Saturday, March 20, 2010

Singapore insects

[19-March 2010]--  One of my preconceived notions about Singapore was that since it is located in the tropics, there would be many (and large) creepy insects to deal with. That hasn't been the case. Since we haven't gone out into the "bush" of Malaysia, or other more rural areas just yet, this may be premature, but to date there haven't been many insects to report.  During our preview trip, we saw a couple of dead cockroaches at a couple of prospective apartment rentals.  Note-- we didn't rent either of these apartments!  There has been virtually nothing at the apartment we did rent, aside from some mosquitoes (and that's OK with us both).  As a fly fisherman (note the title of this blog) I have taken notice of the insects we have run into, for some future fishing expedition requiring a forgery of the critters, using fur, feathers, and a hook.
The insects that have been about are mostly colorful, and noisy.  The trees near our apartment (and the rest of Singapore for that matter) are loud with the sounds of cicadas, although these guys are elusive-- I have not seen one, only heard them.  They are deafening.  There are also a plentiful flight of butterflies, particularly all yellow and all black colored varieties.  I haven't been able to get any good pictures of these.  At the ceramics studio, I caught this picture of a beautiful red damsel fly.

Red damsel fly

Some of the insects that I have seen are quite large.  Fortunately they have been found outdoors, and not in.  Here are some examples:

I saw this grasshopper near our apartment swimming pool--  he is about 4 inches long (and quite dead).  This is the only one I have seen-- they don't appear to swarm about in quantities (thankfully) as we see in Idaho and other areas. En masse (and alive) these would make for a frightening science fiction film, or a cause of deforestation.

A little difficult to see in this picture, but there is a very large spider in the center of this web.  The spider body is about the size of a U.S. nickel, with the legs + body about the size of a silver dollar.  One day on my walk about, I noticed a very large tree leaf (about the size of a dinner plate) that appeared to be suspended in mid- air.  It was caught in one of these nuclear spider webs.  Giant arachnids-- creepy!

Levitation?  This tree leaf appeared to be suspended in air, trapped by a large spider web.  If it could hold this large leaf (quite heavy, actually) I didn't want to find out if it could trap and hold humans, e.g. me.

Singapore garden snails-- they can be pretty large

They also come in purple-- oops-- actually this is a fine Chinese glass sculpture that Elaine acquired.  The snail has some significance in Chinese culture.

Friday, March 19, 2010

2010 Singapore IT Show

[11-March 2010]--  One might think that my interest in attending an "IT show" might be pretty limited these days, however this somehow captured my interest and gave me something to do, so I went down to take a look.  The IT show ran four days, held at the Sun Tec convention center downtown (A large 5-storey convention center in the heart of downtown Singapore).  A better name for it would be TT show-- for Techno-Toy, as the show was more consumer electronic gadgets and devices than what I would consider IT (information technology).  Products included flat panel TVs, digital cameras, cell phones, and PCs--  nearly all items with a home, personal, or small business consideration.  The show was primarily a place to sell current products, and not to necessarily showcase products for an upcoming release, as was typical back in the days of Comdex show in Las Vegas.  At Comdex, the attendees were mostly business folks (e.g. marketers and engineers), whereas this was targeted for consumers.
What was most amazing was the attendance--  it was difficult to move about the show booths with the pack of people.  In addition each booth vender had an army of touters, identified by their uniform T-shirts, in front with brochures and pamplets that would get pushed into your hands.  In some cases it was difficult to reach a booth because of the picket of touts in front of it.
I saw many cartons of products leaving the pavillion with their happy purchasers-- printers, computers, cell phones, and one fellow with a carton containing a 42" LCD TV, about to try to get on the MRT.  Apparently the show provided significant discounts from U.P (Usual Price) that drew the attendees.  THe pavillion was also a cacaphony of hawkers on PA systems, music, etc as the larger booths had product demos, contests, and give-aways ("gifts" that could be "redeemed" at the redemption desk) to attract attention.
HP had a large booth at the event, displaying laser printers (yay!), ink printers, and PCs.  Facinating to me is that HP appears to be using the old logo, without the "INVENT" thing that CEO Carly Fiorina added to the logo during her reign in early 2000.

Would Carly approve of this HP logo?

