On the Evolution of the House Fly

“Do you feel safe and protected?”

I often ask this question to my wife when I have achieved some manly feat of heroism, like fixing a problem with her iPad. It’s a joke, referring back to prehistoric times when a man’s suitability as a mate was directly linked to his ability to protect his family from dangerous threats like a mountain lion or rival tribe.

Nowadays, we are lucky enough to not have to worry much about wild beasts, so how do I continue to prove my worth and value? Naturally, by conquering the next most dangerous threat to human existence – technology not working as it should. This skill is in somewhat short supply, so as long as I can keep the technology in line, I am proving my worth.

“Yes, I feel safe and protected,” she will respond, indicating that her iPad is now working correctly.

However, there is one area where the traditional measure of heroism still plays out in our family: house flies. It’s summer, we have little kids, and it’s not uncommon for them to walk in leaving the screen door wide open (I’ve also been known to accidentally leave the screen door partway open every once in a while, but that is another matter). Inevitably, a large fly will find its way in before the door is shut and then proceeds to buzz around the house, driving everyone crazy – especially my wife.

It is my job to go chasing the fly around with a fly swatter, waiting for it to sit still long enough to swat it. It usually takes me a couple of tries, but when I succeed, I call out, “I got it! Do you feel safe and protected?”

“Yes,” she will answer. I feel proud.

The evolution of the house fly has always puzzled me. Why haven’t flies evolved to not fly into houses? It doesn’t make sense.

My father is a professor of evolutionary biology, and so I grew up learning all kinds of esoteric facts about biology and evolution, including dinosaurs, humans, plants, and whatnot. I’m always trying to show my kids how closely we are related to the gorillas in the zoo and point out the differences in the structure of our hands and the similarity of our ears and skulls.

I also will periodically torment my father with evolutionary questions that make no sense to me. For example, how did some animals evolve the defense mechanism of being poisonous when eaten? The point of evolution is that it’s a trait that makes you more likely to survive and pass on your genes to subsequent generations, causing them to become dominant over time. If you are eaten, you are no longer able to pass on your genes. And the predator that learns not to eat you will apply this to *all* the animals of your species, not just the ones that have the poison gene. So how would it become dominant when everyone benefits? My father has never provided a satisfying answer to this question.

And that brings me to house flies. In theory, if a fly goes into a house, it is going to get trapped there and killed. According to the theory of evolution, flies that do not go into houses should have an advantage by not dying. As a result, they should be more likely to breed, and so flies should have evolved to not go into houses and torment us. Right?

Then, last night, I realized the solution.

My wife said to me, “I don’t feel safe an protected.”

A fly had gotten in and was buzzing around, and despite repeated attempts to track it down, I hadn’t managed to kill it yet.

She was just gently teasing me, but it suddenly occurred to me… I’m much better at fixing iPads than I am at killing flies. Perhaps the problem is that the flies actually have a *better* chance at surviving inside our homes than outside where there are spiders and bats and frogs.

If I’m going to keep my family safe and protected – and steer the evolution of the fly to keep them out of the house – I’d better start improving my aim.

 

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An auto body shop that makes house calls

As I was walking back to my car Thursday evening in the Whole Foods parking lot, a person pulled up beside me and said, “Hey, do you want to fix that big dent in your bumper? I could take that out for you in five minutes.”

I stared at him in puzzlement, wondering if he was trying to scam me.

I knew immediately what he was talking about, however. Last winter, I discovered that our Honda Civic had a massive dent in the front right corner bumper. Neither my wife nor I had any recollection of how it got there, but it looked like it had either hit a snow bank or the curb.

In theory, it was something we should fix, but it was the thing I never got around to. Taking the car to the auto body shop is a major hassle, both in terms of time and expense.  While the dent was pretty major, it was still just cosmetic. We live in an urban environment, and bumps and scratches are just a part of life here. If it’s cosmetic, I don’t normally bother.

