Goodreads reading challenge 2020 (24 books)

Every year for the past six years, I have participated in the Goodreads reading challenge. It is a challenge of setting yourself a goal; the number of books you would like to read for the year. And throughout the year, you track your progress, marking the books you have read, and selecting the books you are currently reading.

The lowest target I set myself was in 2017 and 2018, where I set myself to read 16 books. This is lower than my usual 24 books for the year, mainly because I was doing my part-time Master’s study at NUS while working at the same time. So I figured that I shouldn’t torture myself and set a goal that was simply unattainable given my workload and the amount of required readings for my Master’s study.

However I managed to reach my reading goals for 2017 with 19 books read, three books more than my original target set at the beginning of the year. But I wavered a little bit in 2018, with two books short of my 16 book target. It was still a decent milestone though and I was quite proud of myself in being able to set aside time to commit myself to reading a book every now and then.

2019 was the year that I set a really lofty target; 30 books. I initially wanted to make up for lost time, now that I had graduated with a Master’s Degree, I should have more time catch up on my reading. I was wrong. I was short by 8 books, reading only 22 books in 2019, 2 books short of my usual 24 books a year goal typically set in earlier years. The fact that I was 8 books short, meant that I was distracted by a lot of other things that was happening in my life.

This year, I am trying to be kinder to myself and set a goal of 24 books to read for 2020. I suppose that after all these years using the Goodreads reading challenge, 24 books seem to be my sweet spot. I have exceeded that goal a few times before, usually by one or two books.

It’s mid January and I have completed reading three books. I am not celebrating just yet, but I am confident that I am off to a great start in reaching my goals of reading 24 books this year. I am currently ahead of schedule (although who knows what is in store for me in 2020 that might ultimately derail my reading plans) and who knows if I might eventually reach 30 books by the end of the year, the highest goal that I have set for myself but fail to eventually reach it. Maybe 2020 is the year where I will smash that 30-book goal set in 2019.

In a market for Bluetooth/multi-room speakers

A few of years ago, my mum bought a Multiroom stereo speaker from Audio Pro, the Audio Pro Addon C5. It was the first Bluetooth and wifi enable speaker that I ever had the chance in using. Though it wasn’t mine, I borrowed it for a couple of weeks to try it out.

I was blown away by the sound quality the speakers were emitting from this humble device. It’s not a big speaker to begin with, but the sound was just so warm, full and clear, so much so, I couldn’t believe that it was coming out from the pair of tweeters and woofer housed in such a small device.

Fast forward today, I have tried many other Bluetooth/multi-room speakers that are currently out on the market. Sonos being one of the more popular brand selling their ecosystem of multi-room speakers for just about every budget and every sized room in the house. Strangely though, despite its popularity, I have never find Sonos speakers reaching that level of fidelity and clarity that Audio Pro generates from their line of speakers. Comparing a similarly priced speaker between Sonos and Audio Pro, Audio Pro takes the cake. Up till today, I still cannot see the attractiveness or the value of ever buying a Sonos despite better sounding speakers for similar prices offered by other brands.

And then there is Marshall and Klipsch, both brands offer a terrific lineup of Bluetooth and multi-room speakers with features that are just almost similar across the board whether we are talking about Sonos, Audio Pro, Klipsch or Marshall. Both look great design wise, even better than Sonos or Audio Pro is some aspects, but again, sound quality is great but still in my personal opinion, lack that extra bit of warmth or clarity that Audio Pro provides.

And that leads me to my final point; I am now a huge fan of Audio Pro speakers. In a few years time, when I get my own apartment, I will definitely, without question, get a few of these speakers and place them all around my house for a solid multi-room set up. I have always wanted to have such a system in my house when I own one, and Audio Pro is definitely at the top of the list.

I have yet to definitively test the more higher end brands like Bang and Olufsen, Bose, and Kef. However given the price premium on their products just because they have reached luxury brand status, doesn’t mean that their audio quality are far superior than any of the Bluetooth or multi-room speakers current out there on the market at much cheaper prices.

