Children Blues

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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.

Vita Una Vol. 8, titled Family of Four.

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.

Hannah @ her teacher’s piano.

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.

Several of my old piano books – from 30 years 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!

Danny, our black/vienna chestnut, remains the more timid and skittish of our two cavies. He can also be a little rough. On more than a few occasions, we’ve observed him snatching food from his more affable and also genial brother, Rudolf.

Rudolf, our chocolate-coat Sheltie, is now distinctly larger, possibly on account that he’s a much more carbo and fiber person, preferring hay and food pellets over veggies, while Danny is the total opposite.

We’ve been bringing the kids out to ride their kick scooters on weekends. Peter is still unable to launch himself confidently though, and prefers to piggy ride on my e-scooter!

Hannah on the other hand scoots with ease. In fact, the speed in which she can coast along is about 13-14 km/h now, which is about the speed I go on the Passion10 e-scooter when on shared paths.

The two do bicker a bit at home – usually starting when Peter takes one of Hannah’s things without her OK-ing it first, but the two seem to still genuinely enjoy each other’s company. Hope they’d be forever be close!

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 15.5kg Passion10 e-Scooter. I’m not 100% certain of this, but I think the basic model is also rebranded by other manufacturers and resellers, though Passion Gadget’s S$599 price point for this model is likely among the lowest I’ve seen. It can be lifted by adults, but the handlebar stem is rather slippery. Passion Gadgets sells a fabric-type carrying handle though, so I might have to buy that later.

A round color LCD screen shots that shows different information depending on options you’ve set. The master power button and acceleration lever sits on the right of the screen. The LCD doesn’t seem to let me adjust brightness though, and the default brightness level is too dim for easy viewing when outdoors. The scooter supports a cruising mode too, which sets the scooter to coast along at a constant speed.

Kiddie handle bar, with additional rubber stops add-ons that cost 50 cents each. Hannah wanted pink – No Way Jose LOL. The bar can be adjusted to where the protective plate along the handlebar stem stops, and is just about of right height for Peter. Hannah holds onto the main handle bar. The Kiddie bar though gets into the way of cable management when unfolding the scooter from storage.

Vehicle’s front light. Can be switched off with a dedicated button. I don’t intend to scoot at night, so that this light is included is useful – but finally not of any use for me.

Suspension for the Pneumatic 10″ front tire. Both really do help to cushion (somewhat) potholes and small debris like dead branches on surfaces.

Two thick anti-slip strips pasted on the foot board that really do help in providing additional grip to footwear. They’re pretty hard to clean though. The kickstand is also visible from the picture, and while it bears the scooter’s weight just fine, I would have liked it to be a little sturdier. The scooter’s battery and charging port are situated below the foot board. The sales technician advised that it’s necessary to switch on power to the charger adapter first before connecting it to the scooter port. I haven’t needed to charge the battery from flat to full yet, but that’ll take between 4-6 hrs according to the user guide.

Rear tire and dual light reflectors.

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.

Of criteria:

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.

One corner of the warehouse that serves as the service center.

Hannah came along to provide advice!

And what we landed up with – the Passion10, and costing S$599.

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.

Writing her journal on Day 5 and shortly after arriving at MR Hideaway.

Days 1 and 2.

Days 6 and 7.

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.

Her little chess board follows her even to weekend breakfast at Olivia & Co. Bistro @ Compass One.

Teaching P, just so that she can beat him at it repeatedly. Notice how many pieces she’s taken as White LOL.

Match #9 on Sunday, and try to understand why she lost the game and what to do next time. Cornered her king after wiping out the rest of her pieces.

Another toy that she’s gotten into: Rubric cubes!

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! :)

 

Shooting with the Panasonic GX85 + Olympus 45mm f1.8

One of best things about having four micro four-thirds bodies is that since I have four favorite lenses, I can mount each one of them on a different body and not have to as frequently switch lenses with bodies! The first two posts in this series has been centered on the E-PL6 + Olympus 17mm f1.8 + E-M5 with Panasonic 25mm f1.4. The third post in this series and the last one with primes is the GX85 + Olympus 45mm f1.8 combo.

The 45mm can work just as well with either of the E-Ms though perhaps less well with the E-PL6. At 90mm full-frame focal length equivalent, I reckon my camera-holding technique needs to be just a little steadier and using an EVF than through a rear LCD. Of the three primes, the 45mm is the most challenging to work with when indoors and in the small rooms typical of high-rise apartments in this part of the world. I do get more obvious bokeh with the 45mm than the 25mm of course, but for the most part, having to step back all the way into a wall and still have one of the kids’ heads chopped off in the frame makes whatever bokeh I might get a non-starter.

The lens though will come into its own when outdoors where’s a lot more space to move and get exactly the composition you want in a shot.

The GX85 with the 45mm.

And a series of shots with this combo: excepting the Bolo bun picture, aperture settings were between f1.8 to f2.0 and ISO200. These are also flash shots too, with the Meike MK320 mounted on the GX85.

Balancing an eraser on the edge of the ruler is a past-time we all had as kids!

Practising for a storytelling competition in school.

Ling says that P takes after me in this trait: we both stick our tongues out when unconsciously when we’re concentrating on something. The fairly long focal length and almost full-body composition required shooting from across the bedroom.

H’s big sister instincts kicking in to help Peter with some writing activities. Two person shots on primes wide-open are always a little challenging, as it’s very easy for one person to be out of focus because of the thin depth of field.

The wife getting creative in the kitchen again. These Bolo buns look so good literally I’m not sure if I’ll bear to have them for breakfast! This one’s at f4.5 to give a bit more depth as this was a close-up shot.

