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

My last posts of 2009.:)

Exactly a year ago I did a post on a resolution I had – and that was to do a refinancing arrangement of our DBS Loan for our apartment.

Unfortunately, while the collective funds we’ve got in our little piggy banks now are sufficient enough to proceed with a refinancing plan, we’ve decided not to go ahead with it after all – on account that it’s been a crazily busy end-of-year, what with the Japan trip, Hannah, and also the other projects I have at work that’s going to run till August next year.

So, we’ve decided to go back to the first and original plan – which is to clear the loan altogether in Dec 2010. We’ll be paying a few thousand in excess compared to the refinancing arrangement, but what the heck – might as well just bite the bullet, and a year from now, we’ll no longer be working for DBS.

I was also looking through the rest of our financial spreadsheets again, and lots of little interesting (at least to me!) factoids show up.

In 2009, our utility usage remained semi-consistent at $135 +/- $20 per month, even despite the fluctuating electricity tariffs.

In 2009, $1,900 was spent on camera equipment and accessories, compared to the $7,300 that was spent in 2008.

In 2009, we spent about $22,500 on capital purchases. Capital purchases in my spreadsheet denote anything that’s one-time and that we buy that’s in excess of $100. Does not include items considered under daily expenses, donations, the costs associated with the two big work-related overseas trips I had, insurance and investment premiums etc.

Of that $22,500, approximately $13,200 was on Hannah’s delivery and hospital fees, vaccination fees, baby equipment, confinement assistance and events. The expenses associated with nutrition, feeds, diapers, medical appointments etc. wasn’t included – but works out to another $4,000 or so.

Of the remaining sum of about $9,000…

$4,000 was on home items – the iEcologi we didn’t use, the Panasonic HDC-SD20, home connectivity, a new home laser printer, the IKEA sofa etc.

$3,500 was on personal equipment – the Apple iPhone, the MacBook Pro, Ling’s new handphone, my titanium plated replacement spectacles (love them) etc.

The Δ Deltas in our CPFs, personal savings, joint savings, and investments as revealed in my spreadsheet were lower than originally projected in Dec 2008, and only on account that 2009’s bonus payouts for those of us in the public and civil service weren’t good – but that’s in view of the global recession. Things should look more favorably next year, what with the economy recovering.

Next post will be looking ahead into the new year.:)

30. December 2009 · Comments Off · Categories: All Posts, Ang mo, Baby Blues

And here’s the run down of major events coming up in the new year:

Feb – Mar: Matt’s coming to visit and stay with us again! And this time, he intends to climb Mt. Kinabalu, visit Penang, and has vowed to make sure that Hannah’s first words will be “Roti prata”.:)

Jun 6: Hannah’s one year old birthday.:)

Jun – Aug: Possible big 2 month trip. Plans still in the flux and it’s contingent on other things happening first, but if the trip comes to fruition, it’s going to be a long two months away from Hannah and Ling.

Dec: Vacation, and I’m planning for it. It won’t be to a place too far away, since it’ll be over the Christmas break and can’t be too long either since Hannah will be taken care of by grandparents. But Ling has already given me strange looks after two overseas trips this year without her, and I expect even blacker looks after the possible Jun – Aug trip! It likely won’t be Japan though, since I’ll want to reserve the place for a longer trip, so it’s probably going to be Taiwan, and perhaps a week there or so.

One thing we’ve been trying to teach Hannah is to, well, feed herself. Not the complex stuff like eating solids of course yet, but we bought a Pigeon brand sippy cup, which basically is a two-handed water bottle for her to try clasping with both hands, and watching if she could try drinking water on her own.

