A kids’ superhero book that’s actually worth buying

With the holiday season now officially started and gift shopping in full swing, I thought I would take a moment to share a surprising book I stumbled across… a superhero book that is actually worth buying.

Every time my son goes to the library, he comes home with a pile of easy readers about superheroes. As a kindergartener, he is only just starting to learn to read, but he is obsessed with these books and asks us to read them over and over. He has an amazing memory and will memorize them after just one or two times, but he will still insist that we read them at least a dozen times.

And let me tell you… these are not the sorts of books that you want to read more than once. Granted, they are easy readers, so the bar is low, but still… it can be pretty painful at times. The stories are just awful.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love superheroes, and I am happy to encourage my kids’ interest in them.  One of my favorite picture of my son was when I photoshopped him to look like the Incredible Hulk. And I think that it’s great how easy readers capitalize on kids’ interest in superheroes to build critical reading skills. But I still have to roll my eyes when a big stack of them comes home. They are just so painful to read.

Which is why I was so surprised to find a superhero book I actually like.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I took a kids-free getaway weekend to Chicago. While browsing shops in the West Loop, I wandered into one of those little boutiques that says all sorts of silly little gifts and jewelry. They had a section of children’s books, and I started to browse through them to look for some gifts for the kids.

And so I stumbled onto the “DC Super Heroes: My First Dictionary“.


Now if you are a parent, I’m sure you already rolling your eyes just based on the title. We’ve all seen endless books with names like this… “My First Book of Colors” or “My First Book of Trucks” and so forth.

This book is different.  It’s a book of 500 words.  Some are generic (car, hat, etc.) and some are very superhero specific (can you spell “Batarang”?). Along with an example sentence, each picture is illustrated with a picture from the “silver age” of comic books.  They are bright, fun, and colorful.  It’s a joy just to thumb through the pictures.


For my son, the book is a prized possession.  He loves to look at the pictures and ask questions.  All of the classic characters are in there, as well as a lot of the side kicks.  Women feature prominently (Wonderwoman, Supergirl, Batgirl, and other lesser known female superheroes get lots of air time), and it also has lots of lesser known characters that I need to ask my own father about (who is Zantana?).

Sometimes at bedtime, my son and I will read through two or three letter’s worth of definitions.  It has high production values and is well put together.

If you are going to spend money on a book for a kid who loves superheroes, this is one you can feel good about.


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The story of the spider and the centipede: who does a kid take after?

Regardless of where you come down on the nature-versus-nurture argument, one thing is very clear: in many respects, kids are a lot like their parents. They have half your DNA and have spent their entire lives with you, and it’s only natural to see a behavior and say, “She get’s that from me,” or “That comes straight from my spouse.”

While in theory it should be a 50/50 split, with traits evenly appearing from both parents, many times it feels like a child takes more after one parent than the other.  In our family, we often joke that our seven-year-old daughter Ayelet takes after me, and our five-year-old son takes after my wife Aviva.

Ayelet has my darker brown hair, and just like me, she is a total mess in the mornings. I solve this problem for myself with coffee, but she’s too young. I’ve seriously wondered whether we could start her on some sort of placebo in the meantime.

Ayelet is also a total carnivore. She loves meat in just about any form, and one of my favorite things to do is take her out for her favorite – lamb chops – when we find ourselves in New York City with access to kosher restaurants.

Ayelet engaged in her favorite activity in the world... eating lamb chops

Ayelet engaged in her favorite activity in the world… eating lamb chops

Rafael, on the other hand, has my wife’s sandy brown hair, and he perks his head up at 6am,  ready to go for the day. He hates being dirty and likes to keep everything organized and arranged just so. Unlike his sister, he refuses to eat any form of meat other than hotdogs. When I first met my wife, she was a vegetarian, although she has since grown to appreciate a nice buffalo steak.

Of course, comparisons like this are silly, since I can point to lots of traits where Rafael takes after me and Ayelet takes after my wife. Just to name a few… Rafael can never remember anyone’s name and constantly refers to people by the wrong one, just like me.  Ayelet is extremely social and loves to engage with people, just like my wife.

And of course, there are traits that come from neither of us.  They are both athletic and have taught themselves all kinds of crazy tricks on the monkey bars and rings. I sometimes joke that they might be the mailman’s kids.

But still, some parallels are so strong they cannot be overlooked.

Aviva and I have some very clear separation of duties in our family.  I deal with vomit and broken glass.  Aviva handles blood and clipping kids’ fingernails.  I kill and dispose of any animal that enters our home or property that has four legs and under (basically, I kill any mice), and Aviva kills anything that has six limbs and higher (bugs and spiders are her job).

The other night, I needed to rehang something on the wall and went down to the tool shelf at the bottom of the basement stairs to get a hammer. Ayelet had followed me down to chat about something and was standing a few steps from the top behind me.

