One of the key things I was looking forward to with our new piano was composing again – with the last piece I wrote being just about 20 years ago. Unlike trained composers though, I write while playing on the piano and often with a very large dose of improvisation. And in order for a piece I’m playing off the top of my head to be transposed to a score, the piano needs to have a recording function.

We weren’t about to convert our living room into a recording studio for sure – it would had been logistically difficult and prohibitively expensive to achieve any measure of aural accuracy. Fortunately, the SG2 module on our Yamaha U30BL permits two methods of recording: via MIDI with a good soundfont bank, or recorded directly via the SG2’s audio jack. The SG2 module is the cheaper of the two Silent Piano options currently offered by Yamaha, and uses 30MB of wave memory to reproduce the piano sounds with a Yamaha CFIIS Concert Grand used to record samples. It’s not the highest fidelity sound you can get digitally, but it’s close enough. As for the former: I fortunately still have the very high quality note samples recorded using a Steinway & Sons Type C Grand, purchased from Warren Tracthman from 20 years ago – which I used to create a new soundfont bank for.

The recordings I made in 1996 were assisted by Cakewalk Professional and Encore Music Notation, and interestingly – both products are still around in their new versions, if also slightly rebranded. Thanks in great part because of open source, my software suite is a little different now and comprised of freeware. These might be somewhat gimped in support features, but they pretty much meet my needs. They include Anvil Studio, the ubiquitous Audacity for editing, and VirtualMidiSynth – a necessary item since I no longer have a dedicated Creative soundcard in my home computers.

The result after a first attempt is below: and a couple minutes of my playing Variations from a Theme from Pachelbel’s Canon in D by David Lanz. Numerous mistakes in my performance below, including a particularly obvious timing one at around 1 min 10 second mark.

 

More notes on my returning to the piano after a decade of hiatus!

Scores

Of all the whole bunch of things that’s different today compared to 38 years ago, the forms of sheet music probably offer the largest changes. Scores were largely available only in print bound form, and had to be purchased from stores. My Lentor family home still has shelves of Mozart, Beethoven and Clementi sonata books, Bach Well-Tempered Clavier books, Chopin waltzes etc. The printing quality and notation type sets used were also invariably dated, though I recall that from the late 80s’ onwards, it became more common for new editions of these classical pieces to use higher quality type sets, which in turn made reading the scores less difficulty.

Oh heck no.

Oh heck no.


Much easier to read!

Much easier to read!

Buying these music books from stores today though isn’t the preferred option to obtain sheet music for classical music. There are several projects seeking to make publicly and freely available classical music sheet music, like IMSLP Petrucci Music Library, The Mutopia Project, and Musopen. The databases are well-organized, and all one needs is just a couple of minutes and a good laser printer to get reasonably good quality prints of sheet music. For example, the set of six Clementi Sonatinas that I practiced on in the 80s was from a Schirmer book that’d cost about S$15. The same pieces are available in different editions and publishers through IMSLP – free off charge.

Modern music though is a very different story. Copyright for the well-known ones from the last couple of decades still lie with publishers and authors. Interestingly, there are fan and enthusiast transcriptions of these music. I haven’t read enough to know for certain if such transcriptions aren’t running afoul of music intellectual property rights, but they are certainly a valuable resource, though the amount of music in such transcribed versions are selective and don’t nearly encompass the length and breadth of modern music.

What music

The modern music I played in my learning years included 80s’ pop songs (think George Michael haha!), opening title themes from the local TV drama serials, and the grandfather of 80s’ piano love ballads: Richard Clayderman. I reckon that the latter is still within my current technical playing ability since his pieces were never especially challenging to begin with. That said, I doubt I’d play his music again – on account that very few persons under the age of 30 would have ever heard of him! I’ve instead been trying pieces from more recent modern day pianists, including David Lanz, David Foster, and Jim Brickman. Song sheets and books are available from Amazon and Book Depository at reasonable prices – averaging about S$25 each volume collecting several pieces.

Still, It’ll be several months of continual practising before I can reach the same kind of technical agility I had 30 years ago. And if that point ever comes, there’s a long list of classical piano pieces that I’ve always wanted to play but never did in my learning years (largely on account that up till the mid-80s I hated classical music as a learner!). The list includes Bach’s Goldberg Variations, English and French Suites, Italian Concerto, most of Mozart’s piano sonatas.

