Sep 022014

A box of flashcards with three cards with photos of animals in front of it

Keeping Dylan and Xander occupied during the summer months has been a challenge and a half. I think we’ve done pretty well for the most part and the key has been introducing plenty of new things to keep them from asking for yet another marathon session in front of the telly. Here’s one of said new things that did the trick: First Fun Flashcards.

Miles Kelly Publishing sent us a pack of their new flashcards aimed at children aged three and up and asked us to see how many games Dylan could come up with. Being a typical younger sibling, Xander wanted to join in – and he’s far from out of his depth with them, so I’d suggest that two and up would be a better recommended age – and they’ve played brilliantly together with them.

The first thing the cards had to do was pass the Xander test, which they did with aplomb. They’re nice and sturdy and he hasn’t managed to tear any of them yet! The flashcards in this particular pack are wild animals, but there other options in the range including colours and shapes and numbers. There are 26 cards with close-up images of the animals on one side and a full shot along with an interesting fact about the same animal on the reverse. There’s also a card offering suggestions to get children started playing with them.

A happy boy playing with flashcards

Then it was down to the business of playing with them and Dylan has taken the role of quizmaster very seriously indeed – Paxo should be worried. The boys’ favourite game is for Dylan to hold the cards and describe the animal on them for Xander to guess what it is. Both of them are very good at this and it’s definitely further improved their language skills. That said, “It’s not a monkey” wasn’t the best of clues, so there’s still room for improvement! They also enjoy guessing animals by doing their best impressions of them – and who wouldn’t eh?

Dylan loves counting so, when Xander wanders off to do something else, he tends to divide the cards up into groups of the numbers of legs the animals have or by their colours. It’s great to see both boys – but Dylan in particular – enjoying something other than cartoons or electronic games. It’ll serve him well for his imminent start at school too, so I’m happy!

The flashcards have an RRP of £5.99 – well worth it in my humble opinion!

Aug 262014

So, apparently, normal people are doing the Ice Bucket Challenge now too.

While it may smack a bit of jumping on the bandwagon, it’s for a great cause, so I was more than happy to do my bit for  The Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Association – aka ALS  by making a donation and, of course, having ice-cold water chucked on me.

Having previous for such things, Dylan and Xander were only too happy to help. It’s nice of them to be so community spirited, I know. And finally, I apologise to anyone walking past our house minutes after this video was taken – naturally, I stripped off before running to the shower and forgot that the curtains in the front room were wide open. Oops!

Anyway, here’s the proof of my participation – please donate to ALS if you can!

Aug 202014
Intersections on a rail track

A visual metaphor: yesterday

There’s been a noticeable change in the air lately – after a summer in which we’ve mostly been spoilt by the elements, normal service seems to be resuming as the warm weather seems to be packing its bags slightly earlier than we’d like it to and an autumnal chill has been apparent for a few days. There are changes in the air for us too. Yes, I know that’s an ultra-cheesy segue worthy of Sky Sports News at the end of the transfer window, but that’s just about where we are now.

Anyway, changes, yes. Dylan and Xander have both changed so much over the last few weeks. Maybe it’s because I’m a functioning member of the workforce again and certain things are more evident to me now I’m not with them for the majority of the week, but there have been some pretty obvious ones too.

First of all, Dylan is growing out of things like Peppa Pig – hooray! – and into things that bigger boys and girls like. He’s become pretty obsessed with both Spider-Man and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I’m not sure how I feel about that really; although the cartoons are on channels that are supposedly appropriate to his age, they’re quite violent. Plus ‘new’ Spidey is a cocky twat and the heroes in a half shell now seem to be chiefly known as Leo, Donnie, Raph and Mikey which makes my blood boil. Needless to say, the campaign to own everything with images of both cartoons is well underway. Sigh.

Still, he’s getting much better at listening when we ask him to do things like tidying up and joining us at the dinner table and can now cycle in the right direction instead of backwards too, so he’s making some real progress. Just in time for school, which I think he’s going to love.

Xander, meanwhile, has been achieving milestones of his own. He’s getting the idea with potty training and seems to have reached the stage where he accepts that pissing in the bath isn’t cricket, so that’s good. His speech is coming on brilliantly too. He was already adept at making himself understood, but his vocabulary and ability to string sentences together have both kicked on massively. He’s also sort of sleeping through the night sometimes now. I know that probably doesn’t seem like a confident declaration on my part, but he’s been awful at night since day one and it’s a major relief that we all get a decent night’s kip now and then!

So it seems that he’s getting into more of a routine, which is convenient as… segue… he’s off to pre school in a few weeks’ time. Again, I think he’s really going to enjoy it and benefit from spending time with other children his age, so that’s great.

