Wednesday, 11 April 2018

App Review: Forest

Forest is an app which claims to help improve focus and time management. Users are rewarded for leaving the Forest app open and not looking at any other apps on their phone for a set amount of time. A successful session will result in a tree growing in the users' virtual forest. More trees progressively appear as the user accumulates more successful sessions. This provides a visual reward for concentrating. Theoretically, it will help the user to concentrate on their work, study or other activity and be less distracted by temptation to look at their phone. As individual users reach certain levels, the creators of the app make a donation to Trees for the Future, an organisation that plants (real!) trees.

To begin a session, you select a time period, anywhere between 10 minutes and 2 hours, in 5-minute increments. When you tap on 'Plant', a tree or shrub is planted in your virtual forest. Over the time period, the tree slowly grows. If you look at your phone during the time period, messages such as "stop looking at at your phone!" appear. If you switch to another app, then the tree dies, and a sad, twiggy dead tree appears in your forest. If you successfully reach the end of the time period without looking at any other apps, a fully grown tree appears in your forest. You also earn in-game coins for each session, which can be spent on different kinds of trees.

The longer the session, the more elaborate the tree is. For sessions up to 20 minutes, the plant is a small shrub. From 25 minutes onwards, it's a tree, and the tree is larger and bushier the longer the duration is. This provides an incentive to concentrate for longer periods. After the session is over, you can view your forest with all the shrubs and trees you have earned. There seems to be a new forest for each week.

The app also includes an ambient sound setting. There is one included sound option: Rain in Forest. Other options can be unlocked with in-game coins. This function would be great for people who need ambient sound to help concentrate, or for meditation.

For the statistics nerd, there are plenty of charts to see how many sessions you've done, and how much time you've spent focussing over days, weeks and months. Each session can also have a label added to it, such as study, work, sport, etc. There are a set of existing labels to get you started, but they can be completely customised. This allows you to keep a record of how much time you've spent doing different activities. This function would be very handy for those who want to keep track for a weekly or monthly goal.

* The app is very flexible and can be used for many different purposes, from studying to meditation. I like to use it for timed, 10-minute drawing sessions.
* The idea of growing a forest is very appealing, and a good incentive for using the app. I prefer to use it rather than the standard timer function on my phone for things like tidying. It serves as an incentive to do the activity in the first place, not just to keep focussing on it once you've started.
* The design and colour scheme of the app fits the forest theme very well. The trees and shrubs are cute and there are quite a few to choose from once unlocked with in-game coins. Little details like being able to see the tree that will grow before the session starts, and seeing the growth in progress if I check the app during the session, help keep my motivation up.
* The ambient sound (I have only listened to 'Rain in Forest' so far) sounds rich and calming in my headphones. It doesn't have that repetitive feeling that you get from some sound tracks which seem to have a very short loop time.
* Many aspects are customisable, such as the labels for sessions, and the messages that come up if you look at the app during a session. This makes it more fun and motivational -- if, for example, you have a specific phrase that resonates with you, you can add it to the messages section.
* The creators haven't been stingy with the in-game coins -- they accumulate quite fast, though of course you can always purchase them with real-life money if you're impatient.
* Knowing that your efforts will contribute to growing a real-life tree is very rewarding.
* Lots of customisable charts satisfy the statistics nerd in me.
* It's possible to link your account to friends, but I haven't explored this option so far.

* The function to select the session length is a little awkward. The dial looks good and reminds me of old-style ipods, but it's a little awkward to select the time I want.
* You have to create an account if you want to contribute to planting a real-life tree. (All sharing settings are set to 'off' by default though, so the creators seem to be aware of safety and privacy.)
* The default forest view is the 'Today' forest (sessions I've done that day), whereas I'd prefer to see the 'This Week' forest by default. There doesn't seem to be a way to change this.
* The app only prevents you from looking at other apps on your phone, it doesn't prevent you from becoming distracted in other ways (staring out the window, talking to someone, etc). To be fair, I don't know how any app could do that!

The minuses are just niggling details though, and are far outweighed by the pluses. Forest is a lot of fun and has been a great help in motivating me to do various different activities. It's been compared to the Pomodoro (25-minute interval) timer technique, but I think it's more than just a timer. As I mentioned above, I've found it actually motivates me to do activities that I might otherwise have procrastinated on, like tidying and meditation. The prospect of being able to grow a tree while I do these things makes them much more appealing. It's even helped me to be on time for work, as it stops me from checking my emails and playing games as I'm getting ready.

Forest was AU$2.99 from the Apple App Store and is also available on Android.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Tea Haul from Adagio Teas

Adagio Teas is both a tea sales and tea blending company. As well as selling a large range of standard teas, Adagio have a service called Fandom Teas that blends custom teas according to the customer's specifications. The Fandom Teas section features teas inspired by movies and TV shows, fictional characters, or themed by events like Christmas and Halloween. They are presented in a tin decorated with artwork selected by the blender. These teas are then sold on the website with the customer receiving a commission. Blenders can choose to have their commission donated to charity instead.

