Going watchless

All my life, ever since I was just a wee little one, I’ve worn a watch.  For some reason in those early days, watches fascinated me and I was drawn to them.  In retrospect I think the mechanical engineer was already in me back then.

I’ll never forget it was Grade 1 or so, and one of my classmates, John, had one of those awesome watches with red LEDs that glowed to tell the time when you pressed the button.  Sorry kids, this was back in the early 80s, and I’m not referring to an Apple watch, but something more like this.  I’m pretty sure it was a Pulsar, and I was in love with that watch.  I continually bugged John to let me wear it, much to his annoyance.

My parents never bought me one of those, but I’ve had so many different watches since that time.  I went from the analog windups to ‘newfangled’ digital ones with what seemed like a zillion alarm tunes (played in single notes only, as I recall) on them.  I thought I was happening and would occasionally set alarms to go off for no reason at all, while I was somewhere in the presence of adults, just for fun.

Before I got married my future mother-in-law bought me a really nice watch, a Tag Heuer, which I’m quite fond of and wear 24/7 to this day.  I mean I never, ever take off my watch.  Er, ahem…well, up until recently.

Last week, before one of my 7-mile runs, I took the watch off my wrist to try a little experiment: would I slow down and be less fixated on time if I didn’t wear it?  I carry my iPhone around with me everywhere, so it’s not like I never know the time, but it is just that much more effort to reach for the phone and turn it on compared to glancing at my wrist.  So that day after my run I left the watch off.

I’ve been thinking about doing it for quite awhile, and ironically it was an idea I had while perusing online a new watch that caught my fancy (this lovely one, which has only a single hand).  The idea behind the single hand is that you have less resolution, so at a quick glance you can probably only estimate the time to within about 15 minutes.  It is supposed to “change your perception of time” and they claim up to 2-minute resolution, but I’m pretty sure you have to look very closely and estimate the tiny increments between the 15-minute tick marks to get that.

Anyway, at first I found myself looking at my wrist often.  I realize now how in the mornings, I look at my watch to kick myself out of bed (often with a little guilt for sleeping too long), and I look at it while standing in the morning shower to tell myself I need to get out, and I sometimes fixate on it in the afternoons at work, just before leaving the office.

Now, in the morning after my iPhone alarm goes off, I snooze for some undetermined amount of time (no watch!) and get up and hop in the shower for some random length of time.  It’s not until I get in the car that I see the clock.  During the day, I no longer glance at my watch for no good reason, other than time is something that I seemingly feel like I need to know.  My Outlook calendar doesn’t let me miss work meetings or appointments.

After some initial adjustment, and getting over the feeling of being ‘lost’, I must say that it really has made me less time-driven, and I like it.  Do you wear a watch?  If you’ve done the same thing, or are willing to give it a try, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

A toast to the home roast

Coffee roast, that is.  I think it has been about two years now since my original blog post (back when I was using Tumblr) on roasting my own coffee, and I thought it would be fun to write an update on how things are going.

How much coffee, sir?  Since I’m the only one who drinks coffee in the house, and I try really hard to keep my intake to one French Press a day, I go through about a pound of green beans every two weeks or less.  That’s roughly twenty-six pounds a year, times two years, or about fifty-something pounds of coffee.

Amazingly, I still have the original Nostalgia brand roaster (actually hot air popcorn popper), although it certainly has a lot more character now, just like the beans that it roasts.  I’m happy to report that it’s still working as well today as it did on Day 1, although I have this great knack for jinxing things.


One of the things that has changed, I’m not proud to say, is where I get my beans from these days.  It used to be that every few weeks we would trudge down to our local green bean supplier and buy a couple pounds of something new, but lately I’ve been buying from an outfit in the SF Bay Area.  The economics still work out great even when you factor in the shipping, and I never get into a situation where I might run out in the middle of the week, and now with baby there’s less time in general for these kinds of things.  Ok, ok, I admit I still struggle with not supporting local business.