Suddenly, I heard my daughter scream with the most violent terror I have ever heard in my life.  I was convinced that something horrible must have just happened to her – perhaps she had stepped on a nail or stabbed herself. I immediately turned around and gathered her in my arms and carried her back upstairs.  She was sobbing uncontrollably. At the same time, my wife had bolted down from the second floor to see what terrible tragedy had befallen her.

Between the sobs, we finally coaxed out of her what had happened.  “I…saw…a… centipede!” she croaked.

Yes, even in a house as clean as ours, there are some bugs living in the basement.  Some of them have an obscene number of legs, although I don’t know that they are actually centipedes.  They creep me out, but I accept the fact that they get to live in the basement where it’s dark.

When a bug ventures upstairs, however, I’ve been known to screech, just like a little kid.  Aviva has to come from wherever she might be in the house and dispose of it.  Yes, Ayelet definitely takes after me.

Rafael on the other hand…

A few weeks ago, some friends were visiting, and we had four kids in the living room.  One of them looked down on the floor, pointed, and said, “A spider!”

I’ve never seen kids move so fast.  Kids went running off in terror in all directions.  One jumped behind the couch.  Another kid hid behind her father. A third ran for the corner. I saw Rafael bolt out of the corner of my eye towards to the kitchen.

I sat there, considering what to do. Aviva was out of the house, so it was going to fall to me and my guest to dispose of the spider. Just as I was about to look closer to try to come up with a plan of action that might – heavens forbid – involve getting closer to the spider, Rafael came running back into the living room.

He took a flying leap and sailed three feet to land with a resounding thud next to where the spider was.

“I’ve got it!” he yelled, and with a tissue in his hand, slammed it down on the spider, squashing it.  He scooped it up and then ran back to the kitchen to throw it in the trash.

While every other kid had fled in terror, Rafael had immediately jumped into action.  He wasn’t running away from the spider… he was running to the kitchen to get a tissue so that he could come back and kill it.  He didn’t even miss a beat.

Definitely Aviva’s son.  I would never do that.

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A Parenting Milestone: Help that is actually helpful

One of the staples of my childhood growing up in the 80s was listening to Free To Be… You and Me on our Fisher-Price record player.  While most of the songs revolved around creating an egalitarian society where boys and girls have equal opportunities and are treated the same, one of the songs that still stands out is “Helping”, about kids helping each other with all sorts of activities.

However, the last verse of the song is about a kid whose help isn’t so helpful:

Now, Zachary Zugg took out the rug
And Jennifer Joy helped shake it
Then Jennifer Joy, she made a toy
And Zachary Zugg helped break it

And some kind of help is the kind of help
That helping's all about
And some kind of help is the kind of help
We all can do without

My wife also grew up on Free To Be… You and Me, and we often find ourselves repeating that last line in a sing-song to each other: “Some kind of help is the kind of help… we all can do without.”

This phrase comes out when one the kids decides to “help” with cooking or home repair or some other task.  For example, I might be mixing some salad dressing when one of the kids jumps in wanting to participate. I just need a teaspoon of salt, but they want to pour and hold the spoon, and I find myself struggling to avoid a huge mess. A five minute task ends up taking 20, once you factor in the clean-up.

Last weekend, I was finishing up putting together a fundraiser mailing for a non-profit organization I help out with. Over the course of a few days, I had printed and stuffed 140 envelopes. Now I just needed to seal them up and stick on the address labels and stamps.

I was home that afternoon with my son Rafael, age five. I was planning on finishing up that evening, but he was having lunch and I thought maybe I could get some of it done early while he ate.  He watched while I worked, and then made the  dreaded announcement:

“I want to help!”

“Um, okay,” I said. Rafael is quite diligent, so I figured I could keep him occupied and get a head start on the mailing.

The envelopes needed to be sealed.  These are the easy self-sealing envelopes where you just pull off a wax cover and fold the pre-glued flap down.  In theory, it shouldn’t be that hard, so I handed Rafael a stack of five envelopes and started sealing my own.

“I’m ready for more!” he soon announced.  I looked over, and sure enough, he had them all sealed up and ready to go.  I handed him 10 more and he kept going.  I was probably sealing 5x faster than him, but when all was said and done it did reduce the number of envelopes I needed to seal.

The next step was to put the stamps and mailing labels.  He was still eager to help, but now the job was more difficult. Placing stickers is more error prone and hard to fix if misplaced.  I was torn between the stamps, which were simpler to place but cost money, versus the mailing labels which could be reprinted but larger and harder to orient. I took a gamble a handed him a roll of 100 forever stamps worth $49.

I showed him how to lay out several envelopes at once and where to put the stamps, and he got started.  One after another, he placed the stamps in the right spot and was ready for the next set. I kept giving him more envelopes while I put on the labels as I worked next to him.  Sure, I went faster, but he was doing a good job.

At $0.49 a stamp, it was a little risky, but he did a good job.

At $0.49 a stamp, it was a little risky, but he did a good job.

Within an hour, we got the whole job done.  If I was working by myself, it probably would have taken me an hour and 20 minutes.  It wasn’t a huge savings in time, but it was net positive.  He was actually helpful.