Metronomes

The most common type of metronome that were persistent devices for piano learners years ago were the traditional mechanical ones with polished wood, and the pendulum swinging via a clockwork mechanism. Our Yamaha from Asia Piano threw in the same, though the ‘ticks’ it produces are extremely loud. We’re not limited these days to just mechanical metronomes though: there are digital ones, highly customisable metronomes you can install on your smartphones, and even web site-based ones!

The last bit for this post is a perennial problem faced by all piano learners: page turning! The music rack on our old pianos could hold up to three pages of music, while our new Yamaha’s longer rack can hold four. Many scores though are longer than that, and it becomes a real challenge to turn pages of the sheet music while you’re trying to keep up with the playing.

Thankfully, there’s technology to the rescue. Scores can be scanned and digitized as PDFs, and dropped into tablets. And swiping a sheet page from right to left is now much easier than struggling to flip a page, and risking either damaging the book, or having the entire book crash onto the keyboard. There are even Bluetooth devices operated by your feet that will turn pages. Another problem comes up now though: the absolutely minimal size of a tablet for such score displaying is a 9.7inch tablet. Anything smaller and you’d have to squint! There was the Surface Pro 3’s larger 12″ screen which provides significantly more display space than my iPad Air 2’s – except that it needs a Windows-based PDF reader that lets you swipe right-left when in portrait mode. Oddly, none of the PDF readers I’ve tried support that.

Maybe that’s a reason for me to seriously think about getting that the iPad Pro with its 12.9″ screen – and for displaying song sheets!:)

I don’t have the faintest recollection of the purchase or delivery of our first family piano, 38 years ago from 1978. My mom did write in her diary though that the piano cost $3,950 – not $4,200 as blogged earlier – and purchased from Singapore Piano Co., and my first piano teacher, Mrs. Teo, even accompanied us to select the piano at the store.

Our Yamaha U30BL arrived on Saturday afternoon. It was originally scheduled for a mid-morning delivery, but the delivery vehicle’s breakdown led to a couple of hours wait – which thankfully was the only hiccup. The piano works great, and our notes and observations after two days and about a dozen hours on it:

The piano – even at 26 years old – looks exactly like new on the outside, and the interior shows a well-cleaned and maintained unit too apart from some minor stains on the manufacturer steel plate attached near the sound board.

Over the years I took my ABRSM exams, I remembered always being a little unsettled at how different the exam pianos sounded compared to what I practiced on. Neither my teachers’ nor our family pianos were Yamahas, and they produced somewhat brighter tones. Our new Yamaha, likely because of the size of its sound board, produces fairly warm tones and similar to what to the Yamaha piano exam rooms.  This would be a pretty important aspect of exam preparation for Hannah if she, at any later point, prepares for her ABRSM exams.

The SG2 Silent Piano works as advertised and is simple to operate. Power on, connect one or two headphones to the audio jacks, set the reverb and volume knobs to preference, and play away.

Playing with the Silent Piano mode on feels very different to playing with it off. Specifically, the latter requires a lot more delicate and careful playing, and a lot of concentration is required to hit the note with exactly the right amount of pressure to achieve the desired tone weight and volume. Playing on the Silent Piano mode on the other hand is a lot more forgiving, as the dynamic range seems slightly less wide.

One trait of silent pianos though: there’s no soft-mute any more. It’s normal non-dampened acoustics or on silent mode all the way.

The soft-fall hinge works as stated, and possibly maybe even too well. It takes almost 10-15 seconds for the fallboard to fully close with the hinge.

The store’s custom-designed bench is very comfortable with great support for one’s bum. Unfortunately, the bench doesn’t come with a storage facility, so we had to find space in the living room to keep the piano’s maintenance accessories.

Seriously buffed and polished ebony exterior of the Yamaha U30BL.

Seriously buffed and polished ebony exterior of the Yamaha U30BL.


The keys were re-polished again from what I observed in the warehouse a week ago.

The keys were re-polished again from what I observed in the warehouse a week ago.


The soft-fall hinge.

The soft-fall hinge.


