Valleys of Wonders (Part I – Silicon Valley)

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After last year’s bad traveling arrangement, we needed more time to adjust the uncomfortable jetlags, this year, we began our annual pilgrimage to the Mecca of Gizmos (CES 2019) 3 days before the opening of the event. And it was the wisest decision ever!

This year, we also decided not to transit at the City of Angels. Instead, we made a short 3-day stopover at the City by the Bay, San Francisco to visit one of the world’s most famous valleys – the Silicon Valley. It is the birthplace of many new start-ups and home to 3 global technology giants – Apple, Facebook, and Google.

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While Chowpo enjoyed her business class status, I was extremely “lucky” to have an upgraded “SSSS” status on my boarding pass. Trust me, it is a special privilege you won’t want when flying to the USA. It stands for Secondary Security Screening Selection. According to a UK news website, it says travelers who are given the SSSS code are on an FBI counter-terrorism watchlist and there are others who are assigned this code at random. For some strange reasons, TSA viewed me as a high-risk traveler. (Nope, I didn’t fly or crash any drone in the USA last year!) Due to this, I couldn’t check in my luggage at the downtown airport express. Prior to boarding the plane, I had to go through another “special body massage” and had my bag scanned and checked.

Other than this special treatment at the airport, I had the best long-haul red-eye flight ever. It was so smooth and gentle compared with last year’s violent rocky ride to Los Angeles.

Unfortunately, the dreadful rain spell followed me from Taiwan to San Francisco. Luckily, we arrived one day before the big storm which resulted in the cancellation of over 300 flights. I slept through the storm and adjusted my sleep cycle.

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San Francisco’s steep slopes are scary and challenging even for an experienced driver like Chowpo. It was so rare and unreal to see fearless Chowpo driving in anxiety. I can’t blame her. Some of these roads are visually impossible to drive. Some of the steepest roads are at only 17.5°. Now, that’s insane!  Imagine doing parallel parking on such crazy steepness (under heavy rain and strong wind), our logic and senses simply couldn’t compute.

We had our worst nightmare while crossing the Oakland Bay Bridge at the peak of the storm, confronting the unexpected gales. I panicked when Chowpo told me that she was unable to control the vehicle straight. We literally crawled through the ferocious gales. Our cheap light Japanese car was just too weak to handle such weather condition. Thankfully, I had a very skillful and fearless driver.

We didn’t do much in San Francisco. Despite the driving nightmares, I asked Chowpo to drive me down the world’s crookedest road at Lombard Street. We visited the San Francisco Cable-Car Museum, Chinatown and dined along the Fisherman’s Wharf. We actually wanted to pay a visit to one of the world’s most famous cages, Alcatraz but it was closed over the weekend.

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Finally, on our last day, the sun was out and we made our way to the Golden Gate and a speedy tour around Silicon Valley. On our way to the new Apple Park and Google Campus, we paid our homage to the late Steve Jobs at his old garage.

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Most of these tech campuses looked old and lifeless on the outside. The endless rows of short flatted factories reminded me of Singapore’s old industry parks in the 90s. The new Apple Park Visitor Center was pretty disappointing. Over 70% of the visitor center was the usual Apple Retail Store. There were many expensive exclusive items for Apple Fans (like T-shirts, mugs, and pens) but many of those limited editions were produced in China. We couldn’t enter the UFO-shaped complex. Visitors were given an iPad to view the building through an interactive AR app. Yawn… What’s the point of traveling all the way there just to play with an iPad?

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Google Campus was slightly more colorful and fun. The Android Statues Park is home to many giant Android-sugary-characters. Made of soft foam, it is a harmless joyous sugary playground for all adults and kids, even for the diabetics! There is a Google Store next to the park where we bought a few Google Exclusive toys and t-shirts (all made in China too!). I got a Google Home Hub which cost 50% cheaper than the ones in Hong Kong. What a sweet deal!

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We left Silicon Valley and made our way to the airport. Next stop – Sin City, Las Vegas!

 

The little boy who can memorize everything!

Meeting Savi and Kid

We were perfect strangers until we met yesterday. And it turns out to be one of the most enlightening meetings of the entire year! Thanks to an old friend in India who connected us a month back.