A picture of concentration: H having her school Home-Based Learning exercise across two days this week. I had my back against our brick wall, and her upper body still barely fitted into the frame. The 25mm would have been an easier lens for this shot, though the background rendering would had been less creamy.

That concludes the series of posts using the three key m4/3 primes I’ve got. They’re really fun lenses to use, and I reckon the 25mm f1.4 is the one that I find most useful given the kind of pictures I like to take. I might do a future post on weekend pictures using the 40-150mm f2.8 exclusively, but there’s a huge thing to lug around on family weekends, but we’ll see.:)

Shooting with the Olympus E-M5 + Panasonic 25mm f1.4

The other weekend‘s series of camera + prime lens pictures was so fun to do I reckon I’ll do a regular series on this on our blog. This week’s combo is the E-M5 with 25mm. The Olympus E-M5 is the oldest of my four m4/3 bodies that I still use regularly. I’ve been quite careful with this particular body, though given that it’s seen quite intensive use over the almost 5 years I’ve had it, the scruff marks on the body are now quite obvious to the naked eye. The E-M5 isn’t without its middle age quirks too; the camera doesn’t always power-up now when the power lever gets flicked on, though it normally does on the second try!

I’ve also had the Panasonic 25mm f1.4 for just over four years now, with my particular copy purchased on Amazon JP and shipped here through Tenso, a Japanese parcel-forwarding company. The lens is also showing its age too, though its rubberized lens grip acts also as a protective layer from it getting scruff up with nicks and bangs like my E-M5.

The 25mm remains the fastest and only f1.4 lens I own. Its light-gathering ability of course makes it great for low-light shots, and of the kids especially in ambient light – though it’s also less useful say for night-time shots of scenery. The shallow depth of field also makes any composition with not one but both kids a more considered undertaking, since it’s seriously easy to have one of the two just out of focus.

The lens is still balanced nicely with the E-M5. The lightning quick AF on the E-M5 plus the fast shutter speeds that the camera reaches for when coupled with a f1.4 lens makes it easy to catch decent pictures of fast-moving kids who don’t keep still – especially Peter. In fact, there’s no reason to engage continuous AF on this combo when single AF works great here.

The coming to five year old E-M5 with its scuff marks with the 25mm.

A selection of this week’s pictures shooting with the E-M5 and 25mm exclusively. All were wide-open at f1.4, and between ISO200 to 400. The first four were also just before weekday bedtime so with the Nissin i40 flash gun.




And over the weekend:

Right outside our main door just when we’re heading out for weekend brunch. The 25mm wide-open at f1.4 remains incredibly sharp in the center.

While waiting for Pet Lovers Centre @ Nex to open for the day. It’s possible to use the 25mm for full-body pictures without too much difficulty – as long as there’s working distance.

The trio of child joy rides on the Popular Bookstore level.

The E-M5’s speedy AF with the 25mm makes it possible to take shots like these where the kids were running about Parkway Parade’s joy rides.

Next post in this series will be the Panasonic GX85 + Olympus 45mm f1.8!

Shooting with the Olympus E-PL6 + 17mm f1.8

The two month old Panasonic GX85 has been a ball of fun to use and I’m gradually adjusting to some of its quirks: for instance, ghosting in its EVF, and that I don’t even notice its occasional tearing anymore. Despite that, I still find that the E-PL6 with the 17mm f1.8 provides me more keepers than my other m4/3 bodies with the other lenses. And this is despite the challenges my particular E-PL6 copy brings about: that both its touch-screen and rear mode dial have become finicky and occasionally having a mind of its own by deciding to change command settings on its own, and the loud shutter release sound it produces when I trigger a shot.

A lovely combo: the E-PL6 and 17mm f1.8.

So; just for illustration, I shot our kids with this combo exclusively over this weekend, and here’s a selection from the series of pictures.

I took a similar shot with Hannah almost exactly 4 years ago, and while both of them were at the same age: 3 years 9 months.

H doesn’t get bored too easily. She’ll always have something in hand to read when we’re waiting for food (this one’s at Coffee Kaki @ AMK Hub).

The weekend early afternoons have been slightly more humid than a week ago, though the two of them are obviously not bothered.

These kiddie sunglasses used to belong to his big sister.

She’s about 2/3s done with the first Suzuki Method book, and got me to load up the second book of pieces into her MP3 player.

Peter getting his first taste of Suzuki Method piano pieces.

The 17mm focal length on the m4/3s sensor is also useful to get a good deal of context and surroundings in without making the shot look too wide-angle.

This picture of H on the children’s see-saw was actually slightly over-exposed out of the camera, while the others taken in quick succession were fine. Seems that the E-PL6 misjudged the metering for this shot. Corrected it in post-processing.

Taken from across the dining table. Shots like these are always tricky, as the thin depth of field makes it easy for one of the two kids to be out of focus if he/she is learning a little backwards.

It might just be that Olympus out of camera rendering is just a bit more to my taste than Panasonic’s, and that the older 3 axis image stabilisation the E-PL6 uses is particularly effective with the 17mm. The low light advantage of a f1.8 stop helps a lot, as thus also the lens’ very quick focusing mechanisms. And lastly, the particular combo looks great together – though the lens and camera body are actually two different color tones: the lens is silver, while the body is chrome-gold.

This was actually a pretty fun of picture series to do for these couple of days. Next weekend or so I’ll do a next post – perhaps the almost 5 year old-now E-M5 with the Panasonic 25mm f1.4!