October, 2009

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Will I Believe…? Part 1

The MacBook arrived by DHL Express late yesterday afternoon. I’d placed the order on late Thurs night, and the unit had taken a day to bounce from Apple’s warehouse to DHL’s one, and then finally arriving at the latter’s delivery center at a stroke past Friday midnight.

The sales order from Apple’s web site suggested that delivery would be on Monday, but I decided to try my luck by calling DHL directly and seeing if they would deliver on Saturday. Nicely, they consented, and the notebook with the iWorks – Apple’s software for Office productivity – arrived just after 6 pm.




You have to give it to the Cupertino folks: their products exude style, right even in packaging. Packaging contents were pretty minimalist – quite unlikely unboxing a Wintel notebook where it’s always crammed with CDs, manuals, flyers, promotional coupons, modem cables, demo ware etc.

More to come – soon.:)

Google Maps Buddy

There’s a couple of sites that I rely on a lot whenever I make a trip overseas: one’s Tripadvisor, and the other is Google Maps. The latter is especially handy, since for every journey I have to plan for during a trip, I like to find out first all the transportation options, timings, fares and routes to get from one point to the other.

There’s one problem with Google Maps though: it’s an exclusively online application. You need to be connected online for it to work. And while there’s a lot of handphones these days, including the iPhone, with mobile versions of Google Maps, you don’t want to be paying GPRS-rated prices in a foreign country just to navigate around. It’s bad enough if you’re walking. It’s worse when you’re traveling by vehicle since the distance covered would be far greater.

What I’ve always done so far is to do print screens of the maps, then stitch them up to an over-sized version. That’s never worked very well – since it’s a lot of work to align and stitch the images up (haven’t tried those panoramic stitching programs on maps yet but I think they should work well).

That’s what I had to do regardless for the San Francisco trip in March this year though. My notebook was packed with about 25 maps of varying sizes covering each of the trips we were making and vicinities throughout the 8 days stay.

I was dreading map production for the coming trip to Kumamoto in Kyushu as this time it’s all in Japanese LOL. Fortunately, I’ve (finally!) found a program that streamlines all that stitching into a single automated process – and it’s a Windows freeware application called Google Maps Buddy.


This is a tiny application that runs within its browser. It lets you specify which areas you’d like included in your map, and you also indicate the zoom / detail level you want. The nifty little program then automatically downloads all the small tile maps, and stitches them all up seamlessly into a gigantic map for you. I’ve been able to create a city map of Kumamoto, and also a much larger map of a good part of the prefecture – since I’ll likely be commuting daily between the college I’ll be lecturing at, and also the city where my hotel is likely going to be.

The largest map I’ve produced now is 7710×10280 pixels. If I’d manually stitched client images, it would had likely taken me maybe 3-4 hours to get them all done. Using Google Maps Buddy: it took me 10 seconds to specify the map parameters, and the program churned out the image in the background on its own. Just amazing.:)

“I was busy looking for a ‘explode macbook’ button.”

Well, no one can now say – hopefully – that I didn’t give MacBooks a chance. My NEC Versa E6310 has undergone abuse. It’s switched on at least 10 hours a day, everyday at work for 2 years now, it goes with me whenever I do a public presentation or talk, and I use it as a scratch notebook i.e. I use the notebook to try out all kinds of demo ware that I wouldn’t dare try on my home PC. The screen has now lost perhaps about a quarter of its brightness, and the track pad has a mind of its own i.e. it never does anything I want it to.

I was initially intending to get another Wintel notebook – one of those 11.6” LCD CULV netbooks in fact – soon to replace the aging Versa when a revelation struck me. Why was I coughing up more money to buy another Windows notebook, when I could use that money to buy something that could at least also provide me some learning value? I mean, for all purposes, my productivity level on a Windows machine is operating at peak relative to my ability to work the machine, and as useful as another Windows notebook would be, I wasn’t going to learn anything new with it by way of working in new operating environments.

blog-macbook That’s essentially the reason why I ordered a MacBook Pro late last night, and am expecting delivery of the unit later today or tomorrow. There’re two 13” MacBooks that are priced quite affordably. One’s simply called the MacBook, the other the MacBook Pro. The former is their cheapest Apple OS notebook now, and in terms of computing specification is equivalent to, and in one spot at least, better than its more expensive by $400 brethren. However, the MacBook has a cheaper body – which doesn’t bother me – and a poorer screen – which I disliked after checking it out at Compass Point’s Denki. The limited color gamut and lower contrast doesn’t matter if you don’t do photo-editing, but I do a lot of that. So, I went with the cheapest MacBook Pro model listed.