A few days later, I was making salad.  I started peeling a carrot, and my seven-year-old daughter announced she wanted to do that.  She has done this before, so I handed it over.  However, when she was finished she announced she actually wanted to eat the carrot now that it was peeled.  Oh well.

I peeled another carrot and was about to start slicing it when Rafael suddenly jumped up and said that he wanted to cut it up. I looked at him, remembered the stamps, and said okay.

Now, I must admit that handing over a cutting board, a knife and a carrot to a five year old takes some nerves, but he is a careful kid.  I was confident he could handle it.  When my daughter saw this, she lost all interest in eating her carrot and announced she wanted to cut a carrot too.

Soon I had the two of them sitting with their own cutting boards, peeled carrots, and knives, chopping them up.  Once I confirmed they were being careful and doing a good job, I turned my attention to making the rest of the salad.  By the time they were done, I had the rest of the salad put together.

Were the carrots cut perfectly?  No.  Some pieces were a little large, but overall they did well.  I had them slice the larger pieces in half again, and then we dumped them into the salad.  No one cut themselves, and I actually got to do work while they were cutting the carrots.  The salad really was a team effort.

Help that is actually helpful!  This is a whole new world.

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Social media’s attempts to appeal to casual users is driving down my usage

Congratulations, Facebook… all of your hard work to appeal to casual users has been successful. I hardly look at you any more. And careful, Twitter… you are risking the same fate!

I used to love Facebook. I found it a great way to keep up with the zeitgeist of what was going on in my community and far-flung friends. It was my window into popular culture was well as the ups-and-downs of people I care about.

Several times a day, I would spend a couple of minutes scrolling through the timeline until I got to the posts I had already read. While the majority of posts are inane, tucked inside were some really important or interesting updates I didn’t want to miss.

In the process, Facebook was able to show me a lot of ads.  Most of them I ignored, but occasionally I would click on one.  I even bought a few things… I’m thinking of you, Touch of Modern.

However, Facebook went in a different direction. While people like me who wanted to see every post were great, they realized they were missing out on a lot of casual users. These are the users who might log in once every few days or just a few times a month, and if they didn’t see interesting posts, they probably wouldn’t come back. So they put more and more work into tuning their news algorithm.

With their “Top Stories” view, they brought the most interesting, most liked, most commented on articles up to the top, out of order. Articles that your friend were commenting on could re-appear, rather than scrolling off in linear time. It’s perfect for casual readers who can come in, see the most important and exciting updates, and then leave.

I didn’t like it, but fortunately, Facebook gave you an option.  The News Feed could be in either “Top Stories” or “Most Recent”.  I kept it on “Most Recent”.  Annoyingly, every once in a while it would automatically switch back to “Top Stories” mode, but I would switch it again and everything would be fine.  And so several months went by.

At some point, however, Facebook decided that everyone should be using “Top Stories”, so they made “Most Recent” harder to get to for their mobile app, which is where I usually accessed it.  Rather than just a setting in the News Feed, “Most Recent” became a hidden option buried in several layers of sub-menus.  You could still get to it, but it was a lot more taps and a lot more annoying when it automatically reverted.  I still stuck with it.

Facebook still wasn’t satisfied, I guess.  They really wanted everyone to be in “Top Stories”, so they altered the behavior of “Most Recent”.  I imagine someone at Facebook saying, “They think they want items in chronological order? Fine, give them *everything*… see how they like that!”

Now, items would show up in my news feed over and over.  Every time a friend clicked the like button on a post in my timeline, it would jump in.  No new information, just the same article telling me now that “Joe” liked it.  I found myself scrolling constantly threw articles I had already seen.  Yes, it was “Most Recent”, but the chronological order was basically destroyed.

In the end, I gave in.  I decided that if Facebook really wanted me to use “Top Stories”, I would use it. And so, the decline in my Facebook usage began. Yes, when I went in, I had some very interesting and exciting posts right up top.  But as I would scroll down, I would start seeing stuff I had already seen, followed by new stuff.  I would see posts from three days ago, followed by a post from 20 minutes ago.  I could never figure out if I had “caught up” on the news.

Even more annoying, the out-of-order posts quickly became confusing.  At the top of my feed, I would see a post from a two hour post from a friend saying something like, “Oh no! Our car broke down! Can anyone give our kids a ride to school?”, but three pages down, it would say, “Problem solved! Our neighbor gave the battery a jump.”  Or posts would show up out-of-context, where a person is referring to another post they made a few minutes before, but it doesn’t show up in the feed and I have no idea what they are talking about.

Gradually, I started using Facebook less and less.  Nowadays, I try to remember to check it once a day.  I will scan the top headlines before I go to bed, but it’s an afterthought. Nice job, Facebook.  I’d say that I probably spend about 5% of the time using the service compared to what I used to do (some of you might argue that’s a good thing, but I miss the service).

