Features

I took photos of North Korea using my iPhone

The part the government doesn’t show

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North Korea is one of those countries you can barely call a tourist destination. Our idea of it is limited to the picture painted by words of people who have been to Pyongyang, and the photos sanctioned by its own government.

Tours are mostly restricted to the capital, and can only be done through state-owned travel agencies. What many people don’t know is there are ways to see at least three more North Korean cities — the parts the North Korean government doesn’t want tourists to see.

The Gear

Using my iPhone 7 Plus and the Ztylus Revolver M Series Lens Kit, I got to peak at and capture Sinuiju, Uiju, and Chongsu in North Korea by going along the border city Dandong, as well as the Yalu River, the body of water that separates the two countries.

The 6-in-1 lens system offers the following combos: wide-angle + telephoto, fisheye + telephoto, and macro + super macro. Just to get it out of the way: I don’t find the macro and super macro lenses to be as useful since the phone needs to be pointed at subjects really close — less than one inch away — for the camera to focus.

The best I could do were these small flowers and insects from around Dandong that don’t really say much about the place. The bokeh on these photos is cool, but I’d much prefer a portrait lens especially when traveling.

The wide-angle + telephoto and fisheye + telephoto combos are great though, especially because the telephoto lenses provide up to 4x zoom without losing quality, while the wide-angle and fisheye capture so much more than the iPhone 7 Plus’ main lens.

The Bridge

View of Sinuiju, North Korea and the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge

Three bridges connect China to North Korea but only the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge is being used. Majority of North Korea’s international trade is done between Dandong and Sinuiju through this bridge.

Beside it is this pedestrian bridge that any tourist can use but ends in the middle of the river. Both bridges were bombed during the war, but this one was never repaired. On the other side of the river is a ferris wheel, water slide, and people playing basketball.

The Mountain

Dandong is where the Great Wall of China starts in the east and it sits across a mountain called Hushan.

When climbing to the top, there are a few of these passageways that you can use as resting points.

From one of the windows you can see the remainder of the wall that you need to climb.

Getting to the top is no easy feat but it’s worth it since you get a good view of Uiji county.

Here’s Dandong, China on the left, and Uiji, North Korea on the right.

You can go down through the other side so you can get a closer look at agricultural land and some houses in Uiji.

At the foot of the mountain are signs prohibiting people from crossing the border…

… as well as some North Korean products like ginseng, tiger bone liquor, and soap you can buy as souvenirs. They’re also selling North Korean Won, but they’re most likely counterfeit.

The River

Another way to see North Korea is by taking a van further up Dandong. Speedboats cross the Yalu River past this broken bridge, and bring you to an area that’s already North Korean territory.

Up close you can see houses and buildings in Chongsu, North Korea that look abandoned.

But as you go along the river you’ll find signs of life: cows, farmers walking around, and occasionally, their pet dogs. I even saw a lady doing her laundry along the river.

This is what most of the houses I’ve seen look like. Unlike Pyongyang that has plenty of signs of urban development, this part of North Korea remains mostly rural, with agriculture as one of the main sources of living.

Before the boat turns around, you’ll see this bridge that locals use to cross to another part of North Korea. I saw some kids swimming in this area, and a few people on their bikes wearing clothes that look like they’re from the 1980s.

On the way back, the Chinese guide will try to sell you a North Korean bill, which, again, is probably fake.

Apart from the usual North Korean souvenirs I’ve seen in other shops, the ones sold at the wharf include Matryoshka dolls, plush keychains, and selfie sticks.

These photos don’t tell the whole story, just like a Pyongyang tour isn’t a definitive representation of North Korea. For sure there’s a lot more I didn’t see, both good and bad, beyond these border cities; but seeing North Korea through a different lens, no pun intended, without the state-organized tours is one of those life experiences money can never buy.

Before this trip, I thought I’d see heavily barricaded cities with soldiers constantly patrolling the border. Instead, what I saw were North Koreans living their lives as normally as possible, enjoying the outdoors, looking up and not down on screens like the rest of the world.

