Thursday, December 31, 2009

Mac Love

The uncharacteristic silence from my keyboard is more apparent than real. I'm not blogging much because I'm in love with my iMac. After plugging it in I decided to see how much I could do without buying replacement software for all the things I'd enjoyed working with on my PC.

We bought our first PC in 1990. It wasn't my first computer -- that had been a Commodore 64 back in 1985. But the PC was my first home office tool. The three commercial task-oriented pieces of software I bought for it were Adobe (then Aldus) Pagemaker for desktop publishing, CorelDraw for vector graphics and Finale for music publishing. I upgraded over the years, and eventually switched to PaintShop Pro for graphics, but otherwise stayed fairly loyal to my software and fairly consistent in what I used my computer for. I got into web publishing, video-editing and photo-editing and added bits of software for those things. More and more open source software, as it turned out. But the bulk of what I was doing was graphics and publishing.

In the meantime I had fallen in love with my iPod. And iTunes. 

It dawned on me that the sorts of things I was doing with my computer, and had from the start, were the sorts of things that Macs were renowned for. I wasn't gaming, or crunching numbers. I wasn't buying tons of commercial software.

Then I saw a Mac ad at the moment that I was just beginning to think about the necessity of making the leap to a new PC, of leaving Windows XP behind and take on Windows 7. It was an epiphany moment. The timing was right for me.

My music publishing program, which I love and will never leave, is cross-platform, so that was the first thing I loaded. And it was really the only piece of commercial software I installed.  Everything else has been open source, or included with the Mac, and it all functions so much better than the commercial PC software I'd been studiously upgrading for years. Gimp, iMovie, iPhoto and Scribus are keeping me happily busy learning to do things that I never imagined possible -- for free. This week I'm especially enamoured of Scribus which is so much more robust than Pagemaker ever was.

So yeah, I'm in love with my Mac. Forgive the blog silence.

Sunday, December 27, 2009


We like our new espresso machine, "bought" with grocery store points. It was our family's Christmas Eve treat for ourselves. The kids have a penchant for steamed milk, London Fogs and decaffuccinos. The adults like their latt├ęs and cappuccinos. So far it has seen a whole lot of use. Everyone in the family now knows how to run through espresso shots and steam or froth milk.

Next, below, Sophie is playing with our new sudoku board. Sophie really likes sudoku but finds the physical/tactile version much easier and more fun to use. Especially fun are the little drawers on each side of the board for storing the number tiles.

At the bottom, a bloom of Two Hills art tea, in this case Jasmine Fairy Flower Green Tea. We recently discovered Two Hills, a local importer of quality organic Chinese teas farmed and processed ethically. The regular Jasmine Tea is like something from another world. The art tea version, which "blooms" in your cup, adds visual appeal too.

Our Christmas was as usual a fairly simple affair. Perhaps a little simpler than usual this year. On the gifting front there were a half dozen inextravagant gifts for each of the kids, a couple for the parents, plus a handful of "family gifts" like the ones pictured. Few gifts cost over $30, none over a hundred. Mostly useful things -- clothing, things for the bedroom, books. We had the usual cinnamon buns for breakfast, and a nice supper which included a small turkey for the meat-eaters. No extended family or friends over this year. Chuck was on call, though he only had to go into the hospital once during the day, which was nice.

Sometimes I wonder if we have simplified too much. For many years we focused on special things to do through the holidays, on making things by hand, on contributing good deeds around the community and beyond. Lately we don't even do that much, besides participating in the flurry of Christmas performances and doing a fair bit of charitable giving. So it's just not that big a deal, Christmas. It's a time to be together as a family, to focus on the value of giving, and participate in a few special rituals.

I'm not sure if it should be bigger. My kids' friends' families mostly make a much bigger deal over Christmas. The gifts, especially. Do mine feel embarrassed when their friends ask what their favourite Christmas gifts were and they have only a small humble few to choose amongst (a pair of mittens? a book? a jar of marmalade?), none of which rate next to the laptops, wii's, iPhones, iTouches, X-boxes, Kindles and such that the others got?

We had a nice Christmas. It wasn't the pinnacle day of the year (that would be the first Friday in August every year, the last day of SVI). No one's complaining. I guess we're doing okay.

And this year we had only a tiny handful of paper and plastic, plus two cardboard boxes, to dispose of.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Winter running

When you add two to three hours of structured homeschooling to your family's already pretty full daily life, something's got to give. And in my case, it's been the running. I've only run a handful of times in the past month.