Just around the corner were the booths for two or three "imposter" companies selling ink and toner cartridge refill kits.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Jurong Bird Park

I've gotten behind again in my posts-- JK

[Saturday 21 Feb, 2010]--  Up in the northeast end of Singapore (Jurong) is the Jurong Bird Park.  This is a popular tourist and family destination, and is a combination of bird zoo and theme park, perhaps similar to Marine World in the United States.  The park is on several acres of wooded land on the edge of the city, with birds of all sizes, colors, and shapes from around the world.  The birds can be viewed by strolling through the park (or zoo if you prefer), visiting several areas of bird specialty (birds of the wetlands, birds of prey, parrots, etc).  In many of these areas the birds are not constrained by cages, which is a great way to view them.  There  is also an ampitheatre, with short shows, starring the birds.  The bird park also serves as a bird sanctuary--  there are several "residents" that are refugees.  One set of birds were found in captivity by bird smugglers, another came to live there after wandering many miles off course from its native habitat in mainland Asia.
We had a Sunday afternoon on our hands and decided to go check it out.  I found the park a great visit, and saw some amazingly colorful and fascinating birds.  (If you go, bring mosquito repellent--  there were a few out that day.).

Here are some images from the Jurong Bird Park:

Enter stage left-- the flamingos troupe in during the bird show at Jurong Bird Park

One of the stage "actors" making a pass around the theater.  Members of the audience were provided with large rings which they held out.  The birds would from the stage above the audience, and through the rings.

Making a pass through the hoop

Watchit there!

Birds of a feather flocking together...

Many of the birds are doing time behind bars...

This is a cassowary, from New Guinea. A large bird, raised and prized for its meat and colorful feathers.

African osterich

An Australian emu. This one came over to the fence to visit-- took a bite of my metro bag. Glad it wasn't a finger. That's not a friendly face.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Singing the software upgrade blues...

I'm a techno nerd, which means I am fascinated by the latest and greatest gadgets and technology.  We're the type of people that don't need the latest version of XYZ software or gadget, but derive some sort of thrill by acquiring it.  It's a sickness, but not necessarily one that I feel ashamed about.  I know of many other people that are afflicted much worse than I, as I actually am a late adopter, relative to others with the malady. Microsoft, Apple, and many others have developed very successful business models dependent upon people like me.  We do our part to bolster a weak and ailing world economy with our addiction to their technology. Elaine indicates that this is a male phenomenon, which it may well be.
I provide that background so you have some understanding of a recent action I took--  I upgraded our computers to Microsoft's most recent operating system, Windows-7.  Or I should say, I am upgrading, as I now believe that task is never really quite done--  what got missed?  Not only that, but I chose the path of  an incremental upgrade for one of the systems, rather than what's known as a clean install-- re-installation all of the application software on top of the new operating system software.  This path is more cavalier than base jumpers, who hurl themselves off cliffs.
This process is days of effort.  It can probably be significantly reduced in time if you know exactly what you are doing, but there is the rub-- there is a learning curve to descend if you don't do this frequently, as you discover the trip wires of the Windows back-up, restore, and upgrade processes.  And why would anyone want to do this frequently?
I'm there now, feeling a bit like I did after the my first nine pitch rock climb on a 5-9 route--  relieved to be in a stable spot at the top, and not wanting to go back down.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sentosa Sand Castles

[Sunday 14 March, 2010]-- Another small event happening this past weekend in our local neighborhood was a sand castle exhibit, at the Palawan Beach on Sentosa.  Since the Resorts World Sentosa opened recently, going out to Sentosa has been less desirable, due to the large crowds.  We intended to go out the previous weekend to watch a netball tournament (netball is some type of beach game, apparently similar to basketball (?) played in this region).  However upon arriving at the monorail terminal that takes you to Sentosa, we discovered a huge queue of people waiting to go out on the train, and extremely packed trains returning, with bodies and faces jammed up against the  glass.  We aborted the journey, and went and had something to eat instead.
We decided to try again this past Sunday, a little later in the day, about sunset. This time we found no large queues, and a nearly empty monorail train ride out to the island.  We made our way down to Palawan Beach, a short walk from the monorail station, where we found the sand castles.  This was our first visit to this particular beach on Sentosa.
There were three sand carvings completed, and a fourth that had not yet been created, perhaps work for the following day.  The sand castles were carved by Joo heng Tan (see Sandwerkz), who is a professional touring sand castle artist--  a unique profession I think, but he apparently is very good at it, having won several contests worldwide.  (More enlightenment for me--  I didn't know you could make a living in this form of art).

Here are  the castles:

A sand replica of Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria

The WaveHouse is a mechanical surf wave attraction at Sentosa, and apparently one of the sponsors of this sand castle exhibit.

Easter Island??

Barney, on tour in Singapore?

