Category Archives: Toys

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Amazing Naked Machines

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I accept that most people reading this won’t ever considering riding a motorcycle.

That’s okay, because motorbikes aren’t for everyone, and it’s as dangerous as you believe it to be. We don’t try to convince people who have their mind made up about two-wheelers, we just go out and ride as “safely” as we can.

But oh, what a great time it is to be a biker with so many amazing machines being released recently, especially during this week’s EICMA motorcycle exhibition in Milan and in prior weeks.  With the Class 2 (401cc and above) population of riders doubling in the past 10 years to about 15 thousand, there will be more people riding such beautiful machines on Singapore roads soon. Continue reading

Riding The Monster

I didn't realize how similar the curves of Gardens by The Bay were to those on the Monster.

I didn’t realize how similar the curves of Gardens by The Bay were to those on the Monster until I parked the bike and looked through the lens. This is a truly fortunate combo of the right dawn lighting, street lighting and juxtaposition. Christmas Eve 2012.

The Ducati Monster 1100 Evo is my first Class 2 bike and it was a shocker to ride during my first 24 hours with it. The engine vibrated terribly, you can’t go slow in the carpark (or actually below 40kmh) without clutching in halfway, and the engine is always complaining if you don’t rev enough. And if you aren’t careful, you’re breaking the speed limit…by a lot.

But what a pleasure it is!

Having only ridden bikes like the SAF hybrid street-scramblers (about 185cc, from Honda and Yamaha), learner bikes in Bukit Batok Driving Center (Honda 125s, 400s and 600s) and my Kawasaki Ninja 250R, I did not know a modern motorcycle could be as rough as a Monster. The Japanese bikes were really easy to handle with smooth engines and clutch controls, while the Monster is the complete opposite.

Its torque-y engine lurches forward, always eager to get off the stop line. You can hear every mechanical whirr and click when the wind isn’t rushing through your helmet. The engine gets hot enough to sear your thighs red though the jeans if you decide to do multiple short trips (I have a photo to prove it). The tiny tank only holds enough fuel for 140km before the fuel reserve light comes on, so frequent trips to the petrol station is mandatory.

However, once you get used to those quirks, man, you learn to love this Italian stallion (no, no, not Stallone) and its unique character – arrogant, impetuous and always challenging you to take a firm rein or just buzz off.

If you’re going to own a high capacity bike, why not own one with character? I’ve always loved the Italian approach to art and science, driven forward by ego and passion and a deep understanding of aesthetics. That’s pretty much like my own personality, as my friends would readily tell you. So a Ducati is a natural fit.

I was considering the Ducati Streetfighter 848 at first, but the Monster’s classic design language spoke directly to me while I could never love the aggressive lines of the Streetfighter as much. As well as the lower seat height :) The Streetfighter probably has more in common with modern anime-inspired Japanese bikes like the Kawasaki Z1000, the latter of which was one of my earlier candidates for the Class 2 bike but it was just too bulky with that gigantic inline-4 engine.

Monster at Upper Peirce

Upper Peirce Reservoir is one of my favorite locations for any bike photo shoot. But be careful of the monkeys who always look for a chance to grab your gear and run away gleefully.

The current Monster design is superior to the original 1993 forebear, with a much more muscular trellis frame, stouter tank and a well balanced mix of smooth curves and twisted metal innards out in full view. Even though the Triumph Street or Speed Triple is arguably a more well-rounded machine for city use, (the triple engine is much smoother to ride at all gears, as I’ve experienced with the Triumph Daytona 675) there is no contest in the looks department.

The Monster engine may vibrate incessantly but once you hit the sweet spot at each picky gear, it’s really enjoyable. The exhaust sound is a sweet mix of bassy low notes and happy mid-tone barks and I think the matte aluminium stock pipes look superior to any third-party alternatives. I removed the odd-looking flyscreen and now there’s nothing to obstruct my view as I soak up the beautiful sunsets or empty morning roads. It responds nimbly due to its compact shape (a neighbour thought it was a 400cc bike, and really, it is just a little bigger than a Super 4), and the bike just commands so much presence whether moving or stationary.

