Teaching basic Logo programming concepts to young children with the Robot Turtles board game

When I was in first grade, my class had an Apple II in the classroom for a month or two, and we were all able to take turns making pictures using a program called Logo. There was no mouse on this computer, so to draw a picture, you needed to give instructions by controlling a pointer called the “Turtle”. You could move it forward and turn it right and left.

For example, to draw a square, you would give these series of commands:

FD 10
RT 90
FD 10
RT 90
FD 10
RT 90
FD 10

The FD command would move the turtle forward 10 units, then the RT would turn the turtle right 90 degrees. As it would go, it would draw a line.  You can try it online at this Logo website.

This simple program draws a square by repeatedly moving forward and turning right.

This simple program draws a square by repeatedly moving forward and turning right.

Logo has other commands that allows you to control the color of the line or turn the pen on and off. You can also create functions to repeat steps of command. So, by adding a 10 degree turn to the instructions for a square above and repeating it over and over, you can create a geometric  shape:

By repeating the square instructions over and over but adding a ten degree turn after each one, you can create geometric shapes in Logo.

By repeating the square instructions over and over but adding a ten degree turn after each one, you can create geometric shapes in Logo.

I remember working quite hard on drawing a picture of the space shuttle on the Apple II. What I didn’t realize at the time is that I was learning my first programming language, which turned out to be a very valuable skill in my career.

Nowadays, with iPads and touch screens, it’s hard to get kids interested in the idea of drawing with Logo. They are used to something which much more immediate feedback. I’ve tried showing my children Logo programs, but they don’t see much appeal.

However, my four year old son really likes board games, and a friend mentioned that her kids really like a board game called Robot Turtles. I bought it on her recommendation, and it turned out to be a huge hit.

The game is based on the concept of Logo, but rather than drawing, the goal is to move the turtle to a goal. The board is set up on a grid, and you have cards that allow you to move the turtle forward, turn right, and turn left.

The board is set up as a grid, and the turtle can move forward or turn right or left.

The board is set up as a grid, and the turtle can move forward or turn right or left.

It comes with a series of obstacle cards, and so you can set up the board to be as simple or as complicated a path to the goal as is appropriate for the child.

No reading is required for the child. They lay out a series of cards to move forward, turn right, and turn left to get the turtle to the goal.

The child lays out a series of cards to move forward and turn right or left to guide the turtle to the goal.

The child lays out a series of cards to move forward and turn right or left to guide the turtle to the goal.

You move the turtle based on the cards the child lays out (they encourage you to make funny sounds as you go), and the child gets to see what works and what doesn’t. Then they can make corrections.

The game adds a bunch of additional options to make it more challenging. There are “frozen” blocks that must be melted with a special “laser” card, and then there are movable blocks that can be pushed. This allows you to create increasingly challenging puzzles along the lines of Sokoban.

They also have a “function” card for repeated commands, but in my opinion I think this was too much of a stretch.

My son really loved this game. For days, he would ask every babysitter and adult he could find to please play Robot Turtles. And I have seen that he has really internalized some of the ideas. If you ask him, he is able to articulate his “plan” in a series of steps that are thought out ahead of time.

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Shortcut: Reply to text messages without unlocking your iPhone

It’s possible to respond to a text message straight from the lock screen of your iPhone, or mark a message as read.  This is by no means a secret trick, but I have realized that most people I’ve talked to don’t know about this little shortcut, so I thought I would share.

Before we get to the reply trick, it’s helpful to know that all iPhone lock screen notifications are swipe-able.  Normally, when you unlock your phone, you swipe at the bottom of your phone’s screen, where it says “slide to unlock”.  This will unlock your phone (after you enter passcode, assuming you have one… You do have one, right?) and take you back to wherever you left off.

However, if instead of swiping at the bottom of the screen, you swipe on a notification, you jump straight to that application.  If it’s a text message, it will jump to messages.  If it’s a twitter mention, it opens twitter.  If it’s a Facebook tag, it opens Facebook.  Some applications are even smart enough to jump straight to the the message or event that triggered the notification.

This trick has been around since iOS 5, but not everyone has noticed it.

Now, on to to the text message trick.  Imagine you have a text message on your lock screen:

A fairly typical text message from my wife...

A fairly typical text message from my wife…

With iOS 8, Apple added something new.  Rather than swiping from left to right, the way you would to unlock your phone, you can now also swipe right to left.  This opens up special lock screen options:


Two buttons appear.  The first is a dismiss button, which will mark the message as read and remove the notification from the lock screen.  This is great for messages that don’t need a response, and it also saves you from having to go in and mark it as read to clear the badge on your messages app (if you like to keep it clear).

Hitting the “Reply” button will allow you to respond immediately to the message:

Type an on-screen reply

Type an on-screen reply

Type your response, hit send, and go back to whatever you were doing before.