Twitter has also slowly been going down this path, although I have managed to hang on.  I carefully maintain the list of people I follow, and I like to read every tweet.  If someone tweets too much, I remove them.  I consider it a vital source of information, particularly in the technology world, and sometimes a really important tweet will zip by.  I want to make sure I have seen them all.

The Twitter website makes this really hard.  They have no concept of picking up where you left off.  They have a section called “While you were away”, which tries to do something similar to Facebook’s “Top Stories”, showing you the tweets it *thinks* you will like the most, but I really want to see them all.

If you keep the Twitter window open on your browser, it will keep track of how many tweets are new, but this is of limited use.  You can’t switch from mobile to desktop and pick up where you left off, and if you have to reboot your computer, you start fresh.

Fortunately, other twitter clients like Twitterific jumped into the gap.  They wrote their own clients on top of the twitter API, and they included services like iCloud or Tweet Marker to track your place.  You could move from one device to another, and your position would be maintained.  Perfect.

Unfortunately, Twitter has felt the need to meddle.  A few years ago, they started limiting API usage by developer, trying to push everyone to use their own website and mobile apps (which don’t have any ability to mark your place).  Twitterific had a desktop and a mobile client, but to make better use of their available API keys, they stopped updating the desktop client.

It still works, but it hasn’t kept up with functional changes like inline images or quoted tweets.  The mobile experience is excellent, and the desktop experience is poor.  And the problem is, I don’t always want to use my mobile device to keep up on Twitter.  One of the things I love about Twitter is the links to relevant technology related news articles, and it is much more pleasant to read these on a desktop browser.

I was getting close to giving up until I discovered a new client, Tweetbot.  I was always vaguely aware of them, but their apps were much more expensive ($4.99 for the iOS client, $12.99 for the desktop client).  However, it looks like the higher cost has reduced their API usage, so they have actually continued to invest in their desktop client. It supports all of the latest features, and it perfectly hands off my reading position between my mobile devices and desktop client.

So, I’m still hanging on with twitter, thanks to Tweetbot. I loved Twitterrific, but their inability to provide a satisfying desktop experience lost me as a user.

I know Facebook and Twitter are carefully measuring their active engaged user counts, and they need the casual users to keep their numbers growing.  But couldn’t they do it without sacrificing functionality for their more active users?

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A well-timed upsell pays off for my florist

For the past 17 years, I have been regularly ordering flowers from the same florist. I send my wife Aviva flowers in September on our wedding anniversary, in October on her birthday, and in November on the anniversary of our first date.  It’s like clockwork.

At this point, the florist knows me when I call.  It’s a small, independent shop called B&G Sawin Florist, named for its owners Barbara and George. They keep my information on file. They used to ask what I wanted, but I would always just tell them that I trust them and they should just use their judgement. We’ve been doing it for so long now, they know what to expect.

I started ordering them when Aviva and I were newly married, and I wanted to send flowers to her at work for her birthday. I had never needed a florist before, so I didn’t know where to start. I figured it would make sense to order from a florist near her office, so I looked online (from yellowpages.com – Yelp didn’t exist yet) and found one down the block called B&G Sawin Florist.  And so I placed an order.

A month later, when I wanted to send her flowers again, I figured they had done a good job (at least according to my wife) and placed another order. And then again the following September for our anniversary, and on and on.  My wife always liked what they did, so I saw no reason to switch to anyone else.

Since my order would never change, the amount I spent never changed either. “What did you have in mind?” George would always ask.  “Something in the $50 range,” I would always reply.

Aviva and I have been both working flat out recently, and it occurred to me that it might be nice to send her flowers out of the blue. So, I called up B&G Sawin florist as usual, and placed an order with George.

This time George broke from the script ever so slightly.  “So, what did you have in mind? $75? $100?”

$75? $100? I was speechless for a moment. I always ordered $50. Had I been spending too little all these years?

Not sure what to do, I finally blurted out, “Um…$75.” He finished writing up the order, and we were done.

90 minutes later, I received a very surprised and excited text from Aviva, thanking me for the flowers.

The flowers were a hit

The flowers were a hit

The next day, I took an informal poll with the other men in the office to see how much they paid when sending their spouses flowers. While they both immediately responded that they hadn’t done it in a while, one said $50 and the other said $75. So, I don’t think that I was necessarily going to too low previously, but clearly there was room to go up.

I asked my wife if she noticed the difference between $50 and $75, and she definitely did. Not only was the arrangement larger, but the types of the flowers were more impressive. The $50 arrangements were beautiful and she loved them, but she could definitely tell the difference.

Here is what a $75 arrangement looks like

Here is what a $75 arrangement looks like

Well, I’m certainly not going back to $50 arrangements now. Clearly it is going to be $75 going forward. This is a 50% revenue increase from a recurring customer, all from just a well-timed upsell.

Clearly, George should have done that years ago.

