Christina Tynan-Wood

Surviving a Cross-Country Road Trip with the Husband, Two Quarrelsome Teens and a Dog

Written on August 5, 2014 at 12:18 pm , by

 

“We could pull a Thelma and Louise right here, Mom.” Ava (15) was pointing to the precipice falling away into oblivion before our car.

“I was about to say that!” I answered.

We were climbing into the mountains on our way out of Death Valley, six days into our own epic, life-changing road trip, and relocating from North Carolina to California. Everyone—well, mostly my teenagers—had expressed no small amount of anxiety about our ability to get along in a car for that long. When informed that we planned to drive cross-country with two quarrelsome teens and 60 pounds of stubborn canine anxiety, a few people had suggested that our chances of ending in mayhem and bloodshed were high.

At least one of the trip’s detractors was in the car with us. “I’m dreading this,” Cole (17) had said the night before our departure. “Ten days in a car with my family. What could be worse?”

I didn’t voice my fears but I certainly had them. My kids are so skilled at bickering they could have coached Liz Taylor and Richard Burton for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. My husband, Dan, and I had just packed all our earthly belongings into a moving container, a herculean effort that had left us teetering close to Taylor-and-Burton territory ourselves. I’m aware that moving has a stress quotient that’s right up there with divorce. Was I crazy to think that throwing this road trip on top of the move wouldn’t cause one to lead to the other?

“Maybe we’ll have fun,” the Pollyanna voice in my head ventured.

So I overprepared. I made sure everyone had a working smartphone with data, a tablet and headphones. I made sure the kids downloaded books, movies and music to those devices before we left in case we found ourselves without cell service or Wi-Fi. GM had loaned me a Buick Enclave for the journey as part of its Buick Bucket List campaign. It sports plenty of charging ports, video monitors and space as well as some serious creature comforts, such as heated and cooled seats. The dog would have the third row and each teen a monitor. We were not planning on suffering. Since this particular car does not sport a Wi-Fi connection (though most cars with OnStar will in the future), we packed a NetGear Mingle so that everyone could get online with their laptops and tablets. When another famously quarrelsome couple (Sir Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke) went searching for the source of the Nile, preparation was essential. I told myself the same was true for us. Preparation didn’t guarantee success—certainly not for Burton and Speke—but the lack of it could mean certain failure.

And here we were, six days later, staring into a (stunningly beautiful) abyss.

We’d had to make a few compromises for the dog, but not many. We were able to find beds, TV and free Wi-Fi in places that let our pet stay with us at every stop. It was pretty easy. We simply limited ourselves to two hotel chains and used the Hotels Tonight app, when possible, to secure rooms at a bargain price. La Quinta hotels are always pet-friendly but, from afar and with only a smartphone, it’s hard to tell the difference between the nice properties and the sketchy ones. Best Westerns usually accept pets and are sometimes (I’m talking about you, Best Western near Zion) exceptionally pleasant. We also like KOA’s Deluxe cabins because they’re as nice as hotel rooms and often pet-friendly, plus they offer more space, including a kitchenette and a separate room for the kids. So, with almost no advance planning, we did fine on accommodations.

We also survived vast deserts that lacked not only water but cell service. We were traveling with our phones on an AT&T plan, a Nokia 2520 tablet with 4G on Verizon, and the Mingle on Sprint’s networks. I now know for certain that all claims by cell companies that they have connected the entire world do not include vast stretches of American mountains, plains and desert. But it didn’t matter. By the time we got past Oklahoma, the need to always be connected had drifted away, along with most of the worries that we wouldn’t get along.

When we got to the New Mexico desert, Cole grabbed the Bluetooth connection to the Enclave’s sound system so that we could all enjoy that landscape to the sound tracks to Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns like A Fistful of Dollars. “Is that atmospheric or what?” he asked as we drove over a bridge with desert as far as the eye could see while a train passed beneath us, Ennio Morricone’s music playing full blast.

