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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Solved: Plantronics Voyager Legend fixes wind noise issues with firmware update

Yes, I’m still that jackass who walks around with a bluetooth headset on his ear.

After more than a year using the Voyager Legend bluetooth headset from Plantronics, I still love it.  Between its ability to connect with my phone and my laptopt simultaneously and the fast handoffs with the phone, I find it one of the most useful devices I own.  I spend a lot of my time at work talking on the phone (such is the life of a client-facing technologist), and I also listen to a lot of NPR podcasts, so you can almost always find me with the thing stuck in my ear. I’ve even convinced my wife and sister-in-law to get themselves one.

I’ve had just one complaint… the wind noise.  The headset has great audio quality and picks up my voice extremely well, but it turns out that it is incredibly sensitive to wind.

I remember the first few times I ran in to it. I had to join a conference call while out of the office, so I was in the entryway of a building. It was sunny and I stepped outside as the call continued. Then, people began to complain that someone was picking up wind noise, and would whoever it was please mute their phone. I couldn’t hear any noise, and there was no breeze, so I assumed at first that it wasn’t coming from me.

The boom microphone is so sensitive to your voice that it picks up even the slightest breeze and transmits a loud “rushing sound” to whomever you are talking to, but you can’t hear it.  You can’t even feel any breeze and it still somehow picks it up.  I looked a bit online and found other people complaining about the problem, but no fixes.

So, it has been great for listening to podcasts outdoors, but not talking. And I have had some pretty laughable attempts as I walked to my car to try to get Siri to send a text message to my wife to let her know I was on my way home. I’d say the problems were 25% Siri and 75% wind noise from the headset confusing her.

Then a few weeks ago, I decided to check for a firmware update for the headset and noticed this very interesting item among the varies entries in the release notes for version 93, released last Fall:

  • 4x-improved wind noise reduction

Hmm, that sounded promising. The wind noise problems were so bad that I didn’t think 4x was likely to make enough a dent, but I figured it was worth a shot. I upgraded the firmware and took it for a spin outside.

It turns out that 4x is more like 4000x.  The wind noise reduction is excellent. Over the past few weeks, I have made phone calls in heavy wind and even blowing rain storm. No wind noise at all. (Fun tip – if you want to test your microphone quality for things like clarity or wind noise, leave yourself a voicemail and then play it back).

It kind of blows my eye that they are able to pack so much signal processing power into the tiny piece of electronics that I can hang on my ear. I’m amazed that such a serious wind problem can be corrected with a firmware update.

So, if you have a Plantronics Voyager Legend and are having wind noise issues, go update the firmware.

The Plantronics Voyager Legend has a boom microphone for better voice pickup

The Plantronics Voyager Legend has a boom microphone for better voice pickup

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If the kid won’t go to bed, channel his energy into something useful

After six years of parenting, bedtime remains a daily nightmare. We have two kids, ages six and (almost) four, so you would think that we would have gotten it under control by now.

The problem isn’t so much our technique, or lack thereof, but rather that our kids are on very different sleep schedules. Our six year old, Ayelet, is just finishing kindergarten.  She plays hard throughout the day, and by the time 8:00 pm rolls around, she is exhausted and ready to fall into bed. Once she gets under the covers, it’s rare for her to go more than 10 minutes before she starts snoring loudly. Easy.

The problem is her younger brother, Rafael. He’s in day care, and he also plays hard. He’s an early riser and wakes up more than an hour before his sister in the morning. But, when that 8:00 pm bedtime rolls around, he’s wide awake.  We spend the next hour trying to get him to stay in his bed, but he is constantly getting out or calling us into his room for a hug, a drink of water, a trip to the bathroom, or anything else he can think of. He won’t let us leave, and so we lose another hour of evening trying to get him to sleep.

Why the difference? He naps at day care.

This nap is just killing us. It fills him up with energy, and even though we are all ready for him to go to bed, he just isn’t tired yet. We’ve worked with the day care to try to limit the length of the naps, but it hasn’t helped much (no nap is not an option there). So, every night we have this hour long battle.

We don’t really have an choice about putting the kids to bed at separate times.  They sleep in the same room, and even though Ayelet is very tired, she won’t accept the idea of going to sleep herself while her little brother gets to stay up. So we are at an impasse.