Above is a photo of my latest thirteen-pound shipment which just arrived.  After trying beans from all over the world, I find that I always come back to the Ethiopian (and African) beans in general.  The Ethiopian Yirga Cheffe is probably my absolute fave and a consistent performer, with its fragrant nose and strong blueberry notes.

Anyway it’s still a fun and tasty endeavour, and I’ve even been thinking about designing and building my own roaster before my little $30 popcorn popper goes to the big popper in the sky.  Sure there are plenty of commercial units out there, but what’s the fun in buying one of those?  Meanwhile, the roast continues.


If only work was more like baby feedings…

I’ve been away from this blog for awhile, and it was for good reason:


On January 26, 2015, at 6:02 pm we welcomed Zachary Eian Liew to the world!  From that moment on our carefree, spontaneous lives changed forever…

As everyone knows, with a new baby comes sleepless nights–true, there have been more than a few of those.  With a boy there are also the pee showers while changing him, and diaper blowouts are really quite the experience too (who knew those little bundles of cuteness could hold so much high-pressure poo).

The one thing that dominates our waking hours, however, is the feedings.  We live to service his Royal Highness, and his internal clock is more precisely calibrated than a Swiss movement, for every two hours he let’s us know it’s time.  Since he had some jaundice at birth, we started him on formula within his first week, while mummy was still getting the milk production machine cranked up.  He now drinks two to three ounces of formula/milk every two hours.  On the dot.

I wouldn’t have believed it before his birth, but it’s incredible how time completely disappears between feedings.  There’s the feeding itself, then the bouncing and burping, and maybe a diaper change, then washing and drying of bottles and breast pump parts.  We try to time our meals so it can happen after his happy meal, when he’s a little milk drunk (they make the cutest faces) but it feels like no sooner have the dishes been done when he sidles up to the proverbial milk bar and asks for a double, straight-up.  With the slow-flow nipple, please.IMG_0032

I’m a lucky person in that I absolutely love my work, and the people I work with, but hey, it’s still work.  If only two hours at work could disappear like it does at home, I could work 16-hour days and barely know it.  🙂IMG_1238

Strawberry Study

What a wet, drizzly, gray weekend.  It’s standard fare for Portland in the middle of winter, but surprisingly, we’ve been treated to some wonderful strawberries in the grocery store.  The box says they’re from Watsonville, California.  We’ve driven through there many times since we used to live in the SF Bay Area, and I’ll bet the weather is sunny there right now.

Time to get out the macro lens and use whatever available light we have to study these amazing little nuggets of sweetness!





Handwriting: The lost art.

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Pens and Pencils.”

The short response:  I write almost daily–not because I have to, but because I enjoy it.

I will freely admit that I’m a complete computer geek: I spend a lot of time on the computer at work and at home.  When a computer isn’t readily available there’s always my smartphone.  I’m all for note-taking apps like Onenote or Evernote, and use at least one of them daily as well.  With the exception of Post-it notes, I could easily get along without needing a handwriting instrument of any kind at my job as an engineer.

I write because I enjoy it.  It’s relaxing, and so pure.  There’s something soothing about watching letters and words form behind the tip of a pen, speeding along at maybe 20 words per minute or so.  I know what it was like in the pre-keyboard era.  Oftentimes when I’m all alone with pen and ink, I think about the monks in the old days, huddled over a flickering candle, transcribing old texts with quills.

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In my opinion, handwriting neatness and style has gotten progressively worse (just look at the flowing script in many letters and postcards written back at the turn of the twentieth century, for example).  I think about today’s kids, who don’t know a world without the Internet, email, and text messages, and can’t help but wonder if handwriting is going to be a lost art in the near future.

Tag this!

In my first Calligraphy posting (http://wp.me/p5yQuB-2), I found the Parallel Pen ink cartridges didn’t last very long.  I went to buy some Higgins Calligraphy ink and tried it, but wasn’t satisfied with it, as it was too runny and the black was washed out compared to the original cartridge ink.