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Trello – My secret to keeping myself organized

I’m a pretty disorganized person. At every company I have ever worked at, the chaos of my desk has been the butt of jokes. When my wife is traveling, I depend on telling Siri to remind me to do important things like “make the kids’ lunches at 8:30 pm”. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve gone down to the basement to get something, noticed something else that I needed, and then completely forgotten about the original reason I went down.

Over the years, I’ve tried a variety of systems for keeping track of all of the things I need to get done. Back in the 90s, I bought a Palm Pilot, convinced that its to-do list was going to solve all my problems. I’ve also tried Franklin-Covey’s paper-based planner, and I have tried services like “Remember the Milk”, but none of them have lasted more than a few months.

And then, two years ago, I discovered Trello, and I have never needed another tool. It’s magical.

Unlike prescriptive organizing systems like GTD where you follow a specific method, Trello is an “anti-system”. It has no specific methods. It adapts to you, rather than you adapting to it.

Okay, so what is it? It’s a super-flexible card organizing system. You create cards, which you can order however you like, in lists titled whatever you choose. You can set up whatever system feels right to you, and Trello just makes it super easy to manage.

To illustrate, let’s start with the simplest of boards, just to manage a basic to-do list:

A simple sample board

A simple sample board

In this example, I have three columns: “Doing”, for things I am doing right now or very soon, “To-Do”, for things I should do at some point in the future, and “Done” for things that are completed. As new tasks come up, I would add them “To-Do”. When I try to figure out what I should be doing next, I would pick things from “To-Do” and just drag them over to “Doing”.  Once they are completed, I could drag them over to “Done”.  Nothing is quite as satisfying dragging cards into a “Done” list.

But these titles I have made are completely arbitrary. I can organize anything with Trello, in any which way I would like. Take a look at these sample boards from Trello’s twitter feed:

A recipe board

A recipe board

A goal setting board

A goal setting board

A weekly project board

A weekly project board

So, what does my Trello board look like?  My job is very interrupt driven, with many tasks waiting on information from others or handed off to other people from completion. I use a five column board to keep the chaos under control:

This five column board has been the key to getting things done for over two years

This five column board has been the key to getting things done for over two years

On the right, there is the classic “To-Do”, “Doing”, and “Done” columns.  I generally live each day in Column 4, “Doing”.  As new stuff pops up, I will either put it into the “Doing” column if it needs to happen right away, or into the “To-Do” column if I should expect to get to it in the next few weeks. As tasks are completed, I move them to “Done”.

I have added two new columns, however. The first is “Waiting for Response”.  These represent tasks I am responsible for, but I cannot proceed on them because I am waiting on input from someone else.  For example, I might have a task to set up a new data feed for a client. However, I have a list of questions about some of the data elements, and I have emailed them to ask. I don’t want to put this in my “Doing” column right now, because I can’t actually do anything about it. However, I am still responsible for the task and don’t want to lose track of it, so I will put the task into this “Waiting for Response” column.  When they finally respond, I will drag the card back into the “Doing” column so that I can keep working on it.

Periodically, I will scan my “Waiting for Response” column to look for items that have been in there too long.  When appropriate, I will send a “Hey, any updates?” email to follow up.  Arguably, this column could be called “People to Nag”.

My other column is “Other People Doing”.  These are for tasks that I am responsible for, but I have delegated the work to colleagues. I want to keep an eye on these projects and remember to check in on them periodically, but I don’t want them cluttering my “Doing” and “To-Do” lists.  If someone else wants a status update on one of them, they are going to come ask me about them, not the person I have delegated to, so I had better not forget about it.

There is one other column that is hidden off-screen.  It’s called “Back Log”. Basically, if something sits around too long in the “To-Do” list, it’s a sign that it is one of those “good to do, but not urgent and not that important” items that we never seem to really get around to. I don’t want to delete it from the lists, since that would be kind of like saying I will never do the task. So I hide it in the backlog. Eventually, they either become urgent/important and make their way back onto the main lists, or they become unnecessary.

For some additional color, I will occasionally add some labels in the form of colored bars. I use “orange” for time sensitive issues that I need to really make sure do not slip, and red for urgent fires that need to take top priority over all other tasks.

Each week, I archive my “Done This Week” list and start a new one for the week ahead. It’s a nice way to start a Monday morning by seeing how long the previous week’s list was and therefore how much I got done.

The amazing thing about Trello is that I am using just a fraction of its power. It’s really built for teams to collaborate around the world, and it has a whole boatload of features I haven’t even touched on here:

  • Checklists
  • Due-dates
  • Card owners (for multi-user boards)
  • Tagging
  • Voting
  • Attachments
  • Comments
  • and much more…

And the best thing about Trello?  It’s free.

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A trio of out-of-the-ordinary home repairs

I have a bit of a mixed-track record with home repair projects. Some, like rewiring my doorbell or replacing the inner seal of my toilet have gone well. However, the time I decided to replace the disposal in the kitchen sink over Memorial Day weekend was a historically spectacular (and expensive) failure.