Fujifilm Eterna Film Simulation

On Christmas week, my extended family had a gathering in one of my cousin’s place and I had the opportunity to put my new Fujifilm camera through its paces. Specifically, I wanted to shoot and take pictures of my family members at the gathering using only one particular film simulation.

As you know, the new X-Pro 3 has a range of film simulations that Fujifilm developed to mimic the look and feel of their traditional film counterparts. However, as a photographer using Fujifilm camera systems for the first time, I am still largely unfamiliar with the different film simulations and how they are best applied. So rather than worrying about what film simulation I should use for the Christmas gathering, I randomly chose one and stuck with it throughout my shoot. Overall, at the end of the day after reviewing those photos and tweaking them a little in Lightroom, it turned out really great.

I used the Eterna film simulation and surprisingly it worked well for portraits. Skin tones are beautiful and while the colours are more subdued, it has that movie film quality to the pictures I took. The pictures are less punchy, but portraits stood out really well. Just look at some of the samples below.

I must have been really lucky to have chosen a suitable film simulation for these kinds of shots. I am extremely excited to try out the other film simulation modes Fujifilm has to offer built into my camera.

Apple Watch S5: Some thoughts

It’s been a couple of weeks wearing my new Apple Watch Series 5 and I have some thoughts about it.

Performance

First off, the performance on this watch is a pretty big upgrade from the series 3. While there was nothing to complain about in terms of overall performance, the series 5 is a much snappier watch. Apps load much faster, you see less of the spinning dots denoting that the app is loading or fetching data, and switching from one watch face to another resulted in less lag overall. You just don’t realise how much faster the series 5 watch is until you compared it against the series 3.

Same size, bigger screen, gorgeous new watch faces.

The series 5 watch has a bigger screen, but retaining the same size overall. This resulted in narrower bezels. The amount of usable screen now almost touches the edge of the watch. With a bigger screen, everything else is larger and more prominent. Typing my passcode to unlock my phone is much more accurate and the digital buttons are much bigger. With a bigger screen, you get a whole range of new watch faces that a series 3 user just isn’t able to enjoy. The new watch faces can now cram in more information then ever before. Now, you can have a really crowded watch face showing all sorts of information and data or you can have a simple but stunning watch face that really draws you in, thanks to the bigger screen.

Slightly thinner profile, more glass on the back.

The back of the watch which contains the sensors for detecting your hear rate now has a bigger glass surface. Because of that, the back of the watch feels more premium. It is also slightly flatter than the series 3, making a larger contact to your wrist. Overall the watch has a slightly thinner profile that the series 3, which is much appreciated.

Superb battery life (if you switch off the Always-On-Display)

The battery life on the series 5 is superb, much better than the series 3, which in itself is already great based on my usage. Wearing the series 3 watch from 9am to 9pm, I can easily get it down to 65 to 70% battery life. Plenty of room to spare. With the series 5, I can get it slightly better, 70% to 75% battery life left after wearing the whole day.

However it comes with a caveat. Based on my experience, if you want to have the best battery life you can possibly get out of the watch, then you should turn off the always-on-display feature. While the option to have a display that is switched on permanently is nice, I find that after a week, this feature is kinda overrated and that I would prefer having a longer battery life than the ability to have my watch’s display to be always switched on. Eventually, I switch off the AOD so that I don’t have battery anxiety on my watch, especially when I am about to wear it from dawn till dusk, while squeezing in an hour of workout at the end of the day.

Noticeably louder speakers

The speakers in this tiny little package is a noticeable upgrade to the series 3 watch. The volume emitted by the series 5 watch is much louder and more solid. Using Siri on the watch, I noticed the voice to be louder and words to be more clearly enunciated.

Overall a better experience

Overall, I am glad to make the upgrade. I was afraid that the new features that comes with the series 5 will not bring up meaningful upgrades for someone who already owned a series 3 watch. However, I underestimated how much I enjoyed using the new watch faces, cramming more info in it and looking at it every now and then. The AOD feature is overrated in my opinion but I can see its usefulness in certain situations and it is good to have the option whenever you need it. I have yet to use the ECG feature and the noise alert feature extensively so I can’t really make a comment on those two features yet.

