March, 2009

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Photographic post-mortem

blog-2009-sanfrancisco-DSC_8993-YerbaBuenaGardensEvery trip I make I get a more refined idea or perspective of what to do the next time. So, photographic post-mortem of the 8 day trip:

Leave the Sigma 10-20mm UWA lens at home. I like the lens, but the distortion that comes from setting the lens at the widest angle takes just too much work to correct in Photoshop. Of the three lens I bought to San Francisco, the cheapo 18-55mm VR lens got the most work: 98% of all the images were taken with it, with the remaining on the 55-200mm and for the keynote addresses when I wanted close-ups of the speakers. I’m gonna stare very hard at the 16-85mm VR lens from Nikon when I’m at home. It’s just a pity the lens is a cropped sensor one.

Monopod > Tripod. Especially when you’re travelling alone sans Tripod Girl. I couldn’t take night shots, but I don’t think I would have anyway on the streets of San Francisco. Deploying a large tripod with lots of crazy people walking around – bad idea. But using the monopod helped stabilize images of down to 1/8 second shutter speeds.

HD digicams FTW. In just one 8 day trip, I’ve taken more video than I’ve taken in the last 4 years traveling using the mini-DV camcorders. Hard to go wrong when the Panasonic HDC-SD20 has 2.5 hrs of battery juice in it and soaks up as much video time as you’ve got storage space.

Leave the SB600 at home. Didn’t use the flash unit at all, which alongside the AA battery charger added nearly a kilogram to the baggage weight. The flash unit is really necessary when you intend to include people in your photos outside fillers, but very few of the images I triggered did.

MB-D10 is very useful. This battery grip for my D300 wasn’t cheap at SGD299, but it was loads easier to take portrait perspective pictures. And lots of people beo my camera as a result LOL.

The MSI Wind is a godsend. No more limits to the number of photos or video I can take on any trip. I shot everything in RAW, and just dumped everything from the CF card to my MSI Wind every night. Ditto for the HD video files. In all, I took 1900 frames and 8 hours of video over the 8 days. That’s about 43 GB of material to process at home now. As an added bonus, the 5 hour battery life on my MSI Wind let me write 3 blog entries on the 11 + 8 hours return flight and edit the images in them – with plenty of juice left in the battery thereafter.

Other advantages: I had two spreadsheets on the netbook to keep track of whether I was going to break my baggage weight allowance (of 23 kg). There was 19.2 kg of baggage arriving at San Francisco, and a lot more outgoing. I picked up nearly 5 kilograms of vendor brochures, CDs, materials at The Expo event as I went on a booth crawl finding out about each company’s most current game technologies and talking to their product managers.My outgoing baggage was 22.8 kg – just 200grams shy of 23 kg and having to cough up more dough for excess baggage.

Global Village Part II

blog-2009-sanfrancisco-DSC_A0861-airplane Part II of Global Village is written on a Northwest Airlines flight flying between San Francisco International Airport and Narita International.:)

Everything’s big. Think: every meal you have is the upsized version. No need to tell the server you want the mega version of the meal. It’s the norm by default.

Tons of 1 cent coins. And no clue what to do with them. The BART rail system ticket vending machine wouldn’t accept them. Part of the problem I think lies in that price tags for every thing you want to buy is the item price before tax is included in. So, a fridge magnet with a price tag that says USD3.99 isn’t USD3.99. You’ll need to crank out the actual amount with sales tax added in because that’s what you need to pay. Which means that calculator function on your mobile finally gets some use.

If you want to be a lemming, buy an Apple. In Singapore, owning one of those fruit handphones is making a fashion statement. In the US, not having one is a fashion statement. Just about everyone who isn’t a tourist has them. I board a cable car from Market Street to The Embarcadero and I’ll count at least ten persons fiddling with their iPhones. I saw a couple of LGs, and a few Nokia E71s. But precious few Sony-Ericssons, one or two Samsungs, no other Nokia models, and hell no Motorolas. That’s smart marketing for you: partner with AT&T where you sell the iPhone for USD299 but bury each buyer with a 2 year contract. No wonder Apple doesn’t care a hoot about sales in Singapore – they don’t need to when they’re already flooded the US market with their overpriced yet under-featured toys.