Meet this amazing father and son, Siva and Anirudh.

Anirudh is only 10 and he is already one of the top memory talents in India. Representing India, Anirudh flew to Hong Kong to take part at the 27th World Memory Championships. Anirudh’s feats are aplenty. One of his feats is able to memorize up to a 100-digit number within minutes and recite it with distinctive accuracy. Not only that, he could recite the numbers backward. Anirudh is also able to memorize a couple decks of poker cards simply! (Yes, I thought of bringing him to the casino to play blackjack!)

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Anirudh is like any other kids you see on the street. He is shy, humble, curious and kind. Credits to unconventional and amazing parenting methodology, Siva unlocks the hidden wonders in his boy. A very humble (full of humanity and positive energy) and wise dad, Siva reminded us a few times that his son is not special or born with a special power. Siva said with discipline, conviction, and practice, all of us can unlock the other unused % in our brains.

We were at a cafe at Tamar Park when Siva asked if we wanted to see a little demonstration. Felicia, Elkan, Harshad and I were thrilled to see the wonder boy in action. Four of us formed a unique 22-digit number randomly and Siva read the number to his son (Anirudh didn’t get to see the number). In less than 120 seconds, Anirudh memorized the number and he recited the number effortlessly front and back to us. What’s more, Anirudh is able to tell us the sum of the same 22-digit number! It was amazing! 45 minutes later Anirudh is still able to remember the numbers.

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It was more than just Anirudh’s feat that enlightened us. It was the love and passion of Siva who enlightens us on some of the most important things in life:
1) Never give your child money or gifts. Anyone could offer the same thing to any child. Give them time, experiences and teaching so the child can become a better person when he/she grows up.

2) With good practice and discipline, anyone can be as amazing as his son. We just don’t explore the other parts of our mind and body. If a right-hander starts using his/her left hand more often, the left hand will grow strong over time. Just like our brain, we do not train it to its limit. Our reliance on digital tools made us lazier than ever. To unlock the wonders in us, we must start exploring and training the “unused” wonders of us.

3) Maintain a balance in life. Stay healthy in physically, mentally and emotionally. If we are able to achieve a state of good health, we will be able to channel our body and mind to achieve the unexpected. Watch our daily posture, maintain good oxygen intake, eat well and sleep well (not under and over), these are the nutrients our body and mind need.

4) The more we use our 5 senses, the more sensitive we are to capture all the memory. Because memory is more than just what we see or hear… we smell, taste and feel. All these 5 senses help to anchor and relocate back our memory.

Just before we say goodbye to our new friends. Siva gave my son and us 2 simple tips. The first tip never fears or be discouraged for not achieving the impossible. Start with the first steps and add more challenges as we grow stronger. Second tip, 10 minutes before we doze off every night, try to replay (in details) the things we did today. Not just in vision but also reenact the sound, the feelings and the taste of what we did.

Siva is a great father, teacher, and friend to his son. A very motivating and inspiring duo. A kind soul unlocked with amazing skills, I am certain we will be inspired by their next adventure in the near future!

Our real-life encounter with Siva and Anirudh is humbling and inspiring. And with that, we threw away our skepticism and started a little test last night. Never underestimate our human body and minds, and with that belief, Elkan attempted his little impossible feat last night with great success!

It is great meeting you guys! Hope to see you soon! Thank you, Raghu for connecting us.

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Addictive Laser Toy (Not LightSaber)

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I fell in love with laser personalization machine 10 years ago when I was working in the agency. Back then, I flew to Taipei to meet up with a Taiwanese vendor, Mr Chen whom I found in Alibaba (and we become close friends ever since). Mr Chen and I pioneered the first laser engraving machine that can be engraved directly on paper (through the thin packaging’s polywrap without burning the plastic wrap). What’s even more amazing was our machine took seconds to finish the engraving while other took over quarter of an hour. Our machine and software was indeed superior back then and Mr Chen traveled around the globe selling the machine. The machine wasn’t cheap then, one machine cost over USD32,000.