A few weeks ago, my wife was traveling for work and I was solo-parenting. It was already 8:30 pm, my son was still wide awake, and I had a ton to do. The table was a mess from dinner, crumbs were all over the floor, I still had to make the kids’ lunches for the next day, and my son had left toys in the dining room. I was at my wits end trying to get my son to go to sleep and gave up and went downstairs to get started on the kitchen.

Without me to keep him corralled in his room, my son soon followed me downstairs. As I was trying to make the lunches, he started asking me questions about what I was doing.

“Rafael,” I told him, “I’m not talking to you. If you are going to be down here, go pick up your toys and put them away in the living room.”

He promptly picked up all the toys, carried them into the living room and then came back.  Hmm…

“Okay, bring all the dishes from the table and put them on the counter here next to me.” Over the next five minutes, he brought all the dishes over to the sink.

I was now finished making lunches and proceeded to start loading the dishwasher.  How far could I take this?

“Good job, Rafael. Go to take the little dustpan and sweep up all the crumbs under the table.” He grabbed the dustpan and started to sweep up.

Now, I will be honest, the floor was not spotless by the time he finished. But, there were a lot fewer crumbs on the floor. I deemed it good enough.

Before I knew it, it was nearly 9:00 and the whole kitchen was cleaned up and the chores were completed.

“Okay, Rafael, time for bed.” I went with him upstairs, put him in bed, and tucked him.  He immediately turned over, and I didn’t hear from him again.

The alternative was that I would have fought with him as usual about going to bed until 9, and then been doing chores myself until 9:45. Instead, I had him help me from 8:30 to 9, and then we were done.

I wouldn’t exactly call it a bedtime victory – that would be having him getting in bed and staying there – but it wasn’t a bad outcome. Rafael is the kind of kid who likes to help, so if I can make myself a little less frustrated and reclaim some evening time by channeling his helpfulness, so be it.

Rafael actually likes to help clean up, so might as well use it

Rafael actually likes to help clean up, so might as well use it

As it turns out, Rafael is quite good at cleaning up. He even likes to vacuum. Not really what I have in mind after he is supposed to be “in bed”, but sometimes you just have to make the best of a tough situation.


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Relying on a smartphone as a GPS when traveling in Europe

My wife and I recently took a trip for our 15th anniversary to Sicily. We were renting a car to travel around the island, and we knew we would need a GPS to successfully navigate both the dense city streets and the surrounding sprawling countryside.

The last time we were in Europe was five years ago, and at the time we had borrowed my in-laws’ GPS, which had a European street module. It worked well enough, but we found entering the complex Italian addresses cumbersome, and there was a maddening 45 minutes when we first got off the plane while the GPS struggled to locate itself.

In those five years, smartphone technology has improved dramatically and has all but killed off the GPS market. We still had access to our in-laws’ GPS, but I wondered – should we just bite the bullet and pay for international data for my iPhone 5S?

There were two considerations: the first was how well would it work? I had no doubt that coverage would be fine in the major cities around Europe, but what about driving around the Sicilian countryside? Would the signal be strong enough and the data speeds fast enough to make the phone usable? The coverage maps showed 3G data in most areas, but would this really be reliable?

The second was the cost. How much data did we need? The prices for Europe are gruesome.  $30 would get me 120MB, and $60 would get me 300MB. I’ve become used to having 10GB, which means I don’t need to think about it. How much would we really need?

We decided to hedge our bets. I borrowed my in-laws’ GPS as a backup and went with the cheaper 120MB plan, since I knew I could upgrade to to 300MB if I needed to.

So, how did it play out?

Cell service was excellent. There was 3G data all throughout Sicily, including remote areas between towns. Occasionally, if we went into a building the signal would drop down to the very slow edge (“E”) speed, but out on the open roads 3G service was available everywhere.  My in-laws’ GPS stayed in our suitcase the whole time.

The 120MB data turned out to not be enough. I found that I was using about 20MB of data a day just on the maps. In theory, we could have managed, but we found that having a smartphone with internet access while traveling in Europe is extremely handy.