Over the last few weeks I’ve tackled a few projects that I have been putting off because they presented some unique challenges, and to my surprise each one has gone quite well. They each required some creative techniques I hadn’t been familiar with, so I thought I would share them here with some of my other homeowner friends.

A stripped screw hole

A few weeks ago, the door to our bathroom cabinet popped off.  It has done this a few times in its past life, and each time I screwed it back on, I worried a bit because I could see that the wood around the screw hole was not in good shape. I wasn’t sure how long it would hold.

This time, I found I was indeed in trouble. The screw hole was completely stripped – you could just slide the screw in and out, so there was no way to reattach it.

The screw hole was completely stripped.

The screw hole was completely stripped.

I figured this was the end of the road for me, and I would need an actual handyman or carpenter to come in and fix it. But, I did some research on Google and found that a stripped screw hole is not nearly as difficulty to repair as I had assumed. All you need are some toothpicks, a razor blade, and some wood glue.

The first step is to fill the hole with bits of wood and wood glue. Toothpicks are a good choice because they are readily available and easy to fit into the hole.

Fill up the hole with pieces of wood and glue.

Fill up the hole with pieces of wood and glue.

Basically, you dip a toothpick into some wood glue, then stick it into the hole and break it off. Then you do this again. And again. You keep doing it until you can’t fit any more pieces in. Then you use a razor blade to trim the pieces flat with the wood and leave the glue to dry.

Once the glue has had time to set, you can try putting a screw back in (it helps to have someone hold the cabinet door in place).

Once the glue has had time to set, you can try putting a screw back in (it helps to have someone hold the cabinet door in place).

After a few hours, you are ready put in a screw. All the extra pieces of wood give the screw something to bit into, and it should hold quite well.

So far, so good. The cabinet door has stayed in place for more than a month now. No carpenter needed!

Fixing a door’s misaligned strike plate

On to repair project two… getting our doors to latch.

We are the first owners of our home and have lived here for over ten years. The house was quite well made, but one small imperfection has always bothered me – several of the bedroom doors don’t actually latch.

They close, but the strike plates don’t quite line up, so they don’t actually latch. And if they don’t latch, they don’t lock. This didn’t used to bother me, but now that the kids are seven and five, I like to be able to get dressed in peace without one of the kids suddenly barging in.

Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to fix the positioning of these strike plates. They were just a little too high and needed to be lowered a quarter of a inch. Because of the existing screw holes and latch hole, this wasn’t just a simple matter of drilling a few new holes or filling in a stripped screw hole like I did on the cabinet. It would be a big project. I didn’t want that level of trouble.

The hole in the strike plate needed to be expanded just a little bit further down.

The hole in the strike plate needed to be expanded just a little bit further down.

Really, I just needed to make the hole for the door latch a little bit bigger.  If I could add 1/8 to 1/4 of an inch to the hole, the doors would latch. But how?

I have a file, but there was wasn’t enough maneuverability to really expand out the hole. Then, I had the bright idea of using a drill.  Normally a drill drives forward, but I thought that if I rubbed the side of the drill bit along the bottom of the hole as it spun, I could slowly file down the hole to the needed size.

It was a good idea, but no luck. The drill just didn’t have enough grinding power on the edges to do anything meaningful. I was about to give up, when it occurred to me that perhaps someone made a drill bit specifically for filing down the sides.

Rotary burrs can be used to make a small hole wider.

Rotary burrs can be used to make a small hole wider.

Sure enough, they do. They are called rotary burrs and are used for carving and sculpting. I found a set for just $12 on Amazon.

By attaching the burrs to my drill, I was able to quickly grind down the bottom of the hole on the strike plate to make it bigger.

By attaching the burrs to my drill, I was able to quickly grind down the bottom of the hole on the strike plate to make it bigger.

I selected the one with the most cylindrical shape and set about expanding the holes.  Within a few minutes, I had expanded the holes to be low enough for the doors to actually latch. Success!

A toilet tank that is losing water

Emboldened by these successes, I decided to take on a plumbing project that has been bugging me. I’ve noticed that the toilet on the 3rd floor periodically tops off its tank without having been used. The toilet isn’t leaking, but clearly the water is going somewhere.

I checked the flapper valve and it seemed okay. I thought that the water might be going down the overflow tube, since the water level was very close to it. I tried significantly lowering the water level in the tank, but the problem didn’t go away. The tank would still periodically add water.

Not sure where to go next, I figured I would need a plumber. But I googled around a bit more and discovered that there is a simple way to test where the problem is – food coloring!

The idea is that you put food coloring in the tank, and then you wait a while and see if there is food coloring in the toilet bowl. If there is, then you know that the flapper valve is leaking.

I decided to give it a try. We didn’t have any food coloring (I don’t think Aviva has ever used food coloring in her life), but I asked her to see if the Whole Foods around the corner had any when she went to pick up a few things. She was skeptical that Whole Foods would carry this, but she dutifully returned home with what was probably the most expensive food coloring available (because what other kind would Whole Foods stock?).

The kids were fascinated, and they watched me dump some food coloring into the tank. 10 minutes later, we came back to take look.

