All posts by Ian Tan

About Ian Tan

Ian worked in the media industry for a decade, focusing on communications, photography and technology. He now works in the IT industry, permanently plugged into his PC and Facebook.

Things I say when I’m 38…

I’m waiting for my stomach to settle before going for a late night jog at the hotel gym, so I am listing down some things that sometimes cross my mind at this age before my bad memory wipes them out:

The friends that I knew at 18 would be my good friends forever, are still my good friends today. And we still crack the same jokes.

I have unfollowed many friends on Facebook, and unfriended more than a few. I think life is too short to just “know” people, we ought to get to know them really well or don’t bother at all.

I’m glad I got to experience the music of the late 70s to the 90s, and I think today’s music is just abysmal. I’m also glad for Spotify which allows me to listen to just about anything on demand, and Taylor Swift is a nobody to me.

I do enjoy being right in situations (“I told you so!”), but it’s more important to keep your mouth shut because you see how poorly everyone, including myself, take any criticism.

I can only respect people with real skills. People who can do honest good work with their hands, and who work to make things better for others. Everyone else is just a talker and I really don’t wish to spend much time with them.

I don’t know why I’m still learning the violin even though I’ll never be a great, or even good musician. But I admire the patience of my teacher who has stuck with me for so many years, and that’s something to learn too.

I’m not afraid of death or lousy bosses. But I’m afraid of bringing up my children poorly.

I’ve been writing a lot since I was a child. But oddly, I’ve found that I have never written any good fiction… or more like I have no motivation to write stories from my imagination. I just prefer to read fiction than to create it.

I really dislike insincere people and you can usually tell them apart immediately. You know, the type that when they are introduced to you, talk to you for half a sentence and then look away to talk to someone else.

I’ve noticed that most bad/inconsiderate drivers tend to be quite unpleasant-looking too. It’s a habit of mine to drive up next to them to take a look out of curiosity.

I have many mixed feelings about my time in journalism. But through it, I learned one important thing – history always repeats itself and you’d better not be stuck there when the bad cycle happens again.

When I was young, I made my passion my work, and I sacrificed my passion in the process (eg. photography). Now, I think it’s better to just make your work a passionate endeavor.

Life is usually about making the best of your current situation and praying every night to God for help.

Why and how to buy a UHD TV

This is not a great time to buy a new television for your home as the industry is in transition from the old full HD 1080p standard to Ultra HD (UHD) standard, otherwise also known as 4k TVs.

But if you’re like me, whose faithful Samsung HDTV died after six years of service and it needed to get replaced, you would still have to figure out what type of TV to buy. I learned a lot of things when I was TV shopping back in June and am finally putting down my learnings here for people getting all confused about 4k, UHD, Full HD and all that jazz.

TV-buying is not as easy as buying a PC or a smartphone, so here’s the crash course.

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The Blacklist TV series streams in Ultra HD on Netflix. Look at the 2160 resolution at the upper right corner as an indication of UHD streaming quality.

I’d cut to the chase and say “Get a UHD TV”.

There will be plenty of people who say otherwise, usually with the following three reasons:

  1. 1080p is good enough, you cannot tell the difference between Full HD resolution and Ultra HD resolution.
  2. It is hard to find UHD or 4k content today.
  3. UHD is a fad, like 3D TVs

One such article is this. To those naysayers, I’d say this: You’re buying a TV that needs to last for at least five years, and technology and the content business are going to change rapidly in that time frame to catch up with today’s limitations of content.

If you’re on a tight budget, do buy the cheapest 1080p TV you can buy as it is a very mature and commoditized platform. Otherwise, go for UHD for future-proofing because you don’t change TVs every year.

I can still see those fat pixels on 1080p!

Saying 1080p is “good enough” is a little like people in the early 1990s telling me a VGA monitor (640×480 pixels, 256 colors) is good enough for computing use and I don’t need higher resolutions.

From 1990 till the mid 2000s, I was never satisfied with computer monitor resolutions because I could see the blocky pixels at my normal viewing distance. Today I’m using a 2560×1440 27″ Dell computer monitor and it’s all great.

Maybe it’s because I used to be a photographer, so I’m more eagle-eyed than the average Joe. But I can make out the scan lines or pixels on a 1080p TV screen even at a 2m viewing distance. The pixels jump out at me when I go TV shopping because the viewing distance is even shorter.

And in the age of “Retina” screens where we expect to buy devices where pixels are no longer discernable, 1080p screens fail in that aspect, especially if you have good eyesight (or properly calibrated spectacles). On smartphones, ultra high resolutions are great but drain battery life and are often not discernable in quality difference. Obviously, televisions are a different matter as they are so much bigger and don’t run on batteries.

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UHD pixels are four times smaller than a 1080p pixel, in screens of the same size. Image from Samsung.