We brought one or two guidebooks, but we kept turning to the smartphone again and again to look up information that the signposts and guidebooks didn’t explain well. For example, when we found ourselves standing in surprisingly modern looking church in Ragusa, we looked up the history to discover that it had been destroyed in an earthquake in the 1700s.

Another time, in Palermo, we visited a palace which ended up being mostly closed off unless you were part of a tour group. While trying to decide what to do next, we started to look at a couple of options. Our guidebook recommended some nearby catacombs, and we were about ready to head over to it. However, I looked it up on Yelp and read someone’s first-hand review that suggested it was going to be a bit too gruesome for my wife’s tastes (think lots and lots of mummified corpses). Instead, I plotted nearby options on the map and quickly realized that two of our other top options where actually very close to each other. Within five minutes, we were on our way.

Of course, relying on a GPS, smartphone or otherwise, is not without its limitations. Many of the towns in Europe date to medieval times, and just because a street allows cars doesn’t always means that you want to drive on them. We occasionally found ourselves driving on streets that were designed for nothing bigger than a donkey pulling a cart. It’s a miracle we never put a scratch on the rental car with some of the tight hairpin turns.

The phone's GPS said we could drive on these streets in Ragusa, but I wouldn't care to try that again.

The phone’s GPS said we could drive on these streets in Ragusa, but I wouldn’t care to try that again.

Another great benefit of having the smartphone is access to Google Translate. When parking in the small town of Noto, we found a nice parking lot with a pay station. There were other cars, but the lot was far from full. Next to the pay machine, I noticed some sort of sign in Italian with a sign of a tow truck, but I couldn’t read it. We knew there was a festival in the town the following day – could parking be restricted?

Google Translate revealed that we had better not park here.

Google Translate revealed that we had better not park here.

I punched in the message to Google Translate and learned my fears were well founded. Parking was restricted from 12:01 am Friday through midnight on Sunday. We went looking elsewhere.

As for the cost, yes, it was expensive. I upgraded to the 300MB and used 2/3 of it in just one week. However, I like to keep it in perspective. The $60 was a rounding error when compared to the thousands of dollars we spent on the trip. There may have been cheaper options, but it would have required unlocking my phone and getting temporary service in Europe.

When we are on vacation, I want to maximize every minute. Not fighting with the clunky interface of a GPS or poring a map meant more time enjoying the experience of traveling. For one week, I was happy to pay for the convenience of showing up in a foreign country, turning my phone on, and knowing it would just work.

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Replacing your dishwasher? Get ready for some hefty electrical rewiring

Replacing an appliance should be pretty straightforward, right? Refrigerators, ovens, and dishwashers all come in fairly standard sizes. It should be as simple as going to the store, picking out a new one that you like, and arranging for an installation.

Well, if you are replacing your dishwasher after January 2014, get ready to update your electrical wiring. New rules put out by the National Electrical Code (NEC) have been adopted by several states including my own Massachusetts, and they add stringent new rules. Unless your home is brand new, it probably doesn’t comply.

Our home is a little over 10 years old, and we have reached the phase where some of the appliances have started to give out. We replaced the refrigerator last year, and most recently the dishwasher went on the fritz. It would never finish its cycle and just keep going for hours. I never liked that dishwasher, and according to Consumer Reports, you are better off replacing it than trying to have it repaired if it is more than five years old.

The top rated dishwashers in Consumer Reports were Kenmores, so I went off to Sears to buy a new one. After searching to find one I liked that was in stock and getting a better deal by checking the online price, I worked with the salesperson to ring up the purchase. I expected a few additional fees for installation, but I was caught by surprise at just how many fees there were, which quickly added up to nearly 50% of the price of the dishwasher itself:

  • Delivery free
  • Installation fee
  • Installation kit (um, why is this not included as part of the dishwasher???)
  • Haul-away fee for the old dishwasher
  • Plumbing permit from the City of Cambridge for installation
  • Electrical permit from the City of Cambridge for installation

I was surprised by all these fees, but I really hated that old dishwasher. And with two kids, we do a lot of dishes. We just needed to get it replaced. So, I bit my tongue, pulled out my credit card, and arranged for a delivery date.

When the delivery date rolled around, the installation team showed up about 30 minutes into the 4 hour delivery window they had given me (shocking!). They looked at me and said, “So, did your sales person tell you about the electrical work? There are new requirements, and a lot of the sales people don’t know about them yet.”