The grid like street layout. Which was a great thing as it’s easy to find your way around. Roads invariably run straight and often in perpendicular angles to other roads. So, if you want to find any place, the only thing you really need to know is which roads intersect at this place. Chinatown Southern Gate? The intersection of Bush Street and Grant Avenue. Moscone Center South Hall? Intersection between 3rd Street and Howard Street. In comparison, street layout in Singapore is non-intuitive and if not utterly stupid. The roads at home wind, turn around, split, merge.

Australians are friendly. I’m now convinced that the Australians are some of the most friendly people around. I was always greeted with ‘hellos’ and ‘how’s it going?” whenever I was making payments for my groceries at Coles or Woolsworth supermarkets, or boarding a bus to get somewhere. I’d return the favor by waving the drivers thank you’s and goodbyes when deboarding. In San Francisco, service providers can just ignore you, and on occasion, just display nonchalant service attitudes. I was making a purchase on Friday evening for stuff that my manager had asked me to pick up, and when I inquired if it’d be possible to claim tax refunds at the airport, I got a shrug and a couldn’t-care-less “You can always try.”

At night the city wakes up. And not in the good sense. Every 15 minutes past midnight, I’d hear sirens in the distance. Either the cops are responding to yet another shooting somewhere, or an ambulance is racing to ferry an injured person to the hospital. On the day I arrived in the city, four Oakland city police officers were killed by the same felon totting an AK-47 in two separate shooting incidents. And two of the officers were SWAT – i.e. bad ass highly trained elite operatives – when they were attempting to take down the shooter. And yesterday, two women in a vehicle were shot dead in their car as they were leaving a department store. All those people whining about Singapore repressive laws, well, just try living in one of these places.

Every biker owns a designer motorcycle. There weren’t a lot of motorcyclists in the city, but the few who are all owned hyper-powered bikes that make a huge din when they go.

There’re still places I didn’t visit in this trip of course, and certainly enough for a return visit if there’s another opportunity again. But next stop in this country: hopefully it’ll be an East coast city instead then.:)

Global village Part I

blog-2009-sanfrancisco-DSC_9019-MissionStreet I’m writing this at the San Francisco International Airport. I arrived 2.5 hours early, got through baggage check quickly enough (though I had to remove shoes and belt), and now I’ve got 2 hours to kill before my flight to Narita International in Tokyo takes off.

Here’s a thought: after having spent 8 days in San Francisco and visited quite a few places – including all five of the city’s main attractions covered under the City Pass admission – these sights weren’t for me the true eye openers.

Running off my head: The Exploratorium had all the interactive exhibits, but the experience wasn’t refreshing. The Palace of Fine Arts just outside it had the neo-Roman-inspired architecture, but I’ve seen them in photographs before. The natural sciences museum, the California Academy of Sciences, and Aquarium of the Bay, was very well done-up, new, and had beautiful animal and marine life exhibits, but you can see the same at any done up marine aquarium exhibit. And the SF Museum of Modern Arts – well, let’s just say it takes a bit of effort for me to properly enjoy drawn art. And the Golden Gate Bridge… well, it’s just a big orange bridge, impressive as it was cruising underneath it.

The most indelible memory I’ll have of my stay here is the flock of seagulls that flew with us (blogged here). As for the other memorable experiences of the trip, here’s a list:

Listening to black dudes chat. You’ve seen and heard them on TV, but until this point I’d always thought their colloquialisms were exaggerated just for entertainment. But they *do* talk that way, especially the way in which this phrase is appended to every statement:

“You know what I’m saying?”

So if I were to transcribe a local conversation I have with the bak chor noodles seller at Hougang Mall into black dude style, it’d go like this:

“Hey brutha; give me one of those bowls of bak chor noodles. You know what I’m saying?” (Must be said with elaborate hand gestures)

“You want chili with it? You know what I’m saying?” (add more hand gestures)

“Na dawg. Just leave the chili out of the bowl. You know what I’m saying?”

“Ok, $3 then. You know what I’m saying?”


No kidding. It’s fun hearing them chat. They really are a unique culture unto themselves. And all the black dudes I met seemed friendly, though I’m sure Matt has a more informed opinion.