We survived my husband’s disastrous attempts at hula hoop in Santa Fe, blistering (115 degrees!) heat in Death Valley, our own bad singing and some terrible food. As a family, we are stronger for it.

It turns out this crazy road trip was an excellent idea. My bickering kids got into only a few scrapes. My husband and I have a blast together when we aren’t working so hard. Our post-move aches and pains were soothed by repeatedly alternating the car’s seats between heated and chilled. We saw a dozen places—Monument Valley, Zion National Park, Death Valley and Memphis among them—that were on my bucket list. And we witnessed a few things that none of us expected or really hoped to see, including the Area 51 Alien Brothel (or the gas station portion of it, anyway) and the Continental Divide fireworks and souvenir store.

As we crested that hill with Death Valley below and only my sane driving decisions keeping us from Thelma-and-Louise oblivion, Ava was not suggesting that we end it all in an apocalyptic blaze. She was demonstrating that we were enjoying each other’s company.

“See,” she answered. “I can read your mind. Love you, Mom!” She smiled at me in the rearview. “Who knows you better than anyone?”

Opening Minds with Skype in the Classroom

Written on July 9, 2014 at 8:00 am , by

Sometimes I’m stunned by the myopic viewpoints my daughter encounters in school, and so is she. I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to help both my kids see past their own small world to understand global issues. We travel as much as we can. We watch programming from other cultures. We read. And we explore the Internet with an eye to the larger, diverse world.

My daughter has described in-class worldviews that are so insular—limited by teachers’ less-expansive experiences—that I’m frustrated. Although I know there are simple technical tools that can transcend those limitations, most teachers look at me with annoyance if I suggest them. I realize that teachers have concerns and time constraints I know nothing about. But I recently sat in on a demonstration at a Skype in the classroom event in New York where teachers from remote, rural and deeply impoverished areas were—for free and using equipment they already have—exposing their students to cultures from all over the globe. Why aren’t my daughter’s teachers doing this?

These teachers—from Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kenya—don’t have any special grants or more time or equipment than anyone else. In fact, they probably have less than most. They just said yes. Then they clicked, chose an expert or classroom to connect with, installed Skype (free) and set up a laptop in their classrooms. That opened up the world for their students, changed the way they teach, and inspired the kids in their classrooms and, often, in classrooms on the other side of the world. Some did group projects with students in other countries, some played 20 questions with kids from a completely different culture, and some connected with thought leaders who let the students ask them questions. All the speakers are invited by Microsoft (and vetted), the connections are teacher-to-teacher so it’s safe for everyone, and there is no cost. Why aren’t my daughter’s teachers doing this?

If the answer is “We don’t have the resources,” I’d like to point out that Jairus Makambi, director of the The Cheery Children Education Centre in the heart of the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, has almost nothing. Kibera is home to about 1.5 million people; it’s one of the largest, poorest slums in the world. But Makambi’s students have had the opportunity to Skype with 70 schools from 30 different countries using only a laptop and a dicey Internet connection. It has opened the eyes of those children to a world beyond the abject poverty they live in and allowed teachers around the globe to help Makambi teach subjects he has neither the materials nor the knowledge to take on. “This experience is phenomenal,” says Makambi. “It is promoting global integration and appreciation of cultures that transcends the trivialities of race while inculcating in our students the spirit of global citizenry that is essential in this rapidly globalizing world.”

Why aren’t my daughter’s teachers doing this?

10 Road-Tested Travel Apps

Written on July 8, 2014 at 10:15 am , by

When our kids were little, my husband Dan and I planned road trips with an attention to detail that likely rivaled General Eisenhower’s strategy to invade Normandy. Not anymore—these days, we hit the highway at the drop of a hat like a pair of carefree teenagers, with our own teens (17 and 15) in tow.