Um, no.

They explained that as of 2014, new rules went into effect that added the following requirements for dishwashers:

  • The dishwasher must be on its own dedicated circuit (it can’t share with other appliances like the garbage disposal)
  • The dishwasher needed to have a shut-off within 4 feet of the appliance
  • The dishwasher circuit needed to have a GFCI breaker (extra protection for moisture or sparking) on the circuit breaker panel

He went on to explain that unless the home was built within the last year or two, it was almost impossible that the structure was compliant. The first thing they would have to do is identify how much work needed to be done. Most homes they looked at needed to have a new electrical line installed from the circuit breaker, and some really old homes needed whole new circuit breaker boxes that could accommodate a GFCI breaker.

I did have some hope, since our home was built in 2004. As we have had various contractors in for work, they have often told us how impressed they were with the care taken in details like wiring and plumbing. Perhaps he would have been ahead of his time?

The installers did an inspection and said that our house was the closest they had ever seen, but not quite perfect:

  • Dishwasher was already on its own dedicated circuit
  • It was plugged in to its own outlet rather than hardwired, so this could arguably be considered a shutoff within 4 feet of the appliance, since you could just unplug it
  • There were already GFCI breakers on other circuits, so the circuit breaker panel could accommodate them

All they would need to do is replace the existing circuit breaker. But, this is not covered in the “installation price.” That only covered installing the dishwasher itself. They had their own electrician on their way, and this would cost a few hundred dollars on top of what we already spent.

I was stunned. We were the closest he had ever seen, and it was still a few hundred dollars? I’m lucky enough to be able to afford this. What about people who live in an older home and have a broken dishwasher? Now they would have to spend over $1000 dollars to bring their home up to modern codes?

I did some research trying to find out how real this is. There isn’t a lot of clear documentation, but the installers did not make it up. Different states adopt different versions of the NEC recommendations, and Massachusetts adopted something called 210.8 effective January 2014. 210.8 address branch circuits and GFCI protection for dishwashers.

What can’t find any documentation of is exactly when these rules apply. Clearly, they would apply to all new construction and renovations. But for a replacement of an existing unit? I can’t find anything that says one way or another.

The installation guys explained that earlier this year, they started getting failure reports when their work was inspected for proper installation. In order to cover themselves for liability, they now needed to make sure that they were following the code. Alternatively, the owner could take installation of the dishwasher, but they couldn’t hook up the electrical and the owner could just sign that he/she would do it themselves. But this would apparently void the warranty.

So, was the work truly necessary? The code calls for it, but was it required for the appliance replacement? I don’t know.

But at least I know with confidence that my dishwasher is covered by warranty. More importantly, it works, and it is working much better than the old one.

If you live in Massachusetts and need to replace your dishwasher, beware!


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Starbucks WiFi must be slow on purpose

Walk into a Starbucks or just about any other coffee shop in this country, and you will see the same thing: dozens of people sipping coffee while hunched over laptops as they work or study. In the corners, you may spot a small clusters of friends chatting or business people having a casual meeting, but the laptops dominate.

The coffee shops are making a trade: they provides wifi, and people will come spend some money on some coffee or snacks while they work.

Coffee shops are clearly not universally enthused about this relationship. Many have argued that people are abusing the the wifi and costing them money. They come in, spend $2.50 on some coffee, and then monopolize a table for hours on end. Meanwhile, people come to the shop, see that there is no where to sit and walk back out the door.

I feel bad for them, but not too bad. I’ve watched many of them go through various policies trying to limit abuse, most notably charing for the wifi.  However, almost every coffee shop I have seen try this eventually goes back to giving the wifi away for free. I’m guessing that despite their claims, the coffee shops were actually losing more customers than they could make up with the faster table turnover.

Some try to find a middle ground by shutting off the wifi at peak hours like lunchtime. But I suspect that most of them are actually doing something much different – they are making their wifi artificially slow.

Why do I think this? I’ve been testing coffee shops around the Cambridge/Boston area, and I have determined that it is always slower than the connection from my cell phone.