Italian-Americans mafiasos talk just like in The Sopranos. Like the above, I’d thought that the Italian-Americans in the show talk only that way in the show. But boy was I wrong. No wonder the TV show had no issues offing characters each episode. There’re easy replacements for characters everywhere. You could take for example any of the Italian-American limousine drivers outside my hotel, given them a few lines and a gun, and they could be the newest member of the Soprano family just released from jail and inserted into the latest episode. No speech training or makeup required. They already look and talk the part.

Crazy people everywhere. On the street, I ran into street protesters of one issue or another, doomsday soothsayers, people who’d yell at the top of their voices talking to themselves, people preaching their take of Christ to passer-bys.

Then there’s the spitting culture. People spit. They’ll collect a huge amount of whatever that’s in the throat and in a huge din, ptui out it goes.

Then the other night, while I was walking along Market Street back to my hotel at 9 pm after a networking event, the dude in front of me veered to the right, plonked himself in front of the closed entrance of a department store, and let out a steady stream at its door step.

Then this early Saturday morning when I had two hours before checking out of my hotel, I went out on a morning walk and saw three piles of clearly human shit beside a post box 50 metres from my hotel. There must had been three guys huddling together each taking a dump. Or just one guy doing a huge dump, but shifted the weight of his legs twice.

Continued in the next post!

The lonesome loner

Not everybody gets to enjoy the comfort of companionship all the time – I suppose. I know of students who felt friendless and helpless in a new school environment. I’ve heard of young kids who felt lonely when their siblings or parents are away. I know of people who felt lonely as single adults. I have come across married women who felt lonely even after having found a life partner.

Being almost a 100% introvert, I often prefer to be left on my own, i.e. being alone, in my own world. At my workplace, I usually steer clear of crowded tables at the canteen during lunch time. Crowds drain energy from me. Perhaps that’s why nature appeals to me. It is quiet and / or devoid of man-made activities.

However, I hated the emptiness in the house after Yang left for his trip to San Francisco. Perhaps I didn’t realise that he was very much part of me since we knew each other and got married. The loneliness is especially unbearable when I have nothing to distract my mind. This brings to mind that one day when we are advanced in years (God willing) and one of us may call home to the Lord sooner before the other, how are we to cope with the separation? May the Lord strengthens us in our hour of need and gives us hope for the great reunion to come. How great the joy must be to be at home with your loved ones and with the Lord.

Game Developers Conference

The Game Developers Conference here at San Francisco’s Moscone Convention Center isn’t just a conference where bespectacled geeks gather and talk about video games. It’s a festival and celebration of technology, the visual arts, story telling, sound and music – just about every other creative element that goes into an interactive multimedia experience.

My participation in gaming conferences in the last 6 years have been centered on academic conferences on critical game studies. The GDC has hundreds of summits, lectures, seminars, round table discussions and keynote addresses occurring simultaneously at any hour during the five day event, and they cover different aspects of development as opposed to understanding games as a cultural and social phenomenon.

A small sampling of photos from the first day of the Main Conference (the 3 day event was preceded by two days of summits):

The massive crowds. Last year’s event saw 18,000 attendees, speakers, exhibitors, and participants. No idea how many this year:


Conference Event Director Meggan Scavio opening address:


One of the many breakout sessions: this one was on technical, design and social ramifications centered on online multiplayer games. Speakers were two developers from Insomniac Games, an American-based game studio who recently published Resistance 2 which I wrote an entry here about recently.


Hideo Kojima, producer and director of the Metal Gear Solid series presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 9th Annual Game Developers Choice Awards.


There’s also the Expo where all the game studios, technology providers, and higher learning institutions in the industry all gather under one roof as a sales showcase exhibiting their newest gadgets as used in game development.


This game uses your eyes to control movement in a game:


This one uses your brain waves to control your character – no kidding.:)


San Francisco Bay Sea Gulls

The pictures speak for themselves.:)







And here’s the best part: they were not shot on the Nikon 70-200mm F2.8 lens – the one that costs a bomb. I took them on my el-cheapo USD180 Nikon 18-55mm LOL.