On a UHD screen, each pixel is four times smaller than a 1080p screen pixel. A UHD display contains 3840 x 2160 pixels (8M pixels)  vs a 1080p TV’s 1920 x 1080 pixels (2M pixels)

That’s a phenomenal improvement if you ask me, in terms of reducing pixel visibility.

But how can you tell the difference?

Just try this when you go TV shopping. Look at the TV demos in the store and focus on the Samsung or LG logos that usually appear on an upper corner of each demo video. The same video is played on 1080p and UHD screens, and you can see how jagged the logos are on the 1080p screen compared to the UHD screen.

Whether you are using 480p, 720p or 1080p content, the video upscaling used in UHD TVs (or at least in the Samsung HU7000 I purchased) is great for non 4k content and you will get a picture with less “jaggies” and the colors appears more solid as the pixel density is increased (the faint black lines between each pixel have been further shrunk).

Of course, if you’re watching 480p (Standard Definition) content from cable channels, it’s going to look blotchy on any 1080p or UHD TV because the source content is so low resolution to begin with.

Do not use SD content as your basis of buying any TV – many of us can already receive free-to-air HD content from Mediacorp if you get a DVB-T2 tuner for your compatible HDTV. And hopefully, StarHub will stop charging extra for most of its HD pay channels and make them part of the basic package.

Netflix is the future of television and it’s UHD-ready.

While Netflix is not officially launched in Singapore, many of us are already on the service through workarounds like VPN or subscribing to ISPs like Viewqwest and MyRepublic. It’s an amazing content service with a wide range of movies, TV series and animation, and everything is ready on demand.

To anyone who tells me that there isn’t UHD content to be found anywhere, you need to go experience Netflix. It is slowly ramping up 4k/UHD content with TV series like House Of Cards, Breaking Bad and The Blacklist, and if your fibre connection is working well, it’s a religious experience watching UHD content streaming into your home in ultra sharp glory.

But you do need the latest 2014 UHD smart TVs from Sony, Samsung or LG and you can check the list here. These TVs have the latest Netflix apps that will stream UHD content with the right video decoders. (Note to fellow Singaporeans: My friend Sherwin reminded me that if you’re in Singapore, only Samsung UHD TVs allow for region switching to access the Netflix USA app, so you’re out of luck with other brands if you need Netflix.)

I don’t think you can stream Netflix UHD to your PC (yet), and Apple TV doesn’t support UHD resolutions, only up to 1080p. You also need to be a bit savvy and know how to sign up for Netflix outside of the USA, so here’s a useful guide.

Netflix will not be the only UHD streaming service forever, I’m pretty sure as competition heats up for subscribers, there will be other players coming in to offer UHD content in Asia.

I’m not sure if there will be much of a future for 4k Blu-Ray packaged content, since people are transitioning to streaming instead of filling up their houses with more discs and jewel boxes.

UHD is not a fad, it’s here to stay

3D TV was definitely a fad and although TV makers did so much marketing around it, it never took off. Personally I think 3D movies or TV content is silly because the effect is never fully immersive and you need to wear special glasses for it. I don’t know of any one who owns a 3D HDTV and actually uses that feature frequently.

4K and UHD is clearly a march towards the future, just as we went from CGA screens to VGA to today’s 4k computer monitors, from 286 PCs to Core i7s.

In TVs, we’ve gone from 480p cathode ray tubes to 720p to 1080p in less than 10 years, and I’m pretty sure 4k will be adopted even more rapidly than 1080p as upgrade cycles shorten and TV component prices continue to fall.

So how do I shop for a UHD TV?

Size

Go for at least 50″-sized screens (yes, even if you stay in a small HDB flat) because that’s the current popular size and the argument that you should not have large screens in a small room no longer holds true when you have really tiny pixels. Playing the new Destiny console game (Xbox One or PS4) on a big UHD screen is just awesome, people.

55″ seems to be the current sweet spot for viewing distance of 2-3m in a living room, and above that size, prices start to get really really high. There are 40″ UHD TVs but I think at that size, you’re better off with a cheap 1080p model.

Also, do prepare to mount the 50″ and above screens on the wall, instead of placing it on a TV cabinet. You save a lot of space and it’s just a better experience. Make sure the TV is mounted with the center of the screen aligned to your viewing height when you’re seated on the couch (for most people, it’s between 1m to 1.3m from the ground up to the center of the TV screen)

Price

At this juncture, UHD is still a premium feature so it’s not going to be cheap. These days, a 32″ HDTV can be gotten for under $600 (pretty amazing value!) so paying over $2500 for a TV may seem exorbitant.

But if you shop around carefully, an entry-level 50″ or 55″ UHD TV is going to be comparable to a high-mid-range 1080p TV of the same size.  I paid around $3100 for my Samsung 55″ HU7000 and received a $500 shopping voucher as part of Samsung’s promotion, so it was cheaper than their premium 1080p TVs.