However, the damage was slightly more than just the dent. The right and left sides of the bumper seemed to have somehow popped off their clips. They weren’t hanging off, but they clearly weren’t quite attached the way they were supposed to. I would periodically shove them back in, but they would soon be sticking out a quarter inch again after a few days. It didn’t cause any problems and did just fine on the highway, but clearly it wasn’t good.

But, I’ve never bothered to do anything about it, so the problem has persisted for 8 months. So when the guy offered to fix the dent for me right there, I was unsure.

“Look, I’d be tempted,” I said, “but I have a trunk full of groceries, I still need to grab something from RiteAid next door, and my wife is waiting for me.”

“Trust me, it will take just a moment. I guarantee you I will have it fixed before you come back out of RiteAid. I have everything I need in the car, and it will cost you a fraction of what you would pay at an autobody shop. My name’s Mitch, by the way.”

I decided to take the risk. We quickly negotiated a price, and I went into the store. Five minutes later, I came back out, and he was standing next to the car. The massive bumper dent was indeed gone.  I was shocked.

He then mentioned that he was looking at the car more closely and noticed the bumper was popped out on the sides, and there were a ton of scratches on the back bumper, which also was not hanging quite right either. He could fix the broken clips of the bumper and had Honda factory paints to touch up the back.  It would just take him 15 minutes, if I was interested.

Well, now I was interested. The unclipped bumper had been bothering me, and he did a great job on the dent, just as quickly as he said he would. But, I had a trunk full of groceries and my wife was waiting for him.

“No problem”, he said.  “Do you live around here? I’ll come with you and fix it in your driveway.” It turns out his father lived right around the corner from my house, so we agreed. He parked next to our house and started to work on the car after I had unloaded the food.

Mitch fixed the dents, repaired the detached bumper, and touched up the paint, right in my driveway.

Mitch fixed the dents, repaired the detached bumper, and touched up the paint, right in my driveway.

15 minutes later, he was doing the last touchups with a blowtorch to seal the new bolt. The car was looking much better, it had cost me zero hassle, and was much cheaper than taking it to a shop.

I chatted with him a bit about his business. As a kid, he had grown up hanging around his father’s auto body shop and knew a lot about cars. In college, he studied civil engineering and architecture in college but wasn’t able to make a career out of it during the recession. Then, when his car was damaged in a hail storm and he had a shop specialist take out all the dents, it occurred to him that he knew how to do everything this guy did, and he had a brainstorm for a new business idea.

Mitch now runs a mobile auto body shop repair service.  His business has no garage (and so very low overhead), and he has a couple of guys who go around to different locations and do repairs on site. He has arrangements with many businesses to do as-needed touch ups on their trucks and vehicles, including the Whole Foods where I had met him.

At any rate, I was very impressed.  He was friendly, not pushy, his rates were good, and having the auto body shop come to you is extremely convenient.

Need some work done? Give Mitch a call – it’s worth it.  857-333-4552.

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How I finally got myself to exercise regularly

For most of my adult life, I have been able to get away without exercising. For many years I was able to walk to work, so I always had some physical activity. And I was blessed with a metabolism that seemed to naturally defend my weight. I never paid much attention to what I ate but somehow always fit into a pair of 32×32 pants for the last 10 years.  Lucky me.

But now, things have started to change.  My jobs for the last 7 years have required commuting by car, and having two small kids has made more adventurous physical activity like kayaking much trickier to arrange. Aside from my tendency to pace back and forth while talking on the phone, my job basically involves sitting around all day at a desk.

And most significantly, I’ve noticed that those 32×32 pants that I always fit into are starting to get a little bit snug.  Hmm.

What really drove it home, however, was turning 39. I’ve always thought that while I might not be particularly active now, at some point in the future I would have an opportunity to be so again.  And here I was, close to turning 40.  If I was actually going to become active, now was the time.

Of course, I have a big problem… I hate exercising.  Yes, I know I am not alone in this.  But I really hate it.  I don’t mind exercising if it involves doing something fun, but just doing something mindlessly painful feels like torture.