It’s interesting now to see my friends, colleagues and students respond to my Facebook status update. I meant it when I reflected in February this year a sentiment that exists among many of us who’re (supposedly?) experts in the use of technology – that many of us dislike Apple OSes as it forces a person to operate at a level of abstraction that, frankly, is both limiting and mildly condescending. For all the hardware weaknesses, vulnerabilities and general all-round ugliness of Windows up to Vista, there’s a lot more potential by way of software range, hardware variety, and enterprise-level development tools that we use that’s only available for Windows machines and not Apple OS ones, bootcamp or virtualization not withstanding.

And many of us have learned to work round the many Windows flaws. Viruses on Windows? I’ve rarely had anything more serious than a virus warning popping up on my Windows notebooks when I stick one of my student’s thumb drives in, and that’s because I know how to arm and properly defend my Windows environment. And it’s far less of a hassle than the Apple faithful would insist – I actually like the sense of empowerment and ability to install, tweak, and customize all those tools. And between a sanitized environment with a limited outlay of toys versus a sandbox with some risk but I have access to a far greater array of toys that can provide better learning opportunities albeit amidst adversity, I’d always prefer the latter.

That’s basically why I can empathize with some of my colleagues when they write a comment that’s the title of this post. They don’t like Macs. Me though, with this purchase of a MacBook – no one can say I didn’t at least try. I’m pretty certain I’ll like its colorful and unified interface a lot at least. As for productivity, I’m not so sure.

Either way, I can still always leave the MacBook at home to keep Ling occupied while I go back to my NEC Versa dinosaur – which while is rapidly losing its color and is getting crankier by the day from overuse, I still can get it to dance a trick and do what I ultimately need it to help me do – i.e. be more productive.)

A Rock and a Hard Place

There are a couple of issues in the national consciousness these few days that are regularly showing up in the local newspapers. For instance, there’s the increasing level of anxiety about Singapore citizenship and permanent residency. That issue has been burning enough in a lot of persons’ minds to the point that the most important leaders of the country including Senior Minister Lee KY have had to address it in public forums.

If you’re a follower of any one of the socio-political blogs or of online discussion forums, you’d be able to gauge for yourself the tenor of voices among the online crowd on this issue – and it’s not kind.

My reflection today though isn’t about Singapore Citizenship vs. permanent residency. It’s about a more localized incident that showed up the last weekend. Here’s what it’s about, extracted from ChannelnewsAsia and reformatted to save space:

Special deal at Shell petrol stations attracts queues, triggers traffic jams

SINGAPORE : Drivers turned up in droves at some Shell petrol stations to snap up a special one-day deal. The petrol company was offering its new FuelSave petrol at S$1 per litre on Saturday. But the overwhelming response triggered traffic jams in some areas.

Queues started forming at some Shell stations from 10am. At one station along Toa Payoh Lorong 1, drivers said the prospect of having to wait did not deter them as they wanted to realise some 45 per cent worth of cost-savings.

It didn’t take long for the affected i.e. those caught in the jam to write in, all clearly very, very pissed. A sample of letters’ excerpts from The Straits Times forum:

Nice Saturday turned into a day of stress (26 Oct)
I AM writing to protest against Shell’s $1 per litre petrol promotion ‘to educate motorists about fuel economy’ last Saturday. The promotion caused traffic jams across the island, turning a nice Saturday – when most residents take a break – into a day of stress and grief.

Not a care for commuters (26 Oct)
This is an obvious case where commercial success has been achieved at the expense of public interest. Not only are the aggregate savings of both fuel and money much smaller when we factor in the aggregate waste and pollution last Saturday, but also many roads became unnecessarily congested for everyone who drove or commuted that day.

Enough, don’t do it a third time, Shell (27 Oct)
ONCE bitten, twice shy. Please do not try it a third time, Shell (‘Long and winding queues…for cheap petrol’, Sunday). No amount of traffic control by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) or Traffic Police can justify the inconvenience and time lost to other road users.

