CD Review: Chinese Lullabies

Parents suffering from sleepless babies will pay anything for relief, and retailers make fortunes off pseudo-scientific quackery. Chinese Lullabies is the real deal: music that really can help a baby go to sleep. Or, at least, our little Jacob.

I’ll admit this CD won’t teach either you or your child much Chinese, except maybe “mā ma” (mother) and “bǎo bao” (precious one). It’s hard to glean Chinese out of singing, where tones are distorted; the Chinese in these songs are formally poetic (that is, not everyday language), and I find children’s voices (with lots of echo) hard to discern. Maybe if you really know your Chinese, you’ll do better than I.

What recommends this CD is the music, which is decidedly Chinese and not some Chinese translation of “Rock-a-bye-baby.” It’s uniformly soothing and peaceful – what you’d want from a lullaby album. The instrumentation seems to be a mix of authentic instruments and synthesizers, but it actually works. (I’ve got some other Chinese children’s CDs whose over-the-top synthetic sounds definitely do NOT work).

Jacob’s gone to sleep to this music for nearly nine months now – he doesn’t really need it anymore, so we occasionally skip it. We can’t really prove that this music soothes him because it’s good or because he’s so familiar with it after hearing it for most of his life, but really – isn’t the point of these lullaby CDs really to soothe the parents after a long day? I say yes. Buy this CD today.

CD Review: Speak & Sing Chinese with Mei Mei

Speak & Sing Chinese with Mei Mei is one of the best resources we’ve come across for getting Chinese into a predominantly English-speaking family. The CD comprises a mix of basic vocabulary lessons and songs that incorporate those words. For example, the lesson on body parts is followed, naturally, by a Chinese version of the well-known English children’s song Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. There’s no drilling on tones, grammar, or any of that, just “repeat after me” words.

Jacob loves this CD; for a while, it was an indispensible part of his morning routine. As we’re still waiting for his first words of any language, we can’t know if he’s learning any Chinese (or English).

Gene: I think this is a wonderful resource for both children and parents. Songs and music are fun and much easier to remember than just vocabulary words themselves. I find myself humming or singing many of the tunes from this CD throughout the day. Mei Mei exaggerates her pronunciation and tones, which I think makes it easier for a non-Chinese-speaker to pick up on the hardest aspects of the Chinese language.

For whatever reason Hu Mei Mei isn’t selling the rest of her resources on Amazon, but you can find them on her site, Mei Mei and Me. The DVDs (and VHS!) seem quite dated; I hope she does some upgrading soon as I really like this introductory CD. Highly recommended!

product review: Kinesis Freestyle, ergonomic split keyboard

Kinesis Freestyle - mergedBelow are my first impressions of the new Kenesis Freestyle keyboard. This is a little off-road for this blog, but I’ve literally been waiting for this keyboard for over 2 years, and I also think I can finally have the pleasure of announcing, “First Post!”.

The main feature of this keyboard is that it splits completely in half, as these pictures illustrate. This allows for considerable freedom in how the place the keyboard for maximum comfort relative to your hands. For me, the advantage of a full split is that it allows my hands to be much more in line with my shoulders. This significantly reduces the strain in my back that comes from hunching over the keyboard (look down at your hands, trace back up to your shoulders, and see how turning your hands inwards to reach your keyboard cause your entire upper body to shrink down).

The build quality of the keyboard seems excellent, and the keys offer a pleasing, springy response. I’m a big fan of the IBM “clicky-keys,” and while these keys are not as sharply responsive, they also don’t wake up the neighbors.

Kinesis Freestyle - extendedI write “more in line” because, unfortunately, the tether that holds these two halves of the keyboard is a tad short — a little over 6″, fully extended. (Unless you have it bolted down to the table, you can’t really pull it out to full length because the cord needs a little slack). Looking at where my fingers land when I have them extended out, just sitting on the table, I’d probably want another 4-6″ — and given how narrow my shoulders are, someone bigger may even want longer.

The keyboard definitely takes some getting used-to, especially if you’re not a “proper” touch typist (you can’t reach for the “Y” with your left hand, for example). Probably the biggest adjustment comes with the removal of the number pad and the weird placement of the home/end/page up/page down keys. I would have preferred that they leave these buttons off altogether and let me buy a separate number/function pad rather than fill up more space. It seems trivial, but the extra keys on the right (and especially the left) means your hand has to travel that much further to get to your mouse. In fact, one of the major advantages I’d hoped to realize with this keyboard was shedding those extra keys so I could go back to a right-handed mouse. With my arms already spread out pretty far, the mouse will now probably be a lot less ergonomic than before — although, I suppose if I know I’m in for an extended mousing session (e.g. graphics work or games), I can always move the keyboard back to a closed, “normal” position. So the bigger problem with the extra keys is that they’re just not where you’d expect them – Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down are all on top of each other, and Insert and Delete have migrated up to the function key row. Good riddance to the Insert key, but with the Delete and Backspace keys so close together now, I find myself hitting the wrong one.