Blue water in the bowl meant that water was indeed leaking from flapper valve into the tank.

Blue water in the bowl meant that water was indeed leaking from flapper valve into the tank.

Sure, enough, the toilet bowl was now blue!

I still have to stop at the hardware store and pick up a new flapper valve, but even with my mixed track record on plumbing projects, I should be able to handle this one.

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An even better way to get Apple earbuds to stay in your ears

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about my difficulties getting Apple’s ear pods and ear buds to stay in my ears. The post has been surprisingly popular, and based on the commentary it seems like 20-25% of people have the same problem I do – the ear pods just fall right out.  The other 75-80% of people don’t have this problem.

Back then, I solved the problem with a product called Earbudi. These are hooks that clip on to ear pods and loop around your ear, preventing them from falling out even heavy activity like exercise. That post continues to drive several hundred page views a week, and a lot of people have followed my lead.

I feel bad, because I don’t actually use them anymore.

Don’t get me wrong – my ears haven’t magically reshaped themselves so the ear pods stay in, and the Earbudi does do a wonderful job.

The problem is that they have turned out to be quite flimsy. They are made from thin plastic that clips onto the ear pods to hold them in place, and it turns out this can break easily. After just a few months of riding around in a dedicated pocked in my Timbuk2 Messenger Commander bag, these pieces cracked and broke.

I replaced them a few times, but the same thing kept happening. Eventually I gave up.

About 8 months ago, I stumbled across a different product that has held up much better… Earhoox. These are small rubber attachments that loop onto the ear buds with a small protrusion.

Earhoox are small rubber attachments that add a small hook onto the top of the ear pod

Earhoox are small rubber attachments that add a small hook onto the top of the ear pod

Unlike the Earbudi, the Earhoox don’t loop around your ear. The small protrusion naturally hooks onto the fold of the ear, and somehow, magically, this allows it to stay in place.

It works remarkably well, though I don’t understand why. I’ve gone running with them, and I’ve used them while reclining in a dentist’s chair. Something between the extra friction provided by the rubber and the way it fits into the natural folds of the ear allows it to sustain bumps, tugs, and vibrations.

Best of all, it is remarkably durable. The flexible rubber just absorbs jostling, and even after months and months of use, I haven’t noticed any tears or breaks.

They’re just $9.99, so if your ear pods fall out of your ears easily like mine do, go get a pair.

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No, you probably don’t *need* an Apple Watch

People keep asking me when I’m going to write a post about the Apple Watch, so here it is.

I generally buy 1st generation products (well, ones from Apple, anyways) because I am curious to see how the technology is developing and evolving. I had a 1st generation iPhone and a 1st generation iPad. Getting the 1st generation Apple Watch was a foregone conclusion.

I’ve been using mine for about two weeks now. I got it three days after the April 24th launch date, which remains kind of a mysterious miracle. The launch of pre-orders on April 10th fell out on the end of Passover, and in observance of rules to not use electricity on the holidays, I wasn’t able to order it until almost two days later, when every single model was listed a “Shipping in June.”

I had resigned myself to a very long wait, but to my surprise I got a shipping notification on April 25th, and it arrived two days later. I have no idea how I was able to jump the line. My one suspicion is that there may have been a surplus of my model (an Apple Watch Sport 42mm with a blue strap), since Apple was holding a raffle for this particular model to help developers jump ahead of the line so they could test their apps. But that’s my only guess.

I opted for the Apple Watch Sport for a few reasons. First and foremost, it’s very clear that this is a 1st generation product, and I will probably upgrade again when the next much-improved model comes out. Second, I go running a few times a week, so the lighter weight appealed to me.

I went with the Apple Watch Sport with the blue band.

I went with the Apple Watch Sport with the blue band.

As for the band, I went with blue. The sport came in black, white, pink, green, and blue. This is the same blue that I chose for the cover of my iPads, and frankly, I liked the fact that the blue would stand out a bit. Men have such few opportunities to accessorize. Might as well make a statement.

The first day that I had the watch, I needed to catch an evening trip down to New York. During the day, people didn’t seem to notice it until I walked into the airport in Boston, at which point it was like a magnet and everybody started asking me about it. Clearly, the business travelers were target demographic.

At the security line, the woman next to me turned and started.  “Ooh, you have an Apple Watch!  How are you using it?  What are you doing with it?”

I started at her, speechless. Do with it? Well, nothing yet.

With the iPhone, I could immediately articulate the value to people who couldn’t fathom why you would want one. It’s the internet in your pocket… when you are out and about and need to look something up… It gives you one device for everything…

The iPad was a little more challenging to explain, but you could still do it. It’s about casual browsing… about watching movies and reading books… a better balance of usability and portability…

But the Apple Watch? Well, it’s much harder to explain. It allows you to strike a different, less disruptive relationship with your phone. And it’s an excellent fitness band. What does it allow me to do that I couldn’t do before? Hmm…

Don’t get me wrong – as I will explain below, I really like having the Apple Watch. But unless you have a certain relationship with your phone, it’s difficult to articulate why you might want one. I certainly can’t say that you *need* one.