I don’t know if this same affliction hits other Ducati owners, but I now have a weakness for Ducati apparel even though they are quite pricey (A Puma-Ducati tee is usually about $50, and it’s hard to find good discounts even with free shipping from the online apparel store). To make you feel even more special, Ducati sends you a membership card all the way from Italy embossed with your bike’s frame number. You can’t do much with the card but it’s the thought that counts and most companies don’t do this sort of consumer marketing anymore.

With the crazy COE prices for cars (S$81.8K for 1600cc and below as I write this!), Japanese bikes getting more expensive now due to the high yen, and European bikes coming down in price due to the weak euro, I suspect there are going to be more Ducatis, Triumphs, MV Agustas and other continental bikes on our roads in the next few years.

But I could be wrong – there’s still a strong stigma against bike ownership in Singapore thanks to the reckless riders on the roads, as well as inconsiderate drivers. To make things harder for bike class upgrades, the Traffic Police tests are getting harder to pass with more stringent testers. My Class 2A and Class 2 tests were no walks in the park. Taking a minimum of over three years to get a Class 2 licence (400cc and above) is very long, but then again, I do understand the rationale behind this restriction. I don’t think I could have respected or handled the power of a Class 2 bike during my early biking days in the army.

One just wonders how long people will tolerate the high car prices before considering going the patience-draining motorbike licence route.

Off topic: I’ve always wondered about the high population of Honda Super 4 owners in SG – don’t they ever think of upgrading to a nicer looking bike if they could afford it? The Super 4 is the equivalent of my Corolla Altis – a nice bike for daily commuting, but nothing more. I was dead set against owning a Super 4 during my year of Class 2A ownership because it’s enough to be an everyday Altis owner :)

In recent weeks, I’ve been scouting Singapore for the right backgrounds to take portraits of the Monster, and here’s a small gallery with more to come:

Found this beautiful backdrop on Christmas Day morning at Punggol Way. The footpath is much narrower than it looks.

Found this beautiful backdrop on Christmas Day morning at Punggol Way. The footpath is much narrower than it looks.

Another shot at Punggol Way.

Another shot at Punggol Way.

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This was taken at Gardens by the Bay itself.

Changi Coastal Road at dawn.

Changi Coastal Road, along the pathway at the carpark, at dawn.

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I installed these drop-dead gorgeous Rizoma Circuit 851 mirrors but removed them soon after because the mirror is so small you really can’t see much of what’s behind you. Sigh, it would have been the perfect naked bike mirror.

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Changi Coastal Road, as the sun rose. Most of my shots are taken in the early hours because the family is sleeping then, and so is the rest of Singapore. This way one can ride the Monster the way it’s meant to be ridden – without stopping :)

 

The Black Widow

I was done with the modifications to the Ninja 250, then a jealous act of vandalism marred the black fuel tank with an ugly scar. I can never understand what would make people so jealous that they would whip out a key or coin to scratch a brand new vehicle that has done them no harm. My bike was hardly 4 months old!

So with a trip to the Paint Extreme workshop, where the tank was repainted and decaled with a Kamen Rider logo 仮面ライダー, the Black Widow was born.

My Kawasaki Ninja 250R – Black & Red Edition

One of the most unexpected things I received in the army was a motorcycle licence. Back in 1996, I was drafted into a recon company and required to learn how to ride a bike. And it wasn’t until 2007 that I decided to finally get a civilian bike licence, after so many years of thinking about it. I took a little longer than expected to finish my Class 2B course (I took a break of two years between lessons due to a heavy travelling), and then moved on to get the Class 2A licence.

In July this year, I finally received permission from the CEO of the house to have my own two wheels. Then it became a question of which bike to get.