A smartphone and the right apps at our fingertips means there’s very little we can’t tackle as we go. Case in point, our annual climb to the top of the Great Smoky Mountains. A few years ago, we would have started booking rooms weeks in advance. This summer we mapped and reserved almost nothing ahead of time—yet spent less money than ever.

A few days before we left, I bid on a rental car at Priceline.com. (For this getaway, we rent a vehicle substantially bigger than our family car to gain more legroom and space for gear.) Bidding is fast, easy and nets the best price, provided you bid low. That same night, I plotted our driving route using Google Maps and shared the result with my family, so everyone had the info on their phones. Then, on D-day, we just loaded up our bags and got going. Apps bridged the gaps when we needed food, gas or the closest clean bathroom. And when it was time to settle in for the night, booking a room at the last minute was simple and inexpensive— meaning we could rest easy.

What to Download

Create a page on your smartphone and group these mostly free apps together for easy access.

Last Minute Travel Deals (iOS, Android) : Provides access to broker’s prices and last- minute bargains for flights and hotel rooms.

HotelTonight (iOS, Android, Windows Phone): Incredible prices on hotels near where you are or will be. Here’s the catch—although you can scout options beforehand, booking is same-day-only for up to five nights. Embrace the spontaneity to snag awesome deals.

Waze (iOS, Android, Windows Phone)
: When traffic suddenly comes to a halt, Waze can provide insight as to why—it tracks the speed of all nearby smartphone- toting drivers so you can see real-time driving patterns. Often a user posts the reason for the delay, as in, Three-car accident just before Exit Such-and-Such.

Yelp (iOS, Android, Windows Phone): 
Hungry? This app finds nearby food options and shares other diners’ feedback. Just
tap the screen for precise directions to your chosen pit stop.

Eventseeker (iOS, Android, Windows Phone): A source for concerts, museums and other attractions near your location.

Priceline (iOS, Android, Windows Phone): Instead of going to the trouble of shopping around, just bid what you can afford on hotels, flights and rental cars.

Google Maps (iOS, Android): 
A comprehensive navigational tool, including turn-by-turn directions, that incorporates rerouting when needed based on up-to-the-minute traffic info.

ChargePoint (iOS, Android): If you drive an electric vehicle, you’ll want to reserve at a free charging station along your route. (For obvious reasons, it’s best not to leave this to chance!)

SpotHero (iOS, Android): 
Skip the circling and reserve parking at discounts of up to 50% in New York, Boston, Chicago and other select cities.

Parkopedia Parking (iOS, Android, Windows Phone):  Once you’ve arrived, park like a
local by accessing this app’s crowdsourced database on available nearby options.

 

 

 

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5 Geeky Ways to Get Rid of Clutter

Written on June 25, 2014 at 11:00 am , by

I am in the process of moving. I’m excited about my new house, but the move also has me jumpy. Every time I open a closet, I slam it shut in fear. Out-of-date gadgets, clothes that don’t fit, shoes that were a bad idea and broken purses stare back, accusing me of procrastination. They are right. I don’t know where the time in this house went, but I clearly didn’t spend enough of it disposing of crap I no longer want or need.

I’m not alone. According a new Intel survey, almost half of Americans (47%) keep outdated tech devices long after they are useful. And according to a recent “spring cleaning” survey by used electronics marketplace uSell.com, 68% of U.S. residents suffer from “compulsive gadget hoarding.”

We don’t keep this stuff because we love it and hate to part with it. We keep it because it’s too much trouble to get rid of it, we have sensitive data on old devices that we can’t be bothered to fetch, and we’d rather clean a toilet than wipe those devices clean of that info. It’s the same thing with the worn-out handbagsshoes that looked sexy in the catalog but not so much on a closet shelf, and kitchen gadgets that haven’t been used since the term “gluten” became synonymous with evil.