Entertainment

Sony WH-XB700 hands-on: Extra bass, extra flex

Great for travels and even OOTDs

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Today’s gadgets are no longer just mere products. A lot have found their way to our daily lifestyle so it’s also important that they look good while we use them. And for others who are more trend-sensitive, these devices should blend well with their outfit and even character — all while doing what it’s supposed to do.

When it comes to headphones, Sony wants to offer something that you can bring anywhere during your travels while looking discreet yet fashionable. This is where the WH-XB700 comes into the picture. On paper, it ticks the boxes of what a casual listener is commonly looking for in headphones plus it’s geared towards those who prefer a bit of extra oomph in their bass.

It has a simple and straightforward design

Eye-catching but not too loud

Available in solid blue or black color options

We dig the blue one better

Soft padding on the earcup makes it comfortable

Has large cups which we like

Body is made of plastic so it’s light on the head

No problem using it for extended periods

Connects wirelessly via Bluetooth or NFC

Although an option to use its 3.5mm jack is available

Built-in microphone for hands-free calls

Can also connect to your phone’s voice assistant

Comes with 360 Reality Audio

Immersing you more in your music

The WH-XB700, among other models in Sony’s audio line, can be paired to your smartphone. And, using the company’s Connect app, you can tweak and customize your sound the way you like it. But as Rodneil mentioned in his WF-1000XM3 review (we know, confusing names), you wouldn’t really end up adjusting your settings that much.

In terms of sound quality, this pair of on-ear headphones deliver clear highs and decent mids. Vocals could be more pronounced but it’s still not bad. The lows, however, are indeed extra punchy. So if you like playing bass-heavy music like house, hip-hop, and the likes, you’d probably enjoy the extra kick in these cans.

Since it’s wireless, it has to connect via Bluetooth which means it has a battery. We’re glad to report that it has a decent battery life that doesn’t require you to keep on looking for sockets just so you could continue to use its wireless capabilities.

I brought it on one of my overseas trips and was able to use it at the airport while waiting to board, during the 4-hour flight, and while walking around for the rest of the entire day with a good amount of juice left when I got back to my hotel.

Charging time is also not bad with up to 90 minutes of music time just from a 10-minute quick charge.

Having the WH-XB700 for a while is basically being able to conveniently listen to your tunes anywhere you go. It doesn’t have the best audio quality in Sony’s lineup but having its flexibility for usage on-the-go sort of outweighs this shortcoming.

They are also light on the head and easy on the ears so fatigue has been kept down to a minimum. You also wouldn’t have to keep on charging it since it could last a few days of moderate usage.

The Sony WH-XB700 currently retails in the Philippines for PhP 7,999 (around US$ 150). It’s not the best wireless headphones we’ve tried on but it’s actually competitively priced for what it offers. Plus, it looks nice and goes well with almost anything you put on.

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Why Instagram is doing the right thing by removing the like count

We need to change this ugly culture we created

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Instagram used to be a space where you can get inspiration to nourish your creativity. It was also a place to connect with people through disappearing photos and videos called Stories. However, the platform took a different turn throughout the years and became an arena — a battlefield where people show off who has the most perfect life.

People started curating their feeds to make them stand out. The age of curation dawned upon Instagrammers, bearing unto the world themes and grids to reflect the user’s personality and aesthetics. Instagram fuelled perfectionism, too.

What used to be a space to share mundane moments of your everyday life became a place where you show your glamorous life which, frankly, only happens every once in a while for most users. Admittedly, I also succumbed to the perfectionism and the pressure. I would post only the photos where I looked like I was having the time of my life. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with putting your best foot forward, right?

Increasing cases of depression and anxiety

Apparently, not everyone thinks the way I do. In a study published in 2017 by the Royal Society for Public Health in the United Kingdom, social media — particularly Instagram — is a major contributor to the increasing cases of depression and anxiety among the youth today. The rise of influencers and other people with seemingly perfect lives made a lot of users feel inadequate.

“What used to be a space to share mundane moments in your everyday life became a place where you show your glamorous life which, frankly, only happens every once in a while for most users.”

RSPH Chief Executive Shirley Cramer said, “it’s interesting to see Instagram and Snapchat ranking as the worst for mental health and wellbeing – both platforms are very image-focused and it appears they may be driving feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in young people.”