After a decade of experiencing different laser personalization machines (fiber, CO2 or UV) on different materials (glass, metal, paper, wood, leather, plastic), nothing surprises me anymore. In fact, I often tell my friends not to buy those cheap (anything that is under USD500) laser-engraving machines that were marketed on Kickstarter, Facebook Ads or Instagram Ads. Many of those videos were speed up to create the illusion of speedy engraving. In reality, these affordable (low-powered) laser heads work but it takes numerous minutes (not seconds) to engrave.

Being a geek and shopaholic, I was intrigued by a Taobao ad displaying a small USB-powered laser personalization machine (Brand NEJE DK-8-KZ极速微型激光雕刻机刻章机). The entire unit is only 16cm x 15cm x 20cm and weighs about 1KG! I watched the video (which was speed-up at least 20X), read the positive reviews and was impressed by the finished products. What attracted me was the price. It is selling at only RMB500! That’s about USD72! Without any hesitation, I bought it on Taobao and it arrived at my place 2 days later.

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Impulse Mistake Number 1 (Warning for Mac User) – this machine requires a PC to operate. To get this going, I have to spend extra HKD1,500 to install Parallel software and Windows OS on my iMac. The software UI is not as pretty as those offered by more established technology companies but it was quite easy for me to figure out (as it was similar to the other marking software I used). Connecting is simple. Just connect the USB power cable and data cable to any USB slots in the computer and the machine connects instantly to the software.

 

Using the machine is simple. Most laser engraving machines use the same process:

1) Import the Graphic (BMP) or Text
2) Select the engraving time/power (the longer, the slower and deeper the burn)
3) Pre-Marking Alignment – see the area where the graphic will be engraved
4) Adjust the effective laser height – the precise height for the laser to work
5) Start Marking

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I tested a couple of graphics (which came with the software) on paper and unwanted wooden items I can find at home. The machine was very very slow but it worked perfectly! The “marking resolution” was better than what I have expected from a USD72-machine. A small 30mm x 10mm graphic took over 15 minutes to engrave. For those who never experience the commercial machine, this speed may be acceptable. In comparison, Mr Chen’s commercial machine takes less than 12 seconds to complete the same task.

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After a week of trials and experimenting, NEJE is quite a reliable hobbyists’ tool. It is quite an addictive toy (to watch and use) and I had fun engraving my own graphics/text on the gifts I was making for my friends.  NEJE is a very low-powered Fiber-Laser Machine so it can’t be used on any reflective and transparent materials like acrylic, glass, stone, gemstones, and metals. Due to its small size, its maximum engraving output size is at 38mm x 38mm. This model is perfect for many households small items products like souvenirs and keychains.

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Verdict? At USD72, it is a steal and good buy! For someone new to laser engraving machine, there will be some confusion and frustration trying to adjust the marking position and also the effective laser height. Once the user is familiar with the machine’s logic and flow, it is as simple as getting set, on your mark, go.

A Special Gift for a Special Friend

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For years, this great friend of ours has been faithfully sending us all her handmade gifts. And every of her gift was personalized to the most incredible level of craftsmanship. She spoils us with so much love that we look forward to every Christmas and birthday. There is always something unique, surprising and special. We love her so much but we have never given her anything handmade by us.

We chanced upon a Christmas stall by Starology (click to see her facebook) while shopping at PMQ last weekend. We instantly fell in love with Starology’s multi-dimensional light boxes. Just when we wanted to buy one of the “Galaxy Boxes” for our dear friend, Felicia said we could actually DIY the lightbox on the spot. At first, I was worried about the complexity of making one but the teacher convinced us that it was easy to make. So, Tracy and Elkan sat down to learn how to make the gifts.

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Assembling the parts required precision and good craftsmanship. The teacher (and our very own Master of Craft-cum-wife, Felicia) guided them along. It was a fun exercise and it took them slightly longer to complete the gifts. What a sense of satisfaction!

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Just hope our mysterious dear friend likes this little gift. May your dreams and love be as sparkling & lasting as the stars in the box. (Disclaimer: LED “Stars” last over 15,000 hours. Powerbank not included).