My new role at Cape Ann Enterprises involves a large amount of business development, so I have been doing a lot of networking and meeting a lot of people at coffee shops. Often, I find it most convenient to arrive 30-60 minutes before the meeting or stay after and get some work done on my laptop. And almost every time that I try to attach to the wifi in these coffee shops, I am struck by how slow it is. My email hangs and hangs trying to load messages. Web pages sit blankly for a while, then render text while taking another 15-30 seconds to show the images.

I run a quick test on Ookla’s internet speed tester (, and at almost every Starbucks or independent coffee shop, I find the speed clock in at a measly 1 megabit per second.

WiFi at this coffee shop's hotspot delivers a paltry 1 mbps.

WiFi at this coffee shop’s hotspot delivers a paltry 1 mbps.

How bad is that? It’s about enough to load gmail, slowly. If you browser web sites, you will find yourself waiting around for images to load.

Lucky for me, I don’t need to use the coffee shop’s wifi. AT&T offered me unbelievably cheap pricing for a mobile share value plan, giving our family 10GB of data for the same price we used to pay for just 1GB. It’s more data than I will ever use, so whenever the internet goes slowly, I just tether my laptop to my phone.  How fast is the the AT&T LTE internet?

Internet speed from tethering using my AT&T LTE is 10x - 20x faster.

Internet speed from tethering using my AT&T LTE is 10x – 20x faster.

10-20 mbps. Sometimes faster. It leaves the coffee shop wifi in the dust.

So, why are coffee shops so damned slow? Much of the time, the coffee shops are using AT&T as their provider. Are AT&T’s physically wired connections really 10x slower than their cell phone towers?

One argument might be congestion. I have the phone all to myself, but there are 10-20 people all sharing the internet. Or, it might be something related to the technology that selectively allows connections only after a user has agreed to the terms of service.

That could be true, but I don’t think so. One day, I went to the Cambridge Public Library and tried their wifi. Once again, I had to agree to the terms of service, and there were other people with laptops using the the internet. I measured the speed, and it clocked in at 30 mbps. Blazing fast. Clearly, it can be done.

Another argument is that this might be something about the networks in Boston. However, I went to a Barnes & Noble in Rochester, NY and tried their wifi. Once again, 1 mbps.

So, here is what I think: coffee shops make their wifi intentionally slow.

Not having wifi keeps customers away. Bad wifi gets people in the door but leads to faster turnover. If people aren’t being as productive as they hope, they are less likely to stay for hours on end. They will work for a little bit and then go home, back to their faster wifi where they can get more done.

For my personal needs, it doesn’t bother me. I don’t need their wifi. At this point, I don’t even bother to try connecting to the coffee shop’s wifi and just tether to my phone instead. Despite my most earnest attempts to use my 10GB of data, the most I have every managed to use is 3GB. And the way that AT&T has done their pricing, there are no cost incentives for me to drop down ($130 a month for two phones for 10GB, $120 a month for two phones for 4GB).

But, if you decide to take your laptop with you to do some work in a coffee shop, I recommend you either plan on tethering to your phone or pick something that does not require internet access.


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I sent my 6 year old daughter to walk around the block by herself, and nothing bad happened

We spent several days last week at my parent’s house in the town of Brighton, a suburb of Rochester, New York.  As we walked around the quiet neighborhood I grew up in, I was flooded with memories of walking around as a carefree kid, by myself.

My parents did not accompany me everywhere.  After school or on weekends, I was allowed to go off by myself.  There was a church nearby with a big parking lot and a ramp that I would ride my bike up and down.  There were neighbor kids I would play with.  I don’t recall exactly what age I started doing this, but it was pretty young. I’m pretty sure by the age of six I was out and about on my own.

My own daughter, now six, has never had anywhere near this level of independence. Partly it’s that we live in a much more urban neighborhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and it’s partly that kids just have a lot less autonomy now. Despite the fact that crime is down and child abductions are just as incredibly rare now as they were back then, there is much more of a sense that harm is always lurking around the corner.

My wife and I have had discussions about what age our kids should be before we send them to the corner store across the street and what they would need to demonstrate before they can accomplish this basic task.  I’ve also tried to find opportunities to teach them self reliance, like sending my daughter into the women’s bathroom on her own to change after swimming.  But even as much as I want them to be independent, they still won’t have the kind of freedom at such a young age that I took for granted growing up.