Hannah has our genes: she seems able to play by ear.

Hannah has our music genes: she seems able to play by ear.

Next post on music, metronomes, and songsheets!

Truth to tell, when Hannah decided that she’d like to learn the piano rather than the violin, I was probably the more relieved – even happier – of the two of us parents. Ling’s neutral since she can play both instruments. On the other hand, I can’t play anything other than the piano and been longing to return to practising for years now. And what kept holding me back was that pianos are not really the best instruments to play in a living room! Possibly because of how small Singaporean apartments are, sound gets bounced around the house, and also that my skills on the keyboard have deteriorated significantly over the years, I was – for want of a better word – embarrassed to return to the piano.

Thankfully, while the basic technology in acoustic pianos have not changed over the years, the add-ons have. Selected piano manufacturers now offer acoustic pianos with an additional module – the silent piano feature – which drive piano sounds to a digital module and in turn headphones, while muting the external acoustic sounds altogether. The digital sounds aren’t quite like what one would hear acoustically and also limited by the tonality of the audio samples used to recreate the sound of each key. But it’s close enough for non-professionals like myself.

With the school holidays starting in just a few weeks, we decided that this would be about as good a time as any to get Hannah started on formal lessons. We’ve been scouting the neighborhood for teachers. We’ve shortlisted a couple, and have been bringing Hannah for trial lessons to see which teacher especially ‘clicks’ with her. With any luck, we’ll decide on her teacher will be in the next week or two. Foremost in our mind too is that we want her to learn as an engaging and enriching activity, and will not have her take exams until she wants to.

As for the instrument, our hunt for it only started a week ago. Yep – a lot quicker compared to the amount of time we routinely spend on large investments, in this case, both in the price dimension also in the literal physical sense! We didn’t have too many requirements: apart from that we were going to avoid South Korean and Chinese makes (good reads here and here), keep to an upper price ceiling of about S$7K, and hopefully something with the silent piano feature.

The last requirement also meant that there were only so few piano models in consideration. At least in Singapore, the piano would likely be a Kawai or a Yamaha, and thankfully both are Japanese-designed pianos. After checking out the showrooms and obtaining indicative prices of new units, our choices were about narrowed down to:

A new Yamaha JU109 Silent Piano for about $5K.

A new Yamaha JX113T Silent Piano for $6K

Both of the above are considered ‘standard grade’ in its sound boards, strings and hammers, and are assembled in Indonesia. Brand new Yamahas silent pianos of higher-grades (e.g. in the U series) would easily bust our budget.

There’s quite a vibrant used piano market here in Singapore too. After reading up online and making some initial queries with a couple of stores, we visited an importer of used Japanese pianos – Asia Piano – over the Deepavali public holiday.  And after an hour of browsing/chatting/Hannah playing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy on every piano she could get to in the store, we selected a Yamaha piano: a used U30BL with an added SG2 silent piano module. And from what we can see/tell and found out:

There’s a lot of very interesting discussion about the ‘grey’ market for pianos, including here, here and here. All this said, even in the worse possible scenario, the prevailing Japanese climate isn’t exactly similar to Singapore’s, but as far as humidity is concerned, I reckon it’s closer than say the US.

The U30BL is an improved variant of the very popular and well-known U3 pianos, though there seems to be little information on what are the differences between the two models.  Beyond that, it’s the same size, built to the same quality and at the same factory – Japan’s famed Hamamatsu factory – as its better-known sibling.

The piano is 131cm tall: which, all things being equal, is always better than a shorter piano on account that a larger sound board can be fitted into it.

Judging from the piano’s serial number against the Yamaha’s database of serials, this particular piano was manufactured between 1989 to 1990.

The piano was made for the Japanese domestic market with its original owners there. The dead giveaway is that the Japanese-styled power plug to the piano’s SG2 module, which will in-turn require a transformer for it to work with local power points.

The SG2 module was added to this unit just a few years ago by Yamaha-certified technicians. Didn’t know that was even technically possible! I’ll have to read up more about it, and see if an upgrade to the newer SH module is also possible.

There was a about same age used U30A model in the store going for $100 more than this U30BL, but offering the older digital module which did not include a recording function. The piano sound was also tonally different and very slightly brighter. Ling preferred the U30BL, though I would had been fine with either – though a recording feature was quite desirable.