2019: A year of gratitude

2019 has been a pretty good year for me.

January

First, I am grateful to have finally completed my studies in NUS. I enrolled in a part-time Masters course in Science Communication. The Masters degree is a joint Masters degree with The Australian National University (ANU). After two years of slugging it out, studying and working at the same time, I managed to complete and fulfil my course requirements to be able to graduate.

In November 2018, I submitted my thesis, and gave my presentation. The moment my presentation ended, was the moment I knew that I have officially ended my course. I remember being immensely relieved that I have completed the entire ordeal. It wasn’t easy working and studying at the same time. Late nights, weekends spent working on your assignments, multiple deadlines to meet. So when it all ended after my presentation, I was strangely at peace with myself. Finally the storm that has been raging in my mind became calm. One less thing to worry about.

In January 2019, I received an official letter from ANU, stating that I have officially graduated from the course. The convocation ceremony at NUS was to take place only in the middle of the year. I expressed my interest to attend the convocation and to receive my certificate on stage. The convocation ceremony was also another way to catch up and reunite with my classmates who went through the same ordeal as me. Graduation gown had to be rented. I had to look sharp, dressed in business suit, pants and a tie to match. But it was all worth it. I deserved it and I am grateful for the entire experience.

Knowing that I have completed my studies, it was time to get wild. 2019 was the year where I used up almost all my leave days from work (most of which were carried over from 2018) to go on multiple holidays.

April

First up, New York City. On Singapore Airlines’ premium economy class, non-stop from Singapore to New York. 19 hours of non-stop flight. It was gruelling, but tolerable since we were on premium economy. Larger, comfortable seats, better food and bigger entertainment screen to keep you occupied during the long flight.

Best airline in the world, Singapore Airlines premium economy class.

It was my second time to the United States, but the first time for my parents, and they enjoyed it a lot. New York is an iconic city. A must visit travel destination for people who love exploring major cities of the world. All those internationally renowned landmarks and museums you often see on the television and on the big screen. To be there physically was a remarkable experience. I am truly grateful to be given the opportunity to visit New York.

Love Dumbo. Most beautiful part of New York.

But that’s not all. Shortly about a couple of weeks later, I was flying to Morocco, via London with my friends and colleagues. The trip was planned more than 6 months ago. I remembered having caught the Black Friday deal on Malaysia Airlines flight to London. We immediately booked tickets and secured our flights to Morocco shortly after.

I wrote a ten-part series of my adventures in Morocco previously. The fact that I had split the post about my time in Morocco into ten parts spoke volumes about how much I enjoyed my time there. It was not only enjoyable, but enriching at the same time. As I had mentioned, Morocco, as a travel destination is a country that just keeps on giving. I learned so much about the country during my time there and saw so many new things. It was the best decision my friends and I took when deciding on where to go for our holiday together. For that, I am eternally grateful to have such supportive and laid back friends and colleagues to agree on our holiday destination and to make the entire planning phase a breeze.

We had a great time in Morocco. Hassan Tower in the background.

And not forgetting, reuniting with our former colleagues in London. After our trip in Morocco, before heading back to Singapore, we made a stopover in London for a couple of days to catch up with friends who were working in London. It was the best night ever, despite me being a little ill that day. I was down with a fever.

October

October was the highlight for me. I went to Iceland for the second time. This time I brought my parents along and they absolutely loved Iceland. I remembered the last time I was here, I was contemplating on whether I will be coming back to Iceland in the near future. The answer was yes, I will definitely come back. The question was simply a matter of when. About three or so years after I went to Iceland in February (full on winter) with my friends, I am back, this time during the autumn season. Not quite cold and snowy yet, but you start to see snow and ice being sprinkled lightly at the top of the mountains slowly making their way down as the time slowly marches towards November and beyond.