Technology companies’ response

With this worrisome situation on the youth’s mental health, companies made an effort to help through technology. There’s Android’s Digital Wellbeing feature which tracks the amount of time you spend on social media, although it still requires a conscious effort to break your social media addiction.

In the crusade against depression and anxiety caused by social media, Instagram recently made a daunting move. The social media giant has started testing the removal of like counts in some countries, removing the user’s ability to see how many likes have been racked up by a certain person in their feeds.

People in dire need of too much validation, fret not. The feature will let you still see who liked your posts. Think of it as your usual form of public affirmation, but you get it in private.

Just like our stories, only we can see who viewed and reacted. In this scenario, only we can see who liked our posts. While this recent move can put a dent on someone’s ego especially when they crave external validation, this can have real benefits for some users’ mental health.

In a country like the Philippines, where social media consumes a chunk of Filipino’s time, Instagram is a big contributor in rising cases of mental illnesses plaguing today’s youth like the common cold.

The social media age has created a culture where people value their smartphones, social media accounts, and the content they create rather than socializing offline and establishing real-life connections. The youth measure their self-worth through likes and other forms of metrics that it’s taking a toll on their mental health.

If this is the ugly culture we developed, Instagram is doing the right thing of removing the like count. At the very least, they can stop other people from comparing their worth and relying on external validation to feel better.

“I personally don’t mind if the feature comes here or not, but I’m sure a few of my friends would care.” — Patricia Medina, a medical practitioner in the Philippines

However, some people won’t be able to accept the upcoming feature should it arrive in the Philippines, similar to how we all panicked when Instagram removed our ability to see the viewers of our stories after 24 hours. Despite the outcry, we adapted and got used to it.

Likes are not the only measure of influence

It may be hard to believe, but Instagram is on the right track. Aside from tackling mental health and fixing the problem their app posed in our society, they’re reshaping the marketing and advertising industry. Some influencers might be affected by the like count removal, particularly those who buy fake likes and followers, as well as those who became walking billboards for brands and agencies.

But for content creators like Ceej Tantengco, removing the like count won’t have much of an impact, rather it will reinforce her influence among her audience. “The brand partnerships I tend to get are with sustainable fashion and brands running women empowerment campaigns. These brands are less about pure numbers and more about connecting with brand ambassadors who truly share their cause and can speak about it with sincerity,” Tantengco said.

“The chase for likes has led to a sort of cookie-cutter templating of content based on what the algorithm rewards or what is easiest to generate likes. We live in a world where a selfie gets 800+ likes and a photo of what book the person is reading gets only 50. But like-bait content isn’t always the most thoughtful, and we need to be careful to not equate the number of likes to whether the brand message was communicated effectively,” Tantengco added.

On the other hand, Castro Communications PR Director Janlee Dungca is unbothered by the like count removal. Dungca, who works primarily with content creators and influencers, will still approach a campaign based on a brand’s goals and objectives. Likes aren’t the only form of visible metrics available since comments still count as a way to measure engagement rate.

Macro-influencers — accounts with more than 100,000 followers — tend to have higher reach but lower engagement, thus she opts for micro-influencers whose accounts range from 10,000 to 50,000 followers to get higher engagement for the brand.

“We live in a world where a selfie gets 800+ likes and a photo of what book the person is reading gets only 50.” — Ceej Tantengco

With this sudden change in the marketing landscape, people — not just influencers — might be more keen on engaging with other people through comments. People might start to make an effort to share their thoughts and interact, rather than just dropping an emoji of fire, heart, or a star-eyed face.

Additionally, people might not be as conscious of what they post anymore. Tantengco affirmed, “this move is great for people with advocacies because we can speak about them without worrying so much about ‘how do I package this to get the maximum number of likes’ and just say what we want to say. This feels very freeing.”

Moving forward, we might start to see posts of what people really care about again should Instagram proceed with removing the like count forever. There will be people though who will try to game the algorithm by leaving comments on each other’s posts and uploading video clips instead of still photos for validation as Instagram has not said anything about removing the view count.

Nonetheless, the future is bright for Instagram. I can’t wait to see moments where people embrace their natural selves and flaunt the things they’re passionate about again.

