April, 2008

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blog-2008-Rivervale-DSC_0870-HDR.jpgOne of those things I’ve never really gotten around to doing is play around with Photo editing software. I’ve had them for years – e.g. the very first digital camera I bought in 1999 (a Canon S10) – came with a very early edition of Adobe Photoshop Elements. All the digital photos I’ve taken since that point I’ve rarely put through software processing outside cropping, resizing and adding shadow drop borders.

One of the most fun things about having picked up the D300 is that I’m now relearning all the stuff I’ve been missing out, and boy am I totally a noob in this sort of thing. I’m right now still wrestling with understanding how Photoshop curves work. Fortunately, there’re a ton of online tutorials explaining how to achieve all sorts of effects in Photoshop.

One of the really nifty things I tried out over the weekend was creating HDR, or high dynamic range, pictures. The picture here is a really early attempt using a hodge-podge of different software; one to convert RAW to JPG, another to properly align pictures, a third to create the HDR picture itself, and a fourth to do some more adjustments.

Come to think of it, the final product here looks awful when I compare it to those taken by pros and experienced enthusiasts. E.g. look at the upper right corner of the picture. Looks awful. But hey it’s just an early attempt after 30 minutes of reading tutorials.

Another effect I’ve been trying out is creating polarizer effects in Photoshop. It’s pretty interesting stuff that range from simple use of gradient tools to darken the horizon, to inserting new layers with complex adjustments made to cyan colors.

The results haven’t been satisfactory though. It seems generally agreed that it’s tough to replicate in software the polarizing effect you can get from a high quality filter. Fortunately, I’ve just ordered one such filter that should be arriving by way of Matt – who when coming to visit us next month is going to be like a Santa Claus of sorts. If all goes well, he’ll be bringing me a Nikon SB-600 speedlight, this circular polarizer filter, a midrange 55-200mm zoom lens, and finally a 10-20mm wide-angle. The latter I’m especially looking forward to as I’ve not dabbled much in wide-angle photography, but with our upcoming trip to the Ayara Hilltop resorts in June it’ll be an excellent opportunity to.:)

Oh yeah; here’re a few more of my early attempts in HDR.:)

The human touch

blog-parking.jpgSomething warmed my heart recently.

I was halfway tearing a parking coupon at the car park of ICA (Immigration and Checkpoint Authority) when I heard some knocking on the glass window of the passenger’s seat. I looked up and saw a Malay family man hurriedly took out 2 parking coupons and wanted to give me the one which still have a good 30 minutes’ worth of time left. I was touched by his little gesture of sharing. I can’t remember the last time a stranger showed me kindness. He definitely lifted my spirits on a mundane Monday afternoon.

Come to think of it, his face shape looked a bit like the run-away terrorist here. But what difference is his heart towards fellow human beings! How often do we go by the appearance of man while God looks at the heart.

Bless this man, Lord.

"But my face is oily…:("

One of those effects of those weeks of spreadsheet-peering is that I’ve become intimately familiar with pricing of camera systems, lenses and accessories. It’s funny too, because currently right now, the local camera body prices for the Canon 40D and Nikon D300 are about on par with prices at say Amazon.com – but lenses and accessories are dreadfully more expensive. If you’re following my train of thought right now, you’d also conclude then that buying the latter from online retailers would be a great idea – but as it is, these retailers won’t ship to Singapore. Boo!

blog-2008-Ling-DSC_0374a.jpgStill, Matt – our best bud up in Missouri – will be flying to Singapore next month to visit and staying with us for several weeks. Would you believe it – someone who’s flying quite literally halfway round the world and paying a few thousand moola just to eat Roti Prata at Jalan Kayu, and especially when I think Jalan Kayu roti prata is so overrated. Anyway, I’ve asked him to tompang a few lenses and accessories; so orders were made at Amazon.com and I’ll be having the items shipped to his home address prior to his departure.