The below pictures were taken during the second of such attempts and on Christmas eve afternoon.:)

blog2009babyDSC_5692milkbottlesblog2009babyDSC_5700milkbottles

She looked like she enjoyed the experience holding the bottle at least, though whether she was doing any drinking we couldn’t tell.:)

27. December 2009 · Comments Off · Categories: All Posts, Entertainment

blogholmes01 Sherlock Holmes (2009) – at AMK Hub. Reimaginations of famous characters, superheroes and TV series are really quite in the vogue these days. We’ve had new interpretations of Batman, Spider-man, Superman, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek – and even a remake of the old 1980s TV series, The A-Team, is in the works.

Guy Ritchie’s remake of Sherlock Holmes has been on my radar since it was announced that Robert Downey Jr. was in the title role. I haven’t seen much of the director’s output, but I really like Downey Jr.’s films. His characters have a quirky but still strangely attractive blend of charisma and flippancy. That unique trademark of his repeats in this remake: so, despite traces of grey in his hair, the minute he opens his near motor-mouth and twitches his facial features, it’s Downey Jr. all right.

The recreation of London is incredible too, and it’s avoided some of the usual failings found in other reimaginations – which have occasionally resulted in characters’ world recreations that are either too cartoony, too garish, or too gothic. The London that Holmes works in feels organic and lived in, though there’s still no missing the large amount of CG embellishments in backdrops.

Downey Jr.’s Holmes is also no longer a fastidious, straight-faced investigating detective. The Holmes we see here retains his superb intellect and skills of deductive reasoning, but he’s now also a superb hand-to-hand combat exponent sporting an amazing bod. He eschews the classical version’s Deerstalker hat (the better because I always thought the character looked ridiculous in it), but there’re numerous other twisty nods to the classical character: including that Holmes still plays his violin… but now like a banjo.

blogholmes04[4]

Holmes is also supported by a few recognizable faces. Jude Law is Dr. Watson, and the Watson has gone through a rinse too. He’s no longer a bumbling sidekick, but a skilled doctor, ex-military man, and also another skilled 19th century martial arts pugilist LOL. His character plays against Holmes well and as his equal, and it shows in the banter between the two – they’re like a married bickering couple, like when Holmes grumbles if Watson has left the stove on again right after a fist fight. There’s also the very yummy to look at Rachel McAdams, who doesn’t bother hiding an American accent in this film. And rounding off the faces which I recognized immediately is Mark Strong, who’s showing he’s equally adept at playing both villains and good guys (he’s the antagonist here again though).

All’s not well in the recreation though. For starters, the story while complex is also a tremendous stretch. Yes Holmes is all intelligent, but his powers of deduction and repeated ability to outsmart everyone in every situation also turns him intellectually infallible and not terrifically interesting from about the film’s midpoint. Apart from the physically dangerous situations he gets himself into, you know he’s still going to solve the mystery because he’ll be able to piece everything together, including ridiculously incongruous little bits of evidence – but the audience will never be able to on their own because Ritchie reveals little in the course of the film, but Holmes is omniscient. It’s more than a little mildly condescending.

blogholmes02[4]

Then there’s also the wasted opportunities. In the first half of the film, there’re two terrifically fun-to-watch monologues when Holmes squares off against physically imposing opponents, and strategizes how best to bring them down. If only Chris Nolan’s two Batman films had these, like the comic books…! The two monologues suggest that Holmes is without peer in hand-to-hand combat as he’s combining his vast knowledge of the human condition with fighting techniques. But that amazing ability is completely forgotten in the second half of the film, as we watch Holmes start getting surprised and even nearly (physically) pulverized by his enemies.

Then there’s also Hans Zimmer’s music. I used to love his music, especially for Gladiator, Crimson Tide, and The Rock. But he sure likes to plagiarize his own work. The music in Holmes sounds like stuff he’s written for Pirates of the Carribean: At World’s End – the catchy oft key banjo (?) strumming in Holmes sounds exactly like when Johnny Depp was having his monologues in Davy Jones’ Locker. That was another missed opportunity, but then again I’m just grumbling. If you don’t mind that the music sounds all familiar, it’s still at least a suitable accompaniment to what you’re seeing on the screen.

