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Chess with Kids
As parents, we consciously limit our two kids’ exposure to mobile gadgets as much as possible. While both Hannah and Peter do enjoy the occasional time they get on the iPad, neither seem particularly hung up about it when they don’t get that time – though in Hannah’s case at least, I wonder if it’s because her After school care already has such devices for the kids to congregate over already, and she has her fill of them as a result.
In any case, we supplement their free time with other home activities. Ling has a repertoire of gardening and baking projects that Hannah will typically actively join in, while Peter usually just looks on. Of late too, and possibly in part because her friends’ induction at After School Care, Hannah now plays chess. We’ve been diligently putting time aside every day to play at least one game, normally after dinner. And it’s fascinating to observe how quickly she’s improving with practice. Since Monday, we’ve played about nine games now. And while it’s been eight wins with one stalemate in my favor, over this short period of a week, I increasingly have to work harder each match! She’s mastered most of the types of moves permitted in each chess piece, and can anticipate the most obvious opponent countermoves one to two steps ahead. Though she’s still missing a clear understanding of the relative prowess of chess pieces and what are considered good or bad trades, and also perhaps a sense of long-term strategy. Those I’m sure will come over time with more practice.
H’s starter chess board is the same type I had as a primary school student too: a small 5″x 5″ board with tiny black/white chess pieces with magnet attachments. Cheaply made of plastic that goes for just a few dollars @ Popular Bookstore. And pieces on the 5″ board are too small for my chubby fingers! Now that she’s really getting into the game, I’ve placed an order for two other wooden handcrafted sets. The first is a slightly larger 7″ x 7″ set that’s going for SGD14 @ eBay and shipping from India. The 7″ set should make a world of difference compared to the small dingy 5″x 5″ board we’ve been making do, yet still small enough for Hannah to bring around. The second is a much larger 11″x 11″ that’s a bit more costly at about SGD45, also wooden handcrafted and shipping from Poland. This one we’ll keep at home to play.
It’s certainly fun to reflect on how our kids play the kind of games we used to as children at their age. I wonder what will be next! :)
Continuing from a post from just over a month ago here. The month of March came and went past without Microsoft making a formal announcement on the highly anticipated successor to the Surface Pro 4. Insider information though revealed that the SP5 was going to largely see an upgrade from its processor to that of the Kaby Lake series, but not much else. Pretty disappointing.
I was also rethinking what my use cases for a new laptop was going to be. For certain, the 2.5 year old Surface Pro 3 isn’t keeping up anymore to what I use it for (note to self: never ever again buy a Windows laptop that comes with just 4GB RAM), and its general responsiveness seem to worsen with the recent Windows 10 Creators Update.
There were two scenarios. Either the replacement laptop will be for home use, or it will replace the Dell XPS 13 and bring that home to replace the SP3. My preference was for the latter, on account that the 256GB SSD on the XPS 13 was also straining under work use. I use a lot of media files when I teach, with my eyes starting to struggle with screen sizes of 13.3″.
So, with that, my couple of requirements for a work notebook replacement were:
Preferably a 14″ screen or larger for my old ‘Uncle’ eyes
8GB RAM + 512GB SSD, or at least end-user replaceable
USB Type-C support and preferably with Thunderbolt 3 support
Windows 10 Pro
At least 2 years warranty
On this, there are two nice benefits of being an educator. Purchases of personal IT equipment are partially claimable from work, and we also separately get great large discounts with selected notebook manufacturers, especially from Acer, HP, Asus, Apple, and Lenovo. The discounts offered from Acer, HP and Asus are routinely isolated to specific models however numbering usually 4-5 from each manufacturer, while Lenovo and Apple offer educational discounts on most if not all of its notebooks.