To Shell’s credit, I believe they did learn from the first time round they did this little cheap-petrol exercise and took up measures to coordinate traffic flow. That said, what I don’t understand is why at this juncture Shell still hasn’t fully appreciate the two important nuances of the Singapore psyche:

  1. That Singaporeans love cheap things.
  2. That Singaporeans love to queue.

And mind you – both aren’t mutually exclusive. If the first is given an opportunity to manifest, and there’s queuing involved i.e. the second nuance is also given a window to show up, what you get is an armageddon, Singapore-styled. It doesn’t matter if it’s cheap petrol. It could be Hello Kitty. Or new BTO HDB launches. Or new condos. Or even Bak Kwa. But put the two together, some people will get the cheap (or free) stuff, but for everybody else tempers and complaints will fly.

Here’s the funniest thing: I knew about Shell’s offer but the thought of queuing up for cheap petrol wasn’t on the radar even though there’s a Shell station near where we stay at The Rivervale. Ling has no problem queuing I think – she’s far more patient than I am. There’s been occasions when she’d wait patiently for me after work (before delivery) if I’m called to a last minute meeting.

For me, the notion of being to save $20 on petrol for a full tank that isn’t commensurate with spending 2 hours of my time queuing up just doesn’t make sense. OK, so every penny counts in hard times (?), but I could do a lot in 2 hours of a weekend that would give me returns that far outweigh a $20 value. Like wake Hannah up from her afternoon nap and play with or take more video and pictures of her. Or load up one of the many movies we’ve got at home on blu-ray, close the curtains and spend 2 hours in a near-theatrical home viewing experience. Or spend 2 hours writing up another 4-5 blog entries and queue them all up for the coming week. Or just pig out and nap.

Either way, I’m guessing Shell won’t be repeating their cheapo petrol offer anytime soon, not after suffering two public backlashes in a row for implementing what I’m assuming to be helpful gestures on their part to their customers. Which is sort of sad. I think it’s great for companies to discharge some level of corporate responsibility through exercises like this, especially in view of rising costs of living.

Happy Feet

happy-feet-01 Happy Feet (2006) – on rental. There were two Penguin-esque animated films released within 9 months of each other just 3 years ago: one was Happy Feet, the other Surf’s Upand that’s not counting still Madagascar which had a bunch of four militant penguins in a big supporting role. Though visually the two films look very different, thematically they’re really quite similar: both films are about odd balls fitting in.

The story starts with a love match between Norma Jean (voiced by a raspy-sounding Nicole Kidman) and Memphis (Hugh Jackman with an Southern drawl), two penguins in a colony of Emperor penguins. When mama Jean leaves the colony with the other females to fish, daddy Memphis stays behind to guard their growing egg. In a moment of carelessness as a result of his love for singing, Memphis drops the egg in a freezing winter blizzard. When the egg hatches, Mumble (Elijah Woods) pops, and it’s discovered that the new chick can’t sing – unlike all the other penguins. Instead, Mumble dances.

Happy Feet is a bizarre film. The visuals are stylized after realism: there are spots in which the creatures and critters are so beautifully rendered and animated you’d be wondering if you’re watching live footage instead. And while I’m not a penguin expert, the film introduces several elements by way of its narrative and visuals that seem accurate to the the real living conditions and behaviors of penguins. Like the kind of predators they face, or how they court, or family and societal responsibilities within the larger colony. And most significantly, the film has a lot of singing and dancing, and with the swooping in camera-work Happy Feet looks a lot like a Bollywood film.


The voice-work is also a highpoint in the film. Apart from Kidman, and Jackman, almost unrecognizable are veteran actors Hugo Weaving who does a Scottish-sounding change-resistant Penguin Elder, and Robin Williams who does two roles: a Latino fast-talking Adelie penguin, and a penguin Cult Leader. And talking about Adelie penguins, there’s a bunch of Adelie ‘amigo’ penguins in the film, and their bachelor and jock jokes are crazily hilarious. The cast of well-known actors in the talent group apparently did their own singing too.

Unfortunately, Happy Feet has huge problems. The film is clearly pro-liberal which is fine by me but also unnecessarily littered with anti-Christian allegories and racial stereotypes. Even those I can live with, but from online discussions Happy Feet has offended a lot of people with its in-your-face preaching.

