Sunday, March 31, 2013

Buttercake n Cream Review

Buttercake n Cream is a dessert cafe in Sunset Way.

Blk 106 Clementi St 12
#01-52 Sunset Way Singapore
Tel: +65 6777 3477
Daily: 12:00 noon to 11:00 PM

Buttercake n Cream is a dessert cafe which also has hot food on their menu. Overall, we found that while the desserts were delicious, the quality of the food varied. Perhaps because they were designed for dessert, I also found the table to be too small and the seating too cramped. But I would still recommend this place as good value for money, with quite a nice ambience and quite good food (especially the desserts).

They currently have a special offer of $49.90 for 2 pax, with a selection of starter (soup or salad), main course, dessert and their own homemade fruity soda. So one weekend, my family decided to go check them out.

The shrimp salad was visually attractive and quite delicious. The mushroom soup (not pictured here) was also tasty and freshly made.

We ordered the Aglio Olio bacon off the a la carte menu. I didn't try the it personally, but my 3-year old wolfed down the larger part of an adult portion, so I think it must have been pretty good. He is quite the aglio olio connoisseur. He was definitely more keen on this than the one he ate at Hot Tomato the next day. (Hot Tomato serves his favourite aglio olio, and mine too, but the joint at The Star was quite disappointing. That is another story.)

The teriyaki salmon was a bit overdone and rather chewy.

The beef tenderloin was tender and simply delicious. It compared very favourably with the ribeye I had at The French Stall just the night before. This was definitely the best of the main courses, and highly recommended.

The pork knuckle (for 2) looked really good! Unfortunately, we found that the skin had been fried to a very hard crisp and the meat inside was tough and dry. It was not an enjoyable eating experience.

The highlight of the evening should be the dessert, which was what they specialised in, after all.

The apple crumble with ice cream was great.

They were out of tiramisu, so they gave us some warm chocolate cake instead. This was simply delicious!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Legal Self Defence Weapons in Singapore

It all started when the goldfish went bump in the night.

The kids were in bed. My wife and I were chatting in the bedroom, when suddenly we heard the sound of something falling to the floor. I walked out to the living room and quickly determined the source of the sound. My son had left three goldfish on the dining table. Now there were two fish on the table and one on the floor. The question was, why?

All the windows of our home were closed, and the fans were off. There was no draft or airflow, so it couldn't have blown down. I turned on the light and examined the table carefully, because my first hypothesis was that some ants may have tried to carry the fish off. But there were only one or two tiny ants on the scene. At this point my wife joined me and her conclusion was much more sinister: there must be someone in the house!

Once such a thought has been implanted, there is nothing to do but search the house. Despite my cynicism, I figured if we are going to do this we better do it right. So I looked around the bedroom for some sort of weapon. After several minutes, the best I could come up with was a tactical pen and a tactical torch. My wife had an air freshener. I told her to get her phone instead and be ready to call the police if anything happened. That is when I found out that she thinks the number for the police is 995. Oh dear.

So I went from room to room, flashlight in one hand and pen in the other, and we eventually concluded that there was nobody in the house. So we still have no idea how the fish fell to the floor. (As you can see from the picture, it was not exactly on the edge of the table.) But it also got me thinking, if there were a real intruder one day, what do we have at our disposal to defend ourselves?

"We need a baseball bat." My wife was clear and adamant on this point. Personally, I don't think a baseball bat is a very useful weapon in Singapore's cramped living quarters. There is hardly anywhere in the flat that you can swing it properly. I also ruled out knives (although the kitchen has a couple). If someone were really to break and enter, the last thing I would want to do is to introduce lethal weapons into what might otherwise have been meant as a burglary.

My personal preference would be to get a pepper spray, but unfortunately it is #11 on the Police's list of prohibited items (which also includes things like air pistols, crossbows, paintball guns, knuckle dusters and tasers). So I've been thinking, what's the best substitute? Among all the aerosols, I'm thinking that Insecticide is probably the most poisonous, although my top choice at the moment would be an analgesic spray like Deep Heat. I've never had this in my eye before, but I bet it would hurt, although it shouldn't do permanent damage. And you can easily find it in a pharmacy.
For added effect, you can combine it with a lighter for a homemade flame-thrower, but I'm not sure if your fire insurance would cover such an event.

You might want to prime the lighter first so that the flame is a lot higher (and further from your fingers so you don't burn them). This is a little trick I learned ages ago as a scout.