I also bought some Winsor & Newton Calligraphy ink in matt black, and it gave a much richer black, but also clogged the pen.  😦  Right around this same time Angie conjured up a project for my calligraphy, and suggested I make some tags for her baby shower gifts.  She wanted gold ink on black paper tags.

The challenge was on!  I figured out by now that any metallic gold ink would definitely clog a Parallel Pen, so I did some research and decided to buy an oblique pen holder and some nibs.

This would be my foray into dip pens, and I was excited.  Undaunted by the bewildering array of nibs (and people fixated on them!) I jumped in head first and bought a couple Principal EF, Hunt 101, and Speedball calligraphy nibs (B and C series).  I also purchased a bottle of Sennelier Gold ink, and a Speedball oblique holder.  The Speedball holders are cheap, ubiquitous and definitely marketed toward the beginner.Gold ink

I had never really seen a nib until that day in the store, and there’s something beautiful about them, from the shiny, coppery finishes to the precisely fabricated tips.  I know the coppery color is from the heat treatment of the steel to achieve the correct hardness (not ‘stiffness’, as most people commonly call it, but I digress), and there’s a raw elegance to that.

I spent a lot of time tinkering with the nibs and the black inks I now owned, and figured out that a really light touch is what is required to keep the Principal EF nib from catching the paper.  Oh, what a fine line I could draw though!

The gold ink was another story.  It settled out very quickly–between dips of the pen in fact–so it required constant stirring, and I had trouble achieving varied line widths (shades?) with both the Principal EF and the Hunt 101.  I found that if I let the ink settle and absorb a little of the water from the ink to thicken it, it worked better.

Anyway after many hours and many failed attempts I finally managed to make 23 tags with a short thank-you on one side and the recipient’s name on the other.IMG_0685


Since then I purchased a pack of Zebra G nibs, which I’m quite fond of.  I had to take a Dremel and stone to the ends of the nibs to make them fit in the Speedball oblique holder (they’re too long) but I also have some more oblique holders currently on order.

More about nibs and beginner Copperplate practice in a future post.

At least I look the part…

**Originally published on tumblr in Feb 2013 **

It happens every time I travel to Asia…

First, some background on me:  In a time long long ago, I was born to Chinese parents in Singapore.  We lived there for another five years before we made a major shift and moved to Vancouver, in British Columbia, Canada.

By every measure my parents raised me well, teaching me to treat everyone with respect, eat my vegetables, and study hard—you know, pretty typical asian stuff.  They even taught me how to eat durian (a really stinky, smelly Asian fruit) and weird stuff like pickled baby snails and stinky tofu (another really stinky, smelly, Asian thing).

What they didn’t ever push on me, however, was the need to go to Chinese school.  They asked me, and left the choice up to me.  This was a decision that many of my friends never got to make for themselves.  After all, what seven-year-old boy would consciously make a decision to attend Chinese school every weekend, over going out to ride his bike around the neighbourhood with friends??

So in my later life (i.e. now) I have come to realize that it really sucks to look Chinese when you travel in Asia, and can’t speak Mandarin.  For example in Singapore, at the food stalls away from the touristy areas, I’m still initially spoken to in Mandarin.  Fortunately, most of the “Uncles” and “Aunties” who run these stalls understand English (surprisingly to most people, English is one of Singapore’s official languages) and they switch over right away.

Another time, I was on a business trip to Taiwan with some white co-workers, one of whom could speak Mandarin.  Wherever we went and interacted with the locals, their first instinct was to look at me and speak in Mandarin.  Many were taken aback when I would give them a puzzled stare and look to my coworker Mike, who would then reply in Mandarin.  We always got a good chuckle out of it every time it happened, which was often.

Well, at least I look the part.

Greetings from Bali

**Originally posted on tumblr on Jan 2013. **

Greetings from Bali, Indonesia.  It took us 2:45 hrs to fly here from Singapore.

After getting some lunch in Penestanan, the town where our rental villa is located, we sauntered over to Ubud to check it out.  Definitely more touristy over there, whereas Penestanan has more of a remote village feel to it.

