Nicaragua and Panama

We returned recently from a trip to Nicaragua and Panama.

Although Nicaragua is not as well-known as its neighbor to the south, Costa Rica, as a travel destination – it does not disappoint.  It has everything from beautiful white sand beaches and forests to bustling street markets.

We flew to  an Island on the Caribbean coast of the country, known as Big Corn Islands.  The islands are beautiful and with the typical tourist crowd missing, it was a great experience. The food choices mainly revolve around seafood and plantains, and lobster is relatively cheap and abundant.  After Corn Islands, we flew back to the capital of Managua for a night and did a day trip to Leon, before heading to the colonial rival city of Granada.   Granada has a rich colonial history and is evident in the architecture and layout of the city. This being an election year in Nicaragua, there were a lot of signs and rallies all over the place.

After a few days in Nicaragua, we flew to Panama.  I wasn’t too impressed with Panama City, as it seemed like any city in the US – perhaps because of the long involvement USA had with Panama with the building of the canal.  We went over to the Miraflores locks to see the Panama Canal as large cargo ships passed through the lock system. It’s definitely a great engineering feat to see it all in action.

In Panama, we spent the next day visiting a semi-nomadic tribe, the Emberas, who live about 2.5 hours away from Panama City. They live in small villages along a river, and it took us about an hour by a dugout boat to get there from the end of the paved road. It was interesting to see people still living without things we take for granted like electricity, television and the internet!

More pictures on Facebook, and a few selected ones here..

Nicaragua
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LCD powered by Arduino

I picked up this LCD from SparkFun, and finally got it working after a few frustrating hours of debugging.

I had trouble getting it running primarily for two reasons. One, I tried to use in on a bread-board, and it really doesn’t work until you solder the wires to the LCD, due to loose connections when plugged directly to the bread-board.

Secondly, I had the pin numbering wrong. Make sure you look at the datasheet, and understand the pin numberings first. You can see a small ‘1’ printed on the PCB next to pin 1. I had my pins numberings reversed, and wasted some time on it.

Now on to doing something interesting with it.

 

Arduino


I was introduced to the amazing Arduino micro-controller at the HOPE conference this month.

It’s a great fun platform to create home-brew devices. I am still learning about the Arduino platform, and also recalling all the basics of transistors, resistors and potentiometers etc, and hope to put together something cool over the next few months.

As a learning exercise I put together a knob-controlled fan, or to be technically correct – a potentiometer providing input to the Arduino, which controls the speed of a DC-motor.

Will post more when I have my first project built. Eventually I aim to build a simple robot with a distance-sensor that can avoid obstacles. And vacuum the floor, make dinner, and do the dishes – alright, alright, I am getting carried away!

South East Asia Trip

I returned last week from a two-week trip to South East Asia. We travelled to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, with a stopover in South Korea. It was very enjoyable but very fast paced trip — travelling a total of approximately 22,000 miles, taking about 12 flights, and staying in at least 14 different hotels, and visiting numerous cities, towns and villages. There were certainly times when I woke up in the morning and had to think twice to remember the city in which, I was waking up in.

My brief impressions on each country below.

South Korea
We had two long stopovers in Seoul, which we used to get a transit visa and visit the city. In general, I found Seoul to be very clean with an excellent infrastructure. They have a vast subway system, which is both reliable and fast. Prices seem to be lesser than US for most products, but not significantly cheaper.

Thailand
The country appears to rely on tourism quite a bit. Definitely, the country to visit if you are looking to shop till you drop, without going bankrupt. Bangkok seems to have more markets, than you can visit even if you had a whole month there. Almost, as if, every person in Bangkok has a stall of their own. Night markets, day markets, noon markets — they have it all. I didn’t really shop as much, but I enjoyed bargaining with the vendors – a experience you don’t get to have much living in the US. If you are paying more than half of what the vendor originally quotes you, you can be almost certain you are being overcharged.

We made it to the full-moon party in Koh Phangan, which was quite an experience. It’s a beach party that lasts through the night, and well into next day afternoon — with about 30,000 revelers in peak season. Definitely, the place to go, if you like to party!

Cambodia
Hospitality. Cambodia, stood out for the warm Khmer hospitality that we experienced. While we went there to see the ruins of Angkor Wat, for me the highlight actually was attending a Khmer wedding and experience the friendliness of Khmer people, and visiting the Cambodian country side, and floating fishing villages. Yes, that’s right — floating fishing villages. Floating because the water level varies so much from season to season, they figured might as well live on a floating house, than rebuild the house every season on higher ground when it floods.

We became friends with the tuktuk driver, who invited us to his friends wedding. It was a interesting experience, and I enjoyed the small touches — you get greeted personally by the bride and groom when you walk in, they give you a lollipop when you come in, the food is shared with people on the table, traditional Khmer music plays in the background, and you get a stick of gum when you leave. Although the people are quite poor, their hospitality and friendliness is quite humbling. Not many tourists to Cambodia get to experience this, and we cherished the experience.

Vietnam
Traffic, lots of shops, and sidewalk phở stalls everywhere. The traffic in Vietnam, particularly in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City is insane. Crossing the road, is not for the meek — you basically need to barge right in front on oncoming traffic, and assume the traffic will work it’s way around you.

We took a tour to Ha long Bay, which was quite picturesque for the most part, but was marred by litter floating in the water from the barrage of tourists visiting there.