Illustrations by MJ Jucutan

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Automotive

Mercedes-Benz GLC and V-Class: Living the fly life

Smooth sailing on the GLC 200 and V-Class 220d

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When we hear the words “upper class” in a market segment, we usually think of luxury lifestyle, extravagant vacations, fine dining, and everything fancy. So when it comes to their means of transportation, we expect nothing less than utmost grandiosity.

With this in mind, some premium car brands will naturally come to mind and one of them is Mercedes-Benz.  This was the idea that Auto Nation Group, the official distributor of Mercedes-Benz in the Philippines, had in mind when they hosted the Media Ride and Drive — a day-long activity that offered participants the choice to drive the new GLC 200 and V-Class 220d or enjoy the comfortable ride and amenities offered inside both these new models.

Mercedes-Benz GLC 200

Instead of usual technical reviews, it was their goal for the participants to experience the affluent life — to be driven to where their consumers would go and do activities they would commonly do.

Scuba diving and the GLC

Of course, I took an underwater selfie

The first activity was a 3-hour course in scuba diving led by accredited PADI diver Igor Subora.  Held at the indoor scuba facilities of The Upper Deck Sports and Lifestyle Center in Ortigas, the activity aimed to give a glimpse into the lifestyle of someone with a spirit of adventure – a persona that perfectly matches the personality and performance of the new GLC.

According to Joseph Ayllon, head of PR Communications, the new GLC is a great match for confident go-getters in life determined to achieve goals. He says that it’s the right vehicle to take out of town or to a quick getaway within the city – like taking the morning off to go scuba diving.

The GLC remains as the best-selling Mercedes-Benz for 10 years with more than 1.6 million units sold. Priced at PhP 4,290,000.00, the GLC 200 is a robust adventure luxury SUV that delivers 197hp and 320Nm of torque from a 2.0 turbo petrol engine mated to a 9G-TRONIC 9-speed automatic transmission.

Its interior is wrapped in premium soft-touch materials, leather, and brushed metal accents. The soft leather seats were exceptionally comfortable, with plenty of head and legroom. In addition, the Burmester surround audio system is impressive and gave crisp & immersive sound.

Looking at the dashboard, it boasts a high-definition all-digital instrument panel along with their intelligent voice command LINGUATRONIC with “Hey, Mercedes” functionality which we found quite useful for a hands-free driving experience.

Sitting at the back, this SUV felt smooth and cabin noise was well isolated. Overall, this SUV is a perfect fusion of adventure and luxury.

R&R with the V-Class

After our scuba diving training and certification, we went our way to our lunch venue at Misto Seda-Vertis North onboard the 2019 Mercedes-Benz V-Class 220d. Priced at PhP 4,690,000.00, this lounge on wheels puts out 163hp and 380Nm of torque from a 2.2-liter diesel engine mated to a 7G-TRONIC PLUS 7-speed automatic transmission.

Mercedes-Benz V-Class 220d

As a passenger sitting on the third row, it didn’t feel like you were in a van; the cabin was unbelievably quiet and immensely comfortable. Everywhere you touch is made of premium quality material and the leather-wrapped captain seats just give you a sense of grandeur — almost like sitting on Queen Elizabeth’s throne.

The interior is spacious with abundant head and legroom. In addition, this model boasts swivel seats with a built-in pullout folding table. Looking out, I just loved how you are surrounded by huge & bright windows, perfect for scenic road-trips.

I have never felt more comfortable riding a third-row seat from a vehicle of this segment. You just feel pampered and EDSA traffic suddenly wasn’t so stressful.

After our bounteous buffet lunch at Misto, it was time to head to the last destination and the day was wrapped up with a relaxing full body massage at the Upper Deck Recovery Spa.

End of the day thoughts

As we ended this unique drive, one thing was made crystal clear to me: Mercedes-Benz really knows who their products are for and the new GLC 200 and new V-Class 220d truly cater to the needs and demands of this market segment.

I have to admit that I was easily spoiled by the activities the company has prepared — kicking it off with a fun diving experience, having a feast, and ending the day with a massage. Although, that’s exactly what they want their customers to feel with these new offerings — pampered and spoiled while getting from point A to point B.

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