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For those who have no idea what to give to your special one, head down to Starology or FLorat (click the link) to make your own. (It takes less than 2 hours.) A handmade gift is more meaningful and special than those you buy in the store.

Nipper’s Master Voice No More

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The day finally came. Faced with lawsuits over unpaid rentals, HMV closed its last 3 outlets in Hong Kong after 25 years of operation.

It is sad to see my favorite stores gone. After all, I grew up with HMV since my young adulthood. It has been a reliable source for all my gadgets, tech magazines, pop t-shirts, games, movies, and music albums. I bought my first PlayStation, PSP, drone (Parrot), first blue ray and many other “firsts” at HMV. Despite the rise of music and movie app stores, HMV was always a great weekend hang-out place for me.

I always knew this day would come. And HMV saw it coming too. They really tried to rejuvenate their retail offering. In recent years, HMV Hong Kong revamped their stores at Causeway Bay and Central, added other new categories (cafe, restaurant, event space, movie collectibles, computers, toys, audio accessories, designer fashion, and accessories, Kickstarter gismos and more!). They even tried to duplicate Ikea’s grab-&-go hotdog guns at a very attractive price of HKD5! Despite all these efforts and changes to attract a new generation of shoppers, HMV succumbed to its final cessation.

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What HMV did right was the new creation of the loft-themed retail space at Causeway Bay. However, the segmentation of categories (toys, games, gadgets, music, movie, fashion, accessories, electronics) was not well-curated and linked. The gaming zone and toys were placed separately on 2 different floors.

It is the lack of differentiation and high-selling price that led HMV to its final downfall. HMV is unable to compete with the convenience and lower pricing of iTunes offerings. While it tried to offer and introduced new categories into its store, HMV did not have any advantage in terms of pricing or varieties. Just like the downfall of BestBuy in China, shoppers went in to browse and experience the products but chose to purchase elsewhere online where the price was much lower than the physical retail outlets. With the emergence of Taobao (and the convenience of home delivery provided by SF Express), shoppers are spoilt for choices and lured by lower pricing.

Another failure of HMV was their slow and weak efforts to invest in their online APP and CRM program. For years, HMV VIP Program and APP failed to lock and incentified loyal shoppers. Instead of moving forward, HMV introduced the old “collect a stamp” card which shoppers can redeem cash rebates after a full collection of stamps. Their online web store was poorly designed and not user-friendly. Poor UIUX wasted the company’s investment.

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Really… it is a great brand with a rich heritage and a beautiful story. We visited the island stores over the weekend for one last time before it closed for good. Most of its suppliers and brands have taken back their stocks, leaving the store raw and empty. I felt sorry for the remaining staffs. It is never a good time to wind down, especially when Christmas is just around the corner. I sincerely hope the brand HMV will be revived to fit tomorrow’s demand.

2018 is the year of the Dog and sadly, it did not bring HMV the luck it needed to survive. Really wish to adopt Nipper for he will be homeless with the silence of his master’s voice. (Let’s hope Hong Kong HMV sells me Nipper).

She got me a ballroom for my birthday!

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Surprise after surprise, I had a wonderful birthday weekend with my family and good friends. The first surprise happened 8 hours before my birthday. I came back from Shenzhen to an apartment filled with colorful helium balloons! There is something magical about floating balloons, no matter how old one is, balloons never failed to delight. It levitates happiness.


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At the struck of midnight, Elkan and Felicia brought out a cake and a present from the kitchen. It was my favorite black-forest cake! Felicia and Elkan presented me with a very special and priceless handmade gift – it was a unique photo book made of fabric, imprinted and sewn with all our past holiday photos.

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Harshad, Tracy and Chowpo contributed their parts too. Knowing I love to sing and drink, they organized a small karaoke buffet for me at Causeway Bay. Christin arrived 15 minutes before midnight. Thanks to her, we sang till 3am.

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Just when I thought my birthday was over. I received a photographic message from Felicia at 4am. The photo showed “Pit Stop 1” and we were asked to arrive at the mysterious location in our sportswear before 10:30am the next morning. That was it, there wasn’t any more clue. Is this another amazing race, I wondered.

