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Raising kids in an online world

My wife and I have had many discussions of late about how best to raise kids in an increasingly connected world. What I would like to share with you is how much change we’ve seen since we became parents nearly 20 years ago and some of the things we’ve done in order to make it all work.

A Little Background
All of my children grew up around computers and have had my hand-me-down machines in their rooms since a very early age. Since my oldest is now 19 and off in college, that means that a lot of their exposure pre-dated Internet access.

Initially having a computer in their room meant getting them educational software and games that helped with reading, geography and math. One of their favorites was the old Oregon Trail game; as a history teacher my wife loved those types of titles. Giving my kids extensive access to computers at an early age meant providing them with an advantage that I knew would help them later in life.

Connectivity Comes Along
In the late 90s I retrofitted our house with the wiring needed to connect all of our machines together, extending my basement LAN to the rest of the house. Now my kids could print their work out on the shared laser printer parked downstairs. Over time I began to let my kids gain access to the web, giving them tips for finding things through Alta-Vista and later Google.

With that connectivity came the first stages of our kids connecting to their friends through their computers. First off was e-mail, which didn't really work out that great with my kids. Too few of their friends had e-mail addresses and other than a couple of token e-mails to grandparents on the other side of the country not much changed for them.

Next came AIM, which my kids took to like ducks to water. During the time frame we allowed our kids to use AIM (after homework, before bed) you could hear a nearly constant pinging sound as they chatted up their friends. After that came MySpace and they were building up their personal profiles and communicating through that. Finally came FaceBook, which has basically become the primary way my kids plan to get together with their friends and share pictures.

Enter the Mobile Phone
I bought my kids their own mobile phones when they became teenagers, mainly so that we could give them the freedom they desired (and earned), yet satisfy our need to know where they were and be able to get in touch with them quickly. Initially I worried about how many minutes my kids would use and went with a large plan. Well, it turns out that was not a problem because my kids barely even talk on their mobile phones. Instead they text. A lot.

I’ve personally never been a huge fan of text messaging; often I can handle my communication needs by simply talking to someone on that same phone much more quickly. My text messaging tends to be quick, short blasts, not ongoing dialog. With my kids it’s much different however, especially with my youngest daughter. She can text using the phone’s shortcuts at a rate that rivals what many people can do with a full keyboard.

Parenting: Still a Contact Sport
So clearly in the time that I’ve been a parent the mediums of communication have changed dramatically, both for the better and the worse. On the bright side my kids have been exposed to—and become very comfortable with—much of the technology that drives business. My wife and I love being able to get in touch with our kids wherever they happen to be, helping us feel confident that they are safe. My kids have been able to easily maintain relationships with friends and family all over the country.

The information they need for school is instantly accessible. My youngest daughter’s school text books are available online through her school’s web portal, allowing her to quickly search for information. My son’s homework assignments can be found online and my oldest daughter at Virginia Tech can handle a large portion of her workload through a variety of web access points.

There is a downside however. I am always concerned about the content my kids view online. My wife and I are very active parents, talking to our kids regularly about what is and isn’t appropriate on the web. We have taken an “over the shoulder” approach to our kids, not monitoring logs or installing software like Net Nanny. The technique that’s worked for us has been pushing on our kids that we trust them, and that in return for that trust they need to act responsibly while online. I don’t think that works for everyone but it has worked well for us.

Of course occasionally our kids stray off the path and do something we do not approve of. This becomes an active parenting opportunity for us and if our kids don’t seem to “get it”, we’ve found a powerful form of punishment; simply take the offending device away for a while. I’m not a fan of physical punishment with my kids and this technique has worked extremely well.

Change Happens
If I have learned anything about being a parent in a pro-technology environment it's that the same value system you have for the real world needs to be extended into the technology world. When I started down the path of parenthood the Internet wasn't even accessible for the average person. Now internet access, social networking and instant communications are ubiquitous.

I share this information not because I think I have the answers on how best to raise kids in today's online environment. If anything, being a father for nearly 20 years has taught me tremendous humility; with such rapid advances in technology and collaboration everything is changing so quickly that I feel I'm aiming at a moving target.