Despite going to Iceland for the second time, I was still amazed at how beautiful the landscape is and shocked at how different it looked the last time I was there. I made a good call in deciding to go to Iceland in autumn (which is more tolerable for my parents since they do not like the cold so much), giving me the opportunity to experience Iceland in a totally different landscape than before.

Because of that, everything felt new, I was re-experiencing Iceland in a totally different way, despite the fact that I have been to several popular spots throughout my travels in and around Iceland.

In autumn, certain roads were still open, giving us the opportunity to explore more of Iceland that it was previously possible when I was there during winter.
At higher altitudes, certain places were already started to be covered in snow and ice, making the landscape ethereal and alien looking,

There were other major things that happened throughout 2019 that I am grateful of.

For one, I got a 20% pay raise that will be handed out in two incremental steps within a 6-month period. That 20% pay raise was significant and unexpected. My workplace recently had a town-hall meeting and announced an across-the-board raise in pay for most employees after they hired an outside consultancy firm to look at the pay levels across the industry. It seemed that a 20% pay raise was due to keep our wages competitive and to retain top talent that they desperately needed.

I had a relatively smooth reservist training this year. I was initially worried about the training this year partly because a number of my key personnel that I depend on to perform certain tasks were absent this year. They had to defer their training due to schools and exams. As I was short of manpower, I was concerned that it would be a stressful experience during the two-week training. But along the way, I had help from the most unexpected places which greatly maintained the levels of efficiency and effectiveness needed in carrying out the training needed for this year’s reservist. Overall, the training was smoother that I initially expected and for that I am truly grateful.

I bought the new iPhone 11 Pro Max and brought to my trip to Iceland. The picture that came out from the phone’s camera were phenomenal. The ultra wide angle lens was particularly useful in capturing the scope of the harsh landscapes of Iceland. Despite being only a phone camera, Apple has really outdone itself with its cutting edge computational photography to make you photos pop whenever you use the phone’s camera. I am grateful for my new phone to be able to capture wonderful memories of my trip to Iceland.

The new iPhone 11 Pro Max in Midnight Green.

Finally, I bought a brand new camera, the Fujifilm X-Pro 3 camera paired with the Fujinon 23mm F2 prime lens. I have used this camera for a close to a month and I am loving the picture quality that is coming straight out from the camera. Fujifilm’s film simulation modes are a ton of fun to use and it is always interesting to see how your pictures look like after applying the various film simulation modes.

The rangefinder design of the X-pro 3 really harkens back to the good old film camera days. It even has an optical viewfinder for those who wish to experience how using a film camera was like back in the old days. I am really grateful to have chosen a camera that I know I will love using it for years to come.

What will 2020 bring?

I am looking forward to another road trip with the same group of friends who went to Iceland with me. This could be perhaps the last time travelling together, and so this time, I am going to go wherever they wish to go. It seems that through our initial conversations, they have been eyeing New Zealand as their next road trip. While I have been there before, it is a place where I don’t really mind going again, provided I spend more time doing hiking and trekking at some of the more famous routes in New Zealand. If they agree to that, then I don’t mind embarking on this trip together. All we need next is to agree on a date where we can all apply for leave next year and we will be on our way to another grand road trip.

I am also looking forward to another solo trip. Just exactly where is the million dollar question. I have not decided where I should go yet, but solo is definitely on the table, but only if my travel plans are sparse and I have enough leave days. The priority for a solo trip is low, but definitely on the table as an option.

2020 is where I will try and attempt to set a new savings milestone. In light of the pay raise that I have received, it only makes sense to set aside more to keep pace of the overall proportion of money saved against my total salary. I saved $15,000 a year last year. Saving $15,000 a year is challenging but highly doable. Will I be able to stretch myself further and save perhaps $20,000? If I become more frugal in spending less on travel in 2020, it might just be possible. If I skip my yearly iPhone upgrades and impose a moratorium on PC upgrades, it might be possible. If I save $10,000 on my bonus in April alone, and then continue to save about $1000 a month for the next 12 months, I would easily hit my target.