So, it’s still a relatively mixed bag. Downey Jr. is in top-form and hasn’t yet outstayed his nearly now similar portrayal of characters, and hopefully won’t in his upcoming repeated role of Tony Stark in Iron Man II. Ling liked the show too when we caught it at AMK Hub’s Cathay on Saturday yesterday morning, but also lamented that it was very difficult for her to catch what was going on by way of the spit-fire dialog. She turned to me during the show more than a couple of times and whispered, “Dear, what happened?!”

star[10]star[11]star[12]star[13]blankstar[4]

Up

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

blogup01 Up (2009) – on rental. I must be one of few rare filmgoers out there when it comes to Up. I didn’t think it was very good, and certainly not anywhere near Pixar’s best animated films: after this one, my two favorites still remain Ratatouille and Monsters Inc.

Still. The film tells the story of a young boy, Carl, who dreams about visiting the mythical Paradise Falls in South America. A girl, Elle, he meets shares his passion, and as the years go by, they both marry and plan to visit the Falls together. But they never do so in view of life’s circumstances.

When Elle passes on from old age, Carl becomes a bitter and secluded old man until one day when he’s about to be forcibly moved out of his home to a Retirement Community, decides to escape and finally visit the Falls, with his house. Coming for the ride is Russell, a Scout and Wilderness Explorer who’s seeking to help Carl just so he can earn his final merit badge for assisting the elderly.

It’s telling when the best part of the film lies – for me anyway – in the first 10 minutes. The first scenes with the young Carl, and the montage of Carl and Elle’s life together as years go by are both tender and also moving when Elle becomes sick and passes on. I don’t think there’s been many films that’s given me the sniffles in the first 10 minutes! And the scene in which Carl escapes is magnificent: a house being lifted up by thousands of balloons, and flying over a city – beautifully animated and rendered on screen.

blogup03

But after that, the tenor of the film changes and we get a perpetually grumpy old man even while on adventure, the irritating boy who wants to help when none is needed or wanted, the theatrical and obsessed villain with no qualities worthy of sympathy, talking dogs and a strange animal that looks like the outcome from an ostrich and road runner breeding program. None of it worked for me. And the story’s themes of discovery anew and letting go of the past while semi-interesting got lost in what I thought were rather drab environments (even if lovingly animated) that were lifeless and without sufficient color.

I think the story’s settings takes a good part of the responsibility for the lackluster visuals for two thirds of the film: it’s set mostly in a no-man’s land that sits just before Paradise Falls, and we never get to really see much of the Shangri-La-esque land latter. And the story itself while serviceable just wasn’t terrifically refreshing. It felt ordinary with a strong whiff of sensation that you’ve seen it all before. You know the outcome of the story at about the time when the house takes off.

blogup02

And for a Pixar Animation Studios film, there were surprisingly few moments which gave me the laughs or even chuckles. If a talking dog speaking in falsetto is supposed to make me laugh, it didn’t. I got a lot more kick out of watching Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, or even Madagascar 2.

Disappointing. I’d been really looking forward to this film. It’s getting 3 stars only on account of the stunning visuals in the first 20 minutes of the film, the beautiful film montage of Carl and Elle, and for the voice-acting.

starstar[1]star[2]blankstarblankstar[1]

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

blogbraveheart01 Braveheart (1995) on HD. I’ve blogged here briefly about this 1995 film directed, produced and lead-acted by Mel Gibson before. But after recently acquiring the Blu-ray disc for it and watching it again with Ling, decided to do a longer reflection entry on the film.

I first caught the film at the old Cathay cinema near Plaza Singapura just after graduation nearly 15 years ago alongside two of my also recently graduated friends, and at that point had heard nothing about this film nor seen any of its previews or trailers.