I first heard about Adagio Teas from Princess Peachie, a YouTuber I've been following for a long time. One of her fans sent her a pair of Fandom Tea tins that she created, inspired by Peachie's two pet rabbits, Pumpkin and Pudding. I couldn't resist ordering them for myself, plus a few others that looked intriguing. I'll share the entire haul today, and do in-depth reviews of some of the teas soon (starting with Pumpkin and Pudding, of course!).

The teas come in various different size options: sample, medium and large pouches, a sample tin and a large tin. Some varieties are also available in tea bags, but I'm not sure why only some are and others aren't. The tins with their custom artwork are an inspired idea, as they can be given as personalised gifts. I decided to get the sample size tins for the Fandom Teas, plus one regular tea in a pouch. I also received a bonus free tea pouch and a $5 off as it was my first order. An envelope with 3 postcards that had information about Adagio Teas and inspirational quotes was also included.

The Fandom Teas I ordered were:

❤ Pumpkin by Sacha W
❤ Pudding by Sacha W
❤ Harry Potter by Allie Stanley
❤ Luna Lovegood by Allie Stanley
❤ Aries by Adagio

The regular tea pouch I ordered was Honeybush Pumpkin Chai, and the bonus pouch I received was Chocolate Chai, both by Adagio.

It was easy to place the order on the website and the teas arrived quite fast from the U.S. In the picture, the box looks like it's coming apart a little, but it was firmly sealed up before I opened it. The padding in the box wasn't enough to stop the teas from moving around a little bit, but it doesn't seem to have done them any damage. The only small concern I had was that small particles of tea had come out of the tins as they were packed on their sides in the gift box. However, the tins were stuffed so full of tea that it didn't really matter!

The smell when I opened the box was divine, and all of the teas I chose smelled unique and intriguing. I haven't tasted any yet, but I'm very much looking forward to it. There seems to be a lively fandom and reviewing community on the website, which makes drinking tea more fun. There's no doubt I'll order from Adagio Teas again. I already have a very long wishlist!

Monday, 2 April 2018

My March

The first signs of Autumn started to appear this month. I won't go into the customary nature-y part too much as I wrote about it only a few posts ago. This post is all about the food!

What I've been eating...
I've been doing a meditation course one night a week, and had to get dinner beforehand. Completely by coincidence, two weeks in a row the only food I could secure was vegan tacos. I'm not vegan or even vegetarian, but I'm willing to try new things. The first was from Miss Katie's Crab Shack (she has the same name as me!). I was unwilling to eat seafood in case I got sick just before my meditation was due to begin, so I went with the vegan option. The bean chilli and pico de gallo were delicious, but the tortillas fell apart within seconds, as is usual with gluten-free.

The second was from Trippy Taco, a well-known establishment in Melbourne. This time I was able to have a mixed set, with beans and tofu. The fried tofu was delicious, but the beans strangely bland. In fact the whole meal had no spice whatsoever, which I found very strange. The tortillas were very sturdy though, and I'd go back for the tasty tofu.

What I've been catching ...
Pokémon Go players will probably know that the game creators have started a monthly 'Community Day', which really means that certain rare Pokémon types will appear prolifically for three hours. It's up to the players to do the 'community' bit. Seeing as the game is designed so that more Pokémon appear when you're moving around, it's a good excuse to leave the house. Husband and I decided to go a park a short drive away from us, and accidentally ran into a kite festival! We had a lovely time walking around, catching Pokémon and looking at the kites.

What I've been cooking ...
One weekend I made sausage rolls, with the outrageously expensive gluten-free pastry I had in the freezer, and some sausage mince. I tweaked them a bit by enclosing cheese in the middle, and sealing up the ends. I also experimented by stamping the tip of a piping bag into the pastry to create a star effect.

Over Easter Husband and I made a giant batch of chilli in our slow cooker. It has beef steak, kidney beans, halloumi cheese, corn, capsicum, onion and various types of chillis. I fried most of the ingredients on the stove first to increase the depth of flavour. There was enough to last the whole weekend and in fact we still have plenty left. I love slow cooker cooking: an hour's work saved us from having to organise at least five meals.

What I've been buying ...
Sharick's old scratching board was almost completely worn down (he really loves scratching!) so we splashed out and bought him a new, fancy one. It's taller than the old one, and he likes to sit on it and peer at us over edge of the coffee table. At other times, he lounges on it like a Roman emperor at a banquet.