Now in Singapore, most Class 2A licence holders will go for a Honda CB400 (Super 4) as the licence allows you to get a bike up to 400cc. I had no desire to get a bike that everyone was riding on the roads, especially one that we used as the training bike in Bukit Batok Training Centre. Due to Honda’s dominance of this category, bike dealers now bring in very few other streetbike or sportbike models in the 201-400cc range.

The stock Ninja 250R in black, which is what my bike looked like when I bought it.

After shopping around, I decided to go for the Kawasaki Ninja 250R. An extremely popular model worldwide (apparently it is Kawa’s bestselling model in the US), this bike is hardly found on the roads here due to people’s preference to get the Super 4. It was also half the price of the Super 4 when new (I hear too many horror stories of second hand vehicles to bother with used).

Much has been written about how the Ninja is a great little performer – it’s light, it’s nimble, and the 2008 redesign is just plain sexy. Honda launched the new CBR250 around the same time with more modern parts (ie. a digital speedo), but the Ninja has the edge in looks.

For the first two months or so, I was focused on just breaking in the bike. Then I discovered the wonderful/terrible world of bike modifications. By nature I’m not a car or bike nut, nor did I modify my Corolla Altis very much apart from changing the rims and audio system. But motorcycles have an amazing capacity to be modded and the Ninja is no exception. You can do small mods or extreme stuff like changing all the fairings (the plastic body which gives it its overall look).

I did most of my mods at Unique Motorsports at Kaki Bukit Autobay, and AHM Performance (a few doors down from Unique) helped to order and install the Koso digital speedometer. The Ninja mod project was like a big Gundam airbrushing assignment – how to bring out the best parts of the machine without going overboard.

My Ninja, after all the major mods which turned it into a black and red beauty. The old rear mud guard was removed and replaced by EvoTech Tail Tidy, and the bulbous stock signal lights replaced by tiny Rizoma lights. I also repainted the rims, which is a stronger visual option than just pasting rim stickers (which can peel after a while).

The worst thing about modding is how addictive it is – once you do a small mod, you think about which other parts you need to mod. The best thing about bike mods is that it is relatively unexpensive when compared to car mods – the total cost of my Ninja mods is still lower than a complete set of Ah Beng car tyre rims.

Driven metal red grips, Motovation bar ends, ASV brake and clutch levers, EvoTech brake fluid reservoir. Sorry for the distracting sun ray, but you must agree such photo angles don’t come all the time.

Red bolts and gold engine oil cover to add small accents to the side of the bike. I changed most of the visible nuts and bolts to red.

Another dash of gold with the rear brake fluid reservoir. I’ve thought about changing the stock exhaust but the legal ones are all not too pretty, and they don’t really improve performance for the money.

I also changed the brakelines into braided steel red colored ones.

The Über-cool Koso digital speedometer. You can’t get this here as demand is pretty low, so we had to ship it in from Germany (even though the product is made in Taiwan). Koso also makes a special Ninja 250R mounting board and plug & play wiring kit for easy installation. I guess most people who own this bike can’t wait to get rid of the ugly, old school analogue dashboard. 


 A clearer view of the handlebar area. I also added red and gold bolts to accentuate the dashboard area. You can also see the small analogue clock from www.clocks4bikes.com which is specially machined to fit Ninja 250Rs.

 The Immortal Graphix tank protector pad took some time to source, as most of the designs on the market are just plain tacky or just plain. 

 The rear seat was replaced by the original Kawasaki rear seat cowl accessory. It makes the bike look cooler as a single seater, but it does make it less comfortable to ride when I’m carrying a backpack to work.

Full Armor Gundam

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I purchased this Full Armor Gundam FA-78-1 Master Grade set because Hobby Link Japan was selling it at 40% off at 3000 yen (S$45). I regretted it soon after because it became obvious why this relatively new release (2010) was being discounted so heavily both online and at local retail – the original color scheme of dark green, bright orange and white was not aesthetic and this Gundam was based on the retro RX-78 instead of the more modern/aggressive One Year War version.

