now browsing by category
Kids @ The Minton Pool
One thing about living on an island is that as since we’re completely surrounded by water, it’s practically a life-skill requirement for all of us island-dwellers to learn how to swim! We often brought Hannah as a young girl to our old condo pool, and took a lot of pictures on the now six year old setup: a cheap Canon IXUS HS115 protected with its dedicated underwater casing. This little camera over the years has survived loads of water dunking, beach sand etc. without ever breaking a sweat figuratively, and the little Canon compact camera always emerged unscathed and continued to work perfectly.
If there are limitations to the HS115 with underwater setup:
It shot full HD videos at a fairly pedestrian 24 fps rate that’s closer to film than home video.
It didn’t shoot in RAW – and color sensing was very occasionally off, given the significance presence of blue colors in a typical pool or underwater image.
The camera slightly heated up after extended use – which in itself doesn’t hurt the camera in any way, but it inadvertently caused condensation to build in the air cavity in front of the glass lens elements and housing’s lens protrusion.
Water droplets occasionally retaining on the lens protrusion: resulting in ugly blobs on pictures taken.
With our trip to Phuket coming up shortly, I’ve been looking into replacing this setup for pool and underwater pictures. Despite that dedicated underwater housings – what I’ve been using – are supposedly more reliable than underwater compacts, they are also by their very nature bulky, and also are a hefty additional expense – the HS115’s housing being a rare exception as I bought at a very low price. I did find a fairly cheap third party manufacturer of housings, so kept that in view for the GX7 Mark II.
So – looking at underwater compacts then. Most of the large camera manufacturers – Panasonic, Canon, Nikon, Olympus and Fujifilm – carry their own compact underwater cameras, with many costing at least SGD300 and more. But with the exception of a couple of the higher-tier (i.e. expensive) models, the cameras routinely do not support RAW. More worryingly though was that no matter how highly rated and well-reviewed each model was, there would be a few reviewers @ Amazon who’d comment on water seeping into their units – sometimes eventually, at other times shortly after purchase – typically rendering the camera useless thereafter. And manufacturers apparently do not honor repair warranties for damage from water for their underwater cameras. The irony!
The solution I eventually went with was different: the Samsung Galaxy S8+ is water-resistant (note – not waterproof though!), so why not just couple the phone with a dedicated waterproof case? And the S8+ would offer RAW support, touch-AF and controls, 4K video at 30fps – all the nice trimmings of a full-featured compact camera. And the housing isn’t technically sophisticated since there are far fewer dials or buttons on the S8+. The case just needs to be solidly waterproof. And to begin with, even with some water got in, the S8+ is water-resistant!
After a lot of exploration around competing cases, I found a S8+ case that was well-reviewed @ Amazon, and made by what sounds like an Asian – likely Chinese – company called UBeesize. The small number of negative feedback mentioned its bulkiness – but still way smaller than a dedicated camera housing – and issues of sound echoing when the phone is used, a non-issue as I do not intend to use the phone in the pool. And the case costs just USD22 – so it’s it doesn’t burn the pocket. But being the kiasu person I am, I ordered also an Amazon Basics generic waterproof case.
Both items have arrived, and after the usual extended water test using absorbent material, the UBeesize got taken out for a spin at the pool over the weekend – and the results were wonderful! The case kept the S8+ fully dry, and I had no difficulties triggering pictures and videos (note: touchscreens do not work underwater, so the phone needs to be configured to snap pictures using one of the physical buttons). And the images and videos coming out of the S8+ were pleasing too, though all were taken at fixed focal length.
And a quick video. The source is 4K 30fps, with YouTube’s usual video compression algorithm applied too. But the short 14 second clip shows pretty decent results.
Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II – Part 3
Just over a week with the new G7X Mark II, and more comments:
This is my first ‘serious’ Canon camera, albeit a compact one and not counting the six year old Ixus HS115 that I use exclusively for underwater pictures. And the debuting Digic 7 processor certainly renders pictures out of the box quite differently than the m4/3 cameras. In fact, having used Olympus and Panasonic m4/3s for almost half a dozen years now and before that Nikon DSLRs, I think I still prefer the colors out of Olympus cameras than other systems.
The camera certainly is portable. Not as petite as the G9Xs, but it’s small enough now for me to seriously find one of those uncle-styled waist belt pouches to drop it into!
Like the OMDs E-M5 and E-M1, the camera starts up very quickly. Powering on the unit automatically extends the lens, and in the time it takes for you to bring the camera up to framing position, the G7X is all ready for shots.
The 24-100mm lens focal length is at a great range: easily wide enough for selfies/wefies, capable of decent magnification when zoomed all the way-in.
