“Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic…”, as the the opening crawl from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace read. That sums up about nicely the initial reactions from many fans who’d invested in the years of Expanded Universe (EU) books, games and magazines etc. when Disney bought Lucasfilm, and shortly thereafter announced that all the material developed since 1983’s Return of the Jedi would be (ROTJ) largely would be non-canonical, and rebranded as Star Wars Legends. If the EU was a hodgepodge of material, no one would have bothered. But while there was a humongous amount of material created over the years – and there were even books written attempting to organize and weave all that stuff into a coherent narrative to make sense of it all – and not all of it was good, there were many common themes in the hundreds of EU publications that demonstrated a willingness to seriously explore and expand the fictional universe into something that sounded real. Even the more important when one realizes that as viscerally enjoyable as most of the SW prequel and original trilogies movies were, there was just so much implied – putting aside the simply routinely awful character dialogue – that someone had to make sense of all those broad plot lines we saw in the movies.

The New Essential Chronology to Star Wars, from 2005. One book that attempted to make sense of the Expanded Universe.

The New Essential Chronology to Star Wars, from 2005. One book that attempted to make sense of the Expanded Universe.

Most of my interest in the EU were in the post-ROTJ era and what happened after the second Death Star gets blown up and the Emperor gets tossed down the bottomless shaft. I haven’t read all the EU books – there’s a lot of it – but my sense of some of the most key themes in the post-ROTJ era were along these lines:

  1. That the Empire was now divided, with former Imperial warlords trying to carve out their own niches in the Galaxy, with the expected rivalry and in-fighting to follow. For them now, it was a fight to protect first whatever little they had left.
  2. That the New Republic was going through serious settling-in problems, and facing some of the same issues the early Empire experienced – and they had it easier as Palpatine had no compunctions using force to bend systems into his will.
  3. That the Jedi order was being revived, with the rebuilding of the Jedi Temple, with Luke becoming the first Master Jedi again. Luke traveling the galaxy to find force-sensitive pupils to be his first apprentices.
  4. That there were parts of the Galaxy untouched/not involved in the galactic war, and now emerging – sometimes they did not come in peace.

In other words, the galaxy was moving on and demonstrating a realistic process of transformation after the upheaval events of ROTJ. Stuff that felt like they were in the natural sequence of things that would happen in any other setting. As I mused in my last post, I was struck by that SW: TFA used essentially none of these, but instead:

  1. The Empire was not divided – only re-branded to The First Order, with no change to their agenda: still “Crush those Rebel – whoops – Resistance scum!”
  2. There was no New Republic, only the Resistance – and still on the run.
  3. There was a brief resurgence of a new Jedi order, before Kylo Ren turned it on his head, and Luke goes into hiding in apparent shame. Huh!
  4. No new factions joining into the mix – at this point of the seventh film anyway.

So, fundamentally, I found SW: TFA bland, if visually exciting and still enjoyable to watch from at least a superficial point of view. Hopefully things will improve in the next couple of films – we’ll see.

More in the next post.

 

I was once in the habit of reviewing films and books several (or maybe many?) years ago here on this blog, and did so for a couple of years. That stopped after I concluded that while it was easy to comment briefly about something I saw or read, it was much harder to write thoughtful reviews worth the digital space it’d take up. I still watch a lot of films through video on demand subscriptions, DVD rental, blu-ray and in the cinema of course, and some really continue to impress – e.g. two recent Netflix TV series Narcos and Daredevil. And we’ve been binge-watching seasons of 24, with Ling lamenting that half the time the series “don’t have head or tail” since she’s often busying with housework and thus missing a lot of episodes in-between.

It was really hard to miss the hype train for Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the last 12 months, not when the daily Facebook feeds were filled with posts about J.J. Abrams forthcoming take on the venerable property. And I’d come right out to say it: I realized that there would be no pragmatic way for me to avoid all the buzz and predictions about story and character fates in the months on social media before the film’s release. The only way would be to go off Facebook altogether LOL. So, I gave up trying to avoid it, and ended up watching the theatrical screening of the completed film in December last year already pretty much knowing what was going to happen at most plot points. And yes – there were dedicated SW: TFA spoiler sites, and though one might scoff at them, they nailed an amazing number of predictions and photo leaks. I’d put their hit rate predictions at about 90% in fact.

I’m also one of many weirdos who after getting inducted into Star Wars-verse with the first film’s screening at the Odeon cinema in 1977, have continued to invest in the pop-culture phenomena, including owning the original trilogy on VHS tapes, VCDs (does anyone even remember those LOL), laser discs, DVD, and now finally blu-ray. And there’s also been the (many) books I’ve bought and read on it. So, since Star Wars has become a good part of my growing up, I figured I’d do a series of posts collecting some of my notes and thoughts on it! Starting off with the the new film, and then I’ll probably write about the other films, the books, and some of the merchandise.