But I saw that there was potential in the base design – it had a very rugged heavy armored vehicle design philosophy like my Votoms Scopedog and the decals had a good military feel to them. This Gundam just needed a better color scheme.

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So after many days of mulling and color testing, I gave it the Iron Man War Machine treatment – gunmetal grey, copper, dull chrome and some champagne gold on the cannons just to make it a bit more “rich”.

I glued down all the detachable armor parts because they kept coming off anyway (thanks to Bandai’s useless gel sticker approach) and also because I don’t really like the retro RX-78 design underneath all the armor parts. I ordered the waterslide decals from HLJ and spent a long time (over 6 hours) pasting as many as I could – I like decals and you can also call this the Full Decal Gundam hur-hur.

In closing, I’m pretty happy with the end result! If you’re not going to paint this set, I don’t recommend the purchase due to the poor base color scheme. If you are, I think there are many opportunities to make it a really cool Gundam based on your personal color preferences.

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As I was taking photos this morning, there was an opportunity to do these mood shots as the morning sun blasted into the living room.

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The only downside to using the champagne gold (chrome silver + gold leaf paint) is that the white decals don’t come out so prominently.

Some history on the Full Armor Gundam from the Gundam Wikia.

As the RX-78-2 Gundam continued to score victory after victory against the Zeon forces in the One Year War, the Earth Federation Forces engineers began to devise several different upgrades to supplement and further increase the combat capabilities of the Gundam. The upgrade program, called the Full-Armor System and Weapon System (FSWS), developed several options packs to increase the Gundam’s already considerable power. One of these designs was the Gundam Full Armor Type, which vastly increased the Gundam’s firepower and armor.

However, due to the Full Armor Gundam’s massive increase in weight, it suffered a sharp drop in mobility which the new thrusters could not sufficiently compensate for. It was deemed that the loss in speed and maneuverability would be unacceptable and the Gundam Full Armor Type never left the development stages. The Gundam Full Armor Type would never be built, and only existed on paper. Although the FA-78-1 Gundam Full Armor Type was deemed to be a design failure while it was still in the planning phases, the Earth Federation continued to design new upgrades to for the RX-78-2 Gundam under Full-Armor System and Weapon System (FSWS) program.However the plans for the unit would later be used as the basis of creating the FA-78-2 Heavy Gundam.

The death of the Transformers

I had little choice but to watch Transformers 3 : Dark Of The Moon. The kids wanted to watch it, and I wanted to watch it.

For them, it was part of the essential pop culture ritual of their childhood. It’s the Star Wars of their generation.

For me, it was to see if Michael Bay would redeem himself from the mess that was Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen.

Sadly, Michael Bay proved that a leopard cannot change its spots – TF3 was a rehash (albeit energetic one) of all the major action scenes from the first two movies, as well as all his other blockbuster movies. And for me, it was a final nail in the coffin for a great franchise that we’ve known and loved since the early 1980s. Here’s why:

The Transformers is not just about Optimus Prime and Bumblebee

I’ve never understood the heavy weightage placed upon Bumblebee in the Bay movies. In the cartoon, he was always one of the weakest Autobots, and his only role was to be Spike Witwicky’s friend. For goodness sake, he was a obsolete VW Beetle.

Ok, so perhaps in the first movie, the major theme was about A Boy and His Robot (ala Harlon Ellison’s A Boy And His Dog). By the third movie, there was no real relationship left between the yellow bot and the perpetually annoying Shia LeBeouf. Yet the emphasis on Bumblebee continued, even though no fan really gives a hoot about him. Meanwhile, other great characters like Jazz and Ironhide with way more personality are killed off flippantly in the movies.

And to add to that, the Bumblebee toys are awfully difficult to transform. More on that in a while.

The same goes for Optimus as well. The kids of today don’t realize it, but Optimus was killed off in the very first Transformers cartoon movie. I suspect the cartoon writers felt that Optimus was too one-dimensional and needed to be replaced with new leadership (ie. Rodimus Prime). It was a shocking development for us kids then, but man, everyone remembers the death of Optimus till today. When they resurrected him time and time again, it got boring – let the dead lie dead please.