The film instead for me gets hit by a double failure-whammy elsewhere. Firstly: the realistic visuals work… until human beings get introduced into the story. Curiously, human beings were filmed against obviously computer-generated backgrounds and then inserted into the film. This visual design decision goes well-against the norm for modern animated films established since Who Framed Roger Rabbit which did the reverse, but it didn’t work for me: the computer-generated visuals and live footage just doesn’t blend well in Happy Feet.


More seriously however is that the story is let down by both a rushed and absurd ending. Happy Feet runs for 108 minutes – long compared to the typical run length of 90 minutes for an animated film. There’s enough material for the first 90 minutes so that the story moves along steadily: but the last 15 minutes tries to resolve a key predicament that would normally have taken half the running length of any other animated film to do so.

What we end up with is a resolution that takes a huge leap from believability to disbelief and skipping a lot of steps in between – which involves a single odd ball penguin’s ability to somehow transpose dancing into a sophisticated message of “We are starving because you are overfishing” and thus influence what seems like the United Nations. Of human beings…!

So, in the world of Happy Feet, penguins dance because they are starving, and the humans somehow get that. Just Wow. The transition from realism to the fantastic and how the story comes to a screeching halt in the last 15 minutes is just shocking.

I’m not sure what happened, but I’m guessing that the story writers had written themselves into the corner that they didn’t have enough film time to develop a more natural conclusion to the setup. The ending spoils what is otherwise a terrifically fun and entertaining ride.

In sum: great for the first 90 minutes or so, utterly disappointing in the last 10 – and maybe enough to leave you with a sour taste, or even offended depending on your religious sentiments.

Open Season

blog-open-season-1 Open Season (2006) – on rental. Ling was asking the other day if I could start renting a few more animated films that she can watch with Hannah at home. So, I’ve been looking through the past couple of years worth of such films and adding them to the rental queue.

Open Season is the first of two animated movies to arrive yesterday (the other was Happy Feet). The reviews for this Sony Pictures Entertainment was somewhat damning back then. But even forewarned and thus willing to be a little more indulgent than normal for any of the film’s deficiencies, one viewing later, I’ve concluded that Open Season is really, really bad.

The story is basically about a domesticated 900-pound grizzly bear, Boog, who’s having a nice living in a small town as a performing bear. His comfortable life gets turned upside down when he runs into a mule deer, Elliot, from the surrounding forests and who’s being hunted by a fanatical game hunter, Shaw. Boog gets banished to the forests when he first reverts to his natural element i.e. raiding a candy store. The rest of the film is about his adjustments to the wild and how he leads his fellow animals to resist the game hunters arriving for the open hunting season.

There’s a lot of similarity between this film and Madagascar and to a lesser degree Over the Hedge which were both released at about the same time period – all three films are about animals who switch between natural and domesticated habitats and the slapstick-esque and learning adjustments necessary.

Open SeasonUnfortunately, while the first Madagascar was mildly enjoyable (saved in huge part by the antics of the four militant penguins) and Over the Hedge very enjoyable, Open Season was a capital fail on so many counts. I’m willing to go with simplistic and unimaginative stories given its intended audience. But the characters: right from the two leads – Boog and Elliot – are just plain annoying and unsympathetic. Boog was voiced by Martin Lawrence – imagine, a Black American actor voicing a grizzly bear with all the voice traits of African Americans – and Elliot, Ashton Kutcher – whose voice befits the character but the character isn’t given sufficient personality to leave any sort of impression outside of being Boog’s spoil and partner-in-crime. You won’t care about the bonding and ‘buddy’-relationship between two, which is key to buying-in for the film.

The atrocious voice miscasting doesn’t stop with Lawrence’s Boog. Even worst is Scottish actor Billy Connolly’s take on a fanatical and defensive squirrel. I like Connolly – especially from his role in The Man Who Sued God – and his voice timbre is unique. But this is a squirrel that speaks with a strong Scottish accent + given mind-numbing lines + given nothing to do except throw nuts at approaching creatures and men. It just didn’t work.

And for an animated film that’s supposedly comedic in genre, the film just isn’t funny. There’re about two jokes in the entire film’s 86 minute run length that elicited a chuckle – one to do with what beavers eat during lunch time, and another about a Deer-jock trying to marshal his troop of minions – but every other gag was a clunker that either got from me a non-reaction or – worst still – a groan. The climatic ‘final battle’ in which the animals face off the band of game hunters was all work-manlike with no humor – even when it’s based on such golden material like hurling forks and spoons using the elasticity of underwear and brassieres.