I knew a key factor in getting myself to exercise would be choosing something simple. If there were too many steps or logistics to work out to exercise, it wouldn’t happen. This immediately ruled out group sports activities, like tennis or basketball. The mere fact that I would have to coordinate schedules with other people would make it all too likely to fall through.  I would tell myself it was just too complicated to arrange this time, and then the next time, and again the time after that.

Another requirement was that it had to be fast. I work during the day, and I have little kids who need a lot of attention in the mornings and evenings. I needed something that I could go do and then be done with quickly. This ruled out my preferred physical activity of kayaking. Even though I own my own kayak and live right on the Charles River, there are too many logical steps involved in loading the boat, driving down to the water, unloading the boat, launching and kayaking, and then reversing it all again to get home. Plus, it was very dependent on the weather.

In the end, I was left with one option: running. My theory was that if I could run for 30 minutes just two or three times a week, I would have enough physical activity to get myself back in shape. The beauty of running was that it required no special equipment or location, so I could do it whenever it was convenient, even during the middle of the work day.

Now running is the very definition of mindlessly painful exercise that I hated. It’s not that I haven’t tried it.  I was on the cross country running team in high school, and I didn’t care for it much back then either (mind you, I was never very good at it). But, it still felt like the right choice.  My theory was that even if I hated it, it was just 30 minutes. Even I could do it for 30 minutes, right?

8 weeks ago, I went for my first 30 minute run around the Charles River near my office. It was awful. I felt like I had been mugged. I felt like I was dying. I watched other runners zip past me, and I was doing everything I could to put one foot in front of the other. I was proud of myself for finishing, but when I was done, one thought went through my head: Use it or lose it. And I had most certainly lost it.

Could I get it back?

To my amazement, I actually went out again two days later. I figured I had done it once, and however bad it might have been, I could do it again.

Thankfully, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the first time. At least that was what I thought.  Then, when I walked back into the office, something in my right knee popped, and I found myself howling in pain. I limped around for the rest of the day.

I went running again two days later, but this time just two thirds of the way through my knee suddenly popped again. I was forced to walk the rest of the way home. On the way back, it would start to feel okay again, and so I would try running again, only to have it pop a few steps later.  Was I so far gone that I could never get it back?

When I mentioned my knee problem, people would tell me how awful running is for you, and that I would be better off just doing some intensive walking. When I went running again a few days later, and my knee popped yet again, I tried power walking through the rest of the way. I tried to convince myself that perhaps I should give up on running and power walk instead.

But in my heart of hearts, I knew that I would never stick with the walking. Part of it was that I felt like an idiot, power walking on the Charles River as the runners zipped by me.  But I realized that the biggest reason running would be a better choice is that when I run for 30 minutes, I feel like I have done something. Going for a walk, even a long intensive one, just doesn’t fill me with the same sense of accomplishment.

And that was the biggest thing for me. If I hate exercising so much, I need an immediate feeling of payoff after doing it. Without that, I was never going to put myself through the 30 minutes of torture several times a week. I needed to find a way to get this knee problem under control.

Right then, I bumped into one of my coworkers out getting some exercise by walking around the Charles.  She looked at my limp, and then looked at my shoes. “Jeremy, of course you are in pain. You need some decent running shoes.”

I looked down at my feet.  I was wearing some sneakers that were over a year old and not specifically designed for running.  I had no objection to actually buying running shoes, but my theory was that I would wait and see if I could actually do this running thing before I invested some serious money into it.  I am notorious for actually enjoying shopping, and it would be just like me to go out and spend a ton of money on all kinds of running paraphernalia only to have it go nowhere.  

However, my coworker convinced me that the people at the store would actually analyze my walk and find shoes that would really help with my knee issues.  So, with that little nudge, I went later that afternoon to City Sports to look for shoes.  They analyzed my gait and determined that I had over pronation, which was causing my leg to twist and potentially exacerbate my right knee issues.  They pointed out some shoes specifically designed to help correct this issue.