After several weeks of the usual reading-up and tabular comparisons, the choices came down to:
Apple MacBook Pro 13: a factory refurbished configuration of 16GB RAM/512GB SSD is about SGD2.6K, with new units sold through its educational store a few hundred dollars higher. The general build and quality of Apple’s MacBooks continue to be second to none, but I am pretty uncertain of its butterfly-type keyboards on both the 13 and 15s’ even after spending a good amount of try-outs at the various Apple resellers. The number of complaints of spoilt keyboards on these new MacBooks is also unsettling. The non-Touchbar MacBooks comes with just two ports – both Type-C’s – which would have made using all my USB 3.0 Type-A peripherals, including a ton of flash drives, portable drives and hubs, a real nightmare. The Touchbar version is going to stack an additional SGD400 to the asking price. Drivers to make full use of the Touchbar are still absent for Windows 10 too. Finally, adding Apple Care – a must after my old MacBook Pro 15 went bonkers after one year of use – is going to be another SGD300 too. So, tempting as owning a current gen MacBook is, it was just way more than what I was prepared to spend.
Lenovo Yoga 910: the Yoga 910 is rated by many sites to be one of the two best convertible laptops right now – the other is the HP x360 Spectre 13 (see below) – with both machines offering Energizer Bunny-like battery life of > 8 hrs under typical use, premium builds, and support for USB Type C. Lenovo Singapore educational store is also offering very tempting discounts for this lovely machine: somewhere to the tune of about SGD500 less. And for a comparatively low price of SGD1679, one would get 16GB RAM/256GB SSD with 2 years warranty, with the storage drive being end-user replaceable. The screen is also a healthy 13.9″ size. In comparison, the HP Spectre x360 13 is going for slightly more at SGD2189 for a 8GB RAM/512GB SSD configuration, but with 3 years warranty. Both tempting options!
Lenovo ThinkPad T470s: was also in the final reckoning. There are very few reviews for this just recently released laptop too. None of the usual local computer stores I checked had it on display. The one web site that had the T470s reviewed in detail was clearly impressed with its general build quality and battery life, though the full-HD screen seemed to be a hit and miss affair over its rated screen brightness levels. The laptop also comes with a very welcomed suite of Type A and C ports too – a feature set that is absent on the Yoga 910 and x360. The notebook isn’t actually as light or svelte as the Yoga 910 or x360 though, but its close enough. Unlike either too, the T470s and the X1 Carbon (below) are built for enterprise use. A 16GB RAM/512GB SSD/i5-7300U/WQHD screen configuration is SGD2477 after educational discounts.
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon: the fifth generation of Leonvo’s top of the line notebook for Enterprise use. The X1 notebooks are basically like the ThinkPad T series: just lighter, smaller, and even better engineered. This model has been widely reviewed, with many sites uniformly praising its build quality and feature set, though not its asking price – it’s Lenovo’s most costly line of notebooks! Lenovo’s educational discount however is significant: for a 16GB RAM/512GB SSD/i5-7300U/FHD configuration was SGD2677.
I’ve always liked ThinkPads, though the current one my workplace gives me is the X230 with its tiny and not elderly friendly 12.5″ screen. After weighing the pros and cons of each, the choices narrowed down to these two ThinkPads: T470s and X1. And several more days of agonizing later, the X1 Carbon it is. Coming in a fortnight (hopefully), with the Dell XPS 13 to come home in a swap. More posts about it to come soon!
The Piano Project – Part 6
There are two things I’m especially grateful my parents did when I was a child: buy us an Apple II computer, and let my two brothers and I learn the piano. Both of these things had immeasurable impacts on what I’ve done since that point. As a direct result of the first – I learned programming as a 12 year old by reading books, programmed my first video game in secondary one, did computing at University, did a PhD centered on video games, and now work in an Information Technology school.
My journey as a result of the second is a little more convoluted: I had piano lessons, experienced a few junctures where I wanted to give up learning, had a wonderful teacher in my later grades who was a much more effective instructor, started listening to classical music, wrote and recorded my own piano music. And now it’s come full-circle – our daughter now also learns the same instrument!