I wasn’t going to cram with everybody else for the Day 1 opening of SW: TFA here in Singapore on the 17 Dec Thursday, and opted instead for an 18 Dec screening at Serangoon Nex. Truth to tell, it’s been a while since I’ve seen a cinema hall in Singapore sold-out like that evening. The audience was for the most part well-behaved, and unlike some of the other Day 1 screenings here and outside Singapore, there were scant cheers when the trademark scrawl opened the film, nor applause when John Williams’ signature Star Wars march brought on the end-credits.

star-wars-tfa-poster

Spoilers… spoilers… spoilers!

And the good bits for me:

The cast, right at the top of the list of things that I felt went well. Harrison Ford didn’t missed a beat in his return to one of his two most iconic roles (the one being a certain archaeologist with a fedora and a bull whip) as the sardonic one-time space pirate Han Solo. He has a few outright hilarious lines with Chewie, though all rib-tickling also leads one to wonder – in at least one case about Chewie’s weapon of choice – why he’s only making the jibe now and not 30 years earlier in the original trilogy. Of the three new young leads, Daisy Ridley displayed the widest emotional range and whose character arc seemed better fleshed out than the others, and especially in comparison to Oscar Issac’s Poe Dameron who spent more time in torture chambers and behind the cockpit controls of the newly stylized X-Wing fighters cheering the other Resistance pilots onward than having a real story told of his character.

The script, for the most part, though not the overarching plot. The banter’s cute, with Finn and Rey’s lines eliciting the most chuckles among the audience. Heck, maybe a bit too much even – and I wonder if Finn’s character was included in the story largely for laughs.

Minimal lens flare. And you have to see J.J. Abrams’ treatment of the two re-imagined Star Trek films to see what I mean here. In fact, the general Internet was so fearful of his overuse of digital lens flares that fan-made parodies of the teaser trailer were made – called ‘lens flare editions’. Thankfully, this was all dialed down for TFA, and the computer generated elements were nicely integrated into the film’s practical effects and real-world sets. Totally unlike the three prequel films, where the CG was pretty obvious everywhere it was used.

Lots of story and branching possibilities. Despite the film’s already longer than usual run-length of 135 minutes, there’s clearly a lot of subplots that were not concluded or characters’ agendas explored at this point. The Internet was buzzing with speculation on Rey’s real lineage after theatrical release, and it’d be no surprise that many of the secondary characters will be mined and fleshed out in literature in the coming years. E.g. Lor San Tekka on Jakku, Captain Phasma, and General Hux.

Lightsaber duels that look like real sword fights, and not gymnast show demos and kungfu bouts. As one Youtube channel quipped, the original trilogy duels were routinely like two geezers poking each other with walking sticks, and the prequel trilogy went the other extreme – totally incomprehensible with duelists flying and somersaulting in the air, though the bits where the Jedi were hurling machinery and furniture at each other was cool. The ferocity and energy exerted in each thrust and slash in TFA are apparent, and underlines the duel’s life or death intensity.

Some very impressive action set pieces, especially the dogfight on Jakku where the Millennium Falcon gets chased through the bowels of a ruined Star Star Destroyer.

Nice updates to vehicles, including the X-Wings, Tie-Fighters, land vehicles, and the dagger-shaped descendants of Star Destroyers.

No Ewoks, no Gungans, no Jar Jar Binks. ’nuff said LOL.

And the less impressive bits:

John Williams’ score – apart from the already very familiar opening and end-credits music, the score was for the most part nondescript.

The overarching plot being – essentially – a retread of Episode IV, albeit with some minor character variations and agendas. You have Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth replayed. The hero(ine) is from a desert backwater planet. You have the shadowy main villain and the more ominous ‘master’. You have the planet destroyer weapon, this time round deployed at a planetary system.

Same old protagonist, same old antagonist. Little seemed to have changed in the last 30 years in between trilogies..One would have thought that the galaxy would had been in total upheaval since the Emperor’s demise in Episode VI and the galaxy witnessed seismic changes. But heck no – it’s still the same two loggerheads going at it. The Empire is now The First Order, and the Rebellion is the Resistance. At best, unadventurous and worse, lazy writing in my opinion.

Needless character deaths, whose so-called emotional outcome could had been achieved just as well without killing the character.

But my biggest grip of the film was how little the new trilogy used  material or even drawn general ideas and themes from the Expanded Universe (EU). Granted that the latter is pretty convoluted now with all the published books, games and comic books prior to TFA, and Disney has come out to say they’re disregarding the EU. But there’s a lot of rich material there – and some of it is far more compelling than TFA’s newly developed continuing story and context. I’ll write more about this in the next couple of posts when I reflect on some of the EU books I’ve read and really liked.

More in the next post!

I’m only reminded again how quickly time zooms past when it’s time to do another year-end post summarizing our key purchasing decisions in the year. It only seems last month when I did the 2014 version of this annual post!