Focusing is responsive and fast enough, though there seems to be some softness when I take pictures wide-open at f1.8. Detail resolution also isn’t quite what you’d get on an interchangeable lens system, and I typically have to do a bit more sharpening in post than I normally need to using say one of the m4/3 primes on either of my OMDs.
Pictures and comments!
Blurb Vol. 8 – Disappointment
The two Blurb Vol. 8 books arrived a few days before the scheduled delivery. The interiors were perfect – well, aside from a small quarter-page photo that was accidentally repeated. The exterior however was a very different story. Check out the books’ spines:
I’ve printed about a dozen Blurb books over eight years now, and the jacket covers have always been correctly aligned, so this is the first time I’ve seen such a thing happen. So, an email got sent to Blurb support asking them to check – which they did in short order to explain that it was user layout error. This picture was included in their reply:
So, I checked the source version that I worked on and see what they meant. The incorrect layout against book spines however were extremely easy to miss, and the warning messages in BookWright not helpful enough for users to have realized it. And I thought I was a fairly expert user already. Finally, I didn’t remember BookWright’s Expert PDF Proof showing the misaligned cover pictures in this fashion too.
In any case, fine – my bad. I did not however need both books to be reprinted as the contents themselves were fine – just specifically the dust jackets were in error. So, I asked how I could reprint just the jackets.
To which Blurb replied nein, not possible to print just the dust jackets. To get the correct jackets, I’ll have to fully reprint both books again, but here’s a 35% discount coupon to offset the several hundred dollars I’ll have to spend to get them redone. And even with that, I reckon I’ll have to spend about SGD300.
Frankly, even though BookWright’s UI made it very easy for users to miss the layout anomaly, I admit I goofed the layout here. But I just don’t see why book jackets can’t be re-printed separately: the books themselves are fine.
So, in conclusion, reminders to self that in future:
Check again, and again, and again.
Do not use Blurb again. Not because of their printing quality, but their lack of satisfactory remedies when things go wrong.
Blurb Vol. 8
Every time I finish a new family photo book and have it sent for printing, I’d tell myself not to wait more than a year before I do a next one. That’s a promise I’ve never been able to keep! I keep procrastinating. The number of photos we take every year, ballpark, is roughly between 8,000 to 9,000. Which means I have, easily, more than enough photos to fill two books a year. The last photo book I put together was almost 3 years ago now while Hannah and Peter were five and one year old respectively.
I did have a few days off work over the last week, so that was about as good a time as any time to put in some serious time to select, touch-up then layout page by page the eighth volume of our series of family photo books. I reckon there are a few more photo book publishers today than there was 3 years ago, but I was glad to see that the provider who did my first seven books, is still going on strong and in business, though online reviews no longer seem to heap it with the kind of accolades I remember from years ago. I did a comparative scan of options, including Mixbook – what many online reviewers regard as the best all-round publisher at the moment – and concluded that Blurb remained my best option, on account of the sheer flexibility of their layout software. And while their best paper options do drive up prices a lot, Blurb offers substantial periodic discounts of 30% on photo book prints.
The Blurb software though is a very different matter: it’s a new program called BookWright now which I feel is a mix bag compared to the old BookSmart software I used in the earlier books. On the upside, BookWright is a lot more stable – BookSmart crashed on me several times – and it’s also now easier to fix layout issues, for example, best placements of images inside layout containers. On the other hand, the new software seems to have lost a few things compared to the old one: I couldn’t find options to sort images by date taken – a feature that really helps one organize images for chronological placement – and I was also unable to resize the software’s UI panels, which would have made collating information for the book’s metadata section a lot easier.
The old book also had 346 photos spread across 214 pages – 1.61 photos per page. This new book has 442 across 240 pages – 1.84 photos per page – and the number of pages was the absolute maximum I could go up to with the best paper option selected (ProLine Pearl Photo). This was made possible through two ways: reducing the amount of text in the new book: in the previous books, I typically set aside about 10% of the book space for our key blog entries. Secondly, using a very large number of multi-image pages. And even with these pretty extreme measures, I was unable to squeeze selections from all 3 years’ photos, and managed just up till our June trip this year to Western Australia before I hit my absolute page limit of 240.
The printing options I selected for Vol. 8 were the same as the previous books: Hardcover, Dust Jacket, Standard Landscape 10×8 inches (25×20 cm) , 240 pages Standard Mid-Grey End Sheet Standard Black Linen, and on ProLine Pearl Photo Paper. The cost of printing two books, including shipping, was about USD350. Ouch! But with the 30% discount applied, the final cost was brought down to USD249. Surprisingly slightly cheaper than the thinner Vol. 7’s cost of USD263 from three years ago.
The two books are currently in printing stage now, with a targeted delivery date of 17 Oct or earlier. So, more on this soon enough!