Text messages aren’t the only applications that have these special lock screen options.  Gmail allows you to immediately archive messages, Skype allows you to reply, and so forth.  Play around and see what options your apps provide.

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My favorite travel gear – electronics edition

As I have spent more time traveling over the past several months, I’ve settled on a set of must-have electronics that make the logistics a lot easier. I thought I would share some of my favorites.

Take the HEAVIER iPhone charger

Usually, the first rule of traveling is the keep things as light weight as possible, but I have found that the opposite is true for your iPhone charger. The usb charger that Apple ships with each iPhone is small and portable, but its output is also just 5 watts. This is fine for plugging in overnight or if you can stay put for a few hours.

However, when you are traveling, you often don’t have these kinds of charging luxuries. Your phone is working overtime as you rely on it for both data connectivity and directions via GPS. Your days are much longer, as you get up earlier than normal for an early train or catch a late flight home. It’s not uncommon to find your phone running uncomfortably low on battery.

While you are grabbing a quick dinner at the airport or waiting 15-20 minutes for your flight to begin boarding, you might spot an available outlet to plug in. Sadly, that 5W charger just won’t do a lot of good for a quick charge in this situation. You might get a couple of percentage points back, but it won’t help much.

For these situations, I have taken to traveling with an iPad charger instead of the ones meant for an iPhone. It takes the same USB lightning cable that works with the phone, but it delivers a lot more power: 12 Watts. For just a little more weight and bulk, I can drive a lot more electrons in the the phone’s battery during these short charging windows.

More outlets when you need them

The design of many hotel rooms kind of baffles me. There just aren’t enough plugs for all the gadgets I travel with. I have a laptop, an iPhone, an iPad, and a bluetooth headset, but more often than not there are hardly any plugs. The ones that are there are many times hidden behind nightstands or unhelpfully located in the bathroom. It’s a real hassle trying to plug everything in.

For these situations I always travel with an ultra slim usb charger. I stumbled on this device at a Rite Aid with a Philips label, but I have found it under other sellers, including someone called XTG.

This charger is completely flat but provides two power outlets and two USB ports.

This charger is completely flat but provides two power outlets and two USB ports.

It’s an amazing device. It’s completely flat and folds to just a half inch thick, which makes it easy to slip into a laptop bag. However, a plug pops out the back to plug it into a wall plate. It then provides two well spaced AC adapters and two USB adapters. From just one plug, I can hook up my computer, my iPad, my iPhone and my USB headset. The USB ports don’t provide enough amperage to charge an iPad, but they will work for smaller devices like an iPhone or a bluetooth device.

The other nice thing about this device is it allows me to split any plug. If I am desperately searching around for a place to charge my phone at an airport but all plugs are taken, I can ask to share someone’s plug by using this device to “split” one plug into two.

A really short extension cord

Another very handy item to carry around is a really short extension cord… just 12 inches! Apple products are nice, but when you bring the MacBook’s travel charger, it doesn’t always fit so well into the available plug. Many AC ports in conference rooms are recessed into the table for aesthetics, and sometimes the weight of the charger pulls it out.

This nice, short extension cord makes it easy to reach anywhere

This nice, short extension cord makes it easy to reach anywhere

A nice, short 1 foot extension cord has a nice narrow plug that you can fit into even the most cumbersome AC outlets. It’s also quite handy when the one available outlet in the hotel room is behind the bedside table. I often use this in combination with the ultra slim USB charger (above).

A retractable HDMI cable

I generally rely on loading up my iPad or iPhone with some movies or videos to relax, and when I am in a hotel room in the evening, I can also supplement with streaming video from Netflix or Hulu. Sure, I can watch on the small screens, which is fine for an airplane, but in the hotel room, it feels like kind of a waste. There’s this nice big HDTV just sitting there.

Invariably, I have found that these TVs have extra ports in the back, including an HDMI. So rather than watch on the small screen, I just use an HDMI adapter to hook my iPad or iPhone right up to the TV and watch on the big screen.  The only catch is that most of these devices have no available cable, so I need to provide my own HDMI cable, which is bulky.

This retractable HDMI cable is just a few inches wide but expands to over four feet long.

This retractable HDMI cable is just a few inches wide but expands to over four feet long.

I found this nice retractable HDMI cable, which takes up very little space in my laptop bag but lets me watch TV in comfort.

Noise Canceling Headphones

And of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my Bose Quiet Comfort 25 noise canceling headphones. They don’t block all noise, but they really take the edge off of the drone of a loud airplane or train.

These noise canceling headphones can block out the loud drone of the airplane or the rumblings of a snoring child.

These noise canceling headphones can block out the loud drone of the airplane or the rumblings of a snoring child.

I’ve also found that they do an excellent job of silencing the sound of my daughter’s snoring on those nights when she insists of coming into our bed at 4am and cannot be convinced to go elsewhere.