But reckoning day is here. At least for me. According to Nik Raman, chief operating officer of uSell.com, the trick to getting past my fear of this overwhelming chore is to focus on one item at a time. And I knew just the item. My husband has been hauling around a suitcase-size backgammon board since we met. Inspired by a survey from moving marketing company Our Town America that found that one in three movers admitted to “accidentally losing” a significant other’s prized possession, I started my donation box with the backgammon board. That felt good. Next, since money is a great motivator, I decided to focus on getting rid of junk that someone would pay money for. I started this project three weeks ago. Today my house is nearly Spartan and my wallet fat with cash. I can’t understand why I held on to that stuff for so long. I had a good time getting rid of it and I’ll have a good time spending this cash.

Here are my top 5 strategies for getting rid of junk—and turning some of it into cash or nice new things.

eBay App

I had some kitchen appliances that I hadn’t used in ages which are popular on eBay and not prohibitively expensive to ship. I spread them out on my counter, snapped photos with my smartphone and, with a few taps on my phone, listed them on eBay. Then I put the appliances back in the cupboard. A week and a trip to FedEx later, I was not only $100 richer, with room in my cupboards, but I was also getting happy notes from people who were enjoying those neglected appliances. Fun!

Craigslist

I kept a couch I wanted to replace for two years because it was too much trouble to get rid of. I’d called the Salvation Army, but they wouldn’t take it since it had a small tear in the seat. This, however, is what Craigslist is for. Using the cPro Craigslist app (Apple App Store or Google Play), I took a few pictures of the couch, listed it as “Free” and waited. Within a day, someone took it away in a truck, thrilled to have a beater for the playroom that his kids could jump on. That went so well that I walked through my house snapping pictures of all the furniture I don’t want to move and adding prices and clever descriptions. Every few days, someone shows up, hands me cash, chats for a bit and happily carries off my detritus.

Glyde.com

My son went on a phone-dropping spree, which resulted in a useless smartphone sitting on my desk. He had priced replacing the screen and found out it was cheaper to replace the phone. But used marketplace Glyde claimed that it could sell even a broken smartphone. I entered the model and was honest about its shattered screen. A few minutes later, the phone sold for $45. A few days later, a shipping box showed up in the mail and I dropped the phone in and sent it off.

Twice

Next stop, my closet. It was crammed with clothes that haven’t fit me since I lost those pounds I don’t want back. Some of them were nice labels, though, so I requested a shipping bag from LikeTwice.com. This site buys clean, quality clothing and resells it online. I filled the bag with clean clothes in good shape and dropped it off at the post office. A week later, the site told me I had money to spend. When I get to my new house, I’ll order a few new things that fit.

Amazon

I had a used smartphone that was too old—or perhaps too obscure a brand?— for Glyde or uSell.com. On Amazon, I clicked “Have one to sell?” after looking up the model. I didn’t even have to take a picture. I just typed in its condition and the price I wanted for it. It sold within the hour.

 

Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at GeekGirlfriends.com.

Use Twitter to Get Quality Customer Service

Written on June 10, 2014 at 7:00 am , by

There I was at the airport, in a long line of jet-lagged travelers that was devolving into an angry mob before my eyes. All outbound flights had been grounded by weather, so none of us were going anywhere in the near future—and the customer service reps were starting to come unglued. I called my husband, Dan, to warn him I was stuck before dialing United Airlines to try to bypass the chaos and rebook my flight home. Dan hit Twitter. While I waited on hold, he engaged in a productive back-and-forth with @united, learning that my best option was to book a hotel and accept a voucher for a future flight. Dan texted me this update and I snagged a room lightning-fast, before they were all gone.

Using Twitter to get quick, courteous customer service is one of the best reasons to maintain an account on the social media site. Because these interactions unfold in a public forum, companies know their reputation is always on the line. Therefore, they tend to staff their Twitter accounts with reps trained to listen attentively and resolve issues on the double. Lately, I’ve been seeing more and more users Tweet complaints and get results—even possibly incite change.