After viewing the sandcastles we wander a bit further, finding a suspension bridge leading to the an outer breakwater island, that forms the swimming area of the beach.  There is an observatory tower that provides some great views, particularly at sunset.  Although the resort area is very prim and neat, and has a nice swimming area and beach which has its view blocked by the breakwater, just beyond the island are anchored many ships awaiting to unload or load cargo at Sinapore's busy port.  Also off in the distance is the island of Pulau Bukom, where Singapore refines some 60% of the world's gasoline.

Elaine, making her way across the suspension bridge.  The bridge crosses the small lagoon between Palawan Beach and the outer breakwater, forming a nice sheltered swimming area.

Sentosa, and in particular this point on the small breakwater island of Palanwan Beach, is considered the southern most tip of continental Asia, if you disregard that Sentosa and Singapore are disconnected from the penninsula by very narrow straights of water (each with bridges).

Left--  The suspension bridge across the lagoon at Pelanwan Beach
Right--  The view of the Sentosa Merlion and Tiger Tower on Mount Imantah;  Pelanwan beach in the foreground.
It's fall in Singapore, with leaves on the trees turning color with the colder weather... Well, probably not.  I don't know what type of tree this is, but it looked like it was about to shed leaves for fall.  Perhaps the heat killed it.

Left--  A ferry boat makes its way across the straights near anchored container and cargo ships.
Right-- cargo ships anchored off of Palanwan Beach (beyond the breakwater island).  In the distance you can see burn-off flames of the refinery on Pelau Bukom Island.  Despite the plethora of cargo ships and the refinery, they have done a good job of shielding the view of these scenes from the resorts and beaches of Sentosa, which is a popular resort destination for tourists of many nationalities in Southeast Asia.

Two smiling expats on a warm (!!!) tropical night at Palanwan Beach at sunset.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

MOSAIC Music Festival 2010

[Saturday, 13 Mar-2010]  After a tough week at the office (for Elaine anyway), we decided to make the most of the weekend with several planned excursions for Saturday.  After carefully planning our route, timing, and modes of transportation we headed off down town for a fun filled evening of entertainment.

The World of Ancient Egypt
After our first visit to the National Museum of Singapore back in December, we enjoyed it so much we knew we would certainly return at some time during our tenure in Singapore.   This came to be true soon enough, as a touring exhibit opened in January that captured our attention-- The World of Ancient Egypt.  We went to the exhibit, and at that time purchased memberships-- at a break-even cost equivalent of two visits, and valid for two years.  What a deal!
The exhibit, a collection of Egyptian artifacts on tour from the Austrian Museum of History, although not a large collection, was quite well done.  We enjoyed the exhibit, although it was crowded, and sometimes difficult to view some of the smaller artifacts on display.
Some time after our visit, we received an e-mail inviting us, as museum members, to a limited private tour of the exhibit. Elaine signed us up, and we looked forward to our appointed tour date, this past Saturday evening.
Our tour turned out to be very private--  only three others and the tour guide made six, and were the only people in the entire exhibit hall.  The tour was presented by a volunteer docent from France named Benedict.  She was quite knowledgable of the exhibit and its artifacts, or appeared so, and able to answer most questions presented to her.  She told us that her preparation for the exhibit required over six months of research and study, and that this had opened new worlds for her-- her background was in finance, and not in Egyptology or history.   Her English was exceptionally good, with a beautiful French accent, giving the presentation a very international flavor.  Only a few of her pronunciations caused me pause in my comprehension--  I quickly adapted to her meaning in explanations of the Egyptian practices for the "diseased", when actually meaning the "deceased".
The tour was wonderful, and although our second viewing, it was like a completely new exhibit for us with the tour guide presentation.
After the tour we made our way (after briefly getting lost) to an Indian restaurant in downtown Singapore, for a wonderful dinner of various Indian dishes, including one 1-alarm, and one 4-alarm on the spice index.  I politely declined the 4-alarm (with only a small taste)--  as I am generally warm enough enduring Singapore's tropical climate.

Mosaic Music Festival 2010
After dinner, we walked over to The Esplanade, the theatre building adjacent to the Marina Bay, where the Mosaic Music Festival was under way.  This is a ten day event, similar to the Gene Harris Jazz Festival in Boise, or the Lyle Hampton Jazz Festival in Moscow, Idaho.  There are both free events, and pay events, and there are workshops for musicians, and musician students.  However Mosaic spans many genres of music styles.  A couple of the pay-event performers include Branford Marsalis Quartet and Kool and the Gang  (didn't know they are still touring).
We arrived just in time to catch the end of the last set of The Greg Lyons Quintet, a local contemporary jazz band.  We then wandered to the outdoor theatre (backed up to Marina Bay) where we greeted by the sounds a local Singapore band (Blue on Blue) playing a very nice cover of Hey Joe (Jimmy Hendrix).  This was followed by a Led Zepplin tune, and some other blues numbers.  Excellent!  After a short break, a jam session featuring the members of Blue on Blue, and a Thailand blues band called Skunk Jive.  Amazing!   We started to leave, but were lured back to listen the last toe-tapping number of the evening from the combined band blues jam.  We stayed so late that the MRT had closed for the night, and we had to take a taxi home.
We hope to visit again later this week to hear some reggae.