Dell XPS 13 – Win: an easy win for this purchase, since it’s become my daily work horse laptop. The laptop still looks as good as it did about a year on with nary a scratch on  the aluminum case. My only two quibbles with the XPS 13 is in the minor light bleed around the edges of its ‘infinity’-styled screen – guess I got a lousy unit upon notebook delivery – and also that I still don’t especially like the carbon fiber palm rests. Would have much preferred if the notebook had used the same aluminum material all round, like in the Macbooks.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 – Win: this was picked up at about the same time as the XPS 13, and I’ve ended up using it a lot more at home than I’d thought – so much so that the exterior casing has gotten quite a few nicks. The tablet-notebook hybrid has accompanied us on two vacation trips now, and I recently picked up the new Surface Pro 4 type cover keyboard for it too – an accessory that provides a better speed typing platform than the older type cover. The machine’s 4GB RAM was initially sufficient when the Surface Pro 3 was running Windows 8.1, but ever since the upgrade to Windows 10, performance is noticeably more sluggish now. Note to self: if I get a replacement, get one with 8GB RAM!

Panasonic DMC-LX100 – Mixed: I never quite took to the LX100 the same way as I’ve liked using the older E-PL6, a similar-sized though also functionally very different compact m4/3 sensor camera. The camera is wonderfully featured, but was also finally quite soft in the corners wide-open, and I routinely found it easier to work to get the colors I wanted using RAW images out of the E-PL6 than the LX100. So, the LX100 got sold off a couple of months ago.

Nission i40 Flashgun for m4/3s – Win: much smaller and also more compact than the flashgun it replaced (the Metz 50AF-1). The flash is sturdily built, recharges quicker, and – aside from that Olympus’ TTL doesn’t quite typically throw up exactly the right amount of light as the Nikon speedlight flashguns did – has worked well otherwise. The only minor annoyance: the left real mode dial markings have almost all but faded off. Poor quality imprinting onto the rear dial I guess.

Mazda 3 – Win. We’ve adapted to our new 2015 ride, and have pretty much adjusted to the limitations of the vehicle compared to our old Nissan Latio – basically reduced leg head room spaces, and the absent footbrake. The car purls along with less effort than the Latio, even though the rated engine horsepower is identical. Though oddly, we ended up not using a lot of the vehicle’s nice features, including the sunroof, the Bluetooth connections, nor the built-in GPS maps (really not necessary with Google Maps).

Epson L550 Printer – Win… for the most part. I’ve printed several hundred A4 and 4R-sized photos for family, Hannah and our photo albums. The ink tanks are still more than half-full. Not unexpectedly, how well the print retains colors is dependent on both the photo paper used (Epson papers have worked much better on the L550 than another manufacturer’s!), and also display conditions, e.g. if the printed surface is exposed without protection. Of issues: the printer started making odd mechanical noises during print runs shortly after purchase, and from the sound of it, the print head its roller mechanism is impacting something in the printer’s innards. Aside from the din that makes, it doesn’t impact the print at all and can be solved by simply lifting the document feeder cover altogether by an inch or so. Still annoying nonetheless though.

Samsung Galaxy Note 5 – Win. Lovely phone with a stunning build and design. I’ve not typically used phones as personal audio players yet, but tried it out in the recent Club Med trip, and found that the device churns out audio quality that’s every bit as good as the Sony F886 Walkman I’ve been using for more than a year now. One less device to bring around now – hooray!

Philips Slow Juicer – Win. We’ve significantly cut-down on our usage of the Slow Juicer a month back after Ling read that too much juices was leading to sugar overdoses in our diets. Not through any fault of the Juicer of course.

Olympus E-M1 – Win. Handles quite differently compared to the E-M5, and also a much better camera body to use with the 40-150mm f2.8. Got it at a wonderful price point, and supports WIFI tethering too – which eliminates the need for separate remote controllers.

Olympus 12-40mm and 40-150mm f2.8s – Win. The 12-40mm has been heavily used since its purchase. I never quite expected to put the 40-150mm through similarly heavy use, but the recent Club Med Bintan trip proved that wrong. The lens’ responsiveness and handling, alongside how confidently it locked focus even in difficult lighting conditions, has assured that this lens will see a lot more use than the Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 I had for the old Nikon DSLR.

Legoland Malaysia – Win. Of the two short vacations we’ve had this year, neither were entirely free from issues, but the Legoland Malaysia one was far less problematic. The room was passable, trips to the theme park a lot of fun – though the cost of the trip wasn’t exactly low.

Club Med Bintan – Lose. This one was the real disappointment of the year, after reading all the praise heaped on the resort in blogsphere, never mind that the Tripadvisor reviews were clearly less forgiving on the resort’s accommodation challenges. At least Hannah enjoyed the trip, and I really appreciated the opportunity to put the E-M1/40-150mm f2.8 through extended use at the nightly concerts, and think I have a much better appreciation of the difficulties in concert photography now.

2016 here we come! :)

 

The nightly concerts at Club Med Bintan was the second major event outing for the new Olympus 40-150mm f2.8, the first being Hannah’s K2 Graduation Concert a month ago. The shooting conditions were similar in some respects – fast subject motion on-stage and constantly changing stage lighting – and different in others – the distance separation at Hannah’s Concert was about 40 or more meters, while the Club Med concerts were about 10 meters. The latter difference was especially significant – subject motion and also depth of field posed greater challenges, while lens shake was less of a problem.