The Piano Project – Part 7
Hannah has been attending piano lessons using the Suzuki method for about a year now. From the looks of it, I reckon she’s at a level of technical competency higher than what I was able to reach at her age and at this point after a year. A good deal of it I think is because of her teacher’s emphasis on grounding his students on sound fundamentals. I accompanied H on one such lesson a few months ago – a very rare occasion since her lessons are typically on weekday afternoons when I’m still at work – and later quipped to Ling that I don’t recall my own piano teacher at the lower ABRSM grades ever being so exacting in how my fingers were landing on notes, or how they were to be curled in a specific fashion. According to the Suzuki method, parental involvement at home is important too, so the techniques that she is taught in her lessons get practised at home too.
However, the downside of this level of rigor is that H, of late, seems to ever be slightly reluctant to get on the piano to practise. She’d still do so dutifully of course, but the enthusiasm we saw in the early months has clearly diminished quite a bit. I wondered whether it was because the reinforcement instruction at home can sometimes be a little negative, or it’s because she’s only playing pieces in the Suzuki books. To be honest, I don’t recall my piano lessons in the early grades to be much fun either, and there were (many) points where I absolutely wanted to give up, and even one time where I had to be literally dragged to piano lessons by my mom.
I remember though that I only started to really enjoy the piano around Grade IV, when I was able to improv on a lot of music I heard by ear, e.g. from the locally produced TV drama serials. I think our neighbors around our old home at Sembawang Hills Estate were probably annoyed that I was belting day-in-day-out the main title of The Awakening, an early 1980s television drama series! And then in the mid-1980s, I started playing Richard Clayderman. Our intention for H to learn the piano has never been for her to pass exams or reach a certain level of ability – though as parents, we’d be happy if she did. But no – we want her first and foremost to enjoy herself, in good part also because my learning the piano as a young boy is one of the two most important skills (the other being in computing) I acquired in my growing years, and we wanted her to be exposed to the same opportunities.
So, I decided to give that approach a try: encouraging H to play things she likes, rather than the pieces she has to play. And we got lucky: the pieces from Frozen are a little complex for her, but she loved the songs from The Sound of Music. So after having us watch the 1965 film on Blu-Ray several times, and buying and listening intently to four different editions of the recorded music – Telarc’s 1987 studio recording of the musical’s music, the 50th Anniversary edition of the film soundtrack, a 2006 recording from the London Palladium Cast, and finally the soundtrack from NBC’s live adaption of the musical – I picked up beginner versions of several songs that she liked the most: including The Lonely Goatherd, Do-Re-Mi, and Edelweiss, and got her started several days ago.
All three pieces involve both hands, so it’s going to take weeks before she can properly play all three – but at least she’s enjoying herself again!
The Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 – Updated
A check on my ongoing log of camera equipment purchases shows that my last lens purchase was almost exactly two years ago now, and specifically the 40-150mm f2.8. There are still a few m4/3 lenses that I’m keeping an eye on – including an ultra wide-angle of roughly between 7 to 14mm coverage, and also a general all-purpose travel lens of 12-80mm or so coverage. None constitute a real pressing need though since our travel photography needs are largely met by the 12-40mm and 40-150mm f2.8s, so I’m happy to wait until good deals for these other lenses show up, either new or as pre-loved equipment.
The one lens that has turned out to be quite a surprise from projected to actual use is the Olympus 40-15mm f2.8. Specifically, at the point of purchase, I’d intended the lens to be just for occasional use. But the two years I’ve had this lens have seen it become a regular staple for me to take pictures of our kids whenever we’re out of doors both in and out of Singapore, full moons, and most recently now – of our Syrian hamster and two cavies.
The lens really lives up to its ‘Pro’ designation: it’s unfailingly sharp even wide-open at f2.8 – though subject motion, especially when coupled with lower shutter speed settings that are necessary when I’m shooting our pets at home is a perpetual challenge – and the lens, interestingly, seems to find the optimal focusing solution ever so slightly quicker on my Panasonic GX85 than the Olympus E-M1.
Pictures as always!
Passion10 Electric Scooter – Part 2
If there’s one thing the government of our little island has done well, it’s maximizing greenery and outdoor areas in already fairly congested areas. Of particular note of course are our island’s interlinked network of Park Connectors, which has not only become an easy and convenient way for Singaporeans to get to and enjoy the multiple parks and outdoor areas, but has also become a way for people to get to places of work even.
Truth to tell, we haven’t really gone on the connectors much. In fact, our Ang Mo friend has spent more time on them in his almost yearly visits to Singapore than us residents LOL. But now that we’re armed with scooters both electrical and kick-typed, we’ve started exploring the PC Networks just behind our Minton home – and over time, we’ll probably starting driving out to explore the rest of the network.
So, after scootin’ for about 20km on the new Passion10, here are more of our pictures and observations.