Unlike our typical vacation style of go, go, go, we’re enjoying just hanging out in the relative luxury of our villa, which has its own pool.  In the evening it’s quiet, except for a frog that was trying to find itself a mate, and the crickets that are probably doing the same.

Us city-dwellers often forget what peace and tranquility really sound like–when you don’t hear any traffic, or people, or other signs of civilization.  Nothing but the steady whirring of our ceiling fans, and odd noises from critters outside in the yard.

It’s times like these when my thoughts always turn to giving up the urban lifestyle, and moving to a place like Penestanan, for a simpler life.  Maybe if I did, I would eventually yearn for the bustle of the city, but I sure would like to give it a try.


Originally published on tumblr, around March 2013.

So I recently thought about roasting my own coffee beans.  I’ve always been a big fan of cooking from scratch, so naturally the idea of roasting my own beans appeals to me, and I don’t know why I didn’t think about doing it earlier. Up until now, I have been content to buy my roasted beans from one of the local small coffee chains, but it was always a pain to have to drive downtown to get them, and if I ran out in the middle of the week, then my mornings were just not the same.  Coffee drinkers will understand what I’m talking about.

There are several ways to do it, from the old-school method of roasting them on a frying pan, to fancy-dancy shiny European-made devices that cost way more than I care to pay.  Now while I didn’t try the frying pan method, I did opt for a the hot-air method, one which uses a hot air popcorn popper.

The popper model my trusty wife came home with for me is a Nostalgia brand unit.  I’m not sure where she found it, but a quick search of the internet showed that other people were using the model with some success.


The basic idea is exceedingly simple: Put green coffee beans into the bottom of the popper, turn it on, and after about 5-8 minutes, your beans are roasted.  Let them hang out for 4-24 hrs to allow some CO2 to escape, then grind and brew, or store in sealed containers.

The economics of home roasting aren’t that important to me, but the fact that I can get fresher beans AND save money is naturally appealing.  The popper cost $30, and a 1 lb bag of green beans from a local coffee place costs on average $7.00 (they do vary from about $6-$9 per lb, depending on origin).  A bag of Stumptown costs $16, but every 11th one is free, so that comes out to $14.55 a lb.  I’m saving roughly $7 /lb, so after 5 lbs, the popper will have paid for itself.
It’s a small-batch process, but it’s fun, and you can experiment with different roast strengths.  I’m enjoying the fact that my beans are now roasted only the night before.

Calligraphy Papers

As I started doing more calligraphy and playing with pens and ink, I found that the original Bienfang pad I bought wasn’t meeting my standards.  I’ve tried several different papers now, so I’m going to give them a short review here.

The following is a list of the four papers I’ll discuss:

  • Bienfang Calligraphic Parchment.  8.5” x 11”, 50 sheets, 60lb (74 gsm)
  • Bee Paper Calligraphy Practice Pad.  9” x 12”, 50 sheets, 60lb (98 gsm)
  • Rhodia Reverse Book.  8.25” x 8.25”, 80 sheets, spiral bound, 80gsm
  • Canson Pro Layout Marker.  9” x 12”, 50 sheets, 18lb (70 gsm)
The four papers reviewed here
The four papers reviewed here


If you’re not going to read the rest of this post, here’s the quick rundown of each paper.  I go into more details below.

  • Bienfang: Avoid it for thin inks like Parallel Pen or fountain pens.  Acceptable for dip pen but surface finish could catch fine nibs.
  • Bee Paper: Nothing really special about this pad.  Small amount of ink feathering.
  • Rhodia: Nice gridded paper, minimal ink feathering.  Compact size.
  • Canson Pro Layout.  Exceptionally smooth and no ink feathering, but fairly transparent and slow drying.  Works well with different inks.

Bienfang Calligraphic Parchment:

This was the first pad I bought when I started with my first Parallel Pen.  It’s made in Canada (yay, my home country).  The single pad contains paper of 4 different colors—canary, cream, pink, and light blue—which is nice for seeing how your ink looks with different backgrounds.