On the overall, about 950 odd photos were taken using the 40-150mm, about 800 were at the evening concerts. Many of them turned out quite well – all things considered – with the frame capturing the stage actors in the intended posture, the shot being reasonably sharp, and stage lights not posing a frightful mash of colors on sensitive frame areas (especially faces). Here’s a selection of some of my favorite shots across several evenings!

The first concert night was a mash-up of 1960s onwards popular music. That's a fake guitar BTW LOL.

The first concert night was a mash-up of 1960s onwards popular music. That’s a fake guitar BTW LOL.

The very sporting GOs looking like they just stepped out of the Blue Oyster Bar LOL.

The very sporting GOs looking like they just stepped out of the Blue Oyster Bar LOL.

Feet up! Hard to get shots like these right.

Feet up! Hard to get shots like these right.

Tina Turner - I think!

Tina Turner – I think!

I love K-pop!

I love K-pop!

Couldn't guess which artiste this GO was mimicking.

Couldn’t guess which artiste this GO was mimicking.

No prizes for correctly guessing this one! The GO did a pretty good facsimile of the Gangnam style.

No prizes for correctly guessing this one! The GO did a pretty good facsimile of the Gangnam style.

The hilarious French Whistler skit on the second night.

The hilarious French Whistler skit on the second night.

One of those supremely lucky shots! Look hard enough and you'll see the dude's implants letting fly LOL.

One of those supremely lucky shots! Look hard enough and you’ll see the dude’s implants letting fly LOL.

Solo number. Kept the color exactly as it was from the stage lights.

Solo number. Kept the color exactly as it was from the stage lights.

Fourth concert night titled 'Indonesian night', which comprised cultural dances and skits.

Fourth concert night titled ‘Indonesian night’, which comprised cultural dances and skits.

The dance choreographer of the fourth night showing his moves.

The dance choreographer of the fourth night showing his moves.

Of the whole bunch of us, I reckon Hannah probably got the most out of our Club Med Bintan stay. Ling wanted to try out a couple of activities (e.g. trapezing) but was trapped down by Peter who clung onto her and refused to let her go. But she was able to venture out to the beach several times to hunt for sea life. Peter was probably just thrilled to lots of things to touch (and eat).

As for myself, aside from swimming and archery, I pretty much spent all the rest of my time taking pictures and reading. In fact, on the latter, over five days I finished four books including one on the battle for Iwo Jima and written by the late Robert Leckie and whose story was told in The Pacific mini-TV series, and a quarter into a fifth –  Forgotten Ally by Rana Mitter, a critically acclaimed and compelling account of China’s role in WWII, the struggles between early politicians like Mao Zedong, Wang Jing Wei and Chiang Kai-shek and why China is the way she is today. The National Library of Singapore’s eReads is a godsend!

Of the whole bunch of cameras, lenses and accessories I brought along for the trip, surprisingly, usage largely centered on a few key pieces of all the gear I carted, and they included:

E-M1. This camera body was given a real run for the money, and didn’t disappoint.

Olympus 40-150mm f2.8. Of the slightly under over 1,300 frames I shot, about 80% were on the E-M1 (the remaining were using the E-PL6 and also Samsung Galaxy Note 5), and of these, almost all were on this 40-150mm lens.

Billingham Hadley Pro in its first substantial outing. The National Geographic messenger couldn’t comfortably hold the 40-150mm.

Joby Pro Camera Strap: worry-free tethering!

Surprisingly, the equipment that I used little of or barely touched included the:

Olympus E-PL6/Olympus 17mm f1.8: I took several dozen low-light shots in our dimly-lit rooms and also a couple more at the restaurant – but that’s it.

Olympus 12-40mm f2.8: used it only for a small handful of beach and walking about shots and also our usual family wefie shots on the last day.

Nissin i40: never got brought out.

This trip was probably an odd one, since we didn’t do any sight-seeing at all. Rather, the majority of the 950 or so shots using the E-M1/40-150mm were of Hannah’s activities, and also at the evening concerts, where the combo really shined and producing amazing pictures under limiting conditions. Here’s the first bunch of them; I took so many concert pictures that they’ll have to go into a different post later!

Cloud Summoning 101 by Peter. Or rather, those are soap foam clouds.:)

Cloud Summoning 101 by Peter. Or rather, those are soap foam clouds.:)

Kids on the beach.

Kids on the beach.

Peter loved the pool, and wanted to swim everyday.

The 40-150mm aptly showing that it has near-macro abilities.

The 40-150mm aptly showing that it has near-macro abilities.

Our girl has a lot more guts than daddy in this sort of thing.

Our girl has a lot more guts than daddy in this sort of thing.

She liked the trapeze so much that she did this three times, and even (nearly) accidentally jumped queue in her enthusiasm!

