Just for laughs; is this the heaviest lens available at consumer retail?

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And mind you; the lens above actually exists. It’s the Sigma 200-500 f/2.8 APO EX DG Ultra-Telephoto Zoom Lens, and retails for a very cool USD28,999.00. And Amazon offers free shipping too LOL.

It does look like a portable mortar launcher, no?

And when you thought that’s the Mother of All Lenses, here’s another one:

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That’s the Nikkor 1200-1700mm f/5.6-8P ED; Link here.

Burp.

blog-burp Burping Hannah has been a major occupation since we introduced the bottle. (Whenever she is breastfed, she requires little or no burping at all.) I started off with Avent bottles, believing that these are the better ones (they claimed that their bottles can reduce colic as compared to others). However, it was a challenge to get Hannah to accept Avent’s teats. I had to coax her very often to suck from the teat – how tiring! Besides, she took in a lot of air sucking from the bottle. Hence, I spent most of the time coaxing and burping her during each feed. How I dreaded every feeding session! There had been incidents where I got so tired of burping her that I did not break the feed into intervals for burping. i.e. she drank the whole bottle in one sitting. The result? The air bubbles accumulated in her tummy forced the milk out after she was done! Ya, she merlion-ed. Sigh. My fault la.

Out of desperation, I did some research on the Internet for reviews of other brands of bottles. I read on several blogs and forums that Bfree bottles are effective in reducing wind in tummy due to their special design in preventing negative pressure within the bottle when the baby sucks. That, my friend, is key to solving my burping nightmare. Another important feature is their teat: it is softer as compared to Avent’s. Their bottles are also BPA-free (some harmful chemical present in normal bottles that can leech into milk over a period of time). The latter is less crucial to me as a few other brands also carry BPA-free alternatives.

It just so happened that Spring Maternity had a promotion for 1-for-1 exchange of Bfree bottle; you give them your old bottle in exchange for a brand new Bfree bottle and top up another $8.90 (I think it costs around $18.90 per bottle). I had some old Avent bottles given by Sharon (my sister in-law) and used them to exchange for 2 Bfree bottles. Hee hee :P

The verdict? Well, Hannah requires much less cajoling to take to the bottle. She drinks with less difficulty and finishes her milk within a shorter period. Her tummy takes in less air too and the burping has been less tedious. :) There’s a downside though. The Bfree bottles have many parts (7 parts!) to clean and assemble. Quite a tedium to wash and sterilise them after each feed.

Lately, Hannah seemed to know when a burp is coming up. She would start to straighten up her back and look expectant. :) Not bad eh. It is also a signal for me that that lovely burping noise is coming up after all the hard work of patting her back. Then she would look rather contented afterward and wide-eyed for more milk!

30. July 2009 · Comments Off · Categories: All Posts, At Home, Entertainment

I watch a lot of films, though these days mostly on rental. There isn’t an exact number of course, but I’ll put it roughly to a ballpark of between 150 to 200 new movies / TV shows hours a year. Not everything’s on the Plasma TV either – a lot of stuff I watch off software-driven DVD players on the PC or my notebooks, while I’m working on something else.

I don’t blog about every film too, and it’s because the film didn’t leave an impression on me, or the viewing was too disjointed because of frequent interruptions, these days typically from Hannah.

Still, just for self-recording purposes, I’ll make a very brief mention here of each film I saw in the last 3 weeks which I haven’t blogged about.

The Bank Job (2008): starring Jason Statham. His films are typically hits or misses; this one’s a miss for me though.
Picture This! (2008): teenage-romance comedy-lite film about a high school girl who wants this hunk and boy of her dreams to notice her. Has this boy’s bitchy girlfriend to contend with. Video handphones is a central theme in the film.
New in Town (2009): Renée Zellweger looks both old and frumpy in this one.
Passengers (2008): starring the always yummy Anne Hathaway as a grief counselor who deals with survivors of a plane crash, though she discovers things are not what it seems. Very similar to The Sixth Sense.
Inkheart (2008): based on the famous children’s book about persons who when reading out stories aloud and literally breathe life to the book’s characters. Film stylistically is like a cross between Ever After and Harry Potter.

The Promotion (2008): starring Seann William Scott, most famously known as Stifler of the American Pie series of movies. Very different role for him in this film though – he plays a nice, polite and courteous sales manager of a chain store dreaming of bigger things. Very low key film though.

Get Smart’s Bruce and Lloyd Out of Control (2008): the pick of the bunch, and a spin-off from last year’s remark of the TV series Get Smart, and starring Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway. The film itself was great, and the spin-off not too bad, centering on the two lovable invention creators of the film.