It was an incredible sight… the flock of seagulls flying alongside our boat as it traveled back to Pier 39. They all flew so close it would had been possible to reach out and touch them. I took 111 pictures over 5 minutes, many of them just stunning close-ups of the seagulls. A small selection here.:)

The Golden Gate Bridge

blog-2009-sanfrancisco-DSC_9782-baycruiseadventure It’s a funny feeling; until today, I’ve never seen the Golden Gate Bridge in person, but the landmark has been so widely seen in films that going under the bridge would have felt too familiar.

That said, this world’s largest single-span bridge and one time longest and tallest suspension structure was still awesome. I first got a look at the bridge when we were at The Exploratorium, but I managed to find a spare hour on Tues afternoon to use the City Pass coupon for the Blue & Gold Bay Adventure Cruise.

The Adventure Cruise is a short 1 hour cruise that takes passengers under the bridge and around Alcatraz Island.

The Golden Gate Bridge sure looked imposing. The about 2 km suspension bridge is built to withstand winds of more than 160 kilometres per hour, and can sway as great as 9 metres at mid-span.

Here’s a thought: I was almost disappointed that the bridge didn’t explode, or a Godzilla emerge from the water and smash the bridge, or for a couple of F16s to fly underneath on their way to drop a bomb on Alcatraz Island – just like in the movies!

The distance between the bridge and the Island was actually quite short. In The Rock movie, it seemed a lot longer based on the scene time time where the fighter jets flew to the island.

blog-2009-sanfrancisco-DSC_9790-baycruiseadventureThere were some water sports going on in about the bay area too; wind surfers, other cruises, a couple of luxurious yachts doing similar tours of the bay.

The short 45 minute cruise itself was smooth most of the way. But interestingly, as we passed under the bridge, waves suddenly became strong, and a couple of passengers lost their footing.

I was struggling to balance myself too, and that I was carrying my D300 on one hand and the Panasonic HD digicam on the other (I was taking footage for Ling) made it all the more difficult. A lot of the video is gonna be wobbly LOL.

Lighting wasn’t that great too, as the cruise I was on was in 4 pm late afternoon – the second last ride for the day. I had the circular polarizer on for a couple of shots, but the effect wasn’t especially evident for some shots as the sun was all wrong for those photos.

The Alcatraz Island was a little underwhelming, though I’m certain if I was on the Island adventure package itself which takes visitors into Alcatraz itself, it would had been more impressive. The island itself was discovered by Spanish explorers in 1775 and originally named Isla de Los Alcatraces, or Island of the Pelicans. The Army established a fortress on it in 1854, then converted it into a military prison during the Civil War. It was turned into a maximum security prison in 1934 and housed infamous criminals, Al Capone being one of the most famous inmates, before being closed in 1963 and turned into a tourist attraction.



But as impressive as The Golden Gate Bridge was, it was nothing compared to the last 5 minutes of the cruise when I had one of the most exhilarating experiences ever in my life! Took a lot of pictures, and I’ll blog about it soon.:)

Rest of the pictures here.:)

Museums & Sciences II

blog-2009-sanfrancisco-DSC_9658-californiaacademyofsciences The second museum we checked out on Tuesday 24 March was the California Academy of Sciences. This was a really slick and modern museum; they’d apparently moved into their home at the Golden Gate Park just last year, and that building was impressively large, imposing, great use of lighting, glass and all the amenities of a modern attraction.

Interestingly, the Academy isn’t just a museum. It houses in fact their own in-house scientists and researchers, and parts of the museum hold a collection of 20 million species.

The exhibits mostly aren’t interactive like the Exploratorium, but still really impressive. There was a large section on the African Savannahs and jungles with realistic and life-sized models of animals. The basement comprises the world’s largest living coral reef display, with huge tanks and many smaller tanks all showcasing marine life.

The place though was incredibly crowded, the more unusual since this was a weekday afternoon. There were so many people queuing up to enter the Planetarium and Rainforest dome that I took one look and gave up.

Very well worth a visit, but if I ever return here a second time, I’m gonna have to figure out a time where it isn’t nearly so crowded.



The rest of the photos here.:)

Museums & Sciences I

blog-2009-sanfrancisco-DSC_9566-exploratorium There aren’t many school going children in Singapore who haven’t gone to the Singapore Science Center at least once, and most likely twice during their primary and junior years of education.