Daylight only lasts about eight hours here now. Running at night is really not a realistic option. We're in the middle of nowhere, no streetlights. When it's dark, it's truly dark. When we were in Calgary I ran at night and it felt like it was practically daytime there was so much light. Streetlights every 20 or 30 metres, plus residential lighting and headlights and that urban glow in the sky. But at home it's scary running at night. It's hard to see your feet properly, even with an LED headlamp.

So daylight is short, and with the schoolwork we're doing added to the other daytime business, there really isn't much time for running. I was making progress at getting back into the habit after my two-month injury-related hiatus, but the additional structured daytime activities with the kids is really making things tough. Somehow I'm going to have to fit it back into my life, though, because running really was making me happy when I was doing it regularly.

Lately when I do run, I love my YakTrax. I use the Pro version, which are secured by Velcro on the top and are so light and flexible that I barely feel them at all. They're fabulous in snow, slush and ice. I have some awesome gloves and just bought myself some wind pants to go over my tights for the really cold days. Along with my hat and neckwarmer and a thermal shirt or two on top, I feel really comfortable even at minus 12.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Choir and Quartet

Noah's quartet doesn't really exist anymore, since the 2nd violinist has moved away. However, the remaining three quarters of the quartet, together with Sophie, were invited to help accompany a piece the local community choir was performing at their Christmas concert. They had only one very short rehearsal with the choir, so I thought it came off very well considering.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Sophie School

Of the three at-home kids, Sophie is the one who has come up with the most unusual approach to structured schooling. She has gravitated to setting her alarm for 6:30 a.m.. This is the girl who often used to still be in bed at noon. Now she's up before it's light outside. She makes a fire in the woodstove and, until that warms things up, she wraps herself in a quilt and turns on Phillip, the (Phillips brand) space heater.

She does almost all her work independently now, though it didn't start out that way six weeks ago. She's relishing the independence and the quiet time before anyone else is up.

Her morning regimen always includes math, which is pictured at the bottom of the further stack. She's using the Art of Problem Solving Introduction to Algebra text and solutions manual. At first this book was a huge challenge which resulted in regular tears. She needed a lot of help, but didn't want to need help, which made her sad and angry. But a couple of weeks later things had changed. She's now working totally independently through Chapter 4 and understanding it. The depth of this book is very impressive. Far beyond the level of the first in the high school series of everything else we've looked at -- Teaching Textbooks, Life of Fred, MathPower, Saxon, Singapore NMC. If I'd known how challenging it was I'd never have bought it for a 10-year-old. But despite my concerns she's doing fine. And gosh, she's getting a very robust math education! We'll be branching out into Statistics and Geometry in the same series in the months to come.

On top of the math is Campbell's "Biology: Concepts and Connections," the other big challenge in Sophie's learning program. This is an AP / intro university level text. She's had it for a while but only skimmed and browsed in the past. Now she's working systematically through it. It's beautifully set up for self-teaching with lovely detailed text and illustrations footnoted by CD-ROM or internet-based activities, explorations, virtual labs, self-evaluation quizzes, links and additional tutorials.

Then there's Theory Time Grade 5. There's some challenge in here for her, to be sure. The bass clef work, and all the circle-of-fifths stuff. It was a good place for her to start working in this series.

Rosetta Stone French. Sophie likes total privacy when doing RS, because of the oral work into the microphone which makes her self-conscious. So she isn't doing Rosetta Stone very often -- maybe once a week, while the rest of us are away in Nelson -- which is a shame because it really needs to be used at least every other day. We're trying to figure out solutions to this.

The bottom of the nearer stack is L'Art de Lire, a systematic grammar-based written approach to French. It's a good companion to Rosetta Stone which is aural and immersion-like.

Next up is the Editor-in-Chief Level A1 book. Sophie blew through the beginner book in 2 weeks, so we've just started the next one. She enjoys these even if they're easy and "below her level" so we'll continue. She doesn't do much writing, so this is a nice way of giving her experience editing other people's writing for clarity and accuracy.

On top are episodes from the two Teaching Company Lecture Series she's enjoying. The first is "The Joy of Science," intended for university non-science-majors. The second is "Introduction to Biology" which just arrived this week. She does like her biology, this girl!

Every day includes math, most days include a bit of Campbell's Biology and typically she'll do one or two other bits of written work. Rosetta Stone and the DVD's come into play maybe once a week each.