Alternatively, you can make your own pepper spray. Here's a recipe. But because your homemade spray obviously cannot be put into an aerosol, the range and duration of the blast would be less.

If you are really into it, and you want a weapon that cannot be turned against you, you can also pick up martial arts. Obviously this is a totally different level of investment and commitment than buying an aerosol. Here is a cool tool to help you select the right martial art for you. Based on its recommendation, I started Capoeira last year and really loved it, but I just don't have the time for this kind of long-term commitment. If only I had started earlier ... Instead, I shall send my kids for training.

Apart from the weapon, it's also useful to have a discrete way to call for help. Smartphones are great for this, unfortunately the police in Singapore still have not put out anything particularly useful in this respect. Hopefully they will soon - Guardly is one of many such Apps. It can transmit a request for help with your location, even if you are indoors.
MyForce is another example of a personal safety app

That's it for now. I will add to this list if I get better ideas.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Getting Baby to Sleep Through the Night : Review of Foscam Wireless IP Infra-Red (IR) Camera

We all know our lives change when the first baby is born. What we hear less of, is when does it take a turn for the better again. I would say this happens when your baby is finally able to sleep through the night, and this is not something you should leave to chance! And this is about how technology can help.

When my firstborn arrived, we were thrown into the world of night duties, disrupted sleep and permanent eyebags. Having a confinement nanny didn't help because the nanny really spoiled the baby - patting and carrying him at the slightest sound. When she left, we had a time bomb on our hands - one that would go off at all times both day and night. My wife bit the bullet and sleep-trained him using the Gina Ford routine, so finally, after about 6 months, he was finally able to sleep through the night on his own. Well, for the most part anyway. Every few nights, we would still be awakened by his crying.

Every time he cried at night, we would rush to him. But what we discovered was that he was actually crying in his sleep! (Not an uncommon occurrence, apparently.) The problem is that when we opened the door to his room and rushed in to pat him, we would really wake him up. And then it would be a hard time getting him to go back to sleep. We developed ways and means to cope with this - for example we would set a time limit: we only go in to check on him if he cries for more than 15 minutes. But like every good father, I wanted to do better. I wanted to fix the problem. And I knew technology could help. What we needed, was to be able to check on him without opening the door and bringing light into the room.

So 2 years ago, I went about searching for a wireless infra-red camera. Wireless cameras are a dime a dozen, you can buy them anywhere. But an infra-red camera is a different story. I tried Sim Lim and Funan Centre. I also tried some of the mega tech malls in Akihabara in Tokyo. But the cameras I found there cost hundreds of dollars; that's more than I was willing to pay for a good nights sleep (ok, I'm just cheapo). Finally, I found it!

This is the Foscam FI8910W Pan & Tilt IP/Network Camera with Two-Way Audio and Night Vision which you can buy for under USD100 on And today, it is a lot easier. Foscam has set up their own webfront right here in Singapore! You can browse their local selections here.

The camera is a cinch to set up. One thing to remember is that while the data is wireless, power is not. So you must have a power socket at a suitable location. It can be controlled easily through the web interface on a laptop or iPad, and there are apps (example) to control it through smartphones too. Finally, instead of wondering whether we should go check on the crying baby, we just reach over to turn on the iPad. If his eyes are open or he is sitting up, we go comfort him. But this was hardly ever the case. Most of the time, we just turned off the baby monitor and went back to sleep.

Here's an image sample from the infra-red camera wall-mounted above the cot

The model which I used had no sound, but the latest one apparently has two-way audio. You can even talk to your baby! So this could even be a complete replacement for your baby monitor system! Some of the other useful features I found were:
  • Control pan, tilt and zoom; turn the IR off and on remotely
  • The camera can be accessed from the internet (not just your home LAN), so occasionally we would go out for dessert and still keep an eye on sleeping baby
  • The camera can be connected to a NAS which allowed video recording either at pre-defined times or using the motion sensor (check if your NAS supports this feature)
There was one concern which arose, that a friend pointed out, which was that the IR rays could damage the baby's eyes. I did much internet research into this, but could not find any authoritative or conclusive findings on this danger. But to be safe, we only turned on the IR lamp when we wanted to check on the baby. This could also be done remotely from the web interface.

The best part is after a while, maybe because we stopped interrupting his sleep, or maybe because it is the natural course of things ... he stopped crying at night! But even then, it is still useful if we are just wondering if he is asleep yet, but don't want to risk disturbing him by opening the door.