I bought the Apple Watch Series 5

So today on Christmas, I decided to walk into the Apple store at Orchard Road and came out with a brand new Apple Watch series 5. It was a spur of the moment thing. Previously when the series 5 watch was released in September, I actually pre-ordered it. But at the very last minute, I cancelled the order and pre-ordered the iPhone 11 Pro Max instead.

The exact model that I got. The Apple Watch series 5 space grey aluminium Nike edition with the Nike sport loop.

Now I bought the space grey aluminium, Nike version Apple Watch series 5. And I am really happy with the purchase. I managed to sell my series 3 (scratches and all) on carousel for about S$150. It’s not much, but I was pleasantly surprised by the number of buyers willing to buy my watch for S$150. It was an easy deal. And I am happy to sell it at a low price to someone who might potentially need an Apple Watch, even if it isn’t the latest model.

Initially I was quite hesitant in getting the same space grey aluminium version, especially after accumulating a fair number of scratches on the watch face after using it for two years. While the series 3 watch that I bought two years ago still works admirably, the glass on the watch face just couldn’t stand up to the rigours of rough daily use. I find it quite disappointing that the aluminium version doesn’t come with a more durable and scratch resistant glass. The stainless steel version however comes with sapphire crystal glass, which in most cases would be resistant to scratches.

I nearly wanted to get the stainless steel version but decided that the price difference between the stainless steel and the aluminium just wasn’t worth it, especially when all I am getting is a more durable (and heavier) material and sapphire crystal on the watch face. Everything else is essentially the same. No doubt I am certain that I will accumulate scratches on the glass after a couple of years, but so long as it still functions and functions exactly the same between the different models, I couldn’t care less. If the Apple Watch is a device that I will be upgrading once every two years or so (if the upgrades are substantial enough), then it doesn’t really makes sense paying extra for better material that does not give you meaningful return in terms of general usage and functionality as far as a smart watch is concerned.

For now I am enjoying my new watch a lot. I really love the bigger, brighter screen that comes with it. Even the new watch face designs that is only available in the series 5 are absolutely beautiful. So beautiful, in fact that I can’t take my eyes off the watch, which makes the always-on display that much more attractive.

For now, I will definitely be updating more often of my experience with the new watch. The new watch will definitely spur me to become healthier, and adopt a more active lifestyle, which is great timing, since, now is the time when I start writing my new year’s resolutions for 2020.

Moroccan Adventure Part X: Going home

Marrakesh was our final stop before taking the train back to Casablanca to catch our flight back home.

It was hot. It was the first time since we arrived in morocco that the weather was swelteringly hot. While we were in the desert, it was cool, cold even sometimes especially before dawn. The sudden change in temperature from the more temperate climate of the countryside to the warm and humid air of Marrakesh, was probably the cause of my illness. Coupled with the fact that I was exposed to intermittent rain upon arrival in the evening made things worse.

By the second day of exploring Marrakesh, I started getting fever. I did not feel well at all. You could say that I was lucky in a sense that I fell sick at the end of our trip. But having a temperature and a feeling of malaise really put a dampener on a lot of things. I brought Panadol just in case these things happen during our trip and it helped a lot in controlling my temperature and numbing some of the achy feelings that I had. This general feeling of malaise made it hard for me to really enjoy Marrakesh fully.

We continued our exploration of Marrakesh, visiting the Medinas and the street food that truly became a bustling sight as day turned to night. The open square just outside the Medina was transformed into an outdoor street food market, with a ton of stalls setting up for the evening and touting locals and visitors alike to a wide array of skewered meat and vegetables, seafood, and an array of other snacks.

We also visited their shopping district and urban Centers and even had Chinese cuisine that we encountered by accident while exploring the city. At that moment while walking along their shopping district, it all felt familiar, an urban district you see in any other city. Modern, bustling, and crowded with tourists and locals. It was nice to see international brands that have set up shop in Marrakesh, like Zara and H&M giving it a sense of familiarity.

The food on the streets of Marrakesh!
A snapshots of life in Marrakesh.