Maybe the summer has been a turning point for us all. To be brutally honest, the first half of 2014 was thoroughly shit; I found myself out of work, we had to abandon our plans of moving house and spent most of our savings keeping our heads above water. I’m cautiously optimistic that things are changing for the better at long last. Hurrah!

Aug 122014
Loads of broccoli

A crowd of people Xander met: yesterday

Xander has been a cheeky little bugger of late. That’s not groundbreaking news, I know. He’s two years old, testing his boundaries and has long since established himself as the family clown, but he’s become even more audacious in his approach to mischief recently. For example, he’s got very good at calling people names, albeit very specific ones. All of his insults begin with the letter B. It’s very Sesame Street of him…

So far, he’s called us ‘bamboo’, ‘bungalow’, ‘baboon’ and ‘broccoli’. On the face of it these are benign derogatory terms, but the latter is actually something I’ve been called before. Many years ago – well, five years ago, in fact – I had long hair. I don’t know why I did it. I was young(ish) and stupid. It was a big curly mess and, to be fair on my colleagues at the time, it did sort of resemble that particular brassica. I wasn’t that fond of the nickname though, so I was a little put out when he called me it. My face must have betrayed me, as he gave me that look that toddlers do that says “You fool! You’ve given me ammunition!” He now knows that this name is a gift that’ll keep on giving. Damn.

Still, it’s not just me who gets called names. He ascertained ages ago that his big brother is a mini me in terms of being rubbish at concealing when he’s a little miffed about something. The other day, Dylan was minding his own business when Xander appeared at his side, a mischievous look on his face. “You’re Barry Scott!” he grinned. “I’M NOT BARRY SCOTT!” yelled Dylan as I hastily left the room in case either of them saw me struggling to stop myself laughing at the similarity between this scenario and the professors in the Mary Whitehouse Experience.

But back to him being rude to poor old downtrodden me… Last week, I was away for a few days with my new job. I hadn’t been away from my family much at all in the past, so being away for four days was a big deal. Still, in this day and age, we’re fortunate enough to have several ways of keeping in touch including the modern wonder of the world that is Skype. On my first night, after a few unforeseen technical issues, Kate and I managed to get a connection established and started to chat about our respective days. Xander wandered up to the laptop and went for a Wayne’s World style extreme close up. “Mummy,” he said looking over his shoulder, “make Daddy go. I want the CBeebies website.” Little sod!

He redeemed himself shortly afterwards by telling me he missed me and that he’d eaten pizza for dinner. All sweetness and light again. Ten minutes or so passed and I had to go and have my dinner. Kate and Dylan waved, blew kisses and said goodbye. Xander popped his head in front of the screen and had the final word. “Bye, bye silly broccoli!”

Aug 022014

A toy train packed with toy people.

I’ve been back in the world of employment for just over a week and am finding my feet, getting to know my colleagues and starting to get my head round what I’ve been brought in to do. It’s all good. Well almost. You see, with the return of work comes the return of my nemesis. Trains or, more specifically, the people on and around them.

So far, I’ve had an irrational desire to strangle five fellow commuters, had one train cancelled, been blasted with deodorant, elbowed to within an inch of my own sanity and had one return journey stop tantalisingly close to home and drive back to the last station because, apparently, somebody threw their shopping on the track. What is wrong with people?!

The doors seem to be the things that make otherwise intelligent-looking people act like complete morons. There are those who stand there repeatedly jabbing the button to open them when it isn’t yet illuminated and those who look tormented by the fact that said button lights up and bleeps once the train has stopped. What does it mean?! Not to forget the souls who think that boarding is a cross between The Hunger Games and musical chairs…

Then there are the idiots with absolutely no spatial awareness. They get everywhere. Sitting down with the expectation of a pleasant journey? You fool! There’s a fat businessman who seems to think he’s a lapdancer and you’re a punter. Trying to get off the train? You can’t, because there are three of the bell ends forming a wall along the platform. Trying to get through the ticket barriers? No chance. There’s a guy who’s bustled his way in front of you only to realise that his ticket is at the bottom of his bag. Argh!

What about the ones who spend about ten minutes standing up, hanging coats, stowing luggage, emptying pockets and adjusting themselves? Sit down! And the spray-toting smelly people? It’s not going to help you! You’re going to end up smelling of deodorant AND body odour. The people loudly yabbering away on the phone? We don’t need to know about your sex life!

I would say I’ve missed this, but that would be about as sincere as the recorded announcements stating how riddled with guilt the rail operator is that you’re going to have a cold dinner again.

My journey in is only half an hour. I’m going halfway up the country next week…

Jul 232014
Two seagulls sitting on chimneys.