There are just two things to remember about price

Never accept the suggested retail price. Haggle and ask for a discount with the salesman because they have margins to play with. And shop around at several places for your intended model and you will realize how discounts can vary depending on the store manager.

Wait for good seasonal promotions, either during IT Shows or holiday periods. And don’t go for crappy freebies like free speakers or DVD players, go for cashback or shopping vouchers that have real value.

Avoid the frills

You don’t need useless 3D, you don’t need fancy ultra-thin bezels (they’re already so thin!), and you probably don’t need upgradeable CPUs for your TV. I’m still not sure about the value of fancy curved screens, but I like my screens flat like a painting.

You need a decent amount of HDMI and USB ports, but HDMI ports are easily expanded if you use a UHD-ready AV receiver (otherwise known as the stereo amplifier to the layman)

And chances are the TV makers have a basic, no frills UHD model waiting for you (they do realize not every TV buyer is a fool).

Yes, go for Smart TVs

Most UHD TVs should be smart TVs with inbuilt apps, and you always have to make sure they come with Netflix app with UHD streaming capability (check this list again!). Hulu is also another great streaming app service for the latest US TV series. I don’t use my Smart TV function for browsing or games but the software is frequently updated with the latest firmware and apps.

It is also way more convenient than hooking up an external box to stream Netflix too.

For Singaporeans using Samsung TVs, you do need to change your region setting to USA through a simple step from SG to USA to be able to access the Netflix app download. At this juncture, I’ve been told other TV brands do not support such region switching so you can’t access Netflix yet on them.

Once you’ve narrowed down the list of UHD TVs, you can focus on testing the desired models.

Don’t trust the demo videos. Bring your own USB stick.

Demo videos (UHD or 1080p) tend to look good on almost any TV because they are carefully edited and calibrated to do so. I also noticed that these videos avoid showing uniform swaths of colors and show many night scenes so you can’t discern screen uniformity of colors.

My suggestion is to download HD or UHD trailers online onto a USB stick and bring them along to plug into the showroom TVs. Look for motion smoothness, overall color rendition and listen to your gut feeling!

Also remember to download these simple grey and red screens I’ve created to test the screen uniformity – look for uneven patches across the screen and along its edges. The showroom TV will not be the same TV that is shipped to your home, but it gives a good idea of the general quality of the TV panel.

By the way, sometimes you do get lemons: I had a poor experience with the original Samsung HU7000 I purchased as it had really visibile vignetting across the screen edges, and kudos to both Gain City and Samsung customer care for getting me a decent screen replacement. I suspect the original set came from a batch with poor QC, but at least I’m really happy with the current replacement.

All the best with your TV shopping!

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Common questions on losing weight

After I shared the first few editions of my free book Anyone Can Lose Weight with friends, I received many questions that made me realize how difficult it is to change mindsets and habits about food. I also realized that the same blinders prevent people from even starting to diet. Here are some of their questions and my responses.

Are you saying we should stop eating tasty food and just consume bland, healthy food in order to manage our weight?

No, that’s what I find difficult to explain to people actually – that I’m not depriving myself of good food, and neither should you.

In Singapore, we’re surrounded by great hawker stalls and restaurants. You will go crazy over time if you refuse to have any tasty local fare, and your friends will undoubtedly mock you for being such a “food prude”.

People look at my current body shape and assume I eat like a monk – then I show them that I’m actually eating conventional and tasty Chinese meals. They then claim that I’m exercising all the time to burn it off, but I usually only go for a casual jog two or three times a week.

Other people boast to me that they’re eating Western salads for lunch, but then they have problems keeping their weight down because they guzzle a high-calorie milk coffee right after the greens.

The trick is really to know the caloric value of every dish you eat. It doesn’t have to be very accurate, but it’s always good to know that a bowl of white rice is 200kcal and a similarly-sized bowl of fat-infused rice from the chicken rice stall is 400kcal. That’s when you will make the informed choice.

Another trick is to share the good food with family or friends. If our family wants to have a classic Coke instead of drinking plain water, we buy just one can and pass it around. A few sips of Coke brings you the same taste satisfaction as an entire can.

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The wrong way to read calories

If you want to people to eat healthily, you really should not freak them out to begin with. One of the reasons why people are scared of calorie counting (to lose or maintain their weight) is the way calories have been demonized and positioned as too difficult to burn off through exercise.

When I travel in the United States, I see many fast food joints like Burger King printing calorie values next to their burgers and drinks. This is due to legislation signed by Obama back in 2010.

Calorie counts at the counter display of Burger King in the US. Photo from cockeyed.com
Calorie counts at the counter display of Burger King in the US. Photo from cockeyed.com

The initial impression is that this is a great initiative on educating people about the calorie content of each burger or meal. But as other people have pointed out, it’s only useful to people who know how to use the information correctly, or people who want to know the information to begin with.