My goal with this post was to open a dialog on raising kids in a connected world. If you’ve been through what I’ve been through, what has worked for you? If you are a young person fresh into adulthood what did your parents do right or wrong from your perspective? Know of a good resource for parents of children to turn to for figuring out how to pull this off? Please drop a note in the comments below.

RegistryScan.cc tells my Mac I have a Windows Malware infection

I was happily working along this afternoon when suddenly I received a Skype pop-up text message. I rarely use Skype for text messaging, sticking with Adium for that. It's usually some Skype SPAM asking me to come to some lonely woman's web page to see pictures of her. This time the message looked pretty ominous:

Obviously this is just a SPAM attempt to get someone to jump over to a web site. Kind of tough for my Mac running Leopard to get a Registry hack installed. At the bottom of the message was a link to go to the offending site:

http://www.registryscan.cc/?q=scan

Out of curiosity I decided to jump over and take a look at the page. I'm running a Mac and it was pretty clear this was targeting Windows machines. What I got was this:


Just trying to navigate away from the site presented me with this little pop-up:


What do I love about all of this? Let's see:
  • The animation leading up to the above screen shot looks like a Windows progress dialog
  • The Windows XP style dialogs were very nicely done
  • The ScanAlert motto: Making the web Hacker Safe! (technically doesn't that mean it's making it safe for hackers???)
  • The line "You PC is still with spyware!" makes me think a LOLCat is responsible
  • That I'm running a Mac
Needless to say the people that pull this crap need to be removed from the Internet. Funny thing is I did a quick search and found this reference to the problem on a Microsoft discussion forum where a Windows user fell for it. There's even a blog post from nearly a month ago from Alex Eckleberry identifying this same site and issue, yet it's still running around today.

Anyone out there know how to stop people like this? Is there a good place to report this kind of behavior? I can see non-technical people falling hard for things like this.

Making the Logitech Harmony 620 remote work with a Mac

I was buying a couple of items at my local Costco yesterday and saw the Logitech Harmony 620 sitting in a display for $99. I had been wanting a decent all-in-one remote that would help me integrate my primary entertainment set up down in my basement. The equipment is a bit dated but works very well, the only problem being the plethora of remotes that I need in order to make it all work properly.

What looked interesting about this particular device was that it had a USB connector on it and would allow me to program it with my PC. This beat the old process I had to go through on a previous all-in-one remote that required a series of numeric entries into the keypad that felt like a game of Twister for my fingers.

The packaging on the 620 indicated that it supported a Mac so I made the impulse decision to buy it. Turns out I could have saved myself $10 by buying it from Amazon/Target but I didn't feel like driving back and returning it over $10. Once I managed to extract the device from the blister pack it came in—no small feat mind you—I followed the gigantic fold out instructions and popped the included CD into my MacBook Pro.

Mistake 1: Don't use the software that comes with it
I really wish the Logitech people would get their software act together, especially on the Mac side of the house. The software that shipped with the 620 was version 7.3.2. I detest software that requires a reboot on installation and this one required two, meaning I downright despised it. I seriously considered taking it back to Costco at that point but kept plugging through.

Once the software was installed I followed the on-screen instructions and plugged the USB cable from my MacBook Pro to the remote. The software failed to recognize that the remote was plugged in. I tried the other USB port on my Mac, tried using a different USB cable and even went through the series of incantations that usually help me cure technical problems to no avail. It simply wouldn't recognize the device.

I ended up removing the batteries from the remote and plugged it into my Mac to see what would happen. The remote came to life, drawing power from the USB port, though the software still failed to recognize it. At least I knew the connection was good and that it was likely either defective software or a bad remote. Given Logitech's reputation I was banking on defective software.

Mistake 2: Don't assume the Logitech site will help you
I immediately jumped on the Logitech site to see if I could find some troubleshooting information on this. Unfortunately the Logitech site doesn't even have the Harmony 620 listed as a product from them! This led me to conduct a more exhaustive search on the web to find out what was going on. It turns out the 620 is functionally identical to the Harmony 670, which was on the Logitech site.

I deleted the old copy of the Harmony software that I had previously installed and downloaded the latest version directly from the Logitech Support site. They have rebuilt the software quite well and it now installed without requiring a reboot and it recognized the remote right away.

The only catch in all of this was that I expected the remote to actively display that it was connected to my Mac through the USB port but it did not, or if it did it was so quick on the little remote LCD display that I missed it.