In addition there's violin practicing, independent reading (Twilight series most recently), our nightly fiction readalouds, and the evening regimen of history readaloud and/or videos (the latter of which has lately shifted firmly to the back burner). And all the serendipitous stuff that comes up in the course of daily life.

Because she starts her schoolwork at 6:30, Sophie is usually ready for a nap at about the time the rest of us are getting up. We often find her on the couch looking like this. But that's okay, because she's had a productive morning, the evidence of which is strewn all about her, and the house is warm thanks to her fire-building skills.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Fiona's Morning School

This has been a homeschooling blog for years, but now that we're finally doing some structured schooling I thought it would be appropriate to post about what we're doing. Fiona's morning starts at about 8:30 am. She usually grabs some breakfast first and then settles in for some bookwork. These days she is pretty happy with what we're using and is moving up levels almost as fast as I can order them. Left to right, in photo...

Real Science 4 Kids Biology I. This is pretty lightweight stuff, but it's clearly presented, not patronizing in its narrative style and lovely in its layout. The author is apparently a Christian fundamentalist but this book is perfectly fine in a secular context.

Editor-in-Chief Beginner Book. Nominally for Grades 3-4. A little challenging for Fiona, suitable for older kids filling in gaps. I've written about this before. It's a great approach for helping kids, especially perfectionistic ones, learn to write well by having them find and correct other people's mistakes.

Singapore Primary Mathematics. Fiona did a good bit of Miquon Math but preferred the clarity of Singapore Primary Maths and so she transitioned into that after the Blue Book. Singapore PM works beautifully for Fiona because she has a very intuitive understanding of math, easily handles the mental math demands and needs very little practice. It also stays refreshingly friendly and to-the-point right through to the 6B level (approximately equivalent to Grade 7 in North America).

The Getty-Dubay Italic Handwriting series. I first bought these years ago because they seemed likely to work well for Erin who is a lefty and who liked the look of the italic font. They seem to work well enough for the other kids, who appreciate the fact that there's almost no transition to cursive once the manuscript font is well-learned. Fiona is my first kid whose handwriting hasn't lagged behind her supposed age-grade. She's just beginning Level C which is I think 2nd grade level and can print reasonably neatly with proper letter formation. What a surprise, after three late-bloomers!

Theory Time Grade 3. She started with this at the Grade 2 level and enjoys it. It's friendly and unintimidating, the best theory program I've seen for kids and pre-teens. She's pretty advanced in her instrumental studies, so she's encountered a lot of the theory in this book already in informal ways. But it's nice to do a little systematic gap-filling.

We don't do all this every day. We do math and one to three of the others.

Most days also involve violin and piano practicing, and some independent reading (currently Harry Potter). And although we've been slacking lately, we were also reading a bit of Story of the World Volume 2 most evenings, and/or watching the corresponding Teaching Company High School History DVD course lectures. And we always have a nightly family readaloud on the go. Currently that's the first Percy Jackson novel, the Lightning Thief.

And then there's all the unstructured stuff, the learning I've mostly been writing about for years, which still seems to fit in around the edges.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Not all fun and games

Someone commented to me (about our recent changes in daily structure):

"Life is not all fun and games and shouldn't be treated as such, sometimes there are things that we have to do even when we don't want to..."

I think this is a little simplistic. I agree that life is not all fun and games. However, my approach has been to try to help my kids look beyond immediate wants to more abstract wants. For instance, Noah wants to be able to play Beethoven, Dvorak and Schubert string quartets, to get the thrill of performing those great works, to experience the joy of working with others on that common goal. Those are abstract, long-term goals. In order to have those 'wants' satisfied, that means practicing scales and studies on the viola today, and tomorrow, and every day. And that may not be intrinsically enjoyable. But does he want to become a better viola player? And does he recognize that this is part of that process? Yes! And so it's no hardship to motivate himself to do the daily scales and studies. He has made the connection and he actually wants to do his practicing even if he doesn't always feel like doing it.

So rather than saying "sometimes we have to do stuff we don't want to" I prefer to say "sometimes we have to do stuff we don't feel like doing because it gets us stuff we really want." I think that's a much healthier long-lasting message to get, because ultimately it facilitates self-regulation and doesn't rely on other people setting rules for us.