29. July 2009 · Comments Off · Categories: All Posts, At Home, Entertainment

blog-killshot Killshot (2008) – on rental. This was another film that I think had a short theatrical run in Singapore. It was released, then disappeared off theatrical screening lists before much people noticed it.

The film centers on a device plot that’s shown up countless times already: that of persons who witness murders committed by assassins, and are now placed in the FBI’s witness protection program. As these stories must go, the program must be ineffective, and the assassins must eventually catch up to the witnesses, and there must be a show down.

What’s at least semi-different though are the characters. Not the witnesses – played by onscreen couple Thomas Jane (who I remember from The Punisher) and Diane Lane, an actress who’s dangerously close to getting typecast from the roles she’s been in the last half-decade.

Rather, it’s the two assassins’ characterization that’s refreshing. You have an aging hired gun who’s all ice cold and professional, and played by Mickey Rouke in an Indian hair-do. He’s a mentor of sorts to an almost psychotic and loose cannon apprentice-assassin played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and whom I’ve not seen before in the films I’ve watched.

The highpoint for me in this film by the numbers was the interactions between the two, though at the film’s conclusion, the ‘turn’ in the two’s relationship isn’t surprising at all – though from the film’s standpoint, it’s pretty obvious the director had intended the turn to be a surprise.

Thankfully, the show isn’t gory. The two wreck quite a bit of havoc throughout the film’s length, offing characters and bystanders and civilians, execution-style. But much of that violence is shown either off-camera, or the position smartly deflects demonstration of blood and brains getting splattered all over.

On balance, it’s a little slow in parts, story nothing especially different from the norm, and Lane isn’t in a role too dissimilar to what she’s done before. Worth a watch only if you’re interested in Rouke and/or Gordon-Levitt going at and with each other.

29. July 2009 · Comments Off · Categories: All Posts, At Home, Entertainment

As a follow-up to my post on Virtual Worlds the other day, here’s a post on Drakensang – after spending about six evenings in it, several of which with Hannah cradled in my arms.

Visually, the game’s amazing, the more so considering that the game wasn’t from some big California-based game studio. I ran the game on my two year old game rig and it ran very well on the 1680×1050 resolution my screen can handle – with all graphic options enabled. There’s also a High Quality Texture pack option, but I don’t think even that is going to stretch modern machines much.

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The artwork itself is marvelous: there’re sunny plains, dark forests with little light escaping from the overhead canopy of trees, snow covered landscapes, caves, mines, a huge Dwarvern underground city, and suitably medieval-looking towns, villages and cities.

The game has a main quest storyline, supplemented with numerous other side quests, several of which are nicely tied in with the main story through dialog. The quests themselves span quite a wide range: you have the medieval courier pigeon types (“Fetch this”) and roach infestation and cleaning operation (“Kill all the bugs in the storage warehouse”) type. But you also have quests that require you to do other things: including be stealthy, or to play detective in solving a crime.

For those of us who love building up unique characters, Drakensang is nirvana. Character growth is facilitated by two types of point systems: Adventure Points, which continually accumulate and serves as a broad indicator of your character prowess, and Experience Points, which you expend to improve a skill, talent or attribute. The game nicely balances the number of growth points versus the range in which you can develop your party characters – i.e. there aren’t nearly enough points to create Godlike characters who can do everything.

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That said, Drakensang drops the ball in a couple of departments. The most significant one is the game’s difficulty level. There are no difficulty sliders in the game, and the game is very hard. The quests themselves are alright, thanks in part to the helpful in-game hint system that provides tips in the Quest Log, and also highlighting of “Next Place to Visit” on the overview map. Rather, it’s the combat system that’ll have you reaching for the Quick Save and Load buttons repeatedly. Party wipes are very common, and mobs typically make a beeline for your weakest characters first in a fight.

There’s also a lot of dialog in the game, which while are reasonably well-translated from the German source, could also be just a little too much for players to digest. In a typical conversation with an NPC, expect to be clicking 8 to 10 times to progress from conversation paragraph to paragraph before you even get to the first dialog option. The recorded audio and exaggerated character animation during conversations have also been panned by game critics, but I personally didn’t find them any more cringe-inducing than the voice-acting in typical games of this type.

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And there’s the funny path finding in tight corridors or rooms. Oh, your party of characters follow you well-enough. But when you tell the entire party to fight the same mob, the path finding will run amok with your characters running circles around each other as though it can’t decide where it wants to position each party member. It’s a cute sight though, watching your party of four chase each other’s coat tails in a room.