Selections from Instagram
This month's selections are meant to highlight the variable Autumn weather:

Friday, 30 March 2018

Tea Time : Gewürzhaus Easter Bun Tea

Today's Tea: Organic Easter Bun Tea from Gewürzhaus
What is it?: a black tea spiced with cinnamon and orange, blended to drink as an accompaniment to hot cross buns at Easter time.
Recommendations: 1.5 teaspoons per cup, brew for 4 minutes. Drink with or without milk.

The Tea and Me:
Gewürzhaus is a local Melbourne shop specialising in spice blends from around the world. I love to go there a couple of times a year to stock up on spices for Christmas and other festive times. I always make sure to get some of their Easter Bun tea as it's one of my favourites. This year however, the flavour is different! It's no longer a sweet, subtle floral tea, but a spicy orange blend. After some initial confusion, I decided to give it a try, and thought, why not use it as an opportunity to start a tea review series?

So here we go.

The dry tea has a very strong orange aroma, with a hint of cinnamon behind it. It was appealing enough to make me decide to purchase some, despite it being different from what I was familiar with in the past. The brewing recommendation of 1.5 teaspoons per cup seemed quite a lot for such a strong-smelling tea. As the instructions say Easter Bun Tea can be drunk with or without milk, I poured it both ways to compare.

After brewing, the orange scent draws back, leaving a spicy cinnamon scent with just a hint of fruit. This is reflected in the flavour, too. I have to admit, I was a little surprised when I read that cinnamon is the only spice in this tea. Gewürzhaus is known for its spice blends, so I would have expected a more sophisticated blend. There's a slight astringent note on the tongue along with the spice.

Once the spicy punch subsided, the tea was much sweeter than I expected. This balanced out the cinnamon quite well. Adding milk tones down the spice and compliments the sweetness nicely. I preferred the milk version. As to whether the tea goes well with Easter Buns? Unfortunately, I didn't have any buns to hand (hence the pumpkin for decoration instead!) but I think the tea would go well with them. A drink to accompany a spicy, fruity bun would need to be strong in flavour to work, and this tea fits the bill.

Ingredients: organic Ceylon and China black tea, cinnamon, orange peel, natural cinnamon flavouring, natural orange flavouring (from the Gewürzhaus website)
Available: Gewürzhaus shops in Melbourne and online, only during Easter time.

I hope you liked my first tea review! If there's anything I left out that I could include next time, please let me know. I was also trying out a new photography set-up. It isn't perfect yet (I need more lighting!) but it's something I want to work on this year.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

March Unfinished Objects Report

My rate of finishing craft projects has been dismally low in the last few years. I keep a spreadsheet of all my UFOs (Unfinished Objects) which records what date I started them, approximate finished percentage, how many of each type, etc. I also have a tab for keeping track of future project ideas. It reminds me of what I've got in progress, and helps me decide which project/s to work on when I'm feeling overwhelmed.

I tend not to post projects to my blog unless they're finished, and with such a slow completion rate, it means that this so-called craft and hobby blog has very little craft! I wanted to try and change that a little bit, and maybe motivate myself at the same time. So, inspired by Hedgefairy's regular UFOs blog posts, I decided to start my own monthly series. I currently have 41 UFOs on my spreadsheet, which is quite a lot any way you look at it! Especially considering I've just realised that somehow none of my clothes sewing projects ever made it onto the list.

So hopefully the act of pulling UFOs out of the cupboard and photographing them for this series will encourage me to start actually working on them, and maybe even finish them. And, well, to be honest, some of them are so old that perhaps a process of 'naming and shaming' might help to move things along...

Project: Grannyland Blanket
Craft: crochet
Started: March 2014
This project is well underway. I've crocheted 34 squares so far. I haven't decided on the final dimensions just yet. A 7 x 5 square blanket would be nice, but a 7 x 6 would be even bigger and cosier. I think I prefer a squarer shape. Then there's the question of how to attach the squares together -- sewing them, or using a crocheted joining method? I haven't decided yet.
This is the project I usually take with me on car trips as a single square and one ball of wool is very portable.

Project: 70s-Style Cushion
Craft: crochet / sewing
Started: April 2014
I decided to create a colourful, 70s-inspired cushion with a crocheted cover. The crocheted part was over relatively quickly. I need to sew a backing and a custom-sized cushion to fit inside it, and that's where the project stalled. My sewing machine has been packed away for a very long time. I draped the square over the back of my couch so that I could still display it in some way while it was waiting to be finished. It got lost down the back of the couch for a while but I dug it out for this post.
I'm planning on unpacking my sewing machine again very soon, and this project would be a good simple one to give me some sewing practice.