So, as I walked around my old neighborhood, it occurred to me that I had an opportunity. We were in a quiet, friendly neighborhood. There were sidewalks and good visibility. This was a pretty safe place to explore.

I turned to my daughter and said, “Do you want to walk around the block by yourself?”

She looked at me, puzzled.  “By myself?”

“Sure,” I explained. “The block is a big circle.  Just keep following the sidewalk.  Don’t cross any streets, just turn right and keep going. You will end up right back here.”

We discussed it for a while, and eventually she decided she wanted to do it. “Remember,” I said, “Don’t cross any streets. And if you get confused, just ask somebody for help.” This last part about asking for help is important to me. The “stranger danger” that is drilled into so many people’s heads can often be counter-productive. The overwhelmingly vast majority of people are friendly, and kids shouldn’t be afraid to ask.  There is a difference between good judgement and being scared of everyone.

My daughter soon set off. "Don't watch me!" she yelled back.

My daughter soon set off. “Don’t watch me!” she yelled back.

At this point, she turned around and started running down the block. She turned around, saw me watching her, and yelled “Don’t watch me!”  And then she continued on her way.

I stayed in the front yard, playing T-ball with my younger son, and keeping an eye on both directions.  It would have taken me 5 minutes to walk around the block, but I figured with her smaller legs and more leisurely gait that it would take at least 15 minutes. So I waited.

I’ll admit it, I was a touch nervous.  I had every confidence that she could do it and would be fine, but I still worried a little bit. My biggest fear was not her, but that someone would stop her and decide that she should not be walking down this quiet neighborhood street without a parent holding her hand.

Just when I thought she should have made it back around the corner again, I saw her re-appear from the direction she had come, walking along with a woman and her dog.  My daughter had a big smile on her face.

When she got to me, I asked her what happened… wasn’t she going to walk around the block?  She grinned and said, “I was, but then I met this nice dog and made friends.”

I eventually worked out in conversation with the woman that she had made it about 3/4 of the way around the block before meeting the lady and the nice dog and deciding to go back the other way.  The woman explained that she asked my daughter where she was going, and she explained “grandma’s house.”

Okay, so not quite what I was hoping for, but not bad either. My daughter had an “adventure” where she was in charge of deciding where to go. She made appropriate decisions, trusted her instincts, and got back home just fine.  All good lessons.


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Give Gmail its own app in the OS X Dock, including badges and notifications

I love gmail, but it can be a bit of a pain at times since it is trapped inside of a browser tab, especially if you are using multiple gmail accounts simultaneously. Google has worked hard to improve the experience (Chrome, Safari, and Firefox now support desktop notifications, and you can run different gmail accounts in different tabs), but it still fell short of what I wanted.

One problem with having gmail as a tab in a browser is that it is very challenging to switch back and forth between gmail and another app. I often need to jump back and forth a few times between what I was working on and gmail as I compose the message. I can use command-tab to do the switching, but when I go to Chrome, it takes me to whatever browser tab I was looking at most recently, not necessarily gmail.

Even worse, if the app I am switching back and forth between is Chrome itself, I’m stuck. Command-tab only switches between applications. I can use command-tilde to switch between browser windows, but if gmail is just a tab within the same window, it’s a real pain. I have to keep looking at what tab I’m on and what tab I need to get back to and think about where I need to click. It breaks my train of thought and prevents me from using muscle memory.

I could solve that by using two browsers (e.g. Safari for gmail and Chrome for my regular web browsing), but it still doesn’t take me all the way there. I want a badge icon that shows me how many unread messages gmail has so that I know I have a message that I need to respond to in case I miss the desktop notification.

I spent sometime looking at dedicated mail apps. My first stop was Apple’s built-in mail application. However, I quickly found that it didn’t work very well with gmail in Mavericks. It kept trying to synchronize drafts and sent mail folders as I was writing messages, incorrectly marking items as unread. I then looked at other apps like Postbox, but I just couldn’t reconcile myself with the interfaces. They handled marking messages read or unread a bit differently, or I found the UI for reading threads confusing.