Between Star Wars: The Clone Wars which I’ve already one-starred, Open Season is even worse. Apart from the two aforementioned jokes, there’s nothing else in this film that worked for me. Even Ling looked bored.

This one gets ZERO stars.

Simple Joys – Part 2

It is easy to make Hannah smile and laugh. Jasmine has been saying that she’s a happy baby. That’s probably the reason. :)

Recently, I discovered that tapping a pillow can trigger laughter from her. I managed to capture it on video. It’s somewhere in the middle of the recording. :) Yeah, more baby action.

Lost in Translation

As part of the preparation for my upcoming staff-exchange trip to Japan in December this year, I’ve been translating about 30 hours worth of lecture material into, well, Japanese. The students I’ll be lecturing do know English, but – or so I’ve been advised – not with the same level of written and reading fluency than the average Singaporean of similar age, no matter what Ms. Ris ‘Boomz’ Low’s apologists would like you to believe.

A couple of colleagues jokingly said I should find time in the next 5 weeks before the trip to learn Japanese. Yeah – if I only had the time after my normal teaching hours + two current research projects (one in progress, one in planning) I’m also lead investigator for + a bunch of other student-centric activities that span the entire year.

There’re two things that make my job easier though. One is the freely available web site-based translation tools. I remembered first using them at the early days of the web before the millennium, and they were already very useful in translating the odd foreign language word or phrase. The tools these days can translate entire paragraphs of text.

Here’s what a typical slide of mine looks like right now (the topic is on the use of software metrics):


The translation accuracy using that site for single words or very short phrases isn’t too bad, but for paragraphs it can be spotty though. I’m assuming that this is due to the additional layer of statement parsing that’s necessary at application end to decipher the structure of a statement and its meaning before getting to the translation bits, and that layer adds a degree of variability to accuracy.

That’s where the second thing has come in to help: a Japanese colleague in my faculty has helped me look through each slide of my lecture series as I finish them and done the edits to clear out all the embarrassing bits. Like the following:

Challenges in constructing software” using the web site-based translation tells me it’s “挑戦がソフトウェアを作成する”. Unfortunately that actually means “A challenge makes software”.

After her edit, it now reads “ソフトウェア構築にあたるチャレンジ “, which means “A challenge equal to the software construction” according to reverse translation.

Definitely sounds better! More notes on the trip prep to come soon.:)

Ooooh. More netbooks!

There’s a large wave of netbooks showing up in preorder listings off Amazon and flyers here since Windows 7’s release last Thursday, and boy do they look tempting LOL. Many of them have somewhat similar specifications – they possess 11.6 inch LCD screens, chiclet keyboards, weigh about 1.4 kg, and make use of Intel’s new line of ultra-low voltage processors. With a 5600 mAh battery, you could get up to 8 hrs – or about 6 hours of under actual realistic usage – of battery life, which would be nicely enough for the flight to Kyushu later this year.

The one that’s caught my eye is this one for instance: the Acer Aspire 1810TZ Timeline that’s going on Amazon for USD599. Unfortunately, there’s no indication that this unit’s gonna be available here though – drat.


But then again, I’ve had miserable luck with Acer notebooks: the last one I had – an ultraportable Travelmate that I did a lot of thesis work on – had to be sent for repair three times in the first 18 months, though to be fair it worked pretty well after that.


You’d be surprised at the one thing we burn through faster for Hannah than anything else – and it’s not diapers. It’s tissue paper! One thing she does a lot when she’s in her cutesy mode is drool, especially all over our shoulders when she’s carried. And when we see a pool of drool forming up, the both of us will be scrambling for tissue paper to catch the pool in time, occasionally in vain even.

See this series of pictures to see a formation of drool:

blog-2009-baby-DSC_4373-feeding blog-2009-baby-DSC_4374-feeding
blog-2009-baby-DSC_4375-feeding blog-2009-baby-DSC_4376-feeding

It’s just amazing to see how much saliva a baby can produce, or maybe it’s just Hannah. I think there’s enough in a single day to fill up at least half a milk bottle.:)