As for the camera itself, wow – the size of the 421 page manual says it all. There’s a learning curve and more customization tweaks and options than you can shake a tree with. While exposure, metering and focusing techniques remain familiar, button layouts took a while to get used to. This was only my second Nikon SLR, and things have completely changed since my old FG-20 23 years ago.

Not only that, I’m going to miss a few other things. Firstly, there’re no scene modes. I’m guessing that Nikon believes that anyone who buys a D300 had better learn how to create their own custom settings for the scenes they’re shooting. But while there’re banks to save your customized options into, it’d still be nice to have a landscape or a dusk scene on a mode dial somewhere for ah peks like me.

Secondly, a couple of times I was wondering in the initial test shots eh how come the shot is so super underexposed when I realized that “Programmed Auto” in the D300 isn’t meant to be taken literally. You could have the mode set right there but because of some other esoteric option you’ve changed in one of the gazillion menus, the shot you’ve taken now is of incorrect exposure. And lastly, one of the very nice things the KM-5D had was to automatically create new folders based on date. That was a really nifty feature that allowed one to sort photographs easily when transferring back to the PC. That must had been a Konica-Minolta innovation because there’s no equivalent option in the D300 (or maybe I just haven’t figured out where it is yet).

All that said, Ling’s at least impressed with the shutter release sound that goes like a muffled “ker-(p l o c k)” instead of the very loud “KER PLAK” in the KM-5D. She said it sounds a lot more “pro” haha. Another difficulty I had with the old DSLR was how tough it was to determine if pictures were in focus during playback zoom. The higher resolution LCD in the D300, one of the much touted advantages over the 40D, is thus a godsend. Zoomed all the way in, one could easily see if pictures had been taken in focus, and I, all of Ling’s zits haha. She ran right into the bathroom to scrub her face after I showed her the above test shot.:) There’s even a very useful option that displays during playback the focusing points used for a picture.

So, all said and done, as painful as the purchase outlay was, I certainly have no regrets picking this. I imagine I would had been quite satisfied with the 40D too with the substantially lower as

"Got game or not…?"

blog-2008-Rivervale-CIMG3237-toys.jpgLing can say the strangest things. I was explaining and showing her the different functions on our D300 yesterday at home. Clearly impressed, she asked innocently:

“Wah – got game or not too?!”

“Aiyoh dear, you think this is a handphone ar…?”

Laughs aside, of the four Canon and Nikon DSLRs the list narrowed down to, the Canon 40D was actually on the top of the list. It had great image quality, an extremely sexy-black body, not too heavy, and compared to Nikon had a marginally better midrange zoom and 50mm prime lenses that I was including in the initial outlay. And the great asking price of $2K for the body and kit lens was made even more attractive when Canon Singapore announced another price cut of $300 a fortnight ago.

I have a friend at work who just picked up a similar configuration that I was also considering and she was clearly pleased with her acquisition. And there’s of course our friend Ann who’s also a Canon user (whom I think is going to give me dagger looks now the next time we meet.:) ).

So, the Canon 40D is a lot of great camera for a low asking price of $1.7K for one of the kit sets. In fact, up till as recently as 4 days ago I was reasonably certain I was going with the 40D. I’ve got two other colleagues in my department who’re Nikon users (one is a D40X and the other a D70), and both were clearly disappointed when I remarked during gossip I was going with Canon.

The trouble began ironically when I casually asked Ling for her opinions. “Darling, if you had a choice between a Nikon or a Canon, what would you choose?”, and she promptly replied “Nikon!!!!” She has this impression that professionals all go with Nikon. Come to think of it, I think even my dad’s generation had the same funny perceptions. Both of two uncles I’ve got who are also photography enthusiasts swear by Nikon and both would hear nothing of other camera systems. There’s even a remark here that:

“Canons are the best cameras available designed by engineers, and that Nikons are the best cameras one can buy designed by photographers.”

Personally, as said in the earliest post, I think both systems would have served me equally well. Putting aside that Canon has marginally better optical quality for a midrange zoom and prime lens I’d included in the configuration, the decision between a 40D and the D300 came down to just two criteria: price and camera body features. The differences between the two units have been well discussed in many online threads, with most – Canon users included – recognizing that the D300 was much more expensive, but also a substantially better-featured unit with a lot of learning opportunities for casual users willing to invest time in.