She liked the trapeze so much that she did this three times, and even (nearly) accidentally jumped queue in her enthusiasm!

No tripod or self-timer needed. Just the Billingham Hadley Pro propping it up for support, and the Android client of Olympus Image Share.:)

No tripod or self-timer needed. Just the Billingham Hadley Pro propping it up for support, and the Android client of Olympus Image Share.:)

Concert pictures next!

 

Continuing from our last post. For the bits that didn’t work:

Our two interconnected rooms were the largest problem. We’d already mentally prepared ourselves for their state through the Tripadvisor reviews prior to our arrival but they were still depressing when we saw them first-hand. Our rooms were in Block ‘P’ which is nearly at the furthermost end of the resort. The walk from the main building to our rooms took several minutes, but on non-raining days the walk was typically pleasant (there is a completely sheltered alternate path for times of inclement weather).

Of problems though: our rooms were dimly lit, sparsely decorated, and had a distinctive musky odor when we checked-in. Furniture was clearly worn. The air-conditioning in the children’s room rattled loudly, and never got fixed despite our reporting it to Reception. Rust and stains were in several spots and paint peeled off in the children’s room. There are no door bells nor feet mat at the door entrance. The main door in our room did not open smoothly using the keycard – it required us to jiggle the card in the slot, and then apply some force to jolt the door open. Our ‘king-sized’ bed was really two beds joined together from two separate bedframes, and the separation of two mattresses could be clearly felt. Each room had a separate toilet from the bathroom – hooray – but missing a wash basin – duh.

In-room entertainment was also lacking for the couple of rainy afternoons when we had to hideout in the rooms. The TV is small (32″ maybe?), and while pre-programmed with several channels, reception was very poor – we received static for most channels. Internet connectivity is so-so with occasional drop-outs, requiring re-connections.

Ling especially felt that housekeeping was below par, with newly laundry/amenity items occasionally left out, and the additional cushions piled at one corner of the floor which wasn’t really clean. And the room hidden surfaces – e.g. below bed frames – were all dusty.

Honestly put – the quality of rooms is simply not befitting the price of stay, and reminded us in parts of the old dilapidated East Coast Chalets from the 1990s. Using a scale of one to five stars, with Capella at 5, Ayara Hilltops at 4.5, Telunas, Santhiya and Naumi at 4, Legoland at 3.5, Tepi Sawah Villa at 3: we weren’t expecting rooms of the same luxury class as Capella’s of course, but we were still hoping for something that’s about four out of five stars and would have settled for three. As it is, I’d put the rooms at two stars at best.

I guess one could make the argument that if you’re doing a Club Med stay, one would be out of rather than inside rooms. And in case one feels that I’m being unduly harsh on the state of rooms, numerous Tripadvisor reviews make mention of this issue too, some politely, while others as pointedly as I’ve done here. There doesn’t seem to be many reviews praising the rooms! Oddly and on the other hand – several of the blogger reviews I read heaped glowing praise on hospitality and accommodations, and stayed in rooms that looked a heck lot cleaner and better looking than ours. Perhaps we were just plain unlucky to have drawn poor rooms (though how that syncs with numerous other Tripadvisor reviewers pointing out the same issues is anyone’s guess) or there were other reasons for them emphasising the good rather than less savory aspects. To be fair – several bloggers did declare that their stays had been sponsored by the Club. One of the benefits of a completely non-sponsored/affiliated blog here I guess – I can be entirely candid and say exactly what I feel about a stay that is as typical as any other non-sponsored traveler.

Kids settling for pre-loaded cartoons on the Surface Pro, since the room TVs only showed static.

Kids settling for pre-loaded cartoons on the Surface Pro, since the room TVs only showed static.

The age of the resort wasn’t just immediately observable in the rooms, but also in other spots. The internal little gardens separating each block seemed in need of maintenance. The laundry/dryer machines while no-doubt a welcome convenience (we did laundry – twice!), were sitting in a room that looked like my NTU hostel’s laundry room from the 1990s. The fan blades in the building’s first floor bar, theater and common areas were rusting. The GOs themselves seemed to recognize that they were operating in an old facility, and one shared that the resort was going to be refurbished next year, and promised that things would be better after that.

The resort's gym - located at the Sports Center. Did the thread mill and a couple of static stations here. Not much of a view.

The resort’s gym – located at the Sports Center. Did the thread mill and a couple of static stations here. Not much of a view.

We signed Peter up also for the Petit Club Med at additional cost, but just after a few hours on the first day of that, the attending GOs hunted us down to return him as they found themselves unable to handle Peter. We’re aware of his clingy temperament, but it was also a downer as we’d hope the Club could manage him and have him enjoy their activities. No apologies were tendered nor offers of refunds given – not that we’re hung-up about the latter, but a gesture would had been nice.

It would had been also helpful to add a note in the booking/sign-up part of this experience during booking on what are the contingencies in which a service could not be consumed, e.g. a service guarantee that if kids cannot adapt to the club early on, a partial refund would be given. A lost customer service-centered opportunity. And the irony – he got a completion certificate on the last day. Guess the resort didn’t realize that he was barely in the Petit Club.