Really what I wanted was gmail itself. Google already had a UI that I liked. I just wanted it in its own app. I have used a tool called CreateCgApp to give Chrome pages their own apps before, but it lacked a few key features. It had no ability to give a badge icon based on the number of unread messages (this was key for me), and ever since updating to Mavericks, it didn’t work quite right. OS X would sometimes get confused between the apps and Chrome itself, and upload file selection dialog was sometimes off screen.

Perhaps someone else had solved this problem? After searching around for a bit, I found the answer was yes! There is an app called Fluid that is built on the same principle as CreateCgApp, except it uses Safari as the base browser. It adds several key scripting features that allow it to perform special tricks like a badge icon. When browsing in Gmail, it looks inside the page for the unread message count and updates the badge icon accordingly. While the app defaults to using the website’s favicon, you can also provide your own.

Fluid finds the unread message count inside the gmail page and updates the dock badge accordingly.

Fluid finds the unread message count inside the gmail page and updates the dock badge accordingly.

There is a free version of Fluid that will give you the basic app, but paying $5 gives you a few key features. First, it activates the scripting module necessary for the badge icon to function. Second, it allows each Fluid app to have its own set of cookies, separate from Safari. This is important if you want to run multiple Fluid apps for different gmail accounts.

The last thing you need to do to tie it together is turn on desktop notifications in gmail’s settings. Once you do this, new message notifications will pop up in notification center.

New mail notifications pop up in the OS X notification center, using whatever icon you have selected for the app.

New mail notifications pop up in the OS X notification center, using whatever icon you have selected for the app.

Since I use two gmail accounts simultaneously, I have created two versions of the Fluid app for gmail. To keep them straight, I gave my personal account the classic “Red” gmail icon, but I created a “Blue” version for my work related account. Notifications are smart enough to show the right icon for each version, so I can quickly see what account a new message is associated with. If you would like to use my icons, you can download them using these links: red and blue. The red one I downloaded straight off the web, and then I modified it in Gimp to create the blue one.

The system works great, but I did run into one strange issue. For some reason, my gmail app would get stuck into some bug that would cause them to keep logging out. It would log in fine, but then when I started a new message, it would take me back to the login screen. It seemed to be associated with creating another Fluid app, but I’m not sure why. I’ve found that deleting the app and recreating it makes this problem go away.

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FaceTime in the car for the ultimate GPS

One of the recurring themes in my marriage to my wife Aviva is her getting lost and calling me for help. When this started almost 16 years ago, she was new to Boston and had a job that required driving around the city and its surrounding communities.  This was before GPS, and Google Maps wasn’t going to be invented for another eight years. We bought her a cell phone (a big, heavy thing the size and weight of a small water bottle), and I kept a big book of maps in my office so that she could call for help if she got lost.

She got lost a lot.

Each time, we would go through an arduous process of her trying to explain where she was.  I would frantically hunt for the street she was on.  Once I found it, we needed to figure out the cross street, and then finally what direction she was facing.  She always left at least an extra half hour so that she had time to get lost. I tried to generally be aware of her meeting schedule so that I could make sure I was near a phone if needed.

Over the years, these phone calls have become a lot less frequent.  She gradually learned her way around, and then GPS technology became common place.  I was thrilled when Apple rolled out their “Find My Friends” technology, since it could tell me what I always wanted to know in these situations… where she was! Of course, the phones now had GPS built-in, so she hardly ever needed help anymore.

Until last week.

Our son needed to go to see an orthopedist to have the cast on his arm removed. I had taken him when he first injured himself, so I had already been to the doctor’s office in nearby Assembly Square in Somerville.  It’s a confusing knot of streets, but I have been the nearby Home Depot many times and knew my way around.

I was supposed to be taking him for the cast removal too, but due to a rescheduling conflict, my wife was doing it instead. I was worried. The office is in one of these big industrial buildings whose street address had no real relationship to where the parking lot was. The GPS would get her nearby the building, but not actually…there.

Before they left, I pulled up a 3D satellite model on my iPad. I showed her what the building looked like and pointed out a small side street that she would need to turn down to find her way to the parking lot. I figured she would be fine.

And then, 25 minutes later I got the call. She was lost and couldn’t find the building.