Configuring the Harmony
Once the software was installed and running it took a little while to get it properly configured with my devices. I entered in the name / model number for my TV, PVR, Receiver and DVD player and it seemed to recognize them fine. I even added in the xBox 360 and Wii that we have hooked up to everything. The 620 was able to power up the xBox but could not handle the Wii since that apparently requires a Bluetooth connection.

Once it knows your devices you can walk through a wizard interface that handles what device needs to be set to which input and what should and should not be powered on for each task. After going through the hell of getting the software to work properly with the remote this portion seemed to work great.


The Remote Hardware
Using the Harmony 620 is actually pretty nice. It's got a very comfortable peanut shape much like the Tivo remotes I favored when that was my PVR of choice. With one exception the buttons are well placed, easy to "feel" for in a dark room and reasonably well lit after pushing the little "glow" button.

The only button that caught me a couple of times was the Stop button, which is located directly above the rewind button. It was a little too easy to hit that while jumping back and forth on my PVR, which would pull me completely out of the show I was watching and require I navigate back to it.

That little quirk aside I love that I now hit a single button and all of my inputs are properly set and I can jump between watching TV, a DVD or playing a game. One single button push on one single remote. The only thing missing is one of those little chains like they have at banks for their precious pens so that my kids won't accidentally hide it.

I'm not much of an audio or videophile so this was more of a layman's perspective on setting this up and making it work. I actually wrote all of this down because of the problems I experienced in getting it all to work and the fact that I didn't find solutions in one single place on the web. If you happen to buy a Logitech Harmony 620 and have a Mac, hopefully this post will be of help to you. Logitech, please get your software act together! I love your hardware but experiences like this one make it difficult to recommend your equipment. At a minimum you should list ALL of your products on your web site.

If you happen to use/recommend a good, inexpensive universal remote please note it in the comments.

Getting the most out of Spaces on a dual monitor Mac Pro

Ever since I switched from Windows to Mac over 9 months ago I've been obsessed with making myself as productive as possible in OS X. Without question one of my favorite features is Spaces, the multi-desktop feature for Leopard. Here is how I've set up my environment to make the most out of it.

Hardware First
My primary workstation is a Mac Pro with 12GB of RAM and several TB of disk space. In addition I have two monitors attached (Samsung SyncMaster 204B), which gives me an effective 3200x1200 of desktop real estate. In my opinion you can't have too much RAM, disk space or more importantly screen real estate.



The other thing that I've found extremely helpful for me was using a decent multi-button mouse. In my case I'm using the one from my older Windows XP gaming rig, a Logitech MX 510 Optical Gaming Mouse. The best part of it for me is that I've set the additional button below the mouse wheel to activate Spaces, making it really easy to quickly access the list of windows and select something. Since the Logitech drivers are buggy I purchased a license for Steermouse, which gives me all of the mapping functionality I need to map buttons in OS X.

Arranging Spaces
I use Spaces by breaking my windows up into work areas for specific classes of tasks. In this way when I am in that work area most of what I need is visible. In some cases I want minimal distraction and in others I use the Space as a view into one of many conduits of information.

Spaces can handle a rather large number of virtual desktops but the number I've found that works best for me is 12: 4 rows of 3 spaces each:



Here is how I've broken mine up:

Web and NewsiTunesOpen
CommunicationsDocumentationVMware Win XP
DevelopmentDesignOpen
iPhotoWord ProcessingOpen

Since I rarely shut down my Mac (I simply put it to sleep), I have many of these applications available as soon as I need them. This is of course one of the primary advantages of having 12GB of RAM. Here's how each one of these spaces works out:

Web and News
My primary web browser is Firefox and NetNewsWire is my news reader. I'll have multiple tabs open in my browser and use it when I'm doing research or catching up on the day's news. This is one of those distraction zones and I try to be regimented about how much of my time I spend here.

iTunes
Since I sync up my iPhone frequently and often like to have music playing in the background, iTunes gets it's own Space. I rarely spend any time in this particular space.