Two such science museums in San Francisco are the Exploratorium, and the California Academy of Sciences. Both also are major attractions in the city and were included in the City Pass card we bought.

The Exploratorium was our first stop of the day on Tuesday 24 March, and is located at the Presidio, a beautifully landscaped and wooded area in the Northwestern corner of the city. The Golden Gate Bridge Freeway runs through the Presidio too, so I could see the famous bridge after a short 100m walk from the Exploratorium.

The Exploratorium was established in 1969, and comprises hundreds of exhibits divided into broad thematic areas, for example sight, motion, electricity and magnetism, life sciences and so on. Many of the exhibits are interactive and demonstrate laws of chemistry and physics. I can imagine Ling going absolutely nuts over some of these exhibits, so took several HD video of the exhibits for her to look at when I’m home.

I haven’t visited the Singapore Science Museum for the last 4 years now, but I don’t think it can match the variety, range or pure ingenuity of the Exploratorium exhibits. The museum even has its own workshop – whose area was viewable to the public – where designers and creators cook up new exhibits for the public to learn and try.


But the real attraction for me wasn’t the Exploratorium, as interesting an experience as it was. I was absolutely floored by the Palace of Fine Arts which sits beside the Exploratorium. The Palace showcases some of the most stunning architecture I’ve seen. It was originally conceived as a Roman ruin with intricately detailed Corinthian columns and the neo-classical dome. The Rotunda was closed for renovation, but I could walk the grounds and took pictures.



More pictures here, and continued in the next post.

Pier 39

blog-2009-sanfrancisco-DSC_9164-stocktonstreet I had my one and only free morning on the second day of my San Francisco trip. There was one ‘tourisy’ attraction I’d been wanting to visit – The Aquarium of the Bay. I’d advised my students that the place was well-worth a visit, but at the designated meeting time, no one showed up, so I went out on my own.

The place is well north of my hotel and about a 3 kilometre walk. Quite manageable, so I set out at 7:45 am, and took a leisurely walk along Stockton road, a long straight stretch of road that’d bring me right to The Embarcadero, a stretch of road that runs alongside San Francisco Bay.

Stockton Road intersects the Chinatown area, and on the early morning there was an amazing bluster of life. It really was Chinatown, with Asian Chinese everywhere: going to school, going to work, having breakfast, elderly Chinese shopping for fresh produce etc. There were dianxin shops, provision shops, vegetable and fresh meats, and plenty of little eateries – even char siew rice LOL.

The Chinatown area is adjourned to Little Italy, though the space occupied by the latter seemed a lot smaller than Chinatown. I stopped for a while at Washington Square too where Saints Peter and Paul Church is located. Quite a magnificent institution. There were many elderly Asian persons doing their morning exercises in the park.

I eventually got to Pier 39 at 9 am, an hour early before the Aquarium’s opening hour. So, took the opportunity to further explore the shopping and eating establishments along the stretch (there were very many), stopping by at Boudin’s for a takeout bacon and egg sandwich on sourdough bread for USD 7.53. The sandwich was prepared piping hot, and very delicious in the cold weather.


The Aquarium as it turned out was a major disappointment. Specifically, it was undergoing renovation, which meant that huge sections of the site was closed. In view of this, there was no admission charge for entrance, but that’s small comfort as I’d already purchased the City Pass (the Aquarium is one of five key attractions in the city).

That said, the half dozen aquarium tanks in the areas that could be visited were colorful, vibrant and well landscaped. It was hard to take great pictures though as lighting conditions go, but it could had been a lot worse if it wasn’t for the vibration-stabilization mechanism in the Nikon lens.


I couldn’t stay for long in the area as I had a visit to the EA campus starting at noon. So at 10:45 am, made my way back by cable car. Well, if I ever come back to San Francisco with Ling (and little Hannah?!), I’d want to revisit the Aquarium again and check out what I’ve missed.:)


I’ve wrote a short account for the school blog here of our industry visit here. Tomorrow’s program is gonna be packed from morning till night: a visit to the Exploratorium in the morning, then the California Academy of Sciences in the afternoon, then another industry networking event in the evening. Lots of walking to and fro. My feet’s gonna kill me LOL.