Interestingly, image quality (which is what should ultimately matter for people) between the two were about equivalent though the D300 had reportedly very slightly better noise control at high ISO levels. But all this for an additional thousand moola – ouch! I guess even Ling saw how difficult the decision was going to be. She looked over my shoulder several nights last week while I agonized over the spreadsheets, and chuckled “Wah – still deciding between the two huh?” :)

But I had to move on at some point, so on Saturday late morning, we headed down to MSColor @ Ang Mo Kio hub. I was already reasonably familiar with both models’ feature sets by then, so decided to get Ling to help provide the tie-breaker. Her initial impressions of the D300 was that while it was really heavy, the 40D felt a bit like too plastic-y. When I asked her what her gut feeling was, she said go with the Nikon.

That about settled it there and then. Who am I to argue with my wife haha? She wanted to buy me the thing as a present, but I said we’d do this as a joint purchase, if nothing else to give her some incentive to get into photography too.

I think I was a pretty easy customer at the shop. I didn’t bargain. When given the initial quoted price, I plainly pointed out that someone else had bought the D300 at this XXX price at the very shop a week ago (which was apparently about the current lowest price you could get the item for), and asked for the same courtesy. The sales fellow said he’d need to check with his boss, and a phone call later, said yep he’ll also sell it to me at that price then. So, 15 minutes later, we were out of the shop, and as business-like as usual, we were next at NTUC for me to buy the things I needed to make Green curry that night for dinner.

Funnily, it’s strangely therapeutic to write reflections on this process of buying a capital item. I’m pretty certain in the years to come, reading these entries will bring back great memories of marriage life and co-decision making.

OK, the next and last – I promise – entry will be on the new camera itself.:)

Boys (and girls) with toys

blog-2008-Rivervale-PICT4630-toys.JPGAfter a nearly six month search for a new camera system to replace my current Konica-Minolta DSLRs setup, we finally decided on going with Nikon. We picked up a Nikon D300 at MSColor yesterday. This post will be really long so it’s broken into several entries.:)

Those of us who dabble with photography will know that switching camera systems can measure up to a huge investment especially if you’re already heavily entrenched in one camp with lenses and accessories. Truth to tell, the sort of differences and nuances between the two major camera systems on the same tier i.e. Nikon and Canon would matter especially to enthusiasts and professionals, but most casual users would do pretty OK with either of these two major players. Ironically, that made things especially difficult for me as I’m sandwiched somewhere between three parts: a casual user, an enthusiast, and a technogeek who loves to discover toys.:)

Still, Ling had this to say about the way I went about in the last few months on this search: “There he goes again with his spreadsheets.” Yep, like how we went about choosing our Latio last year, I wasn’t going to buy anything this major without having done thorough research first. So, spreadsheets identifying functions, feature sets, lenses that I was interested in, and prices got started and updated on a weekly basis as I collected information. The initial range of choices was pretty wide, and included the Canon 40D & 5D, Pentax K20D, Nikon D80 & D300, Sony A700, and even the Olympus E-3.

Of that list, only the 5D employs a full-framed sensor which is probably more suitable for the sort of photography I dabble in – landscape, occasional portraits, and minimal sports – but costs were a few thousand higher than the next most expensive model. So, that option was put on the backburner, but I imagine that eventually my next DSLR down the road in 5-10 years will be a full-frame unit when prices have come down.

I was pretty certain I didn’t want to get another Sony (who bought over Konica-Maxxum) DSLR, what with their limited range of lenses and higher comparative prices. The Olympus was a huge tank and I had some reservations about the Four Thirds system, and while the Pentax K20D was a really attractive option, the local user community was small and as quiet as a mouse.

