Thursday, July 19, 2012

Olympus TG-1 and Olympus Hong Kong Service Center

Although my new fancy Olympus OM-D E-M5 (see here) has some professional features: in particular, it has weatherproof seals, it is not waterproof. The fast Lumix f/1.7 20mm lens also has no weatherproof seals. Last time I went water drifting, I had to use a thick plastic transparent bag designed to keep cameras dry. At around $30, a relatively cheap solution.

However, two problems immediately present themselves: (1) you have to shoot through low quality plastic, compromising the image quality (see above), plus there is constant fogging of the plastic bag due to humidity, messing up the focus occasionally, and (2) pressing buttons and turning dials through a plastic bag is not ideal. Although the E-M5 has class-leading built-in image stabilization and the Lumix lens is fast, with all the bouncing around, and difficulty with framing through a plastic bag, I ended up with not so many keepers.

So I was on the lookout for a true waterproof high-quality compact camera with a fast lens. Such a camera wouldn't need plastic bag waterproofing and would be designed to take a few bumps.

Coincidentally, this summer Olympus just brought out the TG-1, which has a much advertised fast f/2.0 lens and is waterproof to 12m (40ft). (Shockproof to a 2m/6.6ft drop and good down to -10C/14F, though the battery life probably takes quite a hit.)

Unfortunately, it was out of stock everywhere, and it took me a month to acquire one. It's still out of stock nearly everywhere, but I managed to pick one up today. Had to pay full list price but they threw in an 8GB SD card as a tidbit. I was surprised a (red) semi-hard shell case is included. Plus two straps (one that floats, one normal).

It can also take add-on fisheye and telephone lenses. These are not available yet.

It has a rather strange USB charging system. Basically, the battery is charged inside the camera. You attach a USB cable to a small square box. The box in turn plugs into the wall using another cable. A small led lights up yellow when the camera is charging.

Now I can go water drifting again, at least I have my excuse (I need to do a reshoot). Though, this time, I have no excuse for lousy action pictures or video.

Part 2:Olympus Service Center Hong Kong

Right after picking up the camera, being in the vicinity, I paid a visit to the Olympus Hong Kong repair center in Langham Place Office Tower. I lost the tiny and fiddly add-on flash unit on the first day I shot with the OM-D E-M5.

It's not available generally, so I had to pick up the replacement as a spare part. While visiting Olympus Hong Kong, I took the opportunity to snap a first few pictures with my new TG-1 (iAuto mode, default settings):

It's on the 42nd floor. At the service center, I took a number, sat down and fiddled with the TG-1. A two frame wide panorama (half of this is the maximum wide-angle possible with the lens):

Being on the 42nd floor, it has a pretty good view (this is also about two frames wide):

I got my FL-LM2 replacement flash. As I mentioned above, it's not generally available in stores:

The lobby of the tower is very new and strange. So I took the opportunity to play with my TG-1 some more. The starkness of the lobby threw me briefly for a loop. There are no elevator call buttons anywhere:

Inside the elevator,there are no floor buttons anywhere either:

That's because, you need to go to a pedestal in the hallway first. And select your floor from a panel, e.g. 42 (Olympus Service Center).

Then the display directs you to the correct bank of elevators, and to a particular lettered elevator, e.g. C. You must go to elevator C.

When C opens you get in. There are no buttons to press. It takes you to floor 42. (If someone else jumps in, they better be going to floor 42 too.)

As I said it feels strange, taking the elevator feels a bit like making a reservation for an airline seat.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Beijing Ping Pong

My friend Peng Jiang, a regular ping pong practice partner of mine, is originally from Beijing. I took the opportunity to visit Beijing while he was there. He introduced me to a former national team player and world doubles champion, Lin Zhigang, (who is the husband of Deng Yaping).

(From left to right: me, Lin Zhigang and Peng Jiang.)

At this branch of Beijing Gas, they have two tables with the red floor setup. Bejing Gas is a table tennis sponsor and Lin Zhigang is employed by them.

Lin Zhigang is from Guangzhou and speaks cantonese. I'm getting some free coaching from him here:

(Actually, he gave the exact same technical advice as my main coach in Shenzhen, Liu Chang (also a penholder). He said: if you really want to play much better, always keep your paddle above the table, use a much smaller swing, take the ball earlier just after the top of bounce instead of waiting for it to drop low, always move feet first, waist turn for power and forearm closure for spin..)

We all had dinner together after the ping pong, and Lin Zhigang was very sociable.

Turns out he had been to the US Open in 1994. I was at the same tournament. Funny that I finally got to meet and talk with the guy 18 years later!