The piano was coming with just over a dozen freebies, which the attending salesperson, also the co-owner of the store, explained in detail of. Of particular interest was a soft-fall hinge that he would be installing to the piano (decades ago, my mom on many occasions would thunder at us for letting the piano’s fallboard slam against the keyboard ledge), and also his store’s custom-designed adjustable bench with its innovated seat overlaps, an innovation he seemed particularly proud of.

Comes with 5 years parts warranty, 1 year exchange programme, guarantee buy backs up to 7th year, and two free tunings in the first year.

Asia Piano, opened on a public holiday.

Asia Piano, opened on a public holiday.

H manages Ode to Joy on two fingers.

H manages Ode to Joy on two fingers.

Our U30BL.

Our U30BL.

Near mint on the inside.

Near mint on the inside.

The piano will be delivered this weekend, so more notes to come on it soon enough.:)

 

It’s been almost eight years since I last blogged here about piano-playing (have we really been blogging for that long?!). A new home project started though that will likely see an emergence of new posts on this topic in the months to come, and starting with this one below.:)

There was a period of time here in Singapore – perhaps around the 1990s to early 2000s’ – when learning musical instruments was the ‘in’ thing for parents with young kids. Many families would put their children through formal lessons to, for example, learn the piano and obtain the various ABRSM grades over what would normally be around 10 years of training. I remember hearing anecdotally that occasionally, learning the instrument was the expectation of parents than any real, sustained interest in the child, leading to the result that many kids would give up midway, or find formally learning the instrument so much a chore that they end up disliking the instrument.

I reckon I’m one of those oddballs. I didn’t need cajoling to learn a musical instrument. In fact, I made a conscious effort to parents hinting that I wanted to learn – e.g. creating a huge din with the Melodica in front of the TV while my dad watched Big League Soccer when I was six – that they got the message! I began formal lessons to learn the piano in April 1978, and took about ten years to finish all my Piano practical and theory up to ABRSM Grade 8. I had only two teachers during that long stretch. Both teachers were sisters too, with the younger taking me through Grades 1 to 5, and her older sister – Mdm. Ler Hui Siam – taking me through the rest. There were long periods where the training was so intense and preparing for exams so stressful that I hated lessons one particular year, and I vividly recall my mom having to drag me to lessons even. I don’t think my first teacher did much to make me love the instrument either! Both teachers must be in their 70s now and long retired, though I’ve been trying to get in touch with my old final teacher, Mdm. Ler, for years now.

The real change came when I started listening to classical music – at about the mid 80s – and I started doing much better in lessons, and finished the practical and theory with merit and distinction awards respectively.

The piano that I trained on – alongside my two brothers who also completed their ABRSM grades up to a point – was a Squire & Longson that I remembered my parents paid a princely $3,950 for in 1978. That’s a huge sum of money, even more so for its time. I haven’t been able to find much information about this model, apart from bits of information in a Piano encyclopedia that write that Squire & Longson was a highly respected English manufacturer of pianos, and were already making them in the 19th century. Our family piano though has not fared well, due totally to the lack of care for it in the last 20 years now. The keys are badly out of tune, and one or two of them no longer work even. And there are possibly entire colonies of roaches somewhere inside the piano cabinet even!

Which brings us to our new home project. Hannah has also been interested in learning to play an instrument, and I reckon she should credit both her parents’ genes here haha. We were debating for the last two years what instrument to get her started on, since she didn’t mind either the violin or the piano then. We were initially decided on the violin, on account that it’s portable, a less costly investment, and won’t occupy the same space that a piano would in the house. That line of thinking was largely the reason why we gave away Ling’s old piano when we moved from The Rivervale to Minton – a decision that still breaks her heart every time she thinks about it.

It was only a few months ago when we started reconsidering her starting instrument, and Hannah also showed a stronger inclination towards a keyboard instrument. So, a piano it was. More on this in the next post!

 

Apart from the new Savic Bristol cage, we’ve been on small shopping sprees over the nearly 10 days we’ve had Stacy the Syrian, accumulating a small stockpile of food items, treats and toys for her. Here’s our rundown of things that worked and those that haven’t so far.