Nevertheless Optimus is always a big fan favorite and has been featured in just about every Transformers spin-off or series.

My point is that these two Autobots do not an entire series make.

There are so many great Transformer characters and storylines on either side of the battle lines. The Bay movies have avoided any focus on the relationships between the Transformers, both within and between the factions. The love-hate relationship between Optimus and Megatron was hardly explored, what more the tension between Optimus and Ultra Magnus, the competition between Blaster and Soundwave (and their respective cassette tape minions), the dumb anger of the Dinobots, the constant quarrels between the Constructicons…the list goes on about the many dynamics from just the very first cartoon alone.

Instead Bay chose to focus on the humans, perhaps to save some CGI budget. Unfortunately, the humans in the Transformer movies have never been impressive or endearing. And when gigantic robots are hitting the hell out of each other, what contributions could puny humans possibly make?

What was sad to see in TF2 and TF3 was how Megatron was written as a “by-the-way” character, or used as a deux ex machina to close a plot loophole. How can you treat the biggest schemer on Cybertron as a cameo? Why would Megatron even bow to the Fallen, given that his ego cannot take the damage?

Less Is More, Especially With Robot Design

What upsets a lot of fans till today is the overly complicated and ugly designs of Bay’s Transformers. Very organic in nature, the bots come off looking more like insects than majestic robots.

And the transformations are now way too complex. One great part about the early cartoons was how gracefully the bots would transform from one form to another. I’m pretty sure they designed the toys before the cartoon characters, and the simplicity shows.

In the movies, the characters were designed to be as difficult to transform as possible, and that also led to an entire series of poorly designed Hasbro toys. The irony is that the Transformers has always been a glorified commercial to sell more toys but the movies have just turned me off the toys instead. I told Isaac that we won’t be buying any more Transformer toys until they get easier to manipulate. I usually struggle up to 30min just to transform a simple Level 3 Transformer figurine.

If you don’t believe me, just head to any OG store these days and you’ll see the big Starscream toy being cleared at bargain prices. The original Starscream was a beautiful copy of the F-15 eagle, in primary American colors no less. The Bay Starscream is an ugly grey Raptor that transforms to an even uglier and dull-looking robot.

The awesome Starscream Masterpiece edition of the original 1980s design.

The Bay version of Starscream. The design ugliness is obvious to any human.

Even today, adults get excited over original Transformer designs such as Soundwave, Devastator, the Aerialbots, Bruticus Maximus and so on. They were simple, but they were always impactful.

There Is No Kindness In This Movie

Call it 1980s simplicity, but the Autobots hardly set out to kill anyone. In the movies, the good guys have become so brutal and unforgiving – Optimus stabs, rips out heads and spinal columns, dismantles faces and so on, with no remorse at all. He is even willing to do in his teacher Sentinel Prime without a pause. Optimus is no hero here, he has simply become an angry robot.

When the good guys do not forgive, what are we teaching our kids?

 

 

 

Isaac’s Gundam Avalanche Exia

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This is the second High-Grade Gundam set that Isaac and I worked together on. The Gundam Avalanche Exia 1/144 is a recent release by Bandai from the Gundam 00 series and for a small model, has a magnificently complicated design. I do wish I could have painted it for better aesthetic effect, but I’m saving the airbrush for bigger models with more details and decals.

As I continue to assemble more Gundams, I have increasing admiration for the artists  who come up with these designs that mesh together art and robot mechanics.

Of course, you could say that all the Gundams look the same (I thought the same just a year ago), but take a closer look and you will be able to appreciate how the designs have evolved over the years from the very first RX-78. Essentially all Gundams are based on a samurai design, which is always cool Open-mouthed smile.

Now if only the guys who designed the atrociously ugly, insectoid Transformer movie robots understood it like the Gundam designers.