One of the reasons why I wanted the Silent Piano module when looking for our home piano last year came from an interest to record. Like debating: there’s no better way to learn where your mistakes are than listening to your own self performances. There are a couple of ways of recording music on our Yamaha U30BL, each with its own advantages and challenges:
Turning on the Silent Piano module, and recording a piece on MIDI.
Turning on the Silent Piano module, and recording a piece directly via headphone jack.
Using a camcorder LOL.
The first method will only record audio, and using a MIDI sequencer, you’d also be able to correct very minor mistakes in the performance. You’d also get pretty clean audio, no noise, and you can fine-tune the soundscape as you like. Recording via MIDI though is a crazy amount of work though, and while I have a fairly systematic workflow, the process is not something I relish.
I haven’t tried the second method yet. You won’t be able to correct any mistakes and the quality of the sound is entirely dependent on the note samples embedded in the Silent Piano module – which is adequate but not great.
The third method is the most convenient, and as a bonus, I get video to see all my fingering goofs! The acoustics in our living room aren’t really very good, and there’s pretty poor clarity in the lower registers. A better and fourth method would be to record video but use the audio output of the Silent Piano – but I lack sufficiently long audio cables at the moment to run those things about the piano.
So, in the mean time, I’ve been doing some video recordings. Oddly, the Panasonic TM700’s microphone input resulted in heavily muffled audio, while the E-M1 fared somewhat better – though neither methods were producing an ideal audio experience – with limited aural range, reverberations caused by the living room acoustics, creaking from the piano seat, and my next door neighbor moving house LOL.
Brother P-Touch PT-H110 Label Maker
This is one of those little home gadgets that’s a must for those of us who like everything neat and organized (e.g. me!). I’ve been wanting to get one of these at a stationery store. Popular Bookstore has a couple of models from Dymo, Casio and Brother, all at varying price-points of $49.90 and upwards. I’m not running an asset inventory store at home, so figured I really didn’t want to spend much on this – so went with the cheapest handheld model: the Brother P-Touch PT-H110 (what a mouthful LOL).
Commented in the picture captions below.
In all, it’s a decent and helpful machine, and cartridge replenishment is easily available at bookstores. The keypad is a little annoying, and the tape waste even more so. But it’s a cheap purchase on the overall still, so I can’t complain too much.
Watching the Surface Pros
Many of us would be hard-pressed not to think of ‘Apple’ if asked to list a prominent technology trendsetter. To be fair, their first and early iPhones, iPads, iPods and MacBooks did turn their respective industries on their heads. Of late though, Apple’s ability to set such trends have come under severe pressure from other tech giants. Apple is no longer regarded as the undisputed market leader on several product fronts. In fact, as far as smartwatches and smartphones are concerned, companies like LG, Huawei and Samsung of late seem to be real innovators, with Apple’s line-up routinely having to play catch-up.
Likewise for laptops. Apple with its late 2016 iterations of MacBooks still steadfastly refuses to provide touchscreen or stylus support in their refreshed lineup while other manufacturers have already gone ahead with it (e.g. Microsoft, HP, Acer, Lenovo, Dell). Though as these things go, if they do eventually put it in, their marketing pitch will likely make it sound like they are the first to do it properly. And don’t even get me started on the USB Type-C only ports which basically forces owners to purchase additional adapters just for them to work on Apple’s new MacBooks.
Of the two laptops I bought two years ago in January 2015 – the Dell XPS 13 and Surface Pro 3 – the Dell remains my main driver at work, and it’s borne up very well without issues of any sort. Not a small feat considering it’s used 11-12 hours a day, brought from place to place, and chucked into my haversack everyday to/fro home. The SP3 however is just that much more enjoyable to use! The first intentions for it last year was largely as a casual machine. But I liked it so much in its first year of use, that the somewhat modest storage and RAM included in it (4GB RAM/128GB SSD) became a quick limiter to all the stuff I was putting it through.