Helping kids forge those connections between immediate action and big-picture wants is one of the most difficult parenting tasks, I think. My kids definitely want more balanced lives; they want to be healthy, helpful, good people with strong relationships. They're just not yet always naturals at connecting their immediate actions to those bigger-picture goals. I think that they needed a little remedial teaching in this respect -- someone to forcefully point their gaze at those longer-term goals, and give them a little experience with the habits of behaviour that serve those goals, so that they can re-affirm the connection between them -- and strengthen it within themselves.

At least that's what I'm trying to do. Time will tell.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Rum Balls and their friends

Fun and easy. We do both types at once in two separate bowls.

Rum Balls

The main deal:
4 oz. semisweet chocolate
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1/3 cup dark rum
200 g chocolate cookie crumbs
1 1/4 cups finely chopped walnuts
1 tsp. vanilla

For coating:
1 more cup of finely chopped walnuts

Melt chocolate in a saucepan over very low heat with the sweetened condensed milk. Remove from heat and stir in other ingredients. Chill in fridge for at least an hour. If leaving overnight, cover tightly to prevent the top from drying out.

Shape mixture with hands into teaspoon-sized balls. Toss in remaining finely chopped nuts. Allow to sit out for a few hours to dry out slightly on the outside. Store cool and dry for a couple of weeks. May be frozen for longer, but thaw without opening to prevent condensation from making them soft and sticky.

Hazelnut Balls

Follow the same procedure as for Rum Balls, but substitute hazelnut liqueur for rum, and hazelnuts for walnuts.


These are a perfect for young children to make, so long as they can keep their fingers out of their mouths for the duration!


1 egg white
300 to 350 gm of sifted icing sugar (varies depending on egg size)
1 tsp. mint extract
a few drops of food colouring, if desired

Whisk the egg for a minute or two. Add mint extract and food colouring if used. Sift in icing sugar half a cup at a time, mixing with a wooden spoon, until mixture is very stiff and stops being shiny and sticky. Knead by hand if the wooden spoon becomes onerous. It should eventually have the consistency of playdough. This is the best part! Try to the resist the urge to play with your candy fondant for hours before making your minties.

Form into balls the size of a large marble and place on baking parchment. Leave them for a minute or two, then flatten gently with the tines of a fork. Or you can be more creative with your creations, making little animal shapes, combining batches of different colours, whatever you like. Just don't make anything too big or it will crack as it dries. Leave to dry for an hour or so, then flip over and allow the same drying on the other side. Store in a closed container away from heat and moisture.

Makes about 30 small mints.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Yin and Yang of Computer Cables

I used to laugh at people who got panicky when they needed to set up their own PCs. They'd worry what would go wrong if they plugged something in the wrong way.

I'd reassure them that it was really easy. The cables only connect one way. You can tell by the plugs and jacks how they fit together. You just have to match up the shapes of the plugs to the shapes of the jacks. Of course you needed to figure out how all the audio cables work; the microphone and the speakers are sometimes colour coded. If not, you pay attention to which peripheral the cable is coming from and you look for the little icon on the back of the CPU and choose the correct one. And the webcam and the printer are best to hook in while you're down on the floor with a flashlight looking for the correct jack. The mouse too. Match up cables and their plugs to the jacks in your CPU and you'll be all set.

You should end up with something like the photo shown here. A bunch of different cables heading down through a hole in your desk to the CPU beneath. The last step is to hook your modem or network cable up from the CPU.

Yesterday I unpacked my new iMac. Here's the sum total of the cable connections required to set the thing up: one AC power cord heading to the wall. End of story.

Almond Crescents

These are another classic treat that we never do without at Christmas. We use fresh Rancho Vignola unsprayed almonds, blanching and skinning them before turning them into crumbs. There's not a lot of sugar in these, but there's more than enough butter to make up for that!

Almond Crescents

2 cups whole blanched almonds
1 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup icing sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. almond extract
pinch of salt
2 cups flour
an extra 3/4 cup of icing sugar for dusting / dredging

Finely chop almonds; a food processor works best. In a bowl, beat together butter, 1/4 cup of icing sugar, almond and vanilla extracts and salt. Mix in flour and almonds, using hands as necessary. Refrigerate one hour.

With 10-15 mL (two or three tsp. worth) of dough, shape into a ball, roll gently into a log, and then form into crescent shape. Place crescents an inch or two apart on baking parchment lined cookie sheet. Bake cookies in 350F oven for 18 minutes, rotating trays partway through baking. Cookies should be firm to touch and barely golden on the bottom.

Cool slightly, until cookies can be handled easily but are still warm. Dredge in remaining sugar. Place on racks to cool fully. Makes about 4 dozen.