This little toy changed our lives, and I hope it is of use to others as well. Send this to your father friends who need a good nights sleep!

The cutest baby is a sleeping baby 
(This colour photo taken using a Panasonic compact with large aperture, not infra-red)

Monday, March 18, 2013

Work-Life Balance and Leadership : A Review of Recent Articles and Personal Perspective

There have been a lot of articles on work-life balance and "having it all" spreading recently. These are important thing to think about because the balance you strike is an important personal choice. It is influenced greatly by your superior, which is why I have tied it to leadership as well. Ultimately, every leader and organisation must decide how to balance getting the most out of their people with doing so in a sustainable way. These are my thoughts, tied in to a survey of the literature I have read.

1. Work-Life Balance is a Personal Choice

Ultimately, work-life balance is a personal choice, and choice requires tradeoffs. This is the core of what Ann-Marie Slaughter confronted in "Why Women Still Can’t Have It All" - although written for women juggling work and family, the same applies to men juggling work and family, or work and anything else that is important to you. Many men wrote in to various publications saying they can't have it all either, the most comprehensive perhaps being Michael Winerip's "He Hasn't Had It All Either", a father who has decided it is more fun to work from home and raise the kids. He also concludes that no matter how flexible your work arrangements, you cannot expect to be there for your family and rise to the top at work. You cannot excel both at work and at life, you have to make a decision which is more important to you, and where you want to focus your time. This boils down to your purpose in life and if you haven't thought clearly about this, Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen's "How Will You Measure Your Life" provides good food for thought, using well-established management principles to help prioritise your personal life. This is one of the best books I read in 2013 and I highly recommend it. (You can also watch Clay Christensen's TED talk in the video below.)

2. Work-Life Balance is Not Just About You

There is a misconception that work-life balance is about being happy at work. We get this mixed up with motivation and a sense of purpose. If your work gives you satisfaction, then you have achieved "work-life harmony", you don't need balance. Another way I've heard this: "if your work is your life, then you have balance". This may be true if you are single with no family and friends, but how many of us are really in that circumstance? Every extra hour you spend at work may be an extra hour you have made someone wait sadly for your return. This was the regret of ex-Lehman CFO Erin Callan when she wrote in "Is There Life After Work?" that:

'work always came first, before my family, friends and marriage — which ended just a few years later... I don’t have children, so it might seem that my story lacks relevance to the work-life balance debate. Like everyone, though, I did have relationships — a spouse, friends and family — and none of them got the best version of me. They got what was left over.'
You can be immensely successful at work, but this may not equate to being successful in life. For some, you might even want to ask yourself if you are spending so much time achieving success at work, because you are running away from other parts of your life where you are less successful. And if you continue this, those parts of you may eventually die. (I will need to dig up the citation for this.) It goes back to how you have defined your purpose.

3. Every Person's Circumstance is Different

The personal choice is shaped by varying personal circumstances. Some people are more talented and efficient, others make up by putting in greater effort and longer hours. Some people have to care for ailing parents, others have grandparents and helpers looking after their kids. The stage in life clearly matters too - single, married or married with kids. All these affect the balance of responsibilities and commitments. For completeness, I should also mention that I don't agree with "Lean In" by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and "Living With Less" by Treehugger's Graham Hill, two people who have been very privileged and hence write advice that is out of touch with most people's realities. We shouldn't judge another's choice; and we certainly shouldn't do so without first clearly understanding their circumstance.

4. The Role of Leaders

While work-life balance is a personal choice, the attitudes of you direct superior and even the colleagues around you determines how supportive the environment is. It is difficult to leave work on time if your boss in the habit of calling meetings or handing out work at 7 pm, or is simply openly critical of your work-life choice. Leaders should ask yourself if the work you assign is purposeful, or if you are what Colin Powell calls a "busy bastard" - 'He never rests and as a result, his staff never rests. He’s always making work that expands to fill whatever time is available.' Worse, are you the kind of toxic leader who burns out successive teams of staff in the pursuit of your personal ambitions?