Communications
I try to keep all of my direct incoming and outgoing communications in one place and that's what this rather crowded Space does for me. I run the standard Mac Mail.app in the left monitor and in the right I have Adium, Skype and TweetDeck active. I also have a small TextEdit window open where I jot down notes and thoughts. I just started using TweetDeck today but have already become quite attached to it. Great way to stay on top of my expanding Twitter feed.

Documentation
I always seem to be referencing PDF documentation on a regular basis. Today I've got a PayPal API document and an Active Merchant tutorial I am going through. Since these two are going hand in hand for what I'm working on I have them both up. Normally I have a single PDF up in this space; I'll mute the speakers, shut off my Growl notifications and music and focus on reading. It's a bit like entering a library to me.

Windows XP
Though I rarely use it any longer I tend to keep a Windows XP instance up and running in a VMware Fusion virtual machine. My primary need for it now is to load up Internet Explorer and check how the web based application I am building looks on it.

Development
Lately this is where I've been spending most of my time as I get ready to launch my next business. I've been doing the work in Ruby on Rails and as a result keep a couple of different windows up and running in here. On the left monitor I have TextMate up as my editor of choice.

In the right monitor I have a standard OS X Terminal window up with several tabs inside of it. A background tab has my active Mongrel instance running the development version of my application and the foreground tab is ready to accept commands.

I use Safari as my web browser for local application testing and may have several tabs for documentation open in it as well. Since I use MySql as my primary database I keep a MySql Query Browser handy with my development database loaded in case I want to make quick changes to the data set. This is rounded out with a TextEdit window that contains a list of issues and notes for what I am working on.

Design
This Space is reserved for OmniGraffle Pro. Since it has lots of additional windows and pallets I tend to let it take over both monitors. I use OmniGraffle for mocking up wire-frames of my application pages and working through flow charts for application logic.

iPhoto
Though I don't keep it open all the time I do have a dedicated space for iPhoto, mainly because I let it take over one monitor while I have Finder windows open in the other if I am moving pictures to different media for transfer or import. I'll also do my editing with Gimp in that Space.

Word Processing
I've become quite fond of Pages because of it's simplicity and have a Space dedicated to the times when I am in letter writing "mode" or creating marketing materials.

As you can see I also maintain a few open Spaces that I can jump to if I have some application or task that falls outside of my pre-defined areas. The benefit to all of this is that I can jump into a Space and focus on the task at hand. If I have the mouse in hand I'll press the button for Spaces and just click on the area I want to be in. If I'm in keyboard mode I'll usually press Command-Tab and pop to the application I need, which will also switch the Space for me.

I use a similar setup on my MacBook Pro, though since it is a single monitor and used primarily when I travel or am in a meeting I have it set up very differently. The principles however are the same: group applications into Spaces based on the mode of work I want to be in.

As a high-tech entrepreneur I have a tendency to be running at top speed throughout the day. Over the years I have learned how to multi-task well, allowing myself to flow from one task to the other when the situation warrants it but shutting down music, alerts and external distractions when I need to focus on deep tasks. The set up I have created with Spaces works great for me and I feel considerably more productive than I did back in the old days with multiple layered windows competing for my attention.

Do you juggle multiple applications at once or try to keep one application running at a time? Have a better way to keep your applications running smoothly? Please drop a note in the comments.

iShowU HD - capture that video easily

Have you ever wanted to capture video that you see online? Say for example you want to capture a highlight play on NFL.COM—which has some very high quality video clips online—integrating the results into your own video. I was looking for just such a solution the other day and found iShowU HD, a nice little application that can capture virtually any video you can view on your Mac, including Flash based videos from YouTube, etc.

Using the application is pretty straightforward - just set the video capture area, the quality of the output video, click the Record button and off you go:


iShowU HD also provides a way to put together basic screencasts, capturing either the entire screen or just a portion of it while scrolling the viewport with the mouse movement. It can display mouse clicks with a radar-like circle animation and audible click.

The only problem I've had with it was that recording audio (narrating my video capture) had a technical problem with my USB based microphone; it only recorded to the left channel. Shiny White Box—the manufacturers of the software—assured me that a fix would be coming for that within the next month. Fortunately the built in mic on my MacBook Pro doesn't have the problem so I can work around it for now.

For $30 it's a nice little piece of software. I haven't done too much research on the topic so if you're aware of a good piece of video capture technology—including something for making screencasts—please drop a note in the comments.