The blues band Blue on Blue plays on stage at the Esplanade Outdoor Theatre, with Marina Bay in the background, during day #2 of the Mosaic Music Festival.

Blues band Skunk Jive performing at the Mosaic Music Festival.  The band is from Thailand, and sound like they sing the blues from Chicago, IL.  The female band member, playing guitar here, is their featured vocalist, and may be able to hold her own against legendary blues singer Ruth Brown, or Janis Joplin.

Lights of downtown Singapore on Marina Bay provide a backdrop for the MOSAIC Music Festival at the Esplinade Outdoor Theatre.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Kaya Toast

On Saturday we arranged to meet the work acquaintance of a friend of ours from Boise.   Jim (in the U.S.) suggested that we contact Felix (here in Singapore), as they had met one another during one of Jim's business trips.  Both Jim and Felix work for Key Technology, which is a manufacturer of production scanning and sorting equipment used in the food processing industry.  Although we contacted Felix soon after our arrival in Singapore, our unexpected month back in the U.S., getting settled in, and Chinese New Years seemed to hinder our ability to find a compatible day to get together.  However, we finally were able to meet.  Felix met us Saturday morning, and treated us to a Kaya Toast and coffee breakfast, which is a local breakfast tradition.  Felix is one of those people that you are comfortable with within five minutes of meeting him, and feel like you've known forever.  We had a wonderful day visiting with him, and he graciously gave us a tour of a ceramics outlet in North Singapore, which I describe below.  It was wonderful to have someone who knows the Chinese culture, and was able to explain to us what we were seeing.  We are are pleased to have met a new friend, and hopeful that we will be able to get together again soon.

Felix, our kaya toast host and ceramics "tour guide" 

Kaya Toast and Coffee
If you like sweets, butter, and coffee, then you will want to try kaya toast.  Kaya is a sweet jam or spread made from coconut milk, eggs, and sugar, and flavored with leaves of the pandan, a fruit indigenous to the region.  (Danger!--  this fruit looks suspiciously like durian, but apparently is not the same.)  Kaya is the Malay word for "rich", so you know you are on a good track.  The spread that we had was a light green color, although apparently it can have an amber color, depending upon the mix of the pandan in it.  The kaya is spread between two very thin bread slices that have been toasted, along with a generous slice of butter,  to form a kaya-butter toast sandwich.  With butter, what's not to like?  In addition to the toast, a soft-boiled egg, in a small bowl is served.  Now, in my opinion S.B. eggs are only slightly less Neanderthal than eating them raw, but as it turns out they compliment very well with the kaya toast.  So, how do you eat it?  Here's the process:
  1. If you like, a little white pepper on your soft-boiled eggs, and some soya sauce, either the dark heavy type or the lighter variety, to suit your tastes.
  2. Stir this up to mix the egg, soya sauce (and pepper).  This also makes you forget that it is soft boiled.
  3. Take a piece of the kaya toast and dip into the egg mix, and eat.

The flavors of the sweet kaya spread, butter, and the rich savory tastes of the eggs mix together and is really wonderful.
A cup of coffee with this, and you have a remarkable breakfast.  The local coffee here is different than what is served in the U.S.  U.S. coffee (and perhaps Europe-- I don't know) uses a process where the coffee beans are roasted dry, and are 100% coffee beans.  Blending of bean varieties and roasts provide for differing flavors.  Chicory is apparently a common additive in U.S. coffee, particularly in the South, although not my preference.  I also place "flavored" coffees, with mint, chocolate, sassafras, raspberry, or whatever in its own category.
The local coffee is grown in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Java regions, and uses a "wet" process for the beans where the beans are not roasted.  The mix is not 100% coffee either, although I don't know what else is added.  Some coffee that we we purchased looked like it had little sticks or twigs of something in it-- don't ask.  It was also sticky, and gummed up the coffee grinder a bit.  However, the taste is very similar to a roasted coffee, but in my opinion less acidic and smoother-- it was good.  It also turns your teeth slightly brown, which means you shouldn't get far from your toothbrush.
If this is not for you, Starbucks has a strong presence here (very popular, and available everywhere, just as in other cities.  There are two of them in our local shopping mall.), and you can have a little piece of Seattle right here in Singapore for about S$7.50 for a Tall.