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Shortcut: How to cheat when your child tells you to close your eyes

With my kids now ages five and seven, they often get quite involved in their projects. They will build forts out the couch, or draw elaborate pictures and mazes, or set up theatrical performances for us to watch.

They are so proud of these creations that they don’t want to show them off until they are ready. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have walked in the door at the end of the day to be greeted by horrified squeals from my kids as they shout, “Don’t look! Don’t look!”

The only proper response to this is “I’m closing my eyes!”, shortly followed by “I didn’t see anything!”  And this is mostly true, because frankly I had no idea what the chaotic activity they were involved in was supposed to be. I then exit the room so I can open my eyes again.

This works fine up to a point. The problem is that invariably, the kids are not 30 seconds away from being done. It might be 5 minutes, it might be 10, it might be longer. Our house is small, and I cannot avoid going into the living room if they are working on their secret project there.

There’s a limit to how long I can keep my eyes closed for.

Several months ago, I figured out a shortcut for this problem. Kids have a very naive understanding of what it means to close your eyes. To them, if they cannot see your eyes, they assume you cannot see anything. So as long as your eyes are hidden from their view, they will be fine.

Now, when I am told to close my eyes, I cover them with my hand. My kids are thrilled, because in their mind, I have created an impenetrable wall through which I cannot see.

My eyes are closed, right?

My eyes are closed, right?

The reality is that I haven’t covered my eyes; I have just tented them. My hand is at an angle that blocks my vision straight out, but otherwise I can see all around me.

I can see around me just fine.

I can see around me just fine.

This gives me enough vision to move around the room and find whatever I need… provided I can do it one-handed.

And the best part is that the kids keep working on their “secret” project – independently.

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Solved: How to move iPhone contacts to a different account on the device itself

Last week, I discovered that my wife’s iPhone has been incorrectly saving all new contacts locally on the iPhone, rather than storing them in Gmail.

I stumbled on the issue when setting up a new MacBook Pro for her to replace the four-year-old Mac laptop she had been using, which stopped working. I set up iCloud so that she could send and receive text messages from the desktop, and I noticed that all of the recipients showed up as just phone numbers since the contacts were not synced on the computer.

I assumed this would be a quick fix and imported her gmail account into the Mac’s address book, but to my surprise, this only partially fixed the problem – about a 1/3 of the contacts still showed up as phone numbers. I spent a while tracing the problem back and discovered that under the settings for “Mail, Contacts, Calendars”, the setting for “Default Account” for contacts was “iPhone”.

I’m not exactly sure how this happened, but my guess is that at some point when we were reconfiguring the phone, we temporarily removed her gmail account, and it probably then automatically reverted this setting to save contacts on the iPhone. Then, when we added the account back, we never thought to go in and change it.

The problem had clearly been going on for a while, as there were 83 contacts stored only on the iPhone. We needed to fix it, and it was too many to do manually. I first looked to see if I could edit contacts on the iPhone and switch what account they were synced to, but there was no option. I then spent some time googling around for solutions to this, but the answers were much too complicated. They involved syncing the phone to the Mac address book and then importing them into gmail. I wanted something much easier.

At last, I stumbled on a discussion group that mentioned Orbi Tools. It’s a $0.99 app that was designed to allow users of the Orbi service to upload contacts from their phone into their cloud offering. However, it allows you to move contacts from one account on your iPhone into any other account.

The interface was simple, but it was unable to identify the gmail account by name.

The interface was simple, but it was unable to identify the gmail account by name.

I downloaded it and selected the option to move contacts. The interface was a little clunky, as it did not list the gmail account by name, but rather just “CardDAV, Address Book”. However, it was the only online account on the phone, so I figured it had to be the right one. It showed me all 83 contacts but gave me an option to move them all rather than selecting them individually.

The contacts were automatically imported.

The contacts were automatically imported.

After working for a minute, the contacts were imported. Within minutes, the contacts synced through gmail back to her Mac, and all of the text messages contacts displayed properly.

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How my iPhone 6 Plus wore out the pocket of my jeans

At this point, I’m fairly used to people jokingly asking me if my iPhone 6 Plus fits in pocket. Yes, it fits, no problem.

Well, as it turns out, “no problem” turns out to be a slight exaggeration.

A few weeks after I bought the phone, I decided to get a case to make it easier to hold. The phone’s larger size made it harder to use one handed, and I was constantly afraid that the smooth metal back would slip out of my hands while I was straining to reach characters on the far left of the keyboard.

At the time, case options for the new phone were few and far between, so I chose Apple’s blue silicon case. The rubbery silicon was very grippy, making me less worried about accidentally dropping it.

The case did have some downsides, however. Because it was so grippy, it was much harder to put in and take out of my pocket.  Whereas I could just slip my old phones in and out, the silicone would grab the edges of the pocket, requiring a lot of tugging.