And was I in for a surprise. 3 hours later and after I emerged from the theatre, alongside Saving Private Ryan which followed years after, I still don’t think there’s been a film that’s moved me so much. And since that point, I’ve seen the film another two times on the big screen, owned it on VHS then DVD and now finally on high definition.

The film is based on historical characters and loosely on significant events regarding the efforts of 13th century Scotland to free itself from English rule. In 1280, Scotland is ruled with an iron fist by King Edward I who’s brutally crushed all resistance. A young commoner, William Wallace (Gibson), upon losing his father and brother in one such encounter, is adopted by his uncle Argyle (Brian Cox). He returns decades later an educated man who wants nothing more than to marry his sweetheart, Murron (Catherine McCormack), and live a life of peace. Murron however is tragically executed by the local English lord when his men tries to rape her, enraging Wallace who takes to arms – and eventually starts an open revolt against English rule.

blogbraveheart04Like Gladiator, the other big Sword and Sandal epic that followed 5 years after Braveheart, both films aren’t really revenge-films. Gladiator – despite all the big battle and violent action set pieces – was fundamentally a film about a man returning home to his dead family in the most literal sense. Likewise, while there’s a lot of violence in Braveheart, this film is fundamentally a love story – not just about Wallace’s love for his wife, but also for his country whom he continues to fight for even after he is betrayed.

Unlike Gladiator however, Braveheart was made at a time when computer-generated visuals weren’t still quite the norm. So, the visuals you see on the screen is exactly what it is. The film was shot on location in Scotland and the big battle scenes in neighboring Ireland (whose army apparently supplied many of the thousands of extras needed for these huge scenes). The vistas of northern United Kingdom are so stunning that Ling now wants to visit the country too LOL.

At the point of the film’s production, Mel Gibson was already a well-known actor from his role of Martin Riggs in the Lethal Weapon series – but this was his first time directing a period film of this size. There was a substantial amount of risk involved, coming both many of the production’s difficulties – including the physical environment they were shooting in, and that epics of this type had not been in fashion for decades.

blogbraveheart03

But his output surprised many not just for the beautiful visuals and climatic action sequences he coaxed out of his crew – but also for his role as the lead protagonist, Wallace, in his transformation from a commoner to Scotland’s Guardian leading her armies against overwhelming odds against the English in their fight for freedom. Then there’s the amazing cinematography. I don’t think there’s been deliberate slow-motion scenes that have worked as well as those in this film. And composer James Horner’s soundtrack that accompanied the film’s tender moments – the music is for me Horner’s best work anywhere.

And most of all: the story and its characters. While the film doesn’t shy away from portraying on screen the sheer brutality of medieval-styled battles (think decapitations and amputations aplenty), it’s the film’s dramatic moments that you will be deeply moved by and remember at the film’s end, and there are so many. The early scene where a young Wallace upon losing his family is comforted by an even younger Murron is one of the most powerful scenes I’ve seen on celluloid anywhere, and made the more amazing given the very young age of both actors involved. Or the latter scenes where the two rekindle their love. And Wallace’s death is deeply moving as right till the end, he refuses to yield to English rule.

blogbraveheart02

Surprisingly too, the film won just five of the ten academy awards it was nominated for that year, but thankfully the most important ones: Best Picture and Best Director. The film has also been criticized for its historical inaccuracies based on what little is known about that period, which in a few spots would had been outright scandalous if true. But the film is today recognized for its importance: it generated an immense interest in Scotland’s history and fight for its independence not just internationally but also from within.

Braveheart is highly appraised on IMDB, with some remarking that it’s the best film ever made. Myself: I’ve seen all the Academy Awards’ Best Pictures in the last 20 years now, several multiple times. Of the lot, as great as films like Slumdog Millionaire, The Departed, Million Dollar Baby, Schindler’s List, ROTK… heck, even the overtly romantic love story winners like Titanic, Shakespeare in Love, The English Patient – none of them have moved me the same way that Braveheart did 15 years ago, and still does now.