In fact, you should actively watch out for your staff, especially those new to the workplace, to ensure they don't form unhealthy working habits that lead to burnout. I agree very much with Marissa Mayer's theory in "How To Avoid Burnout" that burnout is tied to the resentment bred when we feel forced to give up personal passions for work. If you can identify what is most important to your staff, you could help them be much happier with minimal adjustments. As Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer also recently ended Yahoo's work-from-home policy, receiving very mixed reviews. Critics focussed on how she does not realise that working from home is actually more productive, while supporters recognised that a company in crisis must have more face-to-face interactions to rally together and turn around. Personally, I favour flexibility to work from home, but this is a privilege which must be exercised responsibly.

Another pro-active way is to help your staff develop healthier working habits that energise them, as discussed in Harvard Business Review article "Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time". The Energy Project has examined 4 kinds of energy: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual, and how you can adjust your lifestyle and outlook to maximise energy for better well-being. It also discusses how the company can help. This type of approach can lead to staff that stay happier, more productive, and with you.

5. Work Life Balance and Work Appraisal

No matter what you say about supporting work-life balance, the bottom line is how you factor it into staff appraisals. You don't want to unfairly penalise the person who leaves office early because his work is done; neither do you want to penalise the guy who works late because he is slower, but makes sure the job is done well. One important lesson I've learned is that since you cannot reward everyone equally, it is good to be clear on who is gunning for career advancement and who wants to just cruise - so when there is additional work you can distribute accordingly. The key thing is to have a clear understanding with your staff.

Ultimately, work appraisal should be based on the outcome, not the person's potential, nor the output or the working hours. From a leader's perspective, you should respect the choices made by those under you. If someone has decided to prioritise family, then we should respect that decision and it is pointless to put their nose to the grindstone. Rather, it can be openly agreed that if they choose not to put everything into work, they also will not reap the full reward. But when the pie of rewards is being divided, it should be based on their contributions relative to others, not relative to what they could have done.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Car-culator v1.0 for Android: Annual Cost of a Car for the Budget-Conscious Buyer

Understanding car costs in Singapore can be horribly complicated. You compare two different types of cars with the same list price, but the OMV, COE and insurance costs are worlds apart. Which car is actually more expensive to own for X number of years, until you sell or scrap it?

Car-culator is the app I needed 2 weeks ago when I was searching for a car, but it didn't exist. So now that I have bought my car (at a great price, I might add), I've decided to do some public service and make the calculations available for everyone.

You can get it from the Google Play Store.

Car-culator cuts through all the complications of the Singapore tax structure on cars to give you one simple number: the annual cost of the car.
The calculations are based on the LTA Tax Structure, updated in Feb 2013. It has been tested against whatever data I can obtain, but I cannot guarantee the accuracy in all situations.
At the moment, it only works for normal petrol cars with normal COEs.

This is my unofficial beta test release. Features are simple, but I hope you find it useful! If you have feedback on bugs, calculation errors or suggested features, please leave a comment or send me an email.

How It Looks
This is a very simple app. You fill in the cars basic data, and it tells you the annual cost of keeping the car.
The three screens above show you
1) The app's opening screen
2) The opening screen with data filled in
3) The cost calculation, with the annual cost highlighted in red

The App works best if you already know what make and model you want, and are just trying to find the best deal. If you already know your budget and the car you want to buy, it just boils down to figuring out which of all the listed cars can give you the best value (without being a lemon, of course). So that is what this app is for.

How to Use
You can walk around the car showrooms using it to calculate annual costs on the fly. Or you can do what I did (at that time it was in excel), and use it for online comparison shopping. When I found a listing I liked based on the annual cost, I would print it out and write my magic number on the front.

Actually sites like sgcarmart do have a field called "depreciation". But in my experience, the field is usually empty or it is an arbitrary number that is too low.

This app prototype was built using the MIT App Inventor, a very user-friendly interface that is perfect for simple apps or prototypes. There are plenty of tutorial on YouTube on how to use it. For more of my apps, you can also check out the Meeting Butler (built ground-up in Eclipse) which is a much more advanced app designed to streamline the conduct of long meetings in the SAF.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Car-culator: Car Insurance in Singapore

There are many companies providing car insurance in Singapore, some of which are online. These online vendors are the easiest way to get an indicative quote of how much insurance for a particular type of car will cost you, even if you eventually prefer a different provider.

Here are some options:

Aviva is my personal preference, because they can provide a very quick quote. Their rates are also very competitive. Here are some other options.

Once you have chosen the car, you should of course do a proper comparison of insurance providers. There are other ways to bring down insurance cost, such as limiting the coverage to drivers above a certain age, or increasing the excess. By doing these two things, I was able to further bring down by Aviva quote by about 30%.