The 20km distance we tried the Passion10 on used up perhaps just about 20% of the battery power according to the LCD indicator. But to be sure, we’d set the throttle to 50% of its maximum torque – a maximum of 11km/h – and didn’t push the engine too hard. Both our kids have had a lot of fun riding the scooter with me so far @ Punggol Park and the park connector behind Minton. We’ve since slightly increased the scooter throttle limit to 60% of its maximum torque, i.e. a limit of 15km/h – which is plenty fast enough already for us – the limit for foot paths and well below the 25km/h limit for shared paths.
In all, there are better machines than the Passion10 – with longer range, lighter, sturdier, faster, better featured etc. – but none that offered the ideal balance of specifications I preferred, and priced so attractively too. More posts to come soon enough when see start visiting segments of the Park Connector Network!
Passion10 Electric Scooter – Part 1
E-Scooters have been around on our streets for some years now, but it’s only been in the last year or two when they’ve really become common both in heartland areas and even retail stretches like Orchard Road on the island. The government here has been trying very hard to ween citizens off cars and get on public transportation. But buses can only run on so many roads, so Personal Mobility Devices – or PMDs – have become the choice of many as a last-mile transportation solution.
Increasing PMD ridership has introduced a host of challenges though – from competition between pedestrians, cyclists and now PMD users for space on walkways, to riders with death wishes using PMDs on main roads, residential apartments catching fire because of fault battery management systems in the PMD, and tragic and unfortunately fatal accidents involving E-bike users. The regulatory authorities seem to be inclined to support the use of these devices, but perhaps also recognized that some regulation was necessary. Among the rules of use include device weight limits (20kg), speed limits (25km/h), and finally that they cannot be used on roads. And the Land Transport Authority of Singapore is clearly ready to throw the book at riders who run afoul of rules.
I’ve been quite interested in getting an e-scooter since the start of the year. But a serious purchase exploration kept getting put off – until we bought both our kids kick scooters from Decathlon. So, why not an adult e-scooter now, if not just to create another opportunity for family activity! There are a lot of e-scooter stores on the island, but perhaps just a handful of especially well-known ones. One particular store is Passion Gadgets, who carries a very wide range of scooters, including parallel-imported branded and fairly expensive scooters, and house-brand scooters priced very attractively.
Truth to tell, while this store seems quite well-regarded online and has been around for years now, I was initially still quite hesitant about stores that do parallel imports. Most of that hesitation dissipated after I checked out their retail store and also service center, housed in two separate buildings in close proximity and also a short 7 minute drive from Minton. The staff working at both places were all quite young – I reckon in their early two mid-twenties – very friendly, and were clearly enthusiasts of what they were selling. There must had been at least two dozen persons working at the service center, not just preparing devices for pick-up and repairing scooters sent in for repair, but also working on what seemed like artwork and publicity materials, answering questions on the web site etc. This seemed clearly a very busy business!
Even though this was going to be my first e-scooter, the thought process went through the same methodology like for every toy I buy – i.e. a spreadsheet detailing the different models I was considering, and specifications for each.
At this point, the scooter’s main purpose is just for family joy rides and not for long-distance traveling. A power mileage of about 25-30KM would be more than sufficient. Likewise, I wouldn’t be carrying the device up and down public transportation, so vehicle weight wasn’t a key factor. Though I didn’t think I’d want to handle a scooter that was heavier than 18kg!
The scooter’s foot board would need to be large enough for an adult and a child – i.e. space for me/Ling and H or P.
Safety and stability are of utmost importance: which pretty much meant that the scooter would need to use 8.5″ or larger Pneumatic tires, and offer suspension to provide some cushioning over bumps, potholes and small debris.
Cost no more than $1,000. The scooter is really meant to be used just for recreation, and I didn’t want to spend more than that.
The purchasing process @ Passion Gadgets is a little involved. The retail store front-end is a fairly small shop situated at a ground floor for one building. After choosing your model and initial accessories, you go next door to their twin shop to make payment. And finally, the actual scooter is on the fifth level of another building 3 minutes walk away LOL.Continued in the next post!
Western Australia – A Child’s Perspective
One key thing we wanted to do this WA trip was to be able to get Hannah to recollect in her later years her observations and reflections what she was seeing and experiencing across the 11 day vacation. She was definitely very game for it, and in fact on several evenings, even gently reminded me that she had to write her journal. And after 11 days:
Her notes contained a lot of factual information but less on retrospection. It’s probably just how her mind at this stage works, so it’ll be something that she’ll undoubtedly improve upon if we continue to get her to do this for our next trips.
Her handwriting gets progressively worse.
So, in future:
A more structured organization to her Journal by including questions like “What did you see?”, “What did you try out for the first time?”
Lines for her to write on LOL.
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! :)