Very highly recommended: and I don’t think you’d be able to watch this film without shedding tears. Get ready the kleenex! :)

starstarstarstarstar

24. December 2009 · Comments Off · Categories: All Posts, At Home, Baby Blues · Tags: ,

There’s always something new we’re learning about Hannah everyday, and it’s just amazing how fast she’s learning and growing. The other day we discovered that she’s learned how to move from a prone lying-down position on her cot to a sitting-up position! Ling was exhilarated, and raced to dig out the Panasonic HD Cam to capture the moment, though by the time she returned, Hannah subsequent attempts weren’t successful anymore.

Even then, she’s also learned to prop herself and sit properly on a flat surface without support, for example in this sequence of pictures taken on Wednesday morning:

blog2009babyDSC_5689sittingupblog2009babyDSC_5679sittingupblog2009babyDSC_5684sittingup

Not for long though, and that she doesn’t smile or giggle when she’s sitting up in the pictures here is likely because the sensation of sitting up without back support is still a new experience to her.:)

24. December 2009 · Comments Off · Categories: All Posts, Baby Blues, Dining

Well, that’s enough of Kumamoto and Japan for the time being now, until I start working on the HD video footage maybe, well, next year. There’s a string of other posts I’ll like to make over this end of year Christmas period, including for a couple more films we caught on rental and also Blu-ray, and of Hannah.:)

Another hang-out place that we checked out on Tuesday afternoon was the (relatively) new Tampines1 mall, just directly opposite the existing Tampines Mall. The place boasts a slightly more unusual mix of shops aside from the usual mix of Bata, Popular, Breadtalk, McDonalds and KFC staples though it’s still nothing like the couple of spanking new and glossy huge shopping malls along the Orchard Road that just opened a few months back.

One restaurant we’ve gone to twice now has been the F.I.S.H. restaurant, operated by the successful Fish & Co. franchise here. The ambience is good, seating comfortable – and there’s a salad buffet there that we both really enjoy. We like the service standards too, and the salad buffet was just about SGD12 per person with the Tuesday 20% discount.

blog2009babyP1010457fishcoblog2009babyP1010462fishco

That’s Hannah playing with the Specials Card, and already looking as though she’s interested in ordering items off the menu.:)

This restaurant is also special for the both of us as we had the same salad buffet on the 5 June – Ling’s last ‘lomatik’ outing before Hannah popped the very next day, and unexpectedly earlier too.:)

There are little observations I’ve made too throughout my 9 day stay.

Service standards are incredible. I never met a single customer service person who failed to display the highest levels of courtesy, whether that person is a taxi driver (whom I nearly had to wrestle against just to let me carry my own luggage – he was an elderly gentlemen and I didn’t want to impose), the very sweet wait staff at Restaurant Matsuri whom I think got used to seeing this obviously non-Japanese guy carrying a D300 into the restaurant every evening to take pictures of what they placed on the table, or the train operator who jogs from the back to the front of the train during track switches.

The MRT train operators walk at a leisurely pace by comparison, which as my old NS recruit Platoon Sergeant would swear, “You walk SOMEMORE!!! No f******* sense of urgency!!!”

Being greeted both by colleagues, students and strangers everywhere. At the end of each day, the students all stood at attention, bowed and thanked me for my lectures. And they were not children: they were 19 to 20 year olds. In Singapore, the students of similar age are all rushing to get out of the class and back to their MP3 players, notebooks and DOTA, PSPs and what nots.

Precious little honking and impatient drivers. I did hear honking here and there: but they were invariably light taps to give a thank-you when the other driver gives way.

No crazy people around. Or maybe I just didn’t run into them. I’m thinking of San Francisco, and the wandering city vagrants, or those guys with big placards proclaiming the end of the world.