So, a month ago it came down to the two biggest camera system players – Canon and Nikon, and four of its offerings: Canon 450D, Canon 40D, Nikon D80, and the D300. More in the next post tomorrow.:)

For the price of coffee

blog-coffee-bean.gifThe local news has been reporting on Singapore’s happiest person, and in the spirit of things, here’s a letter written to The Straits Times that’d be guaranteed to bring a smile – though at the expense of someone else (maybe). :) Emphasis mine on the below:

April 18, 2008

Was power switched off deliberately at Coffee Bean outlet?

MY FRIENDS and I were enjoying our regular round of drinks while getting some revision done at the Coffee Bean outlet at Plaza by The Park at around 8pm on April 11. Noticing that my laptop’s battery was running dangerously low, I decided to use the power socket located near our table.

After some five minutes, I realised that my laptop was still not charging. I sensed that it had something to do with the central power switch which controls the power supply to all of the power sockets within the outlet. So I went up to an employee and told him that the power socket was not working. He said he would check and, shortly thereafter, I heard the charging beep of my laptop.

Fifteen minutes later, the same thing happened. My laptop suffered a ‘mysterious’ blackout. I spoke to the same employee demanding an explanation. He told me that the power socket was faulty and that it was beyond his control.

I have this poser: Assuming that the power supply was switched off deliberately, is it too much to ask that I be informed beforehand so that I could save any important documents which I might be working on? And if the power supply was switched off to prevent customers from hogging the tables, then why was it turned off while we were still eating our cakes?

Gerald Chen Youxin

Wow – and just when I’d been remarking on how impossible are some Singaporeans to please when it comes to customer service. Apparently, in Mr. Chen’s viewpoint, paying for a cuppa entitles him to using AC power too. The next time I go to Mcdonald’s, maybe I should pull the same trick and insist on using their power socket to charge up my notebook, my DSLR camera battery, my handphone, and the several dozen AA sized batteries I used to power my aircon PS3, Plasma TV, DVD controllers! :)

The followup discussion thread right here basically echoes what every reasonable person would say in response to Mr. Chen.


There’s a comment written by one of my students a year ago during the subject feedback for my Alice programming classes – that I must have a thing for cows.

How’s that come about? Well, my object of reference in those classes are typically cows. Heck, in my demos at the recent training sessions I’m running at Nanyang Girls High School, I’ve been using cows.

Truth to tell, I love beef, though given how expensive good meats are in Singapore, steaks at home are more the rarity than common occurrence. My parents and elder brother though frequent this fresh market around the Jurong area every few months, and they’d typically pick up at least a few hundred dollars worth of beef on each visit. They’d recently gone on one such visit, and passed along to Ling and myself several Sirloin cuts.

Here’s the result of one such cooking. The Sirloin was done Medium with the gravy a mixture of barbeque sauce, Italian herbs, general seasoning, minced garlic, black pepper, and a dash of dark soy sauce, with overnight marinating. I got the preparation time from start to serving to 22 minutes. The cucumber slide is an oddity, as Matt’s told me on MSN. But I need fresh vegetables when I eat heavy meats like these. Ling loves the outcome and finds it delicious, though she said the other night that my gravy mixture is a little too potent.:)



blog-typing.jpgI remember a funny occasions during one of very first few days teaching 13 years ago. I was typing something on the keyboard when a colleague leaned over and said, “Wow – are you the new secretary?” She didn’t know who I was at that juncture, and when I explained that I was the new lecturer in the department, she asked how I learnt to type so fast.

Here’s the thing; my dad had an old 1950s typewriter at our family home in Lentor that I loved practicing on. E.g. when I was taking my ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels in 1987 and 1989 respectively, I’d type all my lecture notes out and distribute them around the class. They were quite a hit, since this was way before the time when lecture notes were word processed or even distributed by teachers to students. OK, playing the piano helps in touch typing since muscle memory plays a similar role.

Funnily, I’ve never thought I’m a fast typist. I just think I’m so-so, but one colleague at work recently remarked during a department meeting at my typing speed. So, I saw that there was a typing speed program on Facebook, and I gave it a go. My results at the first try were: 473 keys/minute, which (very) roughly works out to 94 words/minute.