Project: Bracelet
Craft: kumihimo braiding
Started: Mid-2014
I first discovered the craft of kumihimo when I visited Japan ten years ago. I was very enthusiastic about it but only managed to complete one bracelet and half-finish this second one. The repetitive action of braiding on the wheel is quite soothing, but it's a little tricky to remember the sequence if you're trying to pick it up again after a break. Perhaps that's why I never finished this bracelet. I really do love this craft though and I'd like to make more braids.

I'm hoping to continue this series on the last weekend of every month. Maybe I'll even have some Finished Objects to share in future!

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Hello Autumn!

Autumn is one of my favourite seasons. Perhaps a good judge of which seasons are my favourite can be seen in which seasons I've forgotten to write about since starting this series! I remembered Spring, but skipped Summer. All season I've been thinking ahead - pining for Autumn to finally arrive.

Autumn is when the heat of Summer finally subsides and the world comes out of survival mode. The threat of bushfires has passed, and both plants and people alike breathe a sigh of relief. New grass is starting to peep through the crisp brown hay that Summer created. (The homeowners that water their lawns in Summer are conspicuous by the swathes of green amongst the brown.) Some plants -- fuchsias and daisies in my area -- are entering their second growing phase for the year and bloom again before Winter begins. Others, none of them native, are starting to drop their leaves. Our winters are so mild that I almost feel sorry for them for going to the effort. It's only in the mountains that it really gets cold enough to hibernate.

Last year I wrote about the things I'm looking forward to in Autumn -- tea, wearing layers, hot comforting foods -- and that still stands of course. This year I'd like to explore ways to celebrate the seasons.

attend a harvest festival
Celebrating the harvest is perhaps less relevant in the modern world, where fresh food is available year-round. To me, this time of year is more about switching from hot-weather foods to cold-weather foods. It's time to put the salad tongs away and unpack the crockpot. To celebrate the appearance of pumpkins, squash and parsnips, and embrace the cooking of hearty stews and soups. This is what I enjoy most about the harvest festival atmosphere. I also have more of an urge to leave the house now that the weather is cooler. Melbourne has a huge foodie culture, so there are plenty of events to choose from, both city and country.

Momijigari / Autumn leaves viewing
While Australia doesn't have the spectacular displays of leaf-fall that are seen in the Northern Hemisphere, there are still places to go to find some beautiful Autumn colour. The introduced deciduous trees go through their seasonal changes against a backdrop of native evergreens. In some ways, we have the best of both worlds here in Australia.

bake a special bread
One of the things I've been looking forward to the most is firing up the oven again and doing some baking. I've been dreaming of cakes, biscuits and muffins, but bread is the most back-to-basics and yet comforting food of all. To celebrate the abundance of the harvest, perhaps something like this Tsoureki I made back in 2010:

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Movie Review: Paddington

Paddington is a 2014 movie based on the beloved series of children's books by Michael Bond.

After a natural disaster, Paddington decides to move from his homeland of 'Darkest Peru' to London, seeking out an explorer who once promised his family a warm welcome if they ever visited. Not realising that the city is a very different place to the one the explorer described all those years ago, Paddington expects to quickly find someone who will provide him with a home. After waiting at Paddington Station all day, he runs into the Brown family, who have different opinions on whether to help him. They end up taking him back to their townhouse, and agree to help him on his quest to find the explorer and his true home.

Meanwhile, the bad guy (Nicole Kidman) wants to kidnap Paddington and use him for her own nefarious purposes. As she's an employee of the Natural History Museum, there are some beautiful shots of both the exterior and interior of the building. The city of London provides the backdrop to the whole film, and it's a magical place. In fact, the look of the whole film is delightful, from the gorgeously quirky house of the Brown family, to Mrs. Brown's outfits, to Paddington's beehive-shaped childhood home.

There are many funny moments, with the kind of English humour that I enjoy, as well as Paddington's bumbling mistakes. His partial knowledge and misunderstandings lead to some very funny scenes -- he can read but doesn't know what to do with a toothbrush. The scene in the Geographer's Guild is also delightful: with a steampunk-inspired tube system to deliver documents from the archives. If only my work was more like that!

The movie is live-action with CGI Paddington, and I believe the scenes set in 'Darkest Peru' are also CGI. I was highly impressed with the integration, and didn't notice a single jarring moment where Paddington didn't seem real. His voice is done very well by Ben Whishaw -- neither too whiny, too childish nor too growly. While the four actors who play the Brown family were unfamiliar to me, many of the supporting actors were familiar from the Harry Potter series (the number of British actors who weren't in that series of films must be quite small!), which gave the film a cosy feel. The soundtrack is also excellent, with a funky street band and snippets of James Brown and Lionel Ritchie.

Overall, I thought Paddington was a delightful film. I never cry in movies, but I found tears welling up at the ending (tears of happiness, if that's not too much of a spoiler!). There is a sequel and apparently a third film is being made.

Would I see it again? Yes, definitely!