Sand bath and house: as a start, we went with Trustie’s Small Animal Bath Sand and Lavender flavored. I wonder if there are unscented sand about since I’m uncertain if scented sand will affect the hamster’s sense of smell over time. With VIP discount, each 1kg bag costs about $5.50, with the accompanying dome-styled bath house just a couple of dollars. Each 1kg bag of sand can last likely last for about 10 sand changes, or about 2 months. Now, hamsters are supposed to roll around in the bath house, as the sand helps with their cleanliness. Problem is that ours does everything except roll around in it. She’ll rather poop in it, and just yesterday after pooping, napped in the house too LOL.

I love rolling around in my poop.

I love rolling around in my poop.

Hamster wheel. The wheel that came with the Habitrail Cristal cage was a relatively large 7.5 inch wheel. Many cages – and even the larger ones – routinely include much smaller wheels. That said, after we upgraded her cage to a Bristol, we had more space to mount a larger wheel, so went with a 8.4 inch wheel that we picked up for cheap at Petmart @ Serangoon North Avenue 2. Funnily, the store assistant there thought I was buying the wheel for a Chinchilla. The Bristol cage can hold up to an even larger wheel of likely 11 inches, but that’d likely mean some major furniture rearrangement then. And oh yes – the Cristal wheel while reportedly of the ‘silent type’, was loud enough to wake Ling up when Stacy started speed running on it dead of the night. Hopefully this one’s sturdier to hold up the hamster’s weight!

Feeding bottle. Feeding bottles are typically bundled together with cages. The hamster at this young age takes perhaps just 15-20ml of water everyday, so we didn’t see a reason to use the 150ml capacity bottle that came with the Bristol.

Bedding material. This one was a tough decision, given the number of options available for it, and as a starter, went with Pet’s Dream: Paper Pure. The pellets are made of recycled natural products, is 100% biodegradable and of reasonable pricing. The material is pellet-like, which makes them easier to handle, and dust-free for the most part. They are also odorless and seem to mask Stacy’s excrement smell well enough, though she’s not pooping that much to begin with. The tricky thing about this product though is that the pellets are also dark-colored, which can make spot-cleaning (i.e. finding and picking her poop then tossing them) a little hard.

Trail mix and treats. Many enthusiasts suggest that the trail mixes that are sold in stores typically offer a well-balanced diet, and hamsters are perfectly fine eating these exclusively. Just for fun though we’ve been trying to spread her diet a little: and she’s taken after Sunseed Grainola Treat bars quite well – though they are typically far too large, and could take weeks for her to finish a single bar – and also Odour care treats from Mark + Chappell, and small thinly-sliced pieces of raw carrot. The challenge with fresh food is of course cleaning it up as they can go bad real quickly in Singaporean humidity – which can be tricky as hamsters like to hide food LOL.

Sunseed Granola with oatmeal and raisin treat, and loving it!

Sunseed Grainola with oatmeal and raisin treat, and loving it!

Chew materials. These are necessary as hamsters need to constantly gnaw their teeth down. Funnily, Stacy didn’t take after the mineral chews sold in-house by Pet Lovers Centre, and ended up chewing on the bars of her new cage instead. That is, until we bought her neatly cut apple branches for a couple of dollars – which she took after immediately.

Toys. Aside from hamster balls, the in-cage toys seem to come in broadly two types: wooden-made ones and extension modules that can connect to modular cage systems. Since we’d moved off the Habitrail cage, the latter extension modules didn’t make any sense for us. So we picked up a variety of wooden toys that ranged between a couple of dollars, to a one square feed large small animal maze. We’ve not really seen a persistent pattern of use from Stacy for these yet – or maybe she just enjoys them in the dark when we’re sleeping. Who knows LOL.

Pets these days have everything. With the exception of the maze, most were priced at about $10 apiece.

Pets these days have everything. With the exception of the maze, most were priced at about $10 apiece.

Care and concern: from left to right, chew sticks, bath sand, odour care treats, and roast mealworm treats!

Care and concern: from left to right, chew sticks, bath sand, odour care treats, and roast mealworm treats!

So all in, Stacy the Syrian has given the kids lots of interest and things to talk about though she’s also still shy and too jittery to let any of us hold her. Small steps, and more to report I reckon when she finally comes round to it.