And other comments:

We were visited by a troupe of monkeys one morning upon waking up who ran around our rooms’ porch area, and peed on one of the deck chairs even LOL. Made for some interesting interaction opportunities for Peter especially, though behind the glass doors. I quipped to Ling that this was like a reverse Zoo. The monkeys were the real residents of the resort and were observing us in our rooms from the outside – while we were the real animals in the zoo this time!.

This fellow peed on the chair when he departed.

This fellow peed on the chair when he departed.

The resort didn’t feel too crowded during our stay, though we weren’t sure if this was because it wasn’t at full capacity. There were several visitors from a certain large country far up in the North who, by way of fossilized cultural mannerisms, spoke loud enough at every conversation that their presences were always obvious. Guess there’s no vacation spot left on Earth where you can go without being reminded that you’re not far from that part of Asia.

On the overall: we’d recommend Club Med Bintan if you’re looking for an all-inclusive, family-friendly resort with a variety of activities that you’re interested in, and are willing to accept the generally poor rooms. If you’re however more introvert and envision yourself spending more time inside your room to enjoy its amenities to relax, then we couldn’t recommend this place. There really are more luxurious properties in the region at similar price points. For ourselves, there are also other Club Med resorts in the vicinity, and we’d be hard-pressed to think of a good enough reason for a return-stay, unless the rooms and housekeeping significantly improve.

Next couple of posts on the equipment and pictures!

Well, what’s our verdict after a five day stay at Club Med Bintan? In a word or two: “it’s complicated”.  The summary of it is that the hospitality from Genteel Organizers (GOs) for the most part were as warm and memorable as numerous Tripadvisors reviewers and other bloggers have commented all over the ‘net. But if the quality of rooms is of importance to vacation seekers, then Club Med Bintan is not for them.

Starting off with the good bits:

Visible Management. We’ve never seen a property or resort which witnessed a similar degree of involvement from the Manager. Jessie, the resort’s Chef de Village, was ever visible making her rounds about the resort, and will go from table to table every dinner to converse with guests – and it’ll take an hour or more each time for all the tables. The burly restaurant manager Mervyn would welcome guests at the entrance with his booming voice. On the last day, the deputy manager (I think) spoke to the outbound bus of travelers inviting us to provide feedback on Tripadvisor, how visitor feedback is used and shared among the GOs, and what it means to them too in career advancement too.

Warm GOs… for the most part. The GOs are involved in so many aspects of our stay that we were able to recognize by face most of the team by the end of five days, and names of several. The resort’s prominently displayed organization chart with pictures and nationalities certainly helped us in making these personal connections. Most of the GOs made a serious effort to mingle though Ling felt that a couple of GOs seemed to be going through the motions. To be fair, it’s not a small resort and travelers are coming in every day. Of all the resorts we’ve been to, the one with hosts that strikes as most are genuinely and consistently warm all-round was Telunas Beach Resort. Not an exactly equitable resort of course, but they are both broadly serving the same market.

The lively ladies and lads running the Mini Club Med at least obviously adored kids. How the GOs manage training for the concerts every evening is also just mind-boggling. Hannah really enjoyed the two full days she spent with the Mini Club, and especially the circus/trapeze segments. And the Mini Club GO Dolpi who looks stern initially but is really a jovial and comical character and clearly a favorite among kids. He called our girl “Little Mei Mei”, and on our day of departure, asked a amused Ling to “take care of Hannah for him” LOL.

The beach is clean, and on a sunny and bright day, is stunningly powdery white. The waters are reasonable though not quite in the pristine state as some of the other well-known beaches in Malaysia. Both ends of the private beach were also teeming with sea life, and Ling made several ventures out for pictures and videos of all manner of critters she could find.

Feeding time was for the most part good. Recognizing that it’s tough to feel that you’re being fed new things every meal once you’re past a couple of days in the stay, credit has to be given to the team of chefs for at least trying their hardest to inject as much variety as they could. Breakfasts tended to feel same-y after two days, and to a lesser degree lunches, with dinners presenting the most variety. Seating availability was never an issue with enough tables to go round, and wait service was prompt and polite. More importantly for the kids: there was pizza and baked beans a plenty, so both kids ate well and a lot! :) Meals were served at the main restaurant, but there’s another restaurant further in the compound though dinner reservations are required there.

We looked forward to each evening concert, with the most memorable one of our stay centered on the comedic mash-up of modern music from the 1960s that had us laughing in stitches! One GO, Hans joined our dinner table one evening, and quipped that they rehearse when we’re sleeping.

The few accommodation-wise parts that worked for us were that the showers worked well (good water pressure, really hot water if you wish it), and also the free to use laundry/dryer machines (bring your own detergent!).

Booking our stay was also easy with a well-designed web site, and the package is really all-in (ferry prices from Tanah Merah Terminal are included).

The main pool as seen from the concierge on the top-floor.