The second year of use evolved, and especially so after getting the Aftershock S17 last April. The SP3’s primary functions now include Hannah using it for homework and to access the suite of learning systems her school puts out, as a musical score display device when I’m on the piano, as our primary laptop when we travel out of the country on vacations, and occasionally at home in the dining room. Of the latter; the S17 just doesn’t offer enough battery juice to run for 2 hours if it gets carted out from the bedroom to the dining room, and its power brick is every literal sense of that word. Oddly too; the SP3 since the middle of last year has been emitting a lot of heat even under fairly low intensity use (e.g. web browsing), and the metallic back plate near the sole USB 3.0 port has very slightly deformed too. Related?
Microsoft has put out the SP3’s successor – the Surface Pro 4 – more than a year ago now, but the new iteration received mixed feedback at launch. On the up side, the SP4’s display was better on several counts (color, resolution, and even size), but its battery life – according to some Internet reviewers – was poorer than the SP3’s. Even more worryingly was that the SP4 suffered from serious firmware issues. After a series of updates, much of it seems to have finally been resolved, though battery life remains middling.
There are imitators to Microsoft’s trendsetting Surface Pro-type convertibles of course, and they include (with indicative pricing):
Asus Transformer Pro 3: (SGD1898, i5-6200U, 8GB/256GB) larger screen than SP4’s (hooray!!!), but pricey for comparative specifications and more so given SP4’s recent price-drops. And poor battery life.
Acer Switch Alpha 12: (SGD1298, i5-6200U, 8GB/256GB) very attractively priced right now with seasonal discounts, good range of ports, supports USB-C charging, and runs silent. But also poor battery life. Screen smaller than SP4’s.
Lenovo Ideapad Miix 510: (SGD1499, i5-6200U, 8GB/256GB ) good array of ports, but lousy battery life – again.
Samsung TabPro S: (SGD998, M3-6Y30, 4GB/128GB) thin bezels, dirt cheap with seasonal discounts, stunning AMOLED screen, and long battery life. But stuck with entry-level specs of 4GB RAM/128GB SSD and no other options. Awkward tablet/keyboard configuration too.
Huawei MateBook: (SGD1788, 8GB/512GB) thin bezels, lovely form, good pricing, but yucky keyboard and like Samsung’s above – awkward tablet/keyboard configuration. And if that wasn’t enough still, awful battery life to top it off.
HP Spectre x2: (SGD1299, M7-6Y75, 8GB/256GB) amazingly low price now after the list price for this convertible nose-dropped recently. Battery life about where the SP4 is, good screen, LTE support (nice!!) and premium design. Would had been a real alternative, were it not for its smaller than SP4’s screen, thick bezels (yuck), and you have to pay an additional $79 for the stylus. The overall package price would bring it to a whisker under the SP4 below then.
Microsoft Surface Pro 4: SGD1456, i5, 8GB/256GB sans SP4 Typecover as I already have one.
What about the iPad Pro 12.9″? Truth to tell, I’ve been quite tempted by this oversized iPad for months now, and seriously considered picking it up late last year when renewing my mobile broadband plan (I eventually went with an iPad Mini 4 instead). What held me back was that while the iPad Pro 12.9″‘s base unit price is OK, you’ll pay a lot more for the additional keyboard and Apple Pen just so to have it operate like a convertible.
So, it seems that the SP4 for all its flaws remains still the most balanced tablet PC in consideration, followed closely by the Acer Switch Alpha 12 and the HP Spectre x2 from a price-point at least. But with the expected release of the SP5 just around the corner, lots of rumors have come about though Microsoft itself has been quite tight-lipped about what the new machine will feature. My wishlist for it would be for it to:
Offer a 8GB RAM/128GB SSD option. Right now, the SP4 is available as 4GB RAM/128GB SSD and 8GB/256GB SSD configurations – but not in between.
Keep the micro-SD card slot (so that additional storage can be added for cheap.:)
Keep the mini-display port and USB 3.0 port, but also add a USB 3.1 Type-C port that supports power charging
Keep the current physical form factor, so that I can still use back my current Surface Pro 4 Typecover.