“Hang on, let me locate you,” I told her as I pulled up “Find My Friends” on my iPhone. Sure enough, I saw that she had missed the side street and was now on the wrong side of the block.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “Take your next right onto New Street and you’ll find the parking lot.” Then I hung up.

But, a few minutes later, she called back.  There was no sign marked New Street, and she claimed to be on Revolution street, which according to Google Maps didn’t even intersect the street she had been on.  We fumbled back and forth for a while, trying to figure out where she was exactly and where she would need to go.

Finally, out of desperation, I told her to pull over and start a FaceTime video call so I could literally see exactly where she was. I had her slowly pan the camera around until I saw a building off in the distance that looked right.  “There!” I said.  “Right next to the movie theater.  That’s where you want to go.”

But I wasn’t 100% sure she would get there.  Then I had an idea.  “Tell you what – just leave the FaceTime call going. Put the phone in the mount and I can see what you see.”

We have a Kensington dashboard mount for our phones so that they can be easily visible when being used as a GPS. While they aren’t designed to be a dashboard cam, it does hold the phone’s camera so that it is pointing towards the road ahead. Half of my view was taken up by the dashboard, but I could generally see where she was going.

While not intended to be used as dashboard cam, the phone's camera showed me the general road and features ahead.

While not intended to be used as dashboard cam, the phone’s camera showed me the general road and features ahead.

As I watched her drive, I took over the role of the GPS lady but giving even more precise directions.

“Turn right here.”

“See where that truck is pulling out? That’s the parking lot you want to pull into.”

“That doorway you just passed is the entrance to the office. Park anywhere you can find a spot.”

And she was there, with five minutes still left before the appointment.

I felt just like the voice of KITT in Knight Rider. Just like old times.

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Shortcut: trick a kid into taking her medicine with developmental psychology

This was a simple little trick to get a kid to take her medicine, but it worked so well, I thought it was worth sharing.

My six-year-old daughter Ayelet was sent home from school with a fever on Tuesday. They gave her some tylenol which seemed to get it under control, and by the next morning she was mostly better. However, she still had a mild fever, so we kept her home Wednesday out of an abundance of caution (and the fear of being “that parent” that sends their sick kid back to school).

By Thursday, she was back at 100% and definitely ready to go back. I just wanted to make sure she took one last dose of Ibuprofen before going in case she had any mild residual fever. According to the packaging, she needed to take a 2 tsp dose at age six, so I measured it out and handed it to her.

2 tsp isn't a lot of medicine, but it fills up the measuring spoon.

2 tsp isn’t a lot of medicine, but it fills up the measuring spoon.

And thus began the standoff.

“It’s too much!” she wailed.

“Ayelet, it’s just two teaspons!”

“But I don’t like it! I can’t drink that much!”

And around and around we went. I suggested just taking small sips. I suggested just guzzling it down and getting it over quickly. She wouldn’t budge. The argument dragged out for over five minutes. I needed her to take her medicine, finish her breakfast, and get in the car to go to school, and we needed to move past this quickly.

Then, I had a sudden flashback to my 9th grade geometry class. I don’t remember why it came up, but the teacher mentioned that kids of a certain age don’t have a proper sense of volume. Adults understand that 10 milliliters of liquid is always the same amount, no matter what container you put it in, but kids will think that narrow container has more because the liquid rises higher.

Ayelet has reacting to the fact that it was too much medicine. Was she old enough to know that the volume was the same if I put it into a different container? Was this random factoid from 9th grade even true?

As my daughter watched me, I grabbed a juice glass from the cabinet and poured the medicine in. It formed a tiny puddle at the bottom of the much wider cup.

2 teaspoons fills the measuring spoon, but it just forms a tiny puddle in the much wider juice glass

2 teaspoons fills the measuring spoon, but it just forms a tiny puddle in the much wider juice glass

“Here,” I said as I handed it to her. “It’s just tiny bit.”

“Okay,” she said, and gulped it down.

Hmm. I guess my geometry teacher was right. Problem solved.

I went and looked it up, and it’s true. The concept is called “Conservation of liquid and number”, and the ability kicks in at around age seven. Ayelet was still young enough for the trick to work. In another year, I might be out of luck.

Normally I am all about teaching my kids about science, but perhaps I’ll keep this one a secret until they are a little older.

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