High levels of cleanliness everywhere. The city wasn’t state of the art, with the tallest building maybe stopping at 20 levels high. There were portions of the city, especially in the suburban areas where my college was located at, which were abandoned, derelict and so on. But the city had no issues with litter. No one spitted, no one tossed tissue paper, and on early mornings when heading to work I sure didn’t see stacks of unfinished Nasi Lemak or 7-11 drinks on the pavement.

And the Japanese sure dress very well! Every morning and evening, the transportation system and road networks would be congested by people going to and returning from work. Their dressing was splendid, with the school-going individuals, and up till year 4 of college, in smart uniforms, accessorized by winter apparel, including scarves, gloves and so on. Attire among staff at the college was more varied, with some of the older staff dressed in suits while others were in smart-casual.

There’s a last picture I’m posting here:

blog2009kumamotoDSC_4902kkrhotel1

This large framed photo sat right in front of the hotel lift lobby, and showed a Japanese bride and bridegroom with Kumamoto Castle in the backdrop. I passed by this picture everyday in and out of the hotel.

It’s not just that the picture’s beautifully taken. Rather, it shows the juxtaposition between what’s traditional in Japan, and what they’ve taken from the West since Commodore Matthew Percy of the strutted into Edo bay with four US Navy warships in 1853. And despite that transformation from 150 years ago, the Japanese have not lost their distinctiveness or identity.

So well, I guess the next time I’m heading here will be to Hokkaido (likely) or Tokyo (less likely). I’ve staved off Ling’s expectations each time on account that it’d cost a bomb and in the vicinity of at least $6-7K for the both of us for a long-enough period of stay worth the travel. But now that all the pictures have been posted up, it’s even harder to use this excuse now LOL.

23. December 2009 · Comments Off · Categories: All Posts, Traveling · Tags: ,

Matt and I were having an MSN chat the other day while I was still in Kumamoto, and one part of it went like this:

Matt: “It is a shame you won’t get to see Nagasaki, though.”

Me: “Yeah. But Ling is now determined to visit Hokkaido. I think she feels it’s crazily unfair I’m in Japan and she’s in Singapore.:)

Matt: “Haha, you think? Duh! : ) Frankly, I think it’s unfair you’re in Japan and I’m in the US!”

The visit and exchange program to Kumamoto has been an incredibly enriching experience. It’s not merely this whole thing about visiting another country and a culture you read about so much in media, and so pervasive among youth in Singapore even.

Rather, living and teaching in Kumamoto for an intensive winter program has let me intently interact with my Japanese counterparts and students on their own home ground.

Moreover, I’m glad that my first visit to Japan has not been to a place like Tokyo or Hokkaido. Kumamoto isn’t a tourist prefecture, with the number of tourist-y ‘sights’ amounting to less fingers than you’ve got on one hand. And throughout my 9 day stay, the number of Caucasians I saw numbered about 2 – maybe – altogether.

blog-2009-kumamoto-DSC_4896-train

But what I saw and experienced I think is an accurate representation of what life in Japan is like for the average Japanese, or as much as I could experience from a 9 day stay. It’s a taste of the country: not artificial and intended only for tourist consumption, as would be inevitably the case to some degree in the tourist-y cities of Japan. One of the most telling signs was the near absence of English translations everywhere: including restaurant menus, maps and street sign posts. Kumamoto City just isn’t regarded as a city for travelers from outside Japan. Heck. Even English communication with their frontline reception staff in the hotel and embedded restaurants was crazily difficult. It just goes to show how unaccustomed was the city to non-Japanese travelers.

And aside from the amazing business-class dinners I had everyday, I walked and commuted by train to work, returned during peak hour traffic, and walked some more back home (hotel) every night like the average Japanese Joe. If it wasn’t for the fact that I was obviously under-dressed for winter with just thin long pants, a short-sleeved shirt and my Karri Valley Resort windbreaker, I would have looked almost like a local – until I was spoken to in Japanese and my pathetic response would be “I’m so sorry but I don’t understand!”

Continued in the next post!