I also asked them if they had any type of brace or bandage that could help with my knee. Indeed, they sold all kinds of products for just this issue.  I bought a knee compression sleeve from Shock Doctor which was designed to hold all the soft tissues in place.  The idea was by giving a little extra pressure to keep the ligaments, tendons, and muscles where they were supposed to be, they wouldn’t pop out and aggravate injuries.  This sounded just like what was happening to my knee.

So, now that I was armed with $200 in equipment, I kept trying.  To my amazement, I was able to complete my next 30 minute run.  I had a few points where my knee started to pop, but I stopped, stretched, and was able to keep going.  Over the next two weeks, my knee problems gradually lessened and then went away altogether.

So, I had accomplished the biggest hurdle… I had found an exercise I could do in just 60 minutes door to door (30 minutes of running, and the other 30 minutes of changing and showering before and after) and feel good about.  Would I be able to keep it up?

Here, I found a big help from the streaks app I had used to cut out soda.  Since I did not plan on going running every day, I set up the streaks to be allowed to skip up to two days in a row, and weekend days did not count as skips.  As long as I went running at least twice a week, it would continue the streak.  Like the soda, this quickly became a powerful incentive for me.  I didn’t want to break the streak, so I kept going with it.

The big test came this past week.  I had managed to run three times a week for the previous seven weeks.  The novelty had worn off, and I was in it for the long haul.  However, last week I had a business trip to New York City.  Running would be really inconvenient.  I wouldn’t be able to just disappear for an hour during the work day to go running.  I would either have to get up early in the morning to go do it (I hate getting up early, and here I was in a quiet hotel with no little kids waking me up!), or I would have to do it in the evening when I could be out in New York.

And I did it.  On two mornings, I got up at 6 am and went for a run in New York City.

So, what did it take to get my to exercise?  Three things:

  1. A powerful incentive: I’m getting older and feel like it is now or never
  2. A short term reward: If I go running for just 30 minutes, I feel like I have accomplished something
  3. A long term payoff: adding a little gamification to push me to stick with it

40, here I come!

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A phantom zone for kids’ toys and artwork

“Jeremy, why is there a kid’s bath toy in the closet?” my wife asked me this morning.

“I’m trying to get rid of it,” I answered.

No further explanation needed. My wife knew exactly what I was up to.

The swimming mermaid Dora was once a prized possession but was now ust sitting in a corner.

The swimming mermaid Dora was once a prized possession but was now ust sitting in a corner.

The item in question was a Dora Swimming Mermaid toy. It was a gift a bath time gift at Grandma and Grandpa’s house from six months ago, and at the time it was a much treasured possession by our kids.  It “needed” to come home with us, and for several weeks thereafter was the focal point of evening baths.

But… times change. The swimming dora mermaid, with its wind-up arms, spring loaded tail and brushable hair eventually lost its luster, and it ended up just taking up 70% of the space in the basket of bath toys. I decided that this space could be better used and it was time to get rid of it.

But, I have learned from hard experience not to just throw things like this away.

We have made this mistake before. My wife in particular likes to keep the house orderly and often gets rid of items the kids no longer use. But every now and agian, we hear the dreaded words from ouyr daughter, “Hey! Where is the <insert item not used in ages>?”

When it comes out that it was disposed of, the tears, screams and yells come out.

“But I loved that!”

“I needed it!”

“I worked really hard on it!”

 

“Why would you do that?!”

“You can’t ever do that again!!!”

This problem is particularly acute with the kids’ artwork. Every week, a plethora of projects come home. Coloring sheets, paintings, ceramics, whatever the kids were doing that week.  At first, we kept a lot of it, but it just started piling up. Now, we have a system. The very best, truly unique items we keep. The very good items we will photograph for future posterity.  The rest we recycle.