But increase the display width. The 12.3″ display on the SP4 is already slightly larger than the SP3’s, but I hope it gets larger still as the screen’s bezels are still fairly thick. I reckon the display can go up to 12.6″ without making the overall unit larger.
Use Intel’s 7th generation Kaby Lake processor. The improvements performance-wise are minor, but the new processors are more power efficient.
And offer better battery life, definitely!
Hopefully something comes up in the next month or two so that it can be considered for our June trip! And if not, the SP4’s recent price drops alongside the educational discount I’d get do make it quite attractive at this point too.
As parents of young kids, we have to wrack our brain cells to decide what to buy for presents – whether it’s for their birthdays or Christmas. We generally avoid electronic gadgets and video games, with Hannah’s Nikon Coolpix L29 camera the only exception so far. Books are always a fail-safe when we can’t think of anything else of course. Credit again to the wife who is always a lot more observant in discovering new things for the kids – because we got Hannah and Peter a box of ‘magical’ magnets last Christmas. Basically, these are plastic polygonal pieces lined with magnets for kids to build models with. Pretty much like Lego, with the differences being that constructions are a tad more fragile but can also be disassembled very quickly, and the pieces are also much larger and hence less likely to get lost in sofas, carpets and the like.
Ling found a box of these for sale at a bazaar at a nearby shopping mall late last year, and the kids have been having a ball of fun with the pieces after getting them for late last year. They weren’t too costly too at about $45 a box.
The box we bought was made by a Chinese-sounding manufacturer called Xinaida, which also has them listed for sale at places like Amazon, but they should also be widely available for sale at most toy shops here.
By this point, the kids have put together all types of movable vehicles, hamster cages (!?!?), Ferris Wheels, and even simple Rube Goldberg machines . Highly recommended for kids!
Kids @ 17mm, 25mm etc. – Part 31
If there is one large down side about owning multiple m4/3 camera bodies, it’s trying to decide which one to bring along for vacations when space and portability is premium. I’ll have to decide soon enough which two of the four m4/3 bodies – the E-M1, E-M5, GX85 and E-PL6 – will come on our June trip to Western Australia. The E-M1 is a given for certain and coming, since the 40-150mm f2.8 works better on that body than the others. For the other three, and particularly in reference to the trip’s requirements:
E-M5: EVF, uses the same battery as the E-M1, so I don’t have to bring a different set of batteries and chargers.
E-PL6: lovely styling, great touch-AF and release implementation, super portable, articulating screen for wefies. No EVF though.
GX85: USB charging so no additional charger needed, 4K video so that I don’t have to bring a camcorder, EVF for the more tricky shots.
I’m leaning towards the GX85. So of late, I’ve been putting the 12-40mm f2.8 (which will be also coming for the trip) with the GX85 to get use to its handling and if there are quirks I need to be mindful of. The below is a selection of pictures taken with the 12-40mm + GX85, all set to f2.8, multi-segment AF, and the last three also with the Meike-MK320 flash unit.
All in; the GX85 works well with the 12-40mm, though AF is still very slightly less blazing-fast compared to the same lens on the E-M1. Oddly too, several pictures in the series were registered with incorrect image rotations: basically, shots that were taken in normal landscape fashion were determined by the GX85 to be portrait instead. Not a killer by any measure since the photo just needs to be rotated 90 degree clockwise in edits, but still annoying.
Parenting a 7 Year Old
For all intents and purposes, I reckon we have it fairly easy with Hannah. Our 7 year old listens to instructions well, is conscientious, generally diligent and always seeking to do well. She’s adapted well to her new school environment – if her invitations to birthday parties in her class is any indication – and seems to enjoy school and after-school activities. Of her quirks; she still does not take failure of any kind well at all and easily tears up when she’s faulted for something. She can also be a little bossy, and is naturally inclined to tell people what they should be doing. These seem to have been ingrained in her for several years now.