Also, the case added a lot of bulk. Part of the beauty of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus is how thin the phones are, but that was mostly undone by the case. The large surface area of the 6 Plus is offset by its thinness, but the added thickness of the case made it seem much more massive.

And then my jeans wore out.

Now, to be clear, my jeans wearing out is not a surprising thing. Every few years, I buy two identical pairs of Gap 32×32 jeans, straight cut. I wear them a few times a week throughout most of the year until they wear out, and then I replace them. I’ve had my current set for a couple of years now, so they are about due for replacement.

What was surprising was how the they wore out. The right pocket started to fray rather badly.

The pocket of my jeans wore out prematurely from constantly getting caught on the iPhone's silicone case.

The pocket of my jeans wore out prematurely from constantly getting caught on the iPhone’s silicone case.

After puzzling about it for a minute, I realized that the constantly tugging on the fabric from the case had slowly but surely ripped apart the pocket lining over the past few months. I was vaguely aware that it was a bit of a pain to slip the phone in and out of my pocket, but I hadn’t realized the damage it was doing to the jeans.

I decided it was time to get rid of the case. I had become more comfortable with the weight and balance of the phone, so I was less worried about dropping it. After searching around for a while, I found a nice skin that I could put on the back of the phone from DecalGirl. This would make the phone more distinguishable from everybody else’s and still add some extra friction so that I would be less likely to drop it.

As soon as I took the phone out of its case and put the skin on, I became much happier with it. In addition to easily slipping in and out of my pocket, the return to thinness made it much more pleasing to hold and use. I regretted not doing it sooner.

Of course, I did drop it a few days later. Not by typing it one handed, though. I was in an airport electronics shop, and they sold an armband for runners that claimed to fit the 6 Plus. Curious, I held my phone up to it, and it somehow slipped out of my hand and fell from shoulder height onto the hard tile floor.

Everyone in the shop froze and looked at me in horror, realizing what had happened. I bent down and picked up the phone to examine it. It was fine, not even a scratch.

Since then, I haven’t dropped it again (yet). And of course I have bought some new jeans.

Gap straight fit 32×32, just like always.

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Shortcut: Convert unwanted retail store gift cards into iTunes credits

Gift cards always make me a little uncomfortable. I worry that I am going to stick them in a drawer somewhere and forget about them, effectively wasting the money on them. So when I get one, I find myself rushing to spend it as quickly as possible.

I used to have similar problems with prepaid credit cards, which are hard to spend down completely, until I learned you could convert them into credits on Amazon and then buy whatever you wanted or save towards a future purchase. But gift cards left me stumped. You have to need something at a specific store and then remember to bring the card with you.

I recently found myself in this situation with a BestBuy gift certificate. We upgraded my wife’s phone, and as part of some incentive deal, BestBuy gave us a $50 gift card. I couldn’t apply it to the current purchase, only to a future visit.

The problem is that I didn’t actually need anything at BestBuy. As a technologist, this surprises even me, but somehow I just didn’t. The closest I came was needing to replace the remote control for the TV, but at the time I was far from a BestBuy and found it much more convenient to pop in at the MicroCenter around the corner from my house. So the gift card went unused for months.

Then, I found my opportunity. I decided it would be useful when traveling to have a 12 watt iPad charger to use with my phone. The idea was that when I was on the go, I might need to top up my battery, but timing can be tight. I would perhaps have only 20-30 minutes to recharge, and I wanted to be able to pump as many electrons into my phone as possible. Apple’s lightweight phone chargers have a lower wattage and so charging is limited in a short window. However, the higher wattage of the larger and heavier iPad charger would be much more effective for a short burst – worth the weight trade-off.

This was more of a “nice to have” than a necessity, but I had the $50 gift card, so it would effectively be free. I stopped in at a BestBuy and quickly found the charger. Oddly, to my disappointment, the charger was only $20. I would still have $30 left over. I started casting around for something else to buy to use up the remaining $30, but nothing leaped out. I had plenty of lightning cables, my phone case was fine, I was coming up empty…

I was about to give up and just be left with another $30 on the card when I saw my opportunity. Up at the registers, they were selling more types of gift cards, including ones for iTunes.  We are cord-cutters, so between buying shows on the Apple TV and purchasing phone apps for the family, we always have charges from iTunes showing up on the credit card.

I realized I could just buy iTunes gift cards and apply them as a credit to my account. I would naturally spend the remaining $30 over the next several months without having to remember to use the gift card. Conveniently, they had a three-pack of $10 gift cards, so when combined with the charger, it came to $50.18. I gave the clerk the BestBuy card and then paid the $0.18 extra.

So, have a gift card you aren’t sure how to spend? Check near the front of the store and see if they sell other types of gift cards. You might find a way to transfer the credits somewhere else that would be more useful.

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