All that said, I enjoyed Drakensang. The story isn’t anything you haven’t already seen or experienced in other RPGs, but one has to compensate considering that there just aren’t very many traditional RPGs out there. There’s character c

28. July 2009 · Comments Off · Categories: All Posts, At Home, Entertainment

blog-international-01 The International (2009) – on rental. Clive Owen is starting to present an almost unchanging look in all his most recent films: outside his role of the dandy in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, he looks unwashed, unshaven, unsmiling and like he hasn’t slept in days.

I really enjoyed his Shoot ‘em Up from 2 years ago, so was wondering if this film was going to be anything similar. Funnily, it’s anything but. The film is a thriller, and apart from a long gun battle scene in New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum late in the movie, is pretty light on violence but heavy on plot.

Owen is an Interpol agent on a life mission to expose the criminal activities of one international and large bank inspired by the real but now defunct Bank of Credit and Commerce International. Assisting him is Naomi Watts (loved her in King Kong and The Painted Veil), who plays a Manhattan-based Assistant DA. The bank in this film is involved in arms trading and terrorist funding, and is also in the practice of assassinating witnesses and investigators who get on its trail.

blog-international-02 The film at times feels like it has an identity crisis about wanting to be either a Bourne or a Bond film. Our duo travels all across Europe, including Berlin, Istanbul, Italy and Luxembourg as they try to piece together clues at crime scenes, and reach key figures willing to testify or turn against the all powerful bank.

I’ve got mixed feelings about The International. The on location scenes or of their likeness are nicely done-up, especially the long scene at the Guggenheim Museum. But while the story’s semi-intelligent, the plot turns are all unfortunately too obvious. There’s no surprise when a couple of characters who’re obviously key to the investigation get off, nor when one of the bank’s key figures finally turns against the establishment. The film gets all the ticks in the checklist. Corrupt cops? Check. Super-cool sniper assassin? Check. Evil boss dressed in a suit? Check.

On balance, it’s an average watch I think, though you’re not especially missing anything if you give this one a pass.

Ling was asking the other night whether the RPG I was playing on the computer was a single or multiplayer game.

Here’s the deal: ironically, while my major and life ‘defining’ work has been in multiplayer virtual worlds, since marriage I no longer spend as much time in those worlds as I once did. The same applies to Matt, and both our reasons are pretty much the same: those things are life-suckers. It’s not merely a question about being able to resist addictive games: it’s that multiplayer games invariably require commitment to the communities you join.

For too many times while the both of us were running our guild in the 90s and then on my own from 2003 to 2005, we were frequently faced with the difficulty of trying to get good participation rates for our events, and at the same time reminding our guild members that whatever we were doing was ultimately leisure that should not supersede real world needs and obligations.

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For those of us not in the know; here’s a bit of context. Community events – especially of the high-level sort typically involve several dozens of persons working and collaborating together real-time where reflexes, timing and coordination are everything to the event’s success. And events aren’t an hour or two long – in some settings, they can last between 20 to 30 hours. Just imagine for a minute tying yourself to a computer for that long a time!

Ironically, these high-stake events are conscious parts of game content included on the part of designers. It’s a complicated sort of thing, but it involves providing content for high Achievement-centric players who typically participate in these events for the big rewards they provide, which in turn provide them bragging rights among their peers.

I remember one of the early occasions on such an event in 1999 when Matt and I were ‘camped’ in a dungeon waiting for this very rare frog to show up on the small chance he’d drop a rare sword. That was a thirty-seven hour camp, one whom we would in the next year write humorous entries for our guild web site then.

Things have changed considerably, especially after game designers and critics started realizing that some of the high level content was coming at social cost to players, i.e. families were getting broken up, spouses were getting divorced, and – sadly in a few instances – players were committing suicide, or so neglecting their families that deaths ensued. But there remains a body of players who can responsibly afford the time and commitment necessary for them to continue accessing these content, so there’re still games which cater to this ‘hard core’ crowd.

Myself though, I can’t see myself ever again spending the kind of hours I still recently did up till the end of my Ph.D years (at the height of research in 2005, I spent about 90 to 100 hours a week in game). For starters, I have a day job. And secondly, these virtual worlds are real-time. When Hannah needs attention, I can reach for the ‘pause button’ in a single-player game. No such facility exists in multiplayer virtual worlds.