The paper surface has a fine texture to it, and isn’t as smooth as the Canson or Bee Paper pads.  It’s not an issue so much with the Parallel Pen, but dip pen users who like fine pointed nibs should beware.

Included with the pad are several different spacing guides, in heavier stock, which I found really helpful.  There are three guide sheets, for fine, medium, and broad nibs, and they are printed on both sides, so you can practice straight vertical lettering on one side, and italics on the other.

Parallel Pen ink on Bienfang paper
Parallel Pen ink on Bienfang paper

I noticed fairly pronounced feathering with Parallel Pen ink, which is probably a more free-flowing ink similar to fountain pen ink.  With sumi and dip-pen ink (which I’ve now started experimenting with), which is thicker, it was less of a problem.

I haven’t been using this paper much lately, but will keep it around for its different colors, and making notes with dip-pens.

Bee Paper Calligraphic Practice Pad:

I bought this paper hoping for something better than the Bienfang.  It’s made in the USA (locally, in my current city of Beaverton, Oregon, actually!)

Although it says it is 98 gsm (grams per square meter), the sheets feel thinner and lighter than the 74gsm Bienfang paper.  The whole paper weight system is a bit confusing anyway, and I don’t think all manufacturers are playing by the same rules, even though the gsm unit of measure is very straightforward.

The surface finish is very smooth on both sides, and the color is bright white.  I was hoping that the smoothness was an indicator that it was sized, and therefore less prone to feathering with thin inks.  This proved to partly be the case, as feathering with Parallel Pen ink was less on this paper than the Bienfang.  Each sheet is quite thin, so writing on both sides is not really practical.

Bee Paper sample
Bee Paper sample

The pad comes with several spacing and lettering guides, which are always helpful to have around.  I noticed that the sheets do tear out quite easily, which I personally find annoying, as I like to keep my practice sheets intact for future reference, or just to thumb through to see my learning progression.

Rhodia Reverse Book:

After some research I found a near cult-like following of this notebook, which is spiral bound and made in France.  I picked one up at the local Blick to form my own impressions.

The first thing you notice is the orange cover (also available in black, but that seemed boring) and the spiral binding.  The metal spiral is well made so that it doesn’t constantly unwind itself from the pages, as some spiral notebooks have a tendency to do.  As an engineer, I like these details.

The paper itself is smoothly finished, and has a 5mm square grid on both sides, in a light and unobtrusive violet color.  Some reports on the Net say that the grid lines are fuzzy, smeared, or not well printed, but my sample looks crisp.  The sheets have very fine perforations near the spiral binding, so pages can be torn out with a clean edge, and are thick enough that writing on both sides, even with the wide 3.8mm Parallel Pen, is possible.

Parallel pen on Rhodia
Parallel pen on Rhodia

My test with Parallel Pen ink resulted in no noticeable feathering at a normal viewing distance of about 12”.  You really have to look up close to see slight, but unobtrusive feathering.  Based on this I would think that dip pen inks would hold up very well.  I have to say I like this notebook a lot.  It’s a nice balance of size and portability and when I travel I’ll be taking this with me.

Canson Pro Layout Marker:

This is my latest acquisition, and it’s pretty nice stuff.  I would probably appreciate it even more if I were an artist working in pens and markers.  I can’t tell if it’s made in France or the USA, as it lists both countries as place of manufacture.

The paper is bright white, and quite transparent so it would be great for tracing.  It is sized, so it has an exceptionally smooth finish, and my Parallel Pen ink does not feather on it at all.  I’ve also tried Yasutomo Sumi ink, Winsor & Newton Calligraphy Ink, and Sennelier metallic gold inks on it and don’t see any feathering.  Inks do take a long time to dry on this paper though, so left-handers beware!  Also, the transparency means that writing on both sides is not really practical as you can see the other side.

Canson Pro Layout
Canson Pro Layout

One interesting thing I noted about the Canson was that after the ink dried, you could see the areas where it pooled up.  If you look at the image above, you can see what I mean.  This generally doesn’t pose much of a problem, but when viewed from certain angles this can be a bit annoying.