Vietnam does have good coffee. Coffee is usually brewed right on the cup, and is very strong. Instead of milk and sugar, you are usually offered condensed milk. We also got to try, caphe cut chon, which is basically, coffee made from the beans eaten and passed by civet.

On a geeky note, and I ran broadband speed tests in internet cafe’s in each of the countries I visited. Undoubtedly, South Korea was in a league of its own — with speedtest.net, clocking speeds over 40MB/s — that’s way more than what’s available to consumers in the US without breaking the bank. Next was Thailand, with speeds of around 1.5MB/s, and Cambodia and Vietnam on the slower side with speeds around 1MB/s at locations I used the Internet.

VoIP and more..

I first used VoIP in early 1999, to make calls to the US from India. I used a software provided by a now defunct company, NetAccess, which allowed unlimited VoIP outgoing calls to the US for a flat fee of $10/month. I also remember trying out software by VocalTec, which is still around, but now appears to be focused on enterprise VoIP solutions. Eight years later, there a quite a few new players, offering an innovative range of services in telephony.

I recently discovered sipnumber.com, a service which gives you a incoming phone number and allows you to receive free unlimited incoming calls. All you need is a SIP compliant physical phone or software. I do not have a physical SIP phone, but I use Idefisk, a free software SIP client, and it works great!

Another useful service is grandcentral.com, which was recently acquired by Google. Although, not really a VoIP provider, it gives you a free incoming phone number, however the purpose is to allow you to route your calls transparently to any of your other phone lines amongst other features like call screening and recording. Quite nifty! Here is a post from consumerist.com on how to combine GrandCentral + T-Mobile Fave 5 plan to get cheap incoming calls!

Another popular provider is Skype — for a fee they provide incoming phone number + flat fee unlimited calling to the US and Canada. However note that Skype does not use the SIP protocol, so you will either need to use the Skype software or a Skype compatible phone.

An alternative to Skype, is VoipBuster.com. Presently, they give you 6 minutes of free daily calling to the US, and the prices for their outgoing calls seem marginally better than Skype. Another plus, is that they use the SIP protocol, so you could use any SIP client software or phone with their system. Incoming phone numbers are also available for a fee.

Television: The high-definition way…

After weeks and weeks of research, planning and window shopping — I finally have my HDTV (high-definition television) setup in my room. Er, well almost…

For the plasma TV, I got the Panasonic 42″ HDTV Plasma TV (TH-42PX60U) from Amazon for $1299. Panasonic undoubtedly makes the best plasma’s in this price range currently, and I am impressed by the picture quality of this plasma.

I had to upgrade to HDTV from my cable company for an additional $14.95 a month. Unfortunately, there are not many high-definition channels out there right now, but a dozen or so which are there now have some decent content (FOX, CBS, NBC, DISC, NGC). The cable company provided me with Motorola DCT6412 HDTV Dual-tuner DVR box, and I have it setup to record all my favorite shows. This is pretty decent DVR, although it is no TiVo. It has decent 120GB HDD and the dual tuner allows me to record upto two different shows at the same time, or watch one show and record something else at the same time. Works great!

To get the TV wall mounted, I got one of the best wall mounts I could find there. The OmniMount UCL-X, it was the only one I found out there with a full articulating arm, that will let me turn the TV upto 180 degrees. I got this again on Amazon for $370. I had to pay someone from craigslist to get the TV wall mounted. I opted to get someone from craigslist do the wall mounting instead of the professionals from Circuit City or Best Buy, since it would only cost me a fraction of the price the others charge. So far, it seems like the guy did a decent job fingers crossed!).

I got a Panasonic DVD (DVD-S52) player to go along with the TV. It is upconverting player, so it converts DVD picture (480p) to 720p/1080i resolution. I bagged it for a great price for $50 online.

As with any HDTV setup, high quality cables are needed and these cables aren’t exactly cheap. Buying such cables from BestBuy or a brick-and-mortar shop is not a good idea, since they are exorbitantly priced. I need a component cable (Y,Pb,Pr) to hookup the DVR to the TV. I also got a RCA audio cable, a S-video cable and a HDMI cable (for the DVD player) all for under $70. At a brick-and-mortar store, this could have easily cost twice as more.

So now, as I write this post — I sit in front of a big plasma TV with a HDTV channel playing on it. I am simply amazed by the difference in picture, between standard television and high-definition TV. You have to see it to believe it! 🙂

I am not done with the setup yet though, need to find a good home theatre sound system. I have been eyeing the Onkyo HT-S590 system. I also need a good comfortable couch to go all with the whole setup. Alas, my year-long dream is coming true — one component at a time!

 

 

ZDict 0.1

I have been playing around quite a bit with the Microsoft Compact .NET framework, programs based on which, run on Windows Mobile 2003 based phones, including the Audiovox SMT5600 which I own. I have created and released a really basic but hopefully useful freeware for it. I call it ZDict, and it is basically a interface to dict.org’s excellent online service. It uses a webservice provided by Aonaware. It lets you lookup dictionary definitions, information from the CIA world fact book, thesaurus or any of the several online dictionaries/encylopedias dict.org provides access to.

If you have a smartphone, get your copy here and let me know your comments and suggestions. I am working on a improved version of it, and will hopefully release a newer version soon.