The Apple Watch is essentially a remote control for your iPhone. It doesn’t do anything that your iPhone doesn’t, but it saves you from having to take it out of your pocket. If you are one of those people who is taking out your phone every time a notification comes in, the real value is that you can briefly glance at your watch without disrupting what you are doing.

I’m sure 75% of the people reading this are saying to themselves, “That is the dumbest reason to spend $400 I have ever heard.”

And I’m sure the other 25% are nodding their head, knowing exactly what I am talking about.

If you are part of the 75%, I’d suggest you stop reading now. There is nothing I will ever be able to do to convince you of the value. You have a different relationship with your device, and I’m sure you are looking at me as a pitiful creature who has become enslaved to his device. I see your point, but I view it differently. I’m not going to try to argue with you.

For the other 25%…

One of the best things about the Apple Watch is for having small kids. When I visited my daughter’s school a few days ago, I saw a sheet she had made all about her family and what each family member liked.  I was relieved when it said “My Daddy likes to go running.” I was fearful that it was going to say, “My Daddy likes looking at his phone.”

Here is a typical scene in my house: I’m the parent who does bedtime with the kids, and right around 7:50 pm I am frequently sitting in the rocking chair with a seven-year-old and almost-five-year-old sitting on my lap. And then my phone will ding with a text message. Until I stop and take my phone out of my pocket to look at the message, I won’t know if it is something important and timely, like a message from my wife reminding me to give my daughter her medicine, or something mundane like an acknowledgement of a text message I had sent earlier in the evening, or something urgent like a colleague needing help on an unexpected problem.

The Apple Watch allows me to know what the situation is without disrupting my time with my kids. I can briefly glance at my watch and then go back to reading the bedtime story unless it is really something that requires immediate attention. They aren’t really aware I am doing it.

Similarly, when I was in two back-to-back four hour meetings in NYC, I turned on notifications of my work email so that I could generally be aware of what was going on. As the senior technologist in my group, I’m often an escalation point for major issues. While I like not checking my email, the fear that there is something that urgently requires my attention gnaws at me.

Over the course of the day, I was able to generally keep abreast of what was going on and not worry.  At two different points during the day, messages popped up that required immediate attention. At those points, I was able to pop open my laptop, fire off a few messages, and return my attention to the meeting at hand.

Do you *need* a device to do this? No. But I find it worthwhile.

The Apple Watch is also an excellent fitness band. It’s an activity monitor, which shows your progress against three daily goals (calories, exercise, and standing) and nudges you periodically to get up and move around. This very much fits my personality, since I have been tracking my exercise and no soda streaks for almost a year.

I also much prefer it for running than using RunKeeper on my phone. The ability to just glance at my watch and check time progress or pause it when I get to a stoplight is really great. I’ve stopped using RunKeeper and just use the Apple Watch’s built-in app.

A few other topics…

Battery life has been excellent. Even on days when I go running for 45 minutes, the battery is still in the 40-50% range at the end of the day. Yes, I have to charge each night, and I have to carry yet another proprietary cable when I travel, but battery life has not been an issue at all.

I find apps on my Apple Watch absolutely useless. 85% of what I am using the watch for is to check notifications. Another 10% is to respond to text messages. If I want to do anything more sophisticated, I really *can* take the 5.5 inch iPhone out of my pocket for a much better experience. I have not come across anything that I would prefer to do on my watch over actually using the iPhone.

One exception is the “Remote” app for the Apple Watch. The Apple Remote is always getting lost, and the Apple Watch app is quite seamless to take control.

Another exception is Apple Pay. Swiping my watch to checkout is a seamless, beautiful thing. Even the checkout clerk at Whole Foods thought it was pretty cool.

For reasons I cannot understand, Siri seems to work much better on the watch than my phone. I am often using Siri to respond to text messages on my watch, and it seems to have a much lower error rate.

At times, it’s a two handed device. Unless you raise your arm when a notification comes in (at which point it shows it to you automatically), you need to swipe the screen to see missed notifications. That means with your left hand you need to raise your arm (better not be carrying anything in it), and then you need to swipe with your right hand (better not be carrying anything it it either).

I’ve never answered a phone call on my watch like Dick Tracy. It’s not that I haven’t tried, but there is a bug somewhere, and my iPhone 6 Plus immediately reboots the moment I try to do this. I think there may be a bug with the iPhone being paired to both the Apple Watch and my bluetooth headset, but that’s just a guess. I’m waiting for the next update from Apple.

In Summary

I really do like the watch. I find it timely and convenient, and I’m happy I have it.

Do you need one? Probably not. If you are one of those people who is frequently checking notifications on their phone, you may find it quite useful, as I do. If your relationship to your phone is like mine, go ahead and splurge.

If not, you can remain smug in your superior independence from your iPhone. But please keep it to yourself.

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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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