 

It took us just a day to conclude that the cage we bought Stacy the Syrian was going to be a little too small once our baby hamster gets past a few months old, more so that Syrians are larger than their dwarf cousins. She seems fine in it now, but we figured we’d better just get a larger one now so she wouldn’t have to readjust again to a new habitat soon.

Still, our comments about her first cage – a Habitrail Cristal Hamster Cage.

Fairly small area of 166 square inches

Feels sturdy and well-assembled.

Affordably priced at $50 with the loyalty card, premium-looking, compact and pleasing aesthetically for her human owners. If nothing else the cage looks pretty. Good mix of clear plastic and wire cage to permit ventilation.

The cage door though is a little fiddly, and requiring a bit of skill to shut it without jolting the cage and possibly waking the hamster up.

Well-designed bundled accessories. Comes with a roughly 7.5 inch large wheel that runs silently (which we will transplant over to the new cage), a plastic ramp with ridges, and a small feeding water bottle (not too large or bulky).

Most importantly, as far as we could tell, our baby hamster looked happy enough in it!

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As for the larger cage, some enthusiasts recommend a cage of 2 feet by 1 feet at least for Syrians, others go with the often-cited figure of 360 square inches. There aren’t nearly as many large cages specifically designed for hamsters sold in local pet stores, and we also had to be mindful that we would also need the cage to be reasonably mobile (i.e light) as different parts of the house can be quite warm in the first half of a year. There are some pretty nicely designed cages sold through Amazon UK, but are also pretty large.

We decided to go with the Savic Bristol, which has a floor area of about 348 square inches, and after hunting around for availability, picked it up from The Pet Safari @ Eastpoint Mall.

Nearly the recommended size at 348 square inches.

At S$75, affordably priced locally if you have Pet Lovers Centre’s VIP/Loyalty card. It lists for USD140 and £52 on Amazon and Amazon UK respectively.

Feels less premium than the Cristal.

Of sufficient height to allow both a basement (where we have her bedding, a cooling mat and a sand bath), a level for her to run around, and overhanging toys to be mounted at the top too.

Very large cage door that opens from the front. Some owners commented that the cage door swivels loosely and might crash on your end (or critter). Our unit seemed reasonably stiffed though so we don’t foresee this problem occurring for us.

The bundled feeding water bottle is IMO too large for hamsters, so we swapped it with the one from the Cristal cage.

The bundled overhanging cage which would let Stacy have a birdseye view is a little hard for her to get to. I might swap it with a hammock that’s closer to her level so that she can easily climb onto it. The bundled wheel is also too smaller for a Syrian.

Just two clippers that secure the wire cage to the plastic base. You’d need to find alternative ways of securing the cage if either of them break.

Our hamster seemed pretty happy with her upgraded apartment. Just after an hour after introduction to her cage where she burrowed at the basement level and slept for a bit, she was up and about exploring the cage – including, incredibly, hanging precariously on the top grill with just one paw before dropping to the bedding below.

Exploring all nooks and crannies.

Exploring all nooks and crannies.

Stacy seeking a second career as a spider-hamster.

Stacy seeking a second career as a spider-hamster.

Next post soon when accessories and the like!

Pets. As parents of young kids, we’ve heard a lot in media about not letting kids pressure us as parents into buying pets, and the dangers of impulse buying. As cute as some the furry little critters like hamsters, guinea pigs and rabbits might be, the novelty cute pets bring to kids might die off quickly enough – and when that happens, it’s routinely parents who end up having to be the pets’ caregivers.

So, it’s a strange turn of events when it’s the adult – me in this case – who bought a cute furry pet for himself and not on the kids request, and certainly not on impulse. I approached this project in exactly the same way as I would buy a new tablet or mobile phone: a month or two of research, thinking of the various options, planning for its home at our home, and what we would do to engage any such pet. Hannah though suspected that something was afoot when she saw me especially starting to frequent pet stores in various malls and taking a visible interest in browsing wares and the like.