The Thow Kwant Ceramics Center
After the kaya toast breakfast, Felix drove us north to visit a ceramics center.  The center is located in an industrial area of the city (Jurong), and it is likely you would never find this place on your own, maybe even if you knew it existed.  Apparently they do not advertise, and it's existence is only by word of mouth.  The center is in the back of a wooded area, and is located at the site of an old wood fired ceramic "dragon" kiln, built in the 1940's (no longer in use).  The center is primarily an outlet for ceramics from China and S.E. Asia (e.g. Thailand), but also offers classes on ceramics.  In addition, there are some gardens and ponds on the property.
The quantity of the stock of ceramics is daunting-- the place goes on and on, with something new to be discovered at every turn.  Everything is in outdoor (covered) sheds, much like a garden center.  In addition to the pottery, they also have plants and garden items for sale.
We purchased two items-- a hand-painted bowl (to be used as a fruit bowl) and small bowl (its function is TBD-- likely will be to collect dust in a cabinet).  See below.  Felix has brought other U.S. visitors here before, which made me ask him if he was on commission from the center.  He says unfortunately he is not.

Entrance to the ceramics center.  The buildings were simply open-air covered sheds, such as these shown

The Dragon Kiln.   Dragon kilns originated in china, and utilize a slope design which drafts the heat along its length.  This kiln is built on a hill, and extends up the hill for 40 meters.  There are 17 stoke holes on the side, where operators would stoke the heating fires.  The kiln was built in 1940, but is no longer used.  The Jurong area, where this kiln is located, has a rich deposit of clay, and as many as nine dragon kilns were built and utilized in the area for firing ceramics.

Inside the dragon kiln

Elaine viewing some of the elephant ceramics.  This area had many large clay pots to be used for large plantings or small fish ponds

An aquatic planting.  Felix indicated this is duck weed, a type of aquatic plant that is used as duck fodder.  The plants are floating on the surface water in this clay pot.

Big ones--  could also be used as a small hot tub, or a cannibal kettle.

These are hand painted vases, quite tall.  There were others here that stood nearly two meters (i.e. about 5 ft).  One artistic guest couple that Felix had brought to this center purchased one of these large vases, proceeded to break it into many pieces and then reconstruct it.  (Or perhaps it wouldn't fit in the boot for the ride home?)

Hand painted vase.  The colors and style of pottery is representative of various dynasty periods of China.  However, I will need to enroll in one of the ceramics classes (or an art-history class) to be able to speak anything to that.

"No, no.  No thanks.  I don't care to have any durian"

These are Chinese deities, and these were available in a number of sizes.  They come in sets of three.  The deity on the left represents wisdom (note that he is older, white beard, always bald), the center deity represents prosperity (thus he is well dressed, with gold jewelry, etc.--  looks like someone from marketing) and the deity on the right represents knowledge (note the scroll--  I don't see a pocket protector though).

In addition to ceramics, there were many of these ornate wood carvings (from drift wood or tree stumps).  These are Chinese tea tables.  Each of the areas of the table have a purpose, although some of the tables were not as complex as this one.

One of the items we have seen in some of the furniture stores we have visited, and at this ceramic center are these large carved panels.  (These are incredible!).  This one has a large ceramic center tile with fish--  there are nine fish, which represent family and prosperity.  The panels are often used at the entry of larger homes to screen the entrance from the room beyond-- this is the first thing you would see upon entering the house.
We have also seen elaborate carved panels, doors and doorways, or window shutters--  must have taken months to create these works of art.

Some of the works were wood carvings, perhaps for a quiet area of the garden, or a corner of the room...

...or something to put in the den to frighten off small children.

"Hmmm...  now what was it that I was supposed to do today...."

One of our purchases--  a hand painted bowl.  There are three animal scenes around it, with the pair of foxes (?) shown here.  The other two are squirrels, and a cat.

Inside view

The second purchase--  this bowl is an example of "eggshell porcelain".  You have to heft it appreciate what it is.  The sides are incredibly thin, and translucent.  (There were other pieces at the shop, made of eggshell porcelain , which were to be used as small lamp shades.)  Because the ceramic is so thin, it is also extremely light-- it feels as if the bowl were made from plastic-- or an egg shell.  I'm nearly afraid to pick it up, as it seems very fragile.

So, How Do They Do It?  The plants in the pots in back are bougainvillea, but note that each plant has about ten different colors of flowers coming from one trunk.  I suspect grafting.  A nice ornamental plant for those of us that can't decide on a single color.