But it’s still fun to think and remember though, and too often, I’ll catch Matt online and we’ll remember one or two incidents during those years. Wait till he tells you about this Australian player we had in our midst… :)

26. July 2009 · Comments Off · Categories: All Posts, At Home, Entertainment

blog-hp6 Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009). While I own and have finished several reads of each of the seven Harry Potter books, I’ve never really got ‘into’ the series. There’s a lot of story in each, but also some level of indulgent writing. It occasionally just takes too long for a plot arc to get resolved, or that a plot development feels contrived with too superficial a setup but awkward in the payoff, especially in the death of several characters in the last book.

That said, it’s been interesting to watch the evolution of the Harry Potter films. They’ve gone from obviously kid-centric films to fare that while is still safely PG13 has stylistically gone darker. Gone are the almost Disneyland sets in the first two movies; Hogwarts in the last few films look more like what you could mistake to be Arkham Asylum of Gotham City.

The last few films – particularly from Goblet of Fire onwards – has also faced the increasingly difficult tasks of compressing huge novels of 700+ pages – into films of 2.5 hours. Scenes get cut. Characters that have presence or developments in the book get the short stick in the film.

The cast in each film remains huge, but several characters get reduced to mere cameos or background filler. In Half-Blood Prince, it’s Hagrid, Neville Longbottom, Tonks and Lupin among others that are barely in this time. I wonder if in the next decade or so, someone is going to try turning the books into a TV series – now 4-5 hours per books would definitely do nicely.

While Ling hasn’t actually verbalized this much, I suspect she’s happy to be get some relief from Hannah every now and then. So, we left Hannah at Lentor on Saturday morning and headed to AMK Hub to catch Half-Blood Prince.

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The sixth book/film is tricky: unlike the first four books at least, book VI is all setup for what will happen in the last book. So, you get a lot of development on Voldemort’s background, his motivations, and the efforts of the Hogwarts’ crew to fight him.

There’re a couple of key developments, including the death of a key character – which was hyped beyond belief in the months leading to the publication of the book in July 2005 – and the supposed ‘turning’ of another major character – which would get heavily debated upon until Book VII finally resolves that character’s real agenda. In between, there’s a lot of the peripheral stuff, like the trio’s gradual discovery of their hormones, Quidditch matches and more lessons at Hogwarts.

blog-hp6-3 To the film’s credit, the production has retained bits of all these both major and minor story elements, and things move along briskly in the film’s about 2.5 hrs run time.

The production quality remains mostly impeccable – costumes and interior sets especially – though a couple of backdrops in the exterior scenes are obviously the result of computer wizardry.

But it’s the cast that I watch these films for. Never mind that these are teenage now turned young adult actors who’re still learning the art. There’s just something incredibly reminiscent to watch young actors who’ve grown grown comfortably into their roles since 2001, and that with each new film they better themselves.

As for the adult crew, I still miss the late Richard Harris’ Dumbledore. While Michael Gambon has filled in the shoes nicely in the last four films, watching Film VI where the Headmaster has a meaty role in and especially the seaside cave scene where he shows just how great a magician he is, I can’t help but wonder how Harris would have fared.

On the overall, Half-Blood Prince is in a difficult spot as it’s trying to tell a complicated story condensed from a huge book but yet saddled with the challenge of keeping audiences interested while holding off the real ‘action’ until the last (two) films. There’s a lot of drama, maybe too much of adolescent love, and too little wizardry action – the battle inside Hogwarts was not filmed by the director (didn’t think it was the right decision).

So, for persons who’ve not read the books or whose interest level in the series has come entirely from the films, Half-Blood Prince may not be the same ride as previously. The litmus test is Ling, who’s never read the books and have watch only the films.

She liked it.

The last couple of Disaster films are on specific weather events that really do happen in the real world, but for cinematic story-telling gets slightly exaggerated. Unlike the other films though, these aren’t major disasters of the Humanity Wipe type. All that happens is a couple of persons get cooked, get roasted – that sort of thing.

blog-disaster09 The first on my list is Twister, a film that Steven Spielberg produced but did not direct. This was one of the early disaster films too, and boasted CG work that looks very good even for today. I think the film was nominated for a couple of awards, including one very well-deserved award for sound.

The story concerned itself with teams of storm ‘chasers’ who seek out tornados in order to better understand them. In reality, there’re indeed such experts and (arguably) slightly crazy persons who study and actively seek out out extreme weather. While the film did succeed in introducing a relatively unknown geographical expert area to the general public, it also got panned by the real experts in the field, at least on IMDB.

For instance, one actual storm chaser said that if he saw a tornado coming his way, the last thing he’d do is to drive to it to study it. He’d instead be driving in the other direction – at top speed – and then dry out his pants that he’d just peed into LOL.