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The next morning, Elkan woke me up. He said Felicia had left the house early in the morning. Still recovering from last night’s drinks, I wasn’t in my best form. Felicia sent more photographic clues about the mysterious meeting point. The message also said, “Penalties for Late Comers”.

With the clock ticking away, Harshad, Tracy, Elkan and I took a cab. Tracy was the one who solved the mystery. She told the cabbie our location and off we went. Thankfully, we had a very knowledgeable cabbie who shared with us about the place. It sounded pretty physical and brutal.

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We arrived at D2 Place where we went searching for Felicia. After a quick breakfast, we arrived at an activity space by the name of Crossfire Arena. There, we saw many human-sized balloons or commonly known as Zorb Balls. Felicia signed us up for an hour of strenuous games. Never underestimate the harmless looking games, most of us weren’t physically prepared for it. (All of us suffered 2 days of intense muscle cramps).

We had 30 minutes of bow-&-arrow and another 30 minutes of Zorb Ball Soccer. Just 45 minutes into the games, all of us were super exhausted and we canceled the last game. It was very fun but just too intense for a fat man like me. Until now, my body hasn’t really fully recovered.

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Just when we left Crossfire Arena, all of us received new photographic messages from Felicia. It was only then when we realized she had disappeared again.  It was a clue directing us to the second and final pitstop. Unable to decipher, Harshad, Elkan and I roamed the mall aimlessly 3 times! Tracy disappeared too and we had no idea where she went.

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Just when we were to give up, Tracy disclosed the answer to us. We exit the building and made our way to the final pitstop. Thankfully, it was nothing physical but a nice cozy cafe with good food and drink to rest our tiring bodies.

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Thanks for organizing this special post-birthday activity for me and our dearest friends. My wife, Felicia is no doubt more than meets the eye. She is a meticulous planner and life is never boring with her and Elkan around. Mmmm….. What’s next?

An eventful road trip – Lost car, Area 51 and sliding down the world’s tallest glass slide

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4 days, 2,000km – that’s the distance we traveled on the road. Thankfully, I had a great road warrior who chauffeured me to so many amazing locations. Having been to Las Vegas and Los Angeles many times, CP was so familiar with the cities. She was a fantastic driver and an awesome tour guide. Most important of all, she brought me to sumptuous authentic Asian restaurants every day. I definitely can’t survive on burgers, pizzas, and pasta.


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Right after CES, we took a 5-hour long drive from Las Vegas to Santa Monica where we visited the iconic Pacific Pier Park along Muscle Beach. There is something magical about this old tiny amusement park on the old wooden pier. Despite its ordinary rides and unattractive game stores, it is undeniably charming.  Facing the vast empty pacific ocean, the park lights up like a colorful jewel at night, transforming the sleepy centennial pier into a beacon of joy. It is an enchanted park with so much laughter and happy people.

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Next, we took a short drive to LA downtown where we visited one of the world’s most iconic and glamorous boulevards – the Hollywood Boulevard. Having seen the Walk of Fame on TV/cinema so many times, I was looking forward to a posh, bright, legendary-looking sidewalk. In reality, it was a dull, dim shabby sidewalk, littered with bars and souvenir shops. It wasn’t grand or legendary at all. Well, what you see on TV is often more glamorous than the actual stuff.  That’s exactly how I felt about Las Vegas City too.

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CP and I had our first nasty shock-attack when we couldn’t find our rental car in the CVS (stands for Consumer Value Store, an American retail outlet) parking lot. We just finished our dinner next door and was about to shop at the CVS when we realised our car was missing from the parking lot. We searched frantically for our car around the premise and went to report our loss to the CVS security guard.

To our horror, what happened next was an unbelievable 1-hour painful and sickening experience.  The security guard actually told us that our vehicle was towed away. Just as we were demanding for answers, we were led to a small signage (that wasn’t even obvious and legible at night) that stated: “non-customer car will be towed away”.  We argued that we had the intention to shop at the CVS right after our dinner but the guard couldn’t help us. He brought us to meet the store manager.