But, oh, the tears when my daughter has looked in the recycling bin to discover some treasured piece of artwork sitting at the bottom. I certainly get it – she worked hard on that project at school, and the idea that this would not be a highly valued possession is disturbing.

So, we dispose of them carefully. Items are shoved into the bottom of the recycling bin. We never, ever, empty the recycling bin in front of the kids, since they might see one of their pieces of artwork getting dumped out.

Michael Chabon wrote a wonderful essay on this very topic in his brilliant book Manhood for Amateurs. I highly recommend this essay collection for any parent. It perfectly captures much of the awkwardness and challenge of raising kids.

The problem is that even if we dispose of the artwork secretly, sometimes my daughter shows surprising feats of memory. She will suddenly ask about the whereabouts of some treasured item that she hasn’t touched in weeks. So, when is it ever safe to get rid of something?

To solve this problem, we have introduced our own “phantom zone”. The phantom zone comes from Superman, where Krypton would permanently exile their worst criminals. They had no death penalty, so instead they were sent off to another dimension from which they could never escape. Of course, it’s a comic book, and sometimes they did escape – otherwise it would be a boring story.

In our house, when we decided that a toy or piece of artwork is ready to go, we banish it to the phantom zone. There are a couple around the house… artwork goes in a drawer in the kitchen, clothing and larger toys go in a box in the basement. If no one asks for them after a couple of weeks, then we dispose of them. But, if by surprise they are remembered, there is a rare phantom zone escape and they are returned.

The phantom zone in the closet is reserved for some of the most dangerous criminals… er, I mean, the once most precious items we are eager to get rid of. Rafael’s infamous yellow-and-green spoon is stored away here, now joined by Dora the swimming mermaid.

Now we wait.

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Shortcut: Getting a Mac to behave during presentations and conference calls

One of the best things about leaving the world of enterprise software for a small startup a few years ago was getting to use a Mac as my primary work machine. The interface is refreshingly modern, I can send and receive iMessages right on my desktop, and best of all, it’s still as fast as it was when I got it over a year and a half ago. Unlike the Windows PCs I had been using for the previous 15 years, my 15″ Retina MacBook Pro has not gotten progressively slower with each Microsoft OS patch, and having the entire hard drive encrypted is unnoticeable.

That’s not to say that I don’t have my pet peeves. The fact that Cmd-Tab on a Mac only allows you to switch between applications is a bit silly. Windows let me Alt-Tab through all the windows, and even worse, you can’t see how many windows are open by looking at the Dock. I can’t tell you how many emails I have forgotten to send because I “lost” the window.  I would start them, then I would get interrupted and the main Outlook window would pop over it, and then I would forget that I never finished sending it.

One thing I have had to work out is how to keep my Mac well behaved during presentations and conference calls. Just like a child in the 1800s, the computer should be seen and not heard when you are presenting. I don’t want fancy little notifications or energy saving features to be disrupting the presentation. Here are a few easy tips and add-ons I have found.

Notifications

When you are projecting your screen, those really useful desktop notifications for iMessage can become embarrassing. You are walking people through pricing scenarios for a new project, and the list thing you want is a text message from your spouse to pop up, reminding you to pick up the milk. Similarly, you don’t want Skype messages from a coworker disrupting the flow either.

As it turns out, the designers at Apple have a beautiful solution to this.

Notifications can be temporarily disabled for half a day by option-clicking the notification icon

Notifications can be temporarily disabled for half a day by option-clicking the notification icon

If you option-click in the notification bar, you will see that the lines turn gray. Any notifications that come in will be suppressed. When your meeting is done, option-click again to turn them back on. Even better, if you forget to turn them back on, they will automatically re-enable themselves after half a day. So, you don’t need to worry about missing out on text messages for the next few days if you forget to turn them on.

The good news is that this works for all apps that use Apple’s notification system: iMessage, Skype, Mac Mail, GMail desktop notifications, and so forth.

The bad news is that Microsoft Outlook does not use Apple’s notification system.

