, and you can enjoy the view out the window rather than wonder and worry over where your train is going.

(Let me just add, before I forget: these apps will be totally useless if your phone or tablet is dead; I always travel with a universal adaptor, an extension cord, and a power bank for extra juice. If you blow air into my pants, I could go on a spacewalk.)

Penman No. 100: The Digital Tourist (1)

L1090980Penman for Monday, June 9, 2014


SOME FRIENDS who perhaps still miss the days when you dressed up for plane flights (even if it was only to Hong Kong) and carried your paper ticket in a cardboard sleeve asked me upon our recent return from Europe to draw up a digital roadmap for tourists. In other words, what kind of digital resources can tourists and travelers avail themselves of to ensure better, cheaper, and safer travel? By “digital resources,” we mean things that you can find online on the Internet, like hotels and their rates, or carry around with you on your mobile phone or laptop, like travel apps that can record and remind you of your bookings.

It used to be that all you needed in your carry-on was an alarm clock, the kind with two brass bells that roused you like your mother from your jetlagged slumber (if you remembered to set the alarm the night before). But now we travel with smartphones, laptops, tablets, and a raft of batteries, chargers, and adapters, the better to maintain that indispensable virtue, connectivity, also known as your digital tether to home, office, and social network. (All this should make us want to ask why we even left home and what a vacation is supposed to mean, but as everyone knows all too well these days, leaving home means bringing as much of it with you.)

So herewith, some of my favorite digital-travel tips and tricks:

Where to go. While our destinations are often chosen for us (a conference here, a wedding there), sometimes we actually have that rare and precious option of deciding where to go, budgets and schedules permitting. Everyone will have his or her own bucket list—I’d still like to visit South America, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe someday—but Beng and I prefer to go around Asia for quick, cheap holidays, and are always on the lookout for special deals from regional airlines. Sign up with Cebu Pacific and Philippine Airlines, among others, for regular advisories on their packages. This way, we’ve visited Beijing, Kota Kinabalu, Hanoi, Shanghai and many other places nearby at giveaway fares (about P5,000 round-trip, all-in, for two of us to Beijing). Be open and adventurous, and be ready to book a trip months in advance to get the lowest fares. That also allows you to reconfigure your calendar around those trips.

How to get there. Again, check out airline offers, as well as travel agency packages. Make sure to factor in taxes and surcharges, which can bloat the final bill. What you want to get is the “all-in” price. Factor in baggage allowance; some airlines will charge you even for your first checked bag, especially on local flights. Budget airlines can offer aggressively low fares, especially off-season (that’s why we went to Beijing in December—freezing, but fewer fellow tourists to nudge you around), but it won’t hurt to check as many rates as you can. There are many online guides where you can check prices and book flights—Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, etc.—but I use SkyScanner ( a lot; it gives you the price in pesos, and immediately identifies the lowest price, with many other options. Sometimes it’s also good to check directly with the airline; recently, I found that Air France, on its own website, was offering a flight from Paris to Madrid that was lower than anyone else’s. Also, sometimes, cheapest may not always be the best for you. Cebu Pacific has great regional fares, but they often mean arriving in your destination around midnight, costing you a day and some anxiety in a strange airport. Adding a little more could also mean extras like a better plane and a better layover (we chose to fly BA to Madrid and back via Heathrow, to try out the new A380 and even marginally revisit London, one of our favorite cities). For local travel, don’t forget to explore your train and bus options—ground travel may be slower and not always cheaper, but you’ll see a lot more of the country.

Where to stay. Beng and I are lucky to get special rates from the Starwood chain (Westin, Sheraton, Le Meridien, etc.) because our daughter works there, but when we have to find other hotels, then TripAdvisor and are our best friends. As a rule, I never book a hotel (even a Starwood one) without checking the TripAdvisor reviews, which can reveal problems like “great hotel, but terrible location” or uncover pluses like “free, strong wi-fi, two minutes’ walk from the Metro.” TripAdvisor can rank hotels according to your budget and other preferences, assigning one to five stars. Once, on a lark, Beng and I decided to go slumming in Hong Kong and stay in the cheapest dive we could find, so I reversed TripAdvisor’s rankings and found a one-star place on Nathan Road. It was cheap—and fun; we survived! is another great guide to hotels and bed-and-breakfast places; they allow you to book often without any downpayment, cancellable without penalty within 24 hours of your stay. I booked our Venice hotel in Mestre and our Madrid airport hotel on this site. (A tip about Venice and Mestre—hotels in prime tourist spots like Venice can cost a fortune, but staying in places like Mestre, a very short train ride from Venice, can save you precious euros better spent on food and sightseeing.)

What to do. Every destination will have scores of travel guides online, but again, TripAdvisor’s thousands of reviews will give you a good sense of what’s worth visiting and what you can forego, especially on a tight budget and schedule (we passed up going to Halong Bay in Vietnam—pretty pictures, but a very pricey day trip). Like I wrote in a recent column, this is where we often let Serendipity take us by the hand and just let one streetcorner lead to another. Unlike many others, travel for us isn’t racking up a series of posed shots before famous landmarks; it’s about seeing what most other people will miss, or doing what most other tourists won’t. I don’t necessarily mean “going native,” which no one can honestly do on a three-day parachute tour, but finding or straying into unusual places, like that dusty, forgotten museum in Shanghai filled with dinosaurs and ancient, mummified Aryans, or that bookshop in Hanoi selling bright purple ink for 20 pesos a bottle.

Before I forget, and even before you begin your digital tour, scan, save, and upload (to one of your own email accounts) copies of your passport, visas, and travel insurance. (Yes, you can and should book travel insurance online—it’s one of those things you’ll be happy to never need.)

Next time, I’ll list and discuss specific apps—WorldMate, Metro, and FlightBoard, among others—and other tools (maps, photos, currency exchange) to help make that next trip of yours a more pleasant and fulfilling experience—as long as you don’t lose your tablet or smartphone.