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A journey with the Space Battleship Yamato

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For better or worse, I tend to go overboard with my hobbies. What was supposed to be a dalliance with photography turned into a full-time job. My love for tinkering of PCs has kept me working with, and currently, in the IT industry. And about a year ago, I started to get fascinated with Bandai model kits and now I have more paint bottles and unopened model kits than I can keep track of.

I’ve been trying out various grades of Gundam model kits to develop my airbrushing and assembly skills. But when I found this Space Battleship Yamato 1/500 scale model kit, I knew that this would be the one kit to pour all my learning into.

Now let it be clear that I don’t really like battleships, whether they are WWII models or even Star Destroyers. It’s more fascinating to admire the small planes that take up space on a carrier (eg. Tomcat, Phantom etc). And I remember building a few ship models when I was in primary school and hating the whole gluey mess along with ridiculously small parts.

But the Yamato is different. For one thing, this formed part of our childhood memories. Our generation of boys watched dozens of iconic Japanese cartoons when they aired randomly on SBC’s Channel 8 during the 1970s and 1980s. With little to do in the house in those days before the Internet or Xbox, one could spend hours just watching different anime dubbed in Mandarin. And the unique mix of a traditional Japanese warship with futuristic space cruiser elements really sticks in the mind for decades.

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Bandai cashed in on the Takuya Kimura movie vehicle late last year with this new plastic model kit that stretches across 70cm in length. Before I started on the kit, I looked around the Internet to see how others had built their versions. Without painting, the kit looks like a big piece of flat plastic. OK, many different pieces of plastic.

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But I also wondered how much “realism” or weathering effects to give this baby. As I’ve gotten more into this “gunpla” hobby, I have observed that too many people spend big money on kits and airbrushing systems without understanding the basics of aesthetics.

For example. I would look at some of the showcase models at some of the hobby shops in Singapore and shake my head at the over-Gundam shading done on beautiful models. Less is more, folks. In my case, my background in art and photography does help me visualize the final look of my kits.

Now while I would prefer a cleanly painted and glossy robot that looked like it just stepped out of the factory, the Yamato demands a dirty or aged look. The anime and movie are set in dire times for humanity, and the Yamato first emerges from its underground factory, breaking through concrete and mud. A flat coat of paint would not give the Yamato the character it deserves – so there was not much choice but to give it gradated airbrushing and further washes of grey to bring about the post-apocalyptic look.

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This project took about three months, or perhaps eight to ten man days. A lot faster than the last Votoms Scopedog project that took nearly a year thanks to prolonged procrastination.

Overall, I would say that the Yamato is relatively easy to build until you come to the small parts. On some turrets, some plastic pieces broke off (combination of thin plastic parts and several layers of paint) and I either glued them back or just threw them away. The nice thing about a “weathered” look is that you can always claim it was “battle damage” when it comes to missing or broken parts.

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On one hand I was terrified of losing the tiny turret parts (there are about 34 turrets if I counted correctly). On the other hand, pressing them into the main ship body really caused my fingertips to hurt, and a few other hull parts cracked in the process.

The other difficulty I had was deciding what shade of medium blue to use. The red was easy – just go for a screaming red tone like a Ferrari. The blue was tough because if you go for the default blue that the plastic was moulded in, the whole ship looks too dull. A lighter blue would allow for more details to be called out, but would not contrast well with the red lower hull. Personally I think I could have used a deeper shade of blue but what the heck.

The other odd thing I noticed was during the final panel lining stage, using black enamel paint to wash over the base acrylic coats. With the semi-glossy red portions, it was easy to remove excess wash with thinner. With the dull blue portions, the enamel paint was very hard to remove with enamel thinner so I had to work fast and use it to create more weathering effects like vertical streaks across the hull. Perhaps I had to coat the entire ship with a glossy coat before I did the panel lining.

Oh well, live and learn. Enjoy the pics, taken with my trusty Canon 5D. Which I had trouble taking in my cramped HDB apartment because this ship is just so long!

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