The main pool as seen from the concierge on the top-floor.

Powdery white sand, with enough deck chairs to go around.

Powdery white sand, with enough deck chairs to go around.

Greenery everywhere, though the inward gardens aren't quite as lovingly manicured.

Greenery everywhere, though the inward gardens aren’t quite as lovingly manicured.

The main pool looking very serene before its daily 0900 opening hour.

The main pool looking very serene before its daily 0900 opening hour.

The tall coconut and palm trees made for very pleasant strolls.

The tall coconut and palm trees made for very pleasant strolls.

Jessie, the Chef de Village, introducing the concert every evening.

Jessie, the Chef de Village, introducing the concert every evening.

The GO team waving everyone in the bus goodbye.

The GO team waving everyone in the bus goodbye.

More in the next post!

Hannah has finally finished pre-school and will be progressing onto Primary One next year. She’s been really looking forward to starting in a new environment and meeting new friends and teachers, so much so that every night at bed time she’ll ask us to tell her about her P1 school again. We shared with her too that over time, she’ll be making friends and forgetting old ones – including her pre-school ones. Rather than get emotional about it, she’s resolved to make memories of her old friends, including taking pictures and also inviting them over to our home for play dates this December break.

One such break was just yesterday, and one segment of which saw the kids head over to the Minton waterplay area for fun and activities. Another opportunity to fish out the new 40-150mm f2.8 lens for pictures! The selection below was shot using this lens, with several at maximum focal length (though not always wide-opened), which provided some interesting depth of field levels. The subject distance made possible by the long focal-length enabled non-intrusive pictures – none of the shots below were posed.

X marks the spot I was situated, with many shots taken from across the water play area.

X marks the spot I was situated, with many shots taken from across the water play area.

Intrepid explorers, these two - as they navigate across the wide rope ladders!

Intrepid explorers, these two – as they navigate across the wide rope ladders!

This one's a nearer shot at 60mm (120mm equivalent).

This one’s a nearer shot at 60mm (120mm equivalent).

The shallow end of the kids' waterplay area is safe enough for Peter actually.

The shallow end of the kids’ waterplay area is safe enough for Peter actually.

Though not the deeper end though, which reaches past his belly button. Mommy is just off-camera though.

Though not the deeper end though, which reaches past his belly button. Mommy is just off-camera though.

The next major outing for the lens will be the upcoming Club Med trip, so more to come soon!

Macro photography is hard and requires a lot of practice for one to be any good in it. I’ve over the years dabbled occasionally in it, including the one-stop flower macro photography spot in Singapore i.e. National Orchid Garden @ Botanic Gardens, over a variety of small sea critters during our Telunas Beach Resort stay, and also at the stunning Butterfly Garden @ Museum of Science in Boston. The half-way decent selection of pictures in those posts though are a result more from a couple of occasional hits from a sizable number of misses with cooperative subjects.

There are several ways of taking macro shots. Serious enthusiasts will typically invest in dedicated macro lenses. The Sigma 150mm f2.8 I owned for a couple of years for my Nikon system then cost a decent sum of money and was well-suited to flower photography but IIRC not for insects. I haven’t yet bought a similar dedicated lens for my m4/3 cameras now, though there are several such for the system at typically somewhat lower price points than say for the Nikon system. The Olympus 12-50mm kit lens that came with the E-M5 comes with macro ability though. Not a very good one by any measure, but it’s still useful when I have to take the odd close-up picture.

A second way of taking macro shots is to add extension tubes. These get attached to the camera mount and before the lens. Without glass and optical elements, tubes are simple in design, and essentially reduce the minimum focusing distance of a lens. Depending on supporting electronics in the tubes (e.g. to support aperture control and autofocusing), extension tubes for the m4/3s range from a very low price point of about $20, to branded Kenko tubes that cost about $160 and more. Finally, the third method is to add optical accessories to the front of the lens – e.g. close-up filters.

I was quite interested to get into macro photography again for the m4/3 system but loathed this time to spend money to buy a dedicated lens for it, though the excellent Olympus 60mm f2.8 Macro sure was tempting. The Kenko extension tubes were a real viable alternative and popular among many enthusiasts. Two disadvantages with this solution though: some of the clone copycats of Kenko tubes have, according to some Amazon reviews, damaged the electronic contact points on the camera body. I didn’t read of similar concerns for the Keno-manufactured tubes – they are apparently made to higher quality specifications and in Japan, compared to the cheap knock-offs which I think are made in China. Still, that got me worried. The other disadvantage lied in the very nature of using extension tubes: you have to dismount your lens, mount the tubes, then remount the lens. Not only is it tedious, any such swapping increases the possibility of foreign elements getting into the camera and landing on the sensor. Ugh, the horror.