Wow; I actually feel relieved, because according to Wikipedia’s entry on speed typing, I’d meet the minimum qualification for professional typing positions. That means that if I ever don’t want to teach anymore, apart from being a bus driver (which I announced I intended to become during my graduation speech in 1995 in front of the subdean, and her face turned into one of horror), I can become a typist too!

If you’re not on Facebook, there’s a similar application here. And me, I’m going back to improve my score.:)

e-Bay scamming

I did most of my thesis writing at my home in Farnham Street rather than the office at Curtin University during my years in Perth. During those long days of writing, the television was usually on. I think I watched more broadcast television during those several years than I’ve ever in my life-time collectively so far. One of the series that was typically on the box was Judge Judy. The series is a reality-based court show, and is largely concerned over the title character’s arbitration over small civil cases. Pretty much like the Small Claims we’ve got in Singapore, and concerning similar cases, e.g. when you buy a product that turns out to be dysfunctional etc.

Truth to tell, I’m not really that big a fan of the series, because I found Judge Judy’s acerbic wit and dripping sarcasm fun to listen to only in small amounts. When it gets dragged on a bit, it gets a little tiresome, and I remembered typically on those occasions, I’d just mute the volume for a few minutes. Still, the following link (just click on the picture) was forwarded to me last week, and it concerns one episode where Judge Judy rules against an eBay scammer. The video’s pretty long with a running length of 10 minutes, and the best parts are in the first 4 and last 2 minutes (the middle portions can be safely skipped). Enjoy.:)

Rolling dice

blog-character.jpgIf you’re a fan of Dungeons & Dragons, here’s an interesting link that’s worth a visit. Based on your responses to a very long list of questions, you’ll get a detailed report on the level, character class and alignment that you best fit into. It’s a pretty long list of questions, but well worth the 15 minutes effort.

Here’s my result.:)

I Am A: Lawful Neutral Human Wizard/Cleric (3rd/2nd Level)

Ability Scores:


Lawful Neutral A lawful neutral character acts as law, tradition, or a personal code directs him. Order and organization are paramount to him. He may believe in personal order and live by a code or standard, or he may believe in order for all and favor a strong, organized government. Lawful neutral is the best alignment you can be because it means you are reliable and honorable without being a zealot. However, lawful neutral can be a dangerous alignment because it seeks to eliminate all freedom, choice, and diversity in society.

Humans are the most adaptable of the common races. Short generations and a penchant for migration and conquest have made them physically diverse as well. Humans are often unorthodox in their dress, sporting unusual hairstyles, fanciful clothes, tattoos, and the like.

Primary Class:
Wizards are arcane spellcasters who depend on intensive study to create their magic. To wizards, magic is not a talent but a difficult, rewarding art. When they are prepared for battle, wizards can use their spells to devastating effect. When caught by surprise, they are vulnerable. The wizard’s strength is her spells, everything else is secondary. She learns new spells as she experiments and grows in experience, and she can also learn them from other wizards. In addition, over time a wizard learns to manipulate her spells so they go farther, work better, or are improved in some other way. A wizard can call a familiar- a small, magical, animal companion that serves her. With a high Intelligence, wizards are capable of casting very high levels of spells.

Secondary Class:
Clerics act as intermediaries between the earthly and the divine (or infernal) worlds. A good cleric helps those in need, while an evil cleric seeks to spread his patron’s vision of evil across the world. All clerics can heal wounds and bring people back from the brink of death, and powerful clerics can even raise the dead. Likewise, all clerics have authority over undead creatures, and they can turn away or even destroy these creatures. Clerics are trained in the use of simple weapons, and can use all forms of armor and shields without penalty, since armor does not interfere with the casting of divine spells. In addition to his normal complement of spells, every cleric chooses to focus on two of his deity’s domains. These domains grants the cleric special powers, and give him access to spells that he might otherwise never learn. A cleric’s Wisdom score should be high, since this determines the maximum spell level that he can cast.