Next day, I was at the flagship Beijing Li Ning store on Wangfujing (王府井), a major shopping street in Beijing.

Li Ning sponsors the Chinese national team. There is a limited edition set of the Year of the Dragon national team kit, a special release to commemorate the 2012 London Olympics. Only 100 sets are available. (There are over 8000 Li Ning retail outlets in China. 30 sets were released to the flagship store.) I'm not a collector, but I felt compelled to pick up one set:

Here is a close up of the presentation box:


It'll be a simple keepsake that will remind me of my Beijing trip. (I'll never actually wear the kit. The gold color metallic detailing looks too delicate to survive a machine wash cycle.)


By request, here are some close-up pictures of the commemorative shirt and detailing. Shirt front:

Gold-colored buttons:

Metallic flake detailing:

Back of shirt:

The so-called "Scarlet Scale" vents at the back:

According to the Li Ning company:

The "Scarlet Scales" sportswear series features scale-shaped breathing vents at the back, referred to as "Scarlet Scale Vents". Opening and closing of these vents are determined by the athlete's movements. When an athlete is moving with high-intensity or performing a specific and highly technical motion, the vents will be opened to increase the airflow between the body and the clothing material. When the athlete is carrying out basic activities, the "Scarlet Scale Vents" will close to prevent heat loss and help the body maintain energy.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Postcard from Seoul (Part 4)

(Part 1 of this series can be found here.)

In addition to two of the royal palaces, I visited the National Museum briefly. It's housed in a massive structure (world's 6th largest museum) that looks like something I.M. Pei might design.

The land where the museum is situated is also of interest. It seems Korea has always been dominated by the world powers of the day, so to speak. Historically, Korea has a strong connection with northern China. See these knife-coins:

Compare with modern currency:

A thousand won is a bit less than a buck. To convert to US dollars, I simply lopped three zeros off. Close enough...

Traditionally, Korea has been under Chinese suzerainty for long periods. Tribute was paid. Then came the Japanese, who annexed the peninsula and managed to erase the royal palaces. And then came the United States. It's the 21st century, but bang in the middle of Seoul, a mega-metropolis (10 million inhabitants city, 25 million including environs), is a U.S. Army base. The museum is situated on what was formerly a U.S. Army golf course, returned recently to the Korean government. But the Yongsan U.S. Army base is still there situated on prime Seoul real estate.

On one of the weekend days that I was there, there was a big traffic jam. The cause was the deployment of literally thousands upon thousands of riot police with shields. These guys were bussed using hundreds of police buses, see picture below.

I have no idea what the protests were about. However, people around seemed to go about their normal business.

One final note. Since it was my first visit to Korea, I've often wondered how the food compares to those Korean restaurants around 35th Street in Manhattan, New York, informally known as K-town. I found the BBQ and Bulgogi weren't too different but I had one interesting experience at this restaurant:

Not being able to read, write or understand Korean, I wandered into this place and sat down. Food was plonked down in front of me, and hand signals were given on what goes with what.

I've never been in a restaurant where there was no menu (because one didn't exist), no need to order (everyone was served the same thing). There was soup base, tofu, chicken, and some dried fish in there too. A bowl of rice and cold soup accompanied the meal. After eating, I got up, and they showed me the price on a calculator. No language barrier.

Next morning, I pass by the restaurant. There was a line of people waiting to get in.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Postcard from Seoul (Part 3)

(Parts 1 and 2 are here and here, respectively.)

There is an urban revitalization story behind the stream shown below. It's situated near the City Hall. Cheonggyecheon is now a tourist attraction and a nice place for an after-dinner stroll, or sit by the stream and drink beer and chat as most of the people pictured below seem to be doing. But it used to be a smelly stream covered by concrete.

If you zoom in on the picture, you can just about make out a backlit waterfall that marks the emergence of the stream above ground.

As you can see from the close-up below, the stream has been completely remodeled in some sections.

Those guys pictured are not trash collectors. They're collecting the coins from the wishing well.

It's also a recommended running route. Because it sits below the roads, you can run uninterrupted by street crossings. After discovering it at night, the next morning I went for a run. Coincidentally, I happened upon a procession (perhaps a daily event, recreating some change of guard between palaces?):

At the waterfall end of the stream, the plaza connects to a wide avenue.

There are two statues. The principal one is of King Sejong, the guy responsible from switching the written language to Hangul from Chinese characters.

There is a small (free) museum depicting his life underneath the statue. The wide avenue terminates at the gate known as Gwanghwamun:

Behind Gwanghwamun is the main palace called Gyeongbokgung. Here is what Gwanghwamun looks like in daytime.