There is one other quirk that gradually surfaced since starting Primary One though. In the last year, we’ve discovered a few instances where she had not been truthful. The story about this goes back though slightly further back to Nov 2015 and two months before she started Primary One. Hannah’s school advised us then during that briefing for parents that one challenge parents would face would be their child’s tendency to hit the school book store to buy all manner of stationery items they don’t really need but are nonetheless attractive to girls at that age. I recalled the both of us chuckling at that point and musing to ourselves “Nah – Hannah’s not into these things”.
How wrong we were and the irony. The instances where she’d been untruthful have all centered on how she uses the pocket money we give to her to buy food during recess time. Specifically: on those three occasions, rather than use her money to buy food, she’d spend it on cute things at her school book store, and then not tell us. When quizzed on it, she typically acted ignorant first, but folded in short order under Mommy’s interrogation. After which, she teared up and sobbed.
The most recent of these were yesterday evening. Rather than physically discipline her this time though, we got her to write a reflection instead after a stern talking to – which she did:
After the kids went to bed, the two of us had a further discussion on this, as it struck us that it’s hard for 7 year old girls not to be attracted by these things. Moreover, at a level, we wondered too if we finally needed to provide her an outlet to buy these stationery, as these things often become social topics of chitchat with her friends. We agreed that we would provide opportunities for her to buy these stationery, but in an organized fashion and to better teach her personal responsibility.
Parenting: an ongoing learning journey!
Learning Music for Kids
Both Ling and I started our formal music and piano lessons when we were in junior Primary school, which is about the age that many parents here today still get their children started at too. Both of us learned the piano using what many music teachers refer to as the ‘traditional’ method: basically, you learn to read notes first before getting onto the keyboard.
Hannah’s piano teacher – who himself is also a Minton resident – has been teaching her using the Suzuki method. There are many apparent differences between this method against the traditional form of learning, one of them being the emphasis of listening to a piece of music extensively to learn how to play it. Which sounds like a perfectly right way to learn – and one that Hannah has really taken to, since she’s inherited one of my old Sony MP3 players and listens to the pieces of her current Suzuki music book whenever we’re in the car. I reckon that even my piano teacher had the chops to teach me all those years ago with such a method, it would had been a lot harder anyway since personal audio players weren’t the norm as they are today.
There’s one other key difference between learning music today yesteryear and today: and it’s that young learners today have access to all kinds of learning aids. Like these:
And that’s not counting music software you can find on on computers and tablets. How I learned music theory was through a lot of rote: my teacher made me draw pages of stave lines for both clefts, and then all manner of notes on them as though I was learning calligraphy LOL. I think our old Lentor family home still has several of these books from more than 35 years ago – and I’ll find one such and scan those pictures in to show Hannah how her parents learned!
The Malaysian publisher Poco Studio has a decent catalog of music books, and their line is carried on international retailers including Book Depository and Amazon UK. The former in particular lists the books from a shade under S$10 to S$13 including shipping. The Magnetic Board is also of interest: it allows young learners to arrange music notations and learn rudimentary concepts of timing and such. This particular board is from Yamaha Music School. Hannah isn’t enrolled in one of course, so we got one pre-loved.
Peter and OCD
If there’s another one thing that sets Peter apart from his older sister, it’s his occasional-OCDing. Though thankfully, most of it is harmless and even beneficial for us parents. For instance, our boy at just a few years old now would:
Neatly arrange his crocs at the doorway. And everyone else’s shoes that’s in his view angle.
Running around the common lift lobby outside our main door to latch all the fire escape and utility doors properly.
After soiling himself, would take his soiled clothes… and put them back into his clothing drawer. OK – that was totally not funny for mommy!
Using the Ikea sticky roller (normally used to pick up lint on clothes) around the house to pick up hair and tiny dusty bits off the floor of our home.
The couple of instances above were taken towards the end of 2015, and of late, he hasn’t demonstrated this compulsion to the same degree. Maybe this was just a passing phase where he mimicked a good deal of what his sister and parents do.:)