For instance, I watched a Safeway (@Safeway) customer post that an advertised sale price was no longer ringing up at her local store and get a reply the next morning honoring the lower price. A Chico’s (@Chicos) shopper who complained that shipping to Canada cost too much was promised that the policy would be reviewed. A Whole Foods (@WholeFoods) customer who expressed distaste for her store’s plastic take-out containers was informed that packaging decisions are made by local management. Of course, people also visit the Twittersphere to praise products and businesses (which is a nice thing to do). But more often, it’s the best way to circumvent lengthy hold times. Case in point: When General Motors (@GM) recalled cars because of a faulty ignition switch earlier this year, one woman bypassed phone support by Tweeting instead, and her problem was soon addressed. Bottom line: These days, if you have something to say to a company, Twitter is the smartest place to do so.

 

Speak Up!

Twitter communications director Rachael Horwitz sums it up perfectly: “Twitter is public, so brands are listening.” Keep her advice in mind when you try Tweeting for service satisfaction.

Address the right audience. You post a Tweet to a company by using their Twitter handle, which always starts with @. To find the correct handle, type the name in the search field on the home page.

Be concise. Remember that you only have 140 characters to get your message across. Composing a Tweet is the modern equivalent of sending a telegram. Skip any unnecessary preamble. Include only key details.

Follow along. While Tweets are public, there is an option to continue a conversation privately within the Twitter platform, through the Direct Message (DM) function. In order to do so, both parties must be following each other. If a company’s customer service rep asks you to follow them, this is likely why. (It’s often a good sign.)

Don’t wear egg on your face. If you set up a new Twitter account, be aware that the default icon is an egg, which displays in your profile and Tweets. To avoid screaming newbie, change that icon right away. “It doesn’t really matter whether you have a lot of followers,” says Horwitz. “But companies are more inclined to take tweets seriously from someone who seems engaged with Twitter. So you should create a profile to convey that.”

Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at GeekGirlfriends.com.

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A Grassroots Effort to Bring Computer Science to Your Teen’s School

Written on May 22, 2014 at 11:18 am , by

Family Circle editor Jonna Gallo and I were on a whirlwind tour of the Microsoft campus. As it happened, there was also a field trip under way: Busloads of high school students who had learned programming through Microsoft’s TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) program, were enjoying a full day of activities.

The TEALS program, which puts Microsoft computer scientists and engineers in high schools across the U.S. to teach computer science, started with just a few volunteers. It’s been growing rapidly, nearly doubling in size this school year, offering classes in 70 schools in 12 states to more than 3,000 students.

“Do you want to look in on the YouthSpark app-building competition?” Lindsey, our handler, asked. “Sure!” Jonna and I agreed. I imagined we’d be lurking in the back of a computer lab while students worked quietly and teachers helped. What we walked in on was more like a rock festival.

The room was vast and crammed with over 1,000 students settled into friendly clumps on the carpeted floor with phones, tablets and computers. A speaker stood in front of a projector announcing coding challenges. And the kids were having a blast. They knew what they were doing and they were in it to win, laughing, cheering and pumped up by the throbbing music.

“Do you want to talk to one of the students?” Lindsey shouted over the din. I didn’t want to be responsible for any of these kids missing a solve—and a chance to win prizes (which included Xbox One gaming consoles). But somehow I found myself chatting with Justin Austin, a senior from Kentucky. He had enrolled in a TEALS class at his high school. That class came about almost by chance, when a Microsoft engineer on a rock-climbing trip found herself chatting with a local school-board member. There was no one in the county who could teach computer programming. But these days you don’t actually have to be in the room to teach, so a Skype intro to computer science class was born. Justin loved it and wanted more. With only six other students, he signed up for an advanced class, also via Skype from Microsoft. That’s how he came to be coding his way (if these reporters would stop distracting him) into the possibility of some sweet prizes. It’s also a big part of how he got a full ride to the University of Pennsylvania to study computer science.