Changing of the guard ceremony at the entrance:

I'm not so enthusiastic about pictures of the palaces. Here is one below.

The reason is they're all mostly fake, i.e. modern reconstructions from the ground up. It's not the Koreans' fault. Gyeongbokgung was razed to the ground by the Japanese, when they subjugated the Korean peninsula during the 1st half of the 20th century.

Behind Gyeongbokgung lies the real seat of power, the Blue House. This was as close as I got:

I was amazed to see police on rollerblades in front of the Blue House:

There also seems to be a bicycle police troupe:

I did visit another palace, called Changdeokgung. (The first picture from part 1 (here) of this series is from Changdeokgung.) It's a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, but it's still mostly fake:

These stone markers are used to indicate the rank of the rows of officials, here 9th, leading up to Chong-jon hall:

There are actually stone markers on both sides. Military officials on the left and civil officials on the right. Inside Chong-jon hall:

The palaces are done in classic Chinese style. However there is one interesting detail. Contrast the floor above with the one below:

Because winters are cold in Seoul, and these are living quarters, the floor is finished using paper. Why? Because underneath there is a heating system. People slept on the floor not in beds.

Lest you think I dutifully researched all this information, it all came from this lady, the official English-language palace guide. You're only allowed to tour Changdeokgung in the company of a guide. But I saw people wandering off by themselves.

Part 4 is here.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Postcard from Seoul (Part 2)

(Part 1 is here.)

In the last picture in the previous blog entry,repeated below, one can see the Hangang (Han River) and one of the bridges in this distance when looking south from the Seoul Tower.

Here is one of those bridges (there are 27 in Seoul). We're looking north back towards the Seoul Tower (visible in the distance if you enlarge the picture) from the south bank of the river.

The Hangang is very shallow and wide (up to 2km in places). Since it is shallow, there is no commercial traffic along the river.

As I mentioned in part 1, Seoul seems particularly people-friendly. As further evidence of this, there seems to be an extensive network of bike paths along the river. As a cyclist, I wished I had my bike with me. I saw a lot of cyclists (not just this dude) using the path next to the bridge:

It's difficult to tell from pictures alone, but I'd much rather be leisurely biking along the Hangang than along the Hudson river bike path in New York City. Seoul just seems to have that relaxed feeling I've never experienced in any other mega-metropolis.

The reason why I'm visiting this out-of-the-way bridge is that Seoul has this seemingly unique concept of building lookout cafés at some of the bridges.

I hung around until sunset and then had a drink upstairs at the Gureum lookout café whilst taking in the city view:

Very, very cool indeed. It's not spectacular like Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong at night, see below, but I can't imagine wanting to ride my bike in metropolitan Hong Kong.

(The two available-light night pictures above are evidence of the clear superiority of cameras released in 2012 compared to those of just three years ago. Both pictures were shot at f/2.0 (wide open) with the 12mm Olympus lens. But the key is that they were taken with a shutter speed of 1/5sec *handheld*, and although it's hard to tell from the reduced-for-the-web picture size, both pictures are remarkably free of blur from camera shake. That's Olympus's new image stabilizer. A considerable improvement over the stabilizer in the 3 year old E-P1. Since the shutter speed can be slow, this has the bonus of allowing for a relatively noiseless ISO 200.)

Anyway, I digress.. back to Seoul. How to get to Café Gureum? Take the subway to Dongjak station. Take exit 1 and walk to the bridge.

The subway is very easy to use. Stations seemed priced according to distance. I bought single-use tickets at the machine (English language instructions are available).

At the end of the journey, I'm surprised you get to keep the ticket. But wait, there's a refund machine. You get 500 won back when you give up the ticket.

On the trains, it's interesting to see everyone busy on their (mostly Samsung) smartphones. However, they're not yapping on the phone. Rather, it seems everyone is running some kind of text chat program (maybe Ktalk here?) or browsing the web.

Like in Hong Kong this year, in Seoul that unmistakable Samsung phone with the huge screen (Galaxy S III, mostly in white) seems to have broken Apple's lock on the cool smartphone market. Previously, it seemed that everyone in Asia wanted to have and to be seen with an iPhone 4. Now clearly, the nearly 5" screen Samsung rules. Especially since in Asia, people seem to have moved beyond the voice (phone call) paradigm. Smartphones are mostly for text chat and web browsing. And when voice is reduced to a subsidiary role, the 5" screen is no longer an encumbrance. At any rate, every other person I encountered seems to be sporting one. A Hong Kong friend commented that it has superceded her iPad.

Next. Part 3 here.