Couldn't Microsoft have used the built-in notification system?

Couldn’t Microsoft have used the built-in notification system?

Yes, it’s true… while I have embraced my new Mac, I still use Outlook. Microsoft has hobbled it on OS X, but its automatic support for Exchange, calendar availability, and so on has kept it as my main email client.

Unfortunately, Microsoft insists on using their own notification system. I’m sure they have some good reasons for this, like the ability to flag or delete messages right from the notification that all of two people in the world are using…

Worse, Microsoft doesn’t have an easy way to temporarily suppress notifications like Apple provided.  The best way is to either quit Outlook before your meeting starts or turn off the desktop notifications altogether. To do this, go to the “Outlook” menu, click “Preferences”, then choose “Notifications & Sounds”.  From here, you can turn off the “Display alert on my desktop” checkbox.

Just don’t forget to restart Outlook or re-enable the alerts once your meeting is done.

Sleeping Displays

Mac’s love to be energy conscious. They want to preserve that battery, and if you don’t seem to be using the computer, they will shut off the display so that it doesn’t waste power. Hey, if you are using it, you can just wake it back up, right?

Conference calls make this battery saving feature go hyperactive. It is very common for you to be doing these meetings away from your desk in a conference room (or sitting on the couch if you are at a startup). Your computer is not plugged in, and the Mac shortens its display sleep cycle to just a few minutes.

This is bad if you are presenting. Sure, some of the time you are just going through the slides of a powerpoint presentation zip-zip-zip, one after the other, and the Mac knows you are using it. But the moment questions come up and people start discussing some specific point for a couple of minutes, you take your hands off the keyboard. The Mac thinks you are off doing something else and “helpfully” turns off the display.

This is disruptive. Many times people are pointing at diagrams or numbers on the screen, and it blanks out. You furiously try to wake the computer back up, only to be prompted to enter your password to unlock it. You get it wrong the first time and do it again. Finally, it’s back up, and the interrupted conversation continues, only to have the same sequence repeat itself a few minutes later.

And there is a worst case scenario for this. Ever have a long side-tangent conversation, and the person who is running the presentation steps out for a minute to run to the bathroom or take a phone call? The conversation keeps going because they weren’t really needed, but then the computer shuts off and no one can see the presentation any more. And no one can unlock it because they don’t know the password.

Sleeping screens are also a problem when you are watching someone else’s presentation through a WebEx or GoToMeeting. You are watching with rapt attention as they go from slide to slide or demo some app, but your Mac thinks you are ignoring it and suddenly shuts off the screen. You were paying attention to it, but you weren’t using the mouse.

So, how to fix?

I’ve found a great little free add on app called Caffeine.

The purpose of this app is to keep your computer awake, hence the name “Caffeine”.  It sits as a little coffee cup in the menu bar. When it’s empty, the Mac is in normal mode and will sleep the display as usual. If you click it, the cup fills and it goes into Caffeine mode. It will not shut off the display, even if you leave it unplugged and untouched.

Caffeine allows you to customize how long to actively prevent the display from going to sleep before going back to normal.

Caffeine allows you to customize how long to actively prevent the display from going to sleep before going back to normal.

The best part about it is that it automatically turns itself back off again. I usually set my caffeine to stay on for 30 minutes, but you can adjust the default to whatever you like and also temporarily override.

So, whenever I go into a conference call, I take 10 seconds to do three quick things:

  • Option-click the notification center to suppress pop-up notifications
  • Turn on caffeine for how long I think the meeting is going to run for
  • Quit Outlook

It keeps my calls professional and clean.

 

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Parenting Milestone: Breaking out of a child’s irrational obsession

While my son’s 4th birthday crossed many traditional milestones, like trading in car seats for booster seats, I’m more excited about a much simpler one: he is now willing to eat breakfast with a different spoon.