I had a big heated argument with the store manager. She said our car was no longer in their possession and we should contact the tow company. She said it was our wrong-doings for not reading the signs. I argued we just arrived and the signs were not visible and legible. There was also no mention of fine or penalty written on the sign. These people were unreasonable and useless. In the end, we had to pay Uber USD30 to fetch us to the tow company and fork out USD357.70 to recover our “stolen” car.

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There are so many ways to deter unwelcome parking. CVS can always install a gantry that charges vehicles for overtime parking or even wheel-lock any unauthorized parked vehicle. No, they have to tow the car far far away and ignorant victims like us have to fork out close to USD400 to redeem our car. This is such a sick, low-class bad practice. And truly, shame on CVS’s terrible attitude and the way you handled the situation. For the least, make the warning sign BIGGER. It felt like a very very bad scam to con money out from new visitors. What a terrible LA experience!

Next morning, we put aside our nasty car experience and headed out to a much happier place – Universal Studios. Not a keen fan on roller-coaster rides, I skipped all the scary attractions and went straight for the more experiential+educational 1-hour Studio Tour ride. It was indeed an amazing and exciting ride where I visited the familiar locations where scenes in Back to the Future, Jaws, War of the Worlds, Bates Motel (Psycho) and Desperate Housewives were shot. What an eye-opener.

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We can’t leave Los Angeles without taking a selfie at its most famous Hollywood Sign. As many roads were blocked by its prestigious and rich residents, we found a popular “Hollywood Sign-Spotting” location on Google Map. It was an open space with lots of parking lots (without the fear of being towed away) and offered a clear view of the famed sign. Indeed, it was a posh hilly neighborhood with big luxury homes, a strikingly close resemblance to the Peak of Hong Kong.

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Just before we made our way back to Las Vegas for our return flight to Hong Kong, CP and I discovered a new attraction in downtown Los Angeles. OUE Skyspace (a Singapore-invested property) is California’s Tallest Open-Air Observation Deck hosting the world’s tallest Glass Slide! Erected 1,000 feets above ground outside the 70-storey building, the 2016-installed transparent glass slide is certainly a unique ride not to be missed! Especially if it is one managed by a Singapore company! I am sure it is super and kiasully safe!

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Back in Las Vegas, we wasted no time and drove 2-hour into the vastness in search for the elusive and mysterious Area 51. Of course, my distinct chauffeur grumbled about my wishful, futile exploration. I just can’t leave Las Vegas without making a trip around Area 51.

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It was a lonely and quiet ride into the rocky desert. It was pretty spooky riding on some segments of the route without seeing any car. Far on the horizon, I managed to take some close-up shots of US restricted airbase sites with my paparazzi super-zoom Nikon camera. Disappointedly, I didn’t see many cars-in-black or men-in-black. Area 51 was located across such a vast area. I wondered what’s going on behind these hills. As there was nothing to see but vastness after vastness, we decided to take a short break at one of Area 51’s touristy stops before heading back to our next destination. The Area 51 Alien Center is one strange rest station with a real brothel. Now, that’s very alienated quirky (quicky) and exotic!

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We bought a couple of Area 51 souvenirs and spent the rest of our afternoon at the nearby majestic Red Rock Canyon. For a mere USD7 entry free, we drove right to the base of the canyon and hiked around it. There was no barriers around the rocky hill. We saw hikers climbing up the dangerous-looking rock.

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On our last day and 5 hours before our flight, we took a quick detour to visit another world’s famous iconic landmark – the Hoover Dam. While it has no connection with Herbert Hoover (America 31st President), it was no doubt a colossal engineering marvel of its time. CP tried to show me a water-trick at the dam but it failed terribly. I was laughing at her so badly that she felt really stupid. She was insistent about the water trick. I did some research on Youtube and realised she was right. Simply, it didn’t work for her because it wasn’t windy that day.

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That’s was it – our little short adventure after CES. A very colorful and eventful road trip. Won a couple of freebies and money at the casino, shop happily at US factory outlet stores! No alien abduction, no lost car and we survived many movie disasters (Jaws, explosion, flash flood, dinos, fire) at Universal Studios. The only thorn left was the unjustified loss of USD357.50. Thanks CP for the ride and wonderful tour. Let’s do it again next CES.

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