My summary notes of what was going through my head:

Went with a Syrian hamster. Why not rabbits? Well – we couldn’t quite afford the space at home to give a rabbit the necessary room to run around, and we’re staying in an apartment block with a large balcony and plenty of places for rabbits loose in the house to fall off the balconies and to their demise. Guinea pigs were a real possibility and perhaps at some point in the future, but we figured we should start small first.

Of the hamster breeds, Syrians are generally considered quite easy to care for, and also of the right size and temperament for kids to handle once both parties are ready for it.

We didn’t thoroughly explore buying from pet farms, nor adoption from Hamster enthusiast groups or SPCA (or rather, none were available for adoption when I checked). We checked out pet stores @ shopping malls primarily out of convenience, but took our time to select the most appropriate critter of the species.

We picked up a rectangular-ish cage that was a compromise between wire fencing and also transparent plastic. Some enthusiasts recommend going with aquarium-styled acrylic tanks, but I was worried that there would be insufficient ventilation for the fellow – more so if we have to mount a small fan somewhere during the hot/humid parts of the year. We did avoid cages with built-in plastic tunnels though, reckoning that they can be difficult to clean well.

There were a few options for bedding material, and we went with a large 20 liter bag of recycled paper pellets. They were quite attractively priced and fairly large pellets. But on the other hand, they’re also rather dark colored, which could make identifying areas to find spot-clean areas, and the hamster’s droppings are also harder to spot.

All in, the initial expenditure was a shade under $200. $32 for the critter, $50 for her cage, $3 for a chew toy, $10 for a large bag of store feed, $12 for a bag of sandbath and a hamster bath tub, $23 for bedding material, $40 of toys, and $8 for a sizable hamster ball.

Assembling the cage @ Pet Lovers Centre.

Assembling the cage @ Pet Lovers Centre.

Introducing Stacy the Syrian hamster!

Introducing Stacy the Syrian hamster!

More in the next post!

There has to be a first to everything. We’ve been writing for this spot of virtual space for 17 years now, and this would be the first time something about shoes is posted, and not for women either too! I reckon most men don’t think too hard – compared to women perhaps – about what footwear they’re wearing. Typically we’re more concerned about functionality over form.

My work place is somewhat flexible in dress-code expectations. So, unless I’m having meetings, I routinely wear either collared polo-or short-sleeve shirts with casual slacks – and dark brown walking shoes to match. For several years I wore Weinbrenner shoes for work. These are widely available at the ubiquitous Bata footwear shops everywhere on the island. However, the Weinbrenner shoes never lasted long in my use – and with the outsoles giving way every single time. Of the probably eight pairs of Weinbrenners’ I’ve had, all their outsoles wore out after 6 months. In some cases, the outsole layer simply tore or split , while for others, holes grew and penetrated the insole layer. All this is odd, since I walk on mostly smooth or carpeted surfaces at work. I’ve wondered if it has to do with the specific range of Weinbrenner shoes that are carried at Bata stores – they tend to be the fairly low-priced ones at $49.90 to $79.90.

In any case, footwear from CAT is carried at selected stores here. They’re typically priced quite a bit higher – usually about $120 to $180 a pair for their casual walking shoes range,. The range brought here for sale tends to be somewhat limited, compared to the obviously much larger range in their international web sites. My first pair that cost $150 was bought 15 months ago, and while the shoe’s leather uppers show visible wear from daily use, the outsoles have borne well with no tears, splits etc. even though the pattern of use is identical to the Weinbrenner shoes I’ve owned. Encouraged with that experience, I’ve just picked up a second pair from the same store – the Royal Sporting House outlet @ Bedok Mall. The normal price of this pair is $169, but the store was offering a 20% discount, and another 10% off that again for OCBC VISA card holders.

And what I really like about these two pairs: thick laces that do not fray easily, cushioned insole, fairly light (especially this new pair), and most importantly – very tough non-skid outsoles.

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Outsole for the new pair.

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The old pair’s outsole. Still largely intact.

 

I’ve had loads of luck with Amazon purchases. Even without the Amazon Prime membership, their free-shipping options to Singapore has made it possible for a lot of items to be bought online and delivered here and costing less than what one would pay for. Just so long as you’re willing to forgo warranty claims though, as these exported items typically carry warranties local to the US. Still, as long as you’re not ordering electronic goods, the chances of failure are minimal. And savings on the other hand are significant.