For the last several years, my son has been willing to eat breakfast with only one spoon. It was plastic with a green handle and yellow polka dots. He would sit down at the table with a cup of yogurt or a bowl of cereal and ask, “Where’s my spoon!” If you tried to offer any other spoon, be it a kids spoon or a grown up soon, he would protest loudly.  “No!!! The little one!!!”

In my son's mind, this green and yellow polkadot spoon is the only one that can be used for eating breakfast.

In my son’s mind, this green and yellow polkadot spoon is the only one that can be used for eating breakfast.

So, every night we would wash that spoon by hand, since we needed it to be ready for breakfast the next day. Sure, we could run it in the dishwasher, but if we hadn’t remembered to run a load that night, we would have to go fish it out and wash it by hand anyways.  This has been going on for almost two years.

Normally in a situation like this, I would simply buy a whole bunch of these spoons and stop worrying about it. The problem is that I have no idea where this spoon came from. We somehow inherited it in a snack bag mixup, and I can’t figure out where to find another one. Not for a lack of trying. I’ve tried searching on Amazon for “green and yellow spoon” but no luck. I’ve searched the kids sections of stores like Target, but no one seems to sell it.

So every night, we wash that one spoon.

I have no idea why kids form these sorts of obsessions. My son is often determined that things be “just so”, but this insistence on the spoon is not specific to him. My daughter is far more flexible, but she has made it clear to me that some things that look identical to us have tremendously important differences.

A few years ago, I bought some plastic bowls at IKEA for the kids to use. They had a flower pattern, and they cam in two identical versions with inverted colors: some had blue flowers on a while background, and others had white flowers on a blue background. I thought it would be nice to mix and match, so I bought four of each.

Apparently, inverting colors on otherwise identical bowls leads to dramatically different breakfast experiences.

Apparently, inverting colors on otherwise identical bowls leads to dramatically different breakfast experiences.

Well, my daughter let me know that was a terrible mistake. The while flowers on the blue background were MUCH better than the blue flowers on a white background. She would insist on using bowls with blue backgrounds, and her brother followed her lead. Since I only bought four, I never have enough.

So, how did we break my son’s obsession with the green and yellow spoon?

Dumb luck.

A couple of weeks ago we were in Portland, Maine and stopped in at our favorite kitchen store. We always go there to see if they sell my favorite sponges (they are colored nylon and very hard to find, but they clean better than anything else… wait a minute, this kind of thinking sounds familiar… hmm…). As we browsed around while trying to keep the kids from knocking fragile items off the shelves, my wife spotted a jar filled with colored-handle spoons of assorted sizes.

Suddenly, we recognized an opportunity.  I turned to my kids and said, “Hey, do you guys want to pick out your own new colored breakfast spoons? You can each choose two.”

Metal spoons with colored plastic handles. Choice makes all the difference.

Metal spoons with colored plastic handles. Choice makes all the difference.

“Yeah!!!” they both shouted and ran over. My son was able to ride both his sister’s enthusiasm and his own excitement about getting to pick something out.  After spending a while debating the benefits of various colors, they each chose two.

When we got home from the trip, they were insisted on using their new spoons for breakfast. We hid the green and yellow spoon away, and he has never asked for it again.

I didn’t really think the plan would work, so we had only bought four. But at least I knew where to get them. On a subsequent trip to Maine over July 4th weekend, we made sure to stop in at the store and bought eight more spoons.  And there hasn’t been a debate about spoon color since.

But, sadly, they still insist that the bowls with the blue backgrounds are better.

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Breaking a bad habit with some help from an app

The last time I drank a soda was at a casual business lunch on Wednesday, May 21st.  My coworkers each ordered a sandwich and a soda to go with it, so I did too. I was trying to cut soda out of my diet and had not had one for over a week, but the diet coke was right there, tempting me. It was easy to pick up, it would taste good, and it would give me a boost that would carry me through the afternoon.