Good old seagulls… they’re not just there for the nasty jobs like shitting on chimneys

This is going to sound like a rather random post, but just work with me on this one. It’s particularly odd in that I don’t believe in fate, horoscopes – I’m a typical Scorpio like that – or omens, but I’ve now been involved in three different episodes involving seagulls and they’ve all centred on the concept of luck.

The first one was when, while living in Brighton, I went to the shops to buy some shorts for five-a-side. I was just outside said shop – you know the one, it had a ‘closing down’ sale every week back then – when a large shitehawk lived up to its name by parking its breakfast on me from a great height. A passing ‘funny’ person commented that I should be happy as it’s good luck. Really? Within the following hour I was dumped by text and wrongly accused of shoplifting by a man who refused to apologise when he realised his mistake.

A year or so later, I was carefully crossing a road between static traffic in one lane and a steady flow in the other. Seeing a double decker bus coming, I stopped in the lane that wasn’t going anywhere to wait for it to pass. Except I trod in something. Something slippery. I slid forward, right in front of the mobile asylum and, as a certain lyric by The Smiths passed through my mind, I somehow managed to lurch backwards in a movement not dissimilar to how they dodge bullets in The Matrix. The bus missed me by centimetres. A little shaken, I made doubly sure nothing else was coming and crossed to the other side of the road. Looking back, I discovered that I had trodden on what used to be a noisy sea bird. Grim. Still, no harm was done and, although it was the thing that almost caused severe misfortune, I’m counting this as lucky.

Cut to a week or two ago and I was suited and booted for a job interview in Brighton. As I left our house to go to the station I noticed something grey and white protruding from the triffids in our front garden. I had a couple of minutes to spare, so carefully pushed a couple of branches out the way to discover the last resting place of, you’ve guessed it, another seagull. Taking into account this rather sinister discovery and the fact that this bird seems to have a special place in the hearts of Brightonians thanks to being all over the branding of Brighton & Hove Albion, this could have been a rather bad omen. Thankfully not – I got the job and am starting tomorrow.

So there you go – conclusive proof that seagulls are good luck. Well, unless you’re Tippi Hedren and as long as they’re dead.

Jul 212014

The Stopmotion Studio 4.0 box.
I’ve always been interested in making films and have been lucky enough to have made a few reasonably successful ones in my career to date. All of these have been live action but, being a massive fan of Terry Gilliam and the surreal links he created for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, I’ve always wanted to give animation a go. Thanks to Honestech, I’ve recently had that opportunity. They sent me a copy of Stopmotion Studio 4.0 to put through its paces and I think it’s fair to say that the whole family has enjoyed using it!

The software installed very quickly and I was soon trying it out, ably assisted – if that’s the word – by Dylan and hindered – which is definitely the word – by Xander. As you can see from the image below, the interface is clear and intuitive and has obviously been created with a family audience in mind. As with most video editing packages I’ve used, there are three key areas – the main section in which you can flick between the live view of your project or play it back, a timeline of all the frames below it and all the important settings to the right.

Screenshot of the software in use.

The interface is simple and intuitive

It didn’t take us long to get underway with some early attempts at animation and, again, this is dead simple. You can use a webcam to capture frames as well as certain digital SLR cameras. You can use your laptop’s built-in camera too, of course, but as this is invariably trained on your face and little else, there’s a limited amount you could do with it unless you’re amazing at keeping still.

Speaking of which, there are some handy features to help you keep track of your subjects. The grid setting allows you to get a more precise idea of where on the screen they are while the onionskin tool uses a superimposed transparency to indicate how far things have moved from the previous frame.

Other handy tools include Chroma Key, which enables you to recreate a green screen effect, Rotoscope which helps create more flowing movement by superimposing still images as guides and Audio which, of course, allows you to add sound and music to your productions. Once they’re finished, it’s easy to export them to your computer or straight to YouTube or Facebook.

We’ve already made a few short films with it  see above for my 60-frame short called Sole Mates  and, while there’s still plenty of room for improvement, we’re pleased with what we’ve achieved and that’s testament to how good the software is. As all parents know, kids can lose interest in things quickly  as can I, for that matter!  so quick results are required with software of this nature and I’m happy to say that it delivers!

I know that Dylan’s going to have a lot of fun making short videos with his toys over the summer and I’ve got a fair few ideas for animated shorts myself too. I may even enter one of them in the local arts festival film competition. Oh yes! Anything that nurtures creativity for young and not so young gets a big thumbs up from me, so I’m very happy to recommend it.

Stopmotion Studio 4.0 has an RRP of £59.99. Alternatively, you could win a copy by entering my giveaway below. Please note that it is only available for PC. Good luck!

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