And that was pretty much the summary of my experience with Amazon again for the just arrived Huawei Watch yesterday morning. It took just a week from the point of order to it being delivered to our home, and about SGD100 was shaved off the local purchase price to boot – the Watch costs about SGD440 normally in Singapore. The model I bought was the cheapest of the Huawei’s options at USD249/SGD341, is silver in color and comes with a black leather band. The pricey versions are black or rose gold, and with metallic bands.

My random initial comments of the Huawei Watch, and a comparison to the currently dead LG G Watch R of mine.

Huawei wasn’t kidding when they aimed to create a premium Android smartwatch. The Watch exudes quality – from its packaging, scratch-resistant sapphire crystal glass, and its polished metallic finishing.

Spec wise, Huawei Watch’s display is slightly larger and also higher resolution than the LG one: 1.4 vs 1.3 inch and 400×400 vs 320×320 pixel resolution. I can indeed tell the difference in resolution, but not the screen size. The latter looks practically identical between the two watches.

The Watch is noticeably smaller in overall size at 42mm than LG’s at 46.4mm, on account of its thin bezel compared to the thick one on the LG. The LG is also slightly thinner depth-wise at 11.1mm compared to 11.5mm on the Huawei – but you won’t be able to tell the difference for this dimension.

The crown placement is also different between the two. It’s 2 o’clock for the Huawei and the more standard placement of 3 o’clock for the LG. I would have liked the button to be placed where standard watches normally place them.

The Android experience between the two watches is about identical, which I assume is because of Google’s requirement for smartwatch manufacturers not to go about creating unique skins – totally unlike the Wild Wild West look and feel of Android smartphones. As tech pundits have pointed out, once you’ve had and used one, there’s really no learning curve involved in using another. The baked-in watch faces though are a different story. These are by no means trivial, since this is one of the few ways – outside the external design and implementation of the unit itself – where Android smartwatches can be differentiated. There were several more watch faces off Huawei’s that I immediately liked than LG’s somewhat more bland offerings.

The battery life is a different matter though. The Huawei comes with a 300mAh battery compared to LG’s significantly larger 410mAh. I haven’t drained the Huawei’s battery yet, but looking at how the percentage points are dropping each hour, the Huawei doesn’t seem like it’ll run as long as the LG watch before needing a recharge.

Neither watches have an ambient light sensor. Not a critical omission but still a very useful feature to have had in both. Not having one means you have to manually adjust the display brightness when need be moving between dramatically differently lit environments (e.g. outdoor to indoor).

Huawei’s charging dock is petite and very light. The strong magnet built into the unit means that the watch and dock can be lifted off a surface still connected to each other. What’s not so great though is that the USB cable seems permanently attached to the dock – the LG dock connects via a standard micro-USB slot (much more useful) – and more seriously, the charger pins and watch do not naturally align. I have to jiggle the Watch a little each time to get a proper charging connection. The LG dock is noticeably easier to use in this regard – I guess also because their dock has raised ledges around its circumference to help guide the watch’s placement onto the dock.

Exquisite packaging!

Exquisite packaging!

The watch seated snugly in its padded case.

The watch seated snugly in its padded case.

Minimal accessories needed: the US-type adapter (since it was shipped from Amazon), and the charging dock.

Minimal accessories needed: the US-type adapter (since it was shipped from Amazon), and the charging dock.

Quite a few presupplied watch faces, and there are more ones that I immediately like than on the old LG G Watch R.

Quite a few baked-in watch faces, and there are more ones that I immediately like than on the old LG G Watch R.

Back of the watch with the leather strap.

Back of the watch with the leather strap.

The outgoing and incoming. The LG G Watch R won't switch on anymore.

The outgoing and incoming. The LG G Watch R won’t power on anymore.

All said, I’m still quite satisfied with the Huawei watch. These Android watches though aren’t cheap, and I reckon one has to think very carefully about the utility it brings to interested owners at their price-points. I use the Android watches largely because of phone/message/calendar notifications, not apps (e.g. fitness tracking, weather). If you’re happy with your phone already offering those, then it’d probably be wiser to wait this out and let smartwatch prices come down by quite a bit more; e.g. when the other Chinese manufacturers finally get into the game with their equivalent products.