We had a couple of days in Marrakesh before we had to catch a train to Casablanca. The train ride was pleasant. The journey took just a couple of hours. We hailed a cab upon reaching the train station at Casablanca and headed to our hotel, the same hotel where we started this entire journey. Arriving back at the same hotel was a bittersweet moment for me. It was a reminder of our journey when we first arrive, and also a reminder that our journey is ending. I felt sad for having to leaving Morocco. The country has given us so much more than we initially thought. The memories that we create in this country were simply priceless.

London bound

Still, it was time to go. I was still feeling sick, off and on at times, depending if there was still paracetamol coursing through my veins. The medication helped a great deal in getting through the day, but its fading effect can be felt, in regular intervals that served as a reminder to take another dose of the drug before the fever and malaise kicks in again. Perhaps the illness that I had was an illness of the heart? My heart yearned to stay just a little longer in this beautiful country. And now knowing that it was time to leave, I was feeling heartsick.

Things were not all doom and gloom. There were still things to look forward to in London. For me I was most looking forward to seeing my former colleagues who used to work in Singapore. It’s been a couple of years since they left Singapore to go back home to London, and I was excited to see them again over lunch and dinner.

We arrive sometime mid-morning to early afternoon. It was my first time in London. I was fascinated by the London Tube. It was confusing as hell and it took me a while to understand it and navigate London using the Tube. We stayed at an Airbnb just off central London where it was cheaper, in one of the suburbs. It was a pleasant house with extra rooms to spare for us four. There was a small cinema just outside our accommodation which we watched Avengers: Endgame. We were tortured by the need to minimise our exposure to spoilers on social media during our holiday in Morocco, since the movie was released during our holiday there. But when we were in London, we took the earliest available opportunity to watch the movie and be relieved of any accidental spoilers we might have read on social media.

The London Bridge!
I believe this is called The Shard?

We had only a full day in London and we made the best use of it. We met up with our former colleagues for lunch at Padella, visited the Tates Museum, visited a few famous pubs and had a few rounds of beer. Finally we headed to Din Tai Fung for dinner, capping off with more rounds of beer at a local pub nearby. It was a fantastic day. I was so glad to be reunited with them and to catch up on what was happening with their lives over meals. We were also excited to share our travel stories (which we had several funny ones) in Morocco with them. The entire evening was just full of jest and great conversations. Nobody wanted it to end. At the end of the day, we had to say our goodbyes, with no promise of seeing them anytime soon.

A 12-hour flight awaited us the next morning. We headed to London Heathrow and checked into our Malaysia Airlines flight bound to KL, Malaysia, before taking a connecting flight to Singapore.

Epilogue

Morocco is a country that keeps on giving. Give it time to explore and discover the country and you will be rewarded in spades. Going to Morocco for a holiday was one of the best decisions we as a group has ever made. The people that we met, the food that we tried, the culture that we immersed ourselves in, all culminated in us not simply enjoying our holiday, but also appreciate and understand different cultures and traditions. And that is what travelling is all about. We connect with people from far away lands, and in doing so, we understand each other a little bit better. And with that, you start to realise that it becomes easy to find a common thread in all of us, that everyone in this world is very different, but not so different as to be alien. Morocco certainly has changed me in many ways, broadening our minds, understanding culture that is world’s away, and having a greater appreciation for the kindness and generosity that was bestowed upon us in a foreign land. We are all ambassadors of our own country. Morocco has been a great host to us. No doubt we will do the same for travellers around the world coming to Singapore.

For those who have read my series on my travels in Morocco (all ten parts!), thank you for reading them all. I am by no means a writer, or a travel journalist. I write my travel experiences, because simply put, I love travelling and documenting my travel experiences whichever is most memorable to me. I could write so much more, but I simply chose to write down events that happened during my travels that are most impactful. My experiences during my travels are deeply personal.

With that being said, I have many more pictures that I took that didn’t make the cut while writing all ten parts of my Moroccan adventure. However, you can visit this link to view the entire gallery.