The Kinesis actually arrives with a plastic hinge that holds the two halves of the keyboard together, for those who prefer a keyboard more like the Microsoft Natural or the Goldtouch keyboard. Contrary to the instructions, my tether came off with a screwdriver, not the sliding buttons on the top of the keyboard. While the Kinesis retails around $90, the Natural sells for under $50 and the Goldtouch for $140. By comparison, the Kinesis is a lot more flexible than the Natural and both more flexible and cheaper than the Goldtouch.

In addition to the basic Freestyle, you can also add the “Incline” or “VIP” options that allow you to “tent” the keyboard. The Incline makes the Kinesis a direct competitor to the Goldtouch, while the VIP highlights the Freestyle’s, well, freer adjustment options. While these options make the keyboard even more natural (when you lay your hands on the table, you’ll see that they want to tilt outwards), they also add more height to the keyboard that will reduce the ergonomics, given that most keyboards are already placed way too high in relation to your lap. If you really want the tilting, a pair of rubber doorstops may well do the trick:

Kinesis Freestyle - doorstopsKinesis Freestyle - tilted

At about $100 (with shipping), the Kinesis Freestyle is definitely a bit of a luxury item unless you absolutely need it for ergonomic reasons. I would definitely buy it over the Microsoft Natural and the Goldtouch for reasons listed above, but if you have the extra dough for an ErgoFlex Comfort Keyboard (there’s on on eBay for about $150), I would consider that product because of the longer “tether” between keyboard segments, and the third number pad segment that you can put on the left, right, or middle. You can mount the ErgoFlex on a chair, just like the Freestyle’s predecessor, the Kinesis Evolution (which, appropriately, is now extinct). The Freestyle’s limited range would prevent you from going that far, although the cord is definitely a lot more aesthetically pleasing than the ErgoFlex. Obviously I went for the Freestyle, and while I’m somewhat disappointed with the features described above, I think I’m keeping it.

You can buy the Freestyle directly from Kinesis, or from ErgoKey.

update (2007 June 26):

I received a replacement keyboard directly from Kinesis technical support two weeks ago. My travel schedule prevented me from testing it sooner, but I’m happy to report that this updated version resolves the detection issues that I described in my last update. (It turns out that my BIOS does support USB keyboards after all). Big bonus points to Kinesis technical support and Mr. Rick Lynde in particular, who helped fix this problem. I now have my keyboard plugged directly into the USB ports on my main box with no issues at all with startup, hibernation, standby, etc. Thumbs up, Kinesis! (Now get cracking on that Bluetooth model, kk?)

update (May 9, 2007)

(Correspondence with Kinesis about “intermittent power from the computer during startup,” and workaround involving plugging into my monitor’s powered USB hub, now outdated by most recent update.)

update (2007 May 3):

I got an email from the Kinesis sales team indicating that they have another version of the Freestyle coming out addressing my main criticism:

Just wanted to clarify that we do have a version of the keyboard not yet listed on our web site which offers a 20″ separation. This would probably address your biggest complaint of not having enough separation. This model sells for $139 plus shipping and handling. This is a new option for the Freestyle so we are hoping to have it listed sometime in the next 2 weeks.

Given that the Freestyle was sitting as vaporware on the Kinesis site for well over half a year, it seems this additional model could have been listed with little effort. And $50 for another 14 inches? I think your average spam message can offer a better deal than that.

I should also add that the Holy Grail of split keyboards will be Bluetooth wireless — no “tether” issues at all, and fully maneuverable. I’d be willing to drop another $100 for that.

update (2008 Feb 26):

As I noted above, the spread of the keyboard puts your mouse very far to your left or right. I found that, over time, this put serious strain on my right arm and wrist. After much thought, I decided to throw some more money at the problem (luckily, the money was in the form of a Christmas Amazon gift certificate) and got the Evoluent Verticalmouse 3. While my arm remains splayed out pretty far when mousing, my wrist and hand is in a much, much more comfortable position. I’ll do a review of that product soon. In the meantime, I highly recommend it as a companion for the Kinesis Freestyle.