Still, I liked the film because it was new material that I wasn’t familiar with, and I always enjoy films with Helen Hunt, who played the leader of one such team. Bill Paxton – the psycho and paranoid marine from Aliens – shows up as the love interest and fellow expert.

And oh yes – there’s a scene where you’ll see flying cows. Literally. Hilarious scene.:)

blog-disaster10 1997 followed with two films of the same type: of volcanoes. The first was Dante’s Peak, and the show concerned a normally dormant volcano and a vibrant yet intimate small town situated right next to it. The volcano is detected to show signs of exploding, but the town’s inhabitants choose to disbelieve it. When it does explode, well, there you go. It’s Pompeii revisited.

I liked the two leads in the cast. There was Pierce Brosnan who’d been selected as the new James Bond then and had completed Goldeneye two years before. He played the volcanologist – and that’s a real profession mind you – who first discovers the rumblings. Opposite him was Linda Hamilton, a.k.a. Mrs. James Cameron before they split, and best known for her role as Sarah Connor from the first two Terminator films. Hamilton played the love interest and the town’s mayor.

Dante’s Peak was lauded by persons in the field, and deservedly so too as director Ronald Donaldson actively sought the participation of real volcanologists to ensure that the events leading to and after the eruption looked and felt like the real thing. And this was no small feat at all, because volcanology is not a safe science. Lots of people get killed by those things.

blog-disaster11 The other volcano film that year was titled Volcano, but the story had a twist. The setting was in Los Angeles, and I think that a recent earthquake apparently looses tectonic plates sufficiently enough (I’m working on memory here from 12 years ago) for molten lava to seep into the sewerage systems of the city. Soon enough, lava explodes throughout the city, and lots of people get steamed like siew mais, cooked, melted etc.

This film was certainly unusual, since we typically think of volcanoes sitting on top of big mountains. So, the premise was at least refreshing, even if the story ultimately ridiculous. I mean, assuming if there’s indeed a volcano erupting beneath a major city, the last thing ‘experts’ should be doing is walking around in dark sewerage tunnels feeling the walls for ambient temperature. I would be running on the surface as fast as my legs can carry me LOL.

Thinking back though, all three films were released at about the same time period, and I caught all three at the old Cathay in the 90s’ before the theatre was shut down for that several years and re-opened 2 years ago.

Either way:

Twister:

Dante’s Peak:

Volcano:

And that concludes the series of five posts on Disaster films. Hmm – what should I write on next LOL.

25. July 2009 · Comments Off · Categories: All Posts, At Home, Entertainment

blog-fanboys-01 Fanboys (2009) – on rental. I’m not sure if I’m more a Star Wars or a Star Trek fan. I like both franchises for what they are and that they’re centered on very different themes, even if the most recent Star Trek film has diluted some of those key differentiating aspects from its series creator, the late Gene Roddenberry.

So, the practically indie film, Fanboys, interested me a lot though I don’t think it was ever screened in theatres here. The film is about fanboyism, and brings viewers back 10 years ago to the run-up of probably the most anticipated film ever in recent memory – the release of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. Remember those hordes of Star Wars-geeks reportedly starting to line up and camp overnight six months in advance just to get first day tickets? This film is centered around that theme.:)

The plot: a group of four friends who’re Star Wars nuts decide on the ultimate heist – travel across the country to George Lucas’ headquarters – Skywalker Ranch – and steal an advance print of the film six months before its release.

So, it’s basically a road trip movie, with lots of chuckles, nudges and laugh-out loud moments poking fun at and about Star Wars fans. There’s the opening title crawl (similar to the six Star Wars films), the Jedi mind-trick one character tries to get his female colleague to take her shirt off, and the van which with a number plate “Slave II” but whose engine sounds like the Millennium Falcon.

blog-fanboys-02 The most hilarious scene though is of a face-off between our four lovable Star Wars fans who crash in on a Star Trek event participated by James T. Kirk and Khan worshippers. Fans of both series have waged their online wars for decades now – just do a Google search for “Star Destroyer versus Enterprise – who will win” for instance.

In this film, their argument lies in who’d win a fight between Darth Vader and a Borg drone! The scene is too funny for words.

The film was made for a lowly budget of under a million when Hollywood blockbusters today are typically made for hundreds of times that, and George Lucas himself gave his thumbs up and support for the project after watching an advanced screening of the movie.

The film won’t appeal to everyone though: it’s less accessible than the other fanboy parody film I really enjoyed, Galaxy Quest from 1999. Moreover, if you’re not familiar with Star Wars and/or Star Trek and don’t enjoy parodies, it’ll be really hard to understand this film. For those who are, this is a must watch.:)