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The Death Of The Pull-Up In Singapore

When I was 13, I couldn’t do a pull-up and I was in despair.

I had joined the National Cadet Corps as my extra-curricular activity and being able to do pull-ups like a real adult in the army was a big deal. You were often admired if you were a “pull-up king”.

My good friends Derek, Eu Jin and Jerry appeared to have no problems doing pull-ups and I kept struggling to get my chin over the bar just once. I remember I even had a dream where I managed to do ten repetitions and I was so happy, then I woke up.

Over time, with many push-ups and help from my friends who had to keep pushing me above the bar, I earned the ability to do my first pull-up and I was over the moon… err, iron bar.

Doing pull-ups became a regular affair as I later joined the ACJC dragonboat team and through the army days. Even today, nearly 20 years after I was enlisted, I still do pull-ups as part of my regular exercise regime.

This week, the Singapore Armed Forces announced that it was revamping the Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT) to have just three stations – 2.4km run, sit-ups and push-ups – instead of the current five. The SAF eradicated the standing broad jump, shuttle run and pull-up stations.

The Defence Minister said the change was to make the test “easier to pass” and “to train for”. The Chief of Army disagreed with the bit on “easier to pass”, focusing on saying that the test was “easier to train for”

Although Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen had said the new three-station IPPT test format — a 2.4km run, sit-ups and push-ups — will mean more servicemen will pass, Major-General Lim stressed that the intention behind the changes was not to make the test easier to pass, but easier to train for. ~ “Change was to make IPPT easier to train for”

What we can all agree on is that the Gahmen continues to flunk at basic public relations when it cannot be consistent with the right message. “Easier to pass” vs “Easier to train for” are two very different things.

A lot of people have opinions on the IPPT changes. My personal take is that it’s a real cop-out and a poor case of problem solving by the SAF to solve the high failure rate in the IPPT test.

It has also effectively killed off the pull-up, an exercise which has caused much pain, and perhaps joy, with us SG guys.

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A Practical Guide For Motorcycle Owners In Singapore

Now that you’ve decided you want to ride a motorcycle, passed that really difficult Traffic Police riding practical test and have purchased your dream machine, here are some ownership tips that I’ve learned from others, or from trial and error over time.

Many people think that owning a motorcycle is easy and low-maintenance, but to be honest, it’s not.

A motorcycle requires a minimum amount of TLC and your personal time because it needs to be road-worthy and safe to ride. It is also easily stolen or vandalized. Many great motorbikes are works of art and deserve to be properly cared for. Some of the tips here may sound shallow but they’ll resonate with more experienced bikers who will get it.

Updated 28 July: Added “Lane-Splitting”, “Modding” and “Upgrading”

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The Age Of Decluttering

An odd thing happened over the past year as I cleaned up my diet and changed my taste palate – I started to declutter the rest of my life too.

To most people, decluttering is a matter of throwing out old junk from the house. I did just that over the past few months as I finally got around to renovating my HDB flat for the first time since 2003, and fixing many of the things I implemented but didn’t know better back then.

For example, I custom-built a TV cabinet that was designed to hold an extremely heavy CRT TV and store as many DVDs and CDs as possible.

Who would know that over the next decade, TVs would become a fraction of the weight with LCD technology and that physical media would become obsolete?

Books, for me, have become a thing of the past as I moved to ebooks, freeing up an incredible amount of storage space. People say they miss the feel of paper under their fingertips. I say I don’t miss that yellowing piece of tree bark at all.

Another thing I learned over the past decade was that the more storage space I had, the more I would fill it with junk. So in 2014, I no longer have big cabinets or coffee tables in the living room. I have enough storage space to store the essential things, but every few weeks I’m going into my tiny storeroom to see what else I can throw out.

So one key trick in decluttering is preventing future clutter.

The next thing that I started to declutter was my social media life.

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A Ducati Monster 1200S review by a Monster 1100 Evo fan

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The Monster 1200S outside the new Sports Hub

I did something I haven’t done so for a long time today as I was riding my motorcycle home from work – Instead of taking the CTE highway, I took the “scenic” route with the most number of traffic lights in heavy peak hour traffic.

To my surprise, I didn’t feel irritated or tired when I arrived at my house. It was actually a rather relaxing ride where I was going at a slow speed of 50kmh most of the time and was at peace with other car drivers on the road as I kept running into red stop lights.

That is the Ducati Monster 1200S experience in the congested city – it can be really easy-going even when other temperatures are flaring up around you.

This was not really possible on my older Monster 1100 Evo, where the engine would jerk and shudder violently below 70kmh and always insist on either going fast or engage the half-clutch constantly to rein in the unruly beast within.

That’s not to say that the 1200S is a meek bike.

Oh far from it.

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