So, it was to the close-up type optical accessories. There’s a whole bunch of close-up filers/lenses sold at shady camera shops here that seriously degrade or distort the image information that hits the sensor, so I was quite wary about them. The Raynox macro conversion lenses though are a different breed. These are well-regarded, manufactured in Japan, and have been around for a while now and I’ve been keeping my eye on them for several years. There are two particularly popular models in the series. They cost a mere fraction of what one would pay for a dedicated macro lens, and is also cheaper than Kenko tubes. The series is carried in several stores, but I went with an online reseller of it that’s been carrying Raynox products for several years now.

The Raynox DCR-150 is the model more suited for macro photography dabblers, and here’s the unboxing of the package, alongside some quick shots using the Olympus 12-50mm. I primarily intend for this conversion lens to work with the Olympus 45mm f1.8 (hope there’s minimal vignetting!), so will report on that once the cheapo step-up ring necessary to mount the DCR-150 onto a 37mm filter thread arrives from eBay.

Compact box that measures about 3x3x2 inches.

Compact box that measures about 3x3x2 inches.

Box contents I: a plastic carry case, a brochure of Raynox products, and an instruction leaflet.

Box contents I: a plastic carry case, a brochure of Raynox products, and an instruction leaflet.

Box Contents II: clockwise from top left: the box, the carry case with the lens, the stacking ring, universal adapter, and front/back lens caps.

Box Contents II: clockwise from top left: the box, the carry case with the lens, the stacking ring, universal adapter, and front/back lens caps.

Close look at the lens. The filter size is 49mm, but the packaged universal adapter will permit the DCR150 to be mounted on a larger ranger of lens diameters.

Close look at the lens. The filter size is 49mm, but the packaged universal adapter will permit the DCR150 to be mounted on a larger ranger of lens diameters.

The DCR150 attached to the universal adapter.

The DCR150 attached to the universal adapter.

Casual test of the DCR150's magnification ability. This is the Olympus 12-50mm as close as it can get. No cropping here.

Casual test of the DCR150’s magnification ability. This is the Olympus 12-50mm as close as it can get. No cropping here.

With the DCR150 mounted onto the 12-50mm. The lens' front element was perhaps just about 1-2cm away from the box!

With the DCR150 mounted onto the 12-50mm. The lens’ front element was perhaps just about 1-2cm away from the box!

More notes to come soon!

The ‘mysterious’ camera strap I wrote briefly about a month ago here arrived not too long after that post, and I’ve been putting it through the paces since. The strap is from Joby, the California-based company that is perhaps better known for its series of Gorillapods (owned a couple of them). The company has diversified quite a bit over the recent years, and apart from action video gear for (extreme) sports enthusiasts, the company also now has a varied series of camera straps of the sling, neck-hung, and handgrip types.

I’ve tried all three types of straps extensively now. I’ve never got used to the neck-hung ones – even those those claimed to be super-comfy neophrene ones from OP/TECH – and the handgrip straps don’t work well with battery/vertical grips. The sling-type straps remain my preferred choice especially when I’m totting multiple cameras around for the odd event-shoot at work. The Joby Pro comes in several flavors, including one that’s catered for women even, and the ‘Pro’ series I picked up – comes in two sizes (Sm-L, and L-XXL) which as I understand it, is factored based on T-Shirt size. I picked up the L-XXL if nothing else because I can only grow wider now and not slimmer LOL, and ordered it from a South Korean reseller off eBay which offered it at quite a bit lower than direct from the manufacturer itself.

My notes after the first period of use, and especially in comparison against my other two straps: the BlackRapid RS4, and the BosStrap.

The Joby strap is cheaper than the other two straps by quite a bit!

The RS4 remains by far the easiest to set-up. You fasten it to the tripod socket, and you’re done. While the number of parts to the Joby seem about similar to other two, whether it takes less time for it to secure your camera depends pretty much on whether you want to use the secondary system; the camera tether. If you don’t, then – like the RS4 – the Joby strap is secured in about the time it takes you to screw the thumbscrew into the tripod socket, and also way shorter than it takes for you to poke the BosStrap’s tail through the eyelet + do a few more rounds of looping. The Joby’s camera tether though is a different story. It’s easy enough though to unscrew the carabiner and loop the reinforced string through it – just takes a bit of time.

The strap material on the Joby is, apparently, of the same nylon webbing as the the BosStrap, but not quite as velvety smooth or luxurious-feeling. Still far better feeling than the stiff padding on the RS4 though. The camera doesn’t glide (slide?) as naturally too as compared to the BosStrap, but the strap lock helps a lot in limiting the amount of movement the fastened camera has on the strap. Quite a nifty feature, that is sorely absent on the RS4 which makes it all too easy for the shoulder pad to slide off my shoulder when the camera is swinging about.

In all; the Joby’s a good purchase. I don’t find it as comfortable as the BosStrap, but it’s way more usable and the secondary camera tether is a great assurance in case the strap”s thuimbscrew ever gives way!

Pictures of the Joby Pro Strap:

The camera tether is secured via carabiner to the front pivot ring.

Close-up look at the camera tether.

The LockSafe attachment that screws into the camera’s tripod socket.

Strap lock that when pushed down will limit the strap from gliding along the pivot ring.

Nylon webbing for the main strap.