As bad habits go, soda isn’t such a big deal. It won’t kill me slowly like cigarettes will, and it’s not something nasty like chewing on my cuticles. Sure, it’s linked to obesity, but I am reasonably trim. And while I’m sure there are studies that link it to longer term health effects, these are weak correlation studies without a causal mechanism – similar ones exist for just about everything, including coffee, drinking red wine, not drinking red wine, using cell phones, and so forth.

The main reason I want to get rid of soda is that it’s bad for my teeth. I have terrible teeth, with a lot of fillings, and I recently had a second crown put in. I’ve also had an implant, although the experts agree that wasn’t from drinking soda or poor care of my teeth. My dentist has assured me that one soda a day shouldn’t be a problem, but he also agrees that tartar builds up incredibly fast on my teeth. When I brush them at night after having drunk soda earlier in the day, I can feel the buildup.

While I have tried to moderate soda drinking in the past, I’ve been on a major soda kick over the last year. Every afternoon I would need a boost, and I would turn to soda. I had switched from regular to diet, but from your teeth’s perspective, sugar and artificial sweetener have the same effect.

The new crown was a wakeup call. I was already flossing, but I felt that I really needed to be find ways to take better care of my teeth. I knew the crown wasn’t directly caused by soda, but soda was the big thing I could eliminate that would really benefit the health of my teeth.

I tried cutting out soda and was successful for a week, but then we took a trip to Europe and I found myself jet lagged and needed a recharge. I drank soda every day on that trip. When I got back, I was able to go another week without soda and then broke it again at that business lunch on May 21st. I needed more incentive to succeed.

Then I remembered a Friends episode called “The One With the Ball”.  In this episode, a couple of the characters get caught up in the old childhood game of seeing how long they can throw a ball back and forth without dropping it. Once you get a streak going, you really want to see how long you can extend it.

It occurred to me that someone must have written an app to facilitate applying gamification to breaking a bad habit, and sure enough there was one: Streaks. You pick an activity and then check off each day you are successful in doing it (or not doing it, as the case may be). It keeps track of how long your streak has gone and compares it with your previous “high score”.

On May 22nd, I didn’t drink a soda.  I downloaded Streaks and checked off the first day of going soda free.  Then I did it again the next day, and the day after that.  Soon I had beaten my previous run of one week and started to extend it.

I set some ground rules for myself… soda was out, so I mostly replaced it with flavored (unsweetened) seltzer or iced coffee, depending on how much lift I needed. I don’t worry about drinks in the gray area, as long as I don’t drink them too often. Sparkling juices like Izzy I’ve decided are okay because… well just because. Again, only as long as they aren’t regular.

I allow myself to check off the box at 6pm each day, because I would never drink soda at night.  It would keep me awake past midnight. Checking off the box each evening is a nice little reward for the day.

I've managed to keep my no-soda streak alive for more than 45 days and I'm still going.

I’ve managed to keep my no-soda streak alive for more than 45 days and I’m still going.

Thus far, I have kept the streak going for more than 45 days. I don’t think I have ever cut out soda for such a long period. At this number, it has become a very powerful incentive to keep going even when I am sorely tempted to drink a soda. “Sure, I could drink the soda, but I don’t want to break the streak now! I’ll go get an iced coffee instead.” For example, today we drove through grueling July 4th weekend holiday traffic. Normally, I would have gotten a soda to keep myself going in the last few hours, but I wasn’t going to break my 45 day streak just for that.

The Streaks app itself has some interesting configurable features. You can set it for activities that don’t happen every day but rather every X days.  For example, if you set it for every 3 days, it’s okay to skip occasional days as long as the gap is not more than 3 days. It still considers them the same streak. You can also set it so that some days don’t count, like weekends. My soda calendar doesn’t use these features, though – every day counts, no skips allowed.

The best thing for me is that I can really feel the difference. Tartar builds up very quickly in my mouth, and it’s amazing to me how clean my teeth still feel since my last visit with the dental hygienist.

So far, so good. On to kicking the next bad habit.

More on that later.

 

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