There may be some debate about the value of teaching computer science in kindergarten, but there’s no doubt it should be offered in high school. Yet in many school districts it’s considered an elective rather than a core subject. That means guidance counselors don’t encourage students to take it, and students who are trying to get mandatory classes under their belt don’t enroll. This has to change at a legislative level. And many states are working on it.

Meanwhile, though, at least the remote approach taken by Justin’s school gives kids access to computer science education. It’s a grassroots effort, but those can be very effective once they get traction. If you’d rather not wait for a vacationing engineer to bring computer science to your school, contact the TEALS program directly at schools@tealsk12.org.

11 Spring Cleaning Tips from the Geeks at Google

Written on May 14, 2014 at 12:00 pm , by

 

In my job, I get to ask some of the biggest geeks in the world to explain the tools and features they build into the consumer electronics we all use. This helps me stay just an inch or two ahead of my teenagers when it comes to knowing how to use a smartphone, tablet or smart TV. After speaking to someone at Google, I introduced them—and my husband—to Google Now. It was on their phones, but they didn’t know about it. Since then, that app has become part of most conversations in our house.

Example: “Do you think that actor is an actual hillbilly?” my husband asks while we are watching Justified. “No, I think he’s a good actor,” I reply. Then I ask my Android phone, which can access Google Now via voice, “Okay, Google, who plays Dewey Crow in Justified?”

The answer: Damon Herriman, an Australian. We are extra impressed with his southern accent.

Another example: “Mom! I need to go to the mall now!” my daughter announces, bursting into the room at 8:45 p.m. “Okay, Google,” I say to my phone, “what time does the mall close?” I hold the phone up to show that her timing makes this impossible. She leaves quietly. And so it goes, throughout the day. Answers, instantly. We all do it. What did we do before?

This app also knows where we are, where we tend to go, what we are planning to do next and offers helpful on-screen info at the time of day or night you most need it: weather, traffic, transit, appointments, flight and hotel details, package shipment information, news articles, TV show reminders and more. It shows places and events nearby, interesting photo spots in case you’d like to check them out, and more. You don’t need an Android phone to use it. It’s free and available on both iPhone and Android (look for the Google Search app), though not all phones let you speak your questions so easily.

In keeping with the theme of making life convenient, I also asked my geeks at Google for their best advice on uncluttering your Gmail—the buildup of inbox messages can be overwhelming. (As you can tell, I like Google products.) Here’s what they came up with:

Gmail Tips from the Geeks

1. NEVER SEND AN ACCIDENTAL EMAIL AGAIN. “Even the best of us sometimes type someone’s name wrong or forget to include an important detail in an email. Undo Send is basically an email mulligan. I set mine to 30 seconds to make sure I have plenty of time to change my mind!” —Alex Gawley, product manager on Gmail

2. MUTE GROUP EMAILS. We’ve all been on an email thread that just keeps popping up (for example, your coworker just shared photos of her new baby and everyone keeps hitting “Reply all” to say “Congrats!”). You can mute the thread by clicking the drop-down arrow at the top of the thread and selecting “Mute.” Don’t worry—muting doesn’t delete, it simply automatically archives the message for you.

3. STOP EMAILING YOURSELF TO-DO LISTS. Be honest: A lot of the emails cluttering your inbox are from yourself, with subject lines like “Remember to turn on dishwasher” and “Buy birthday card for Jackie.” Instead of adding to your unread count, create a task list that appears as a minimizable window in your inbox.  Simply click on “Mail” (right above the “Compose” button) and select “Tasks” to get started. Once you’ve created a list, you can email it by clicking the “Actions” button.   

4. SKIP YOUR INBOX. Keep your Gmail spic-and-span by setting certain emails to automatically skip your inbox and/or go directly to an appropriate folder. For example, you can set any emails from say, your alma mater, to automatically go into your “Alma Mater” folder, where you can read them when you have time. Go to “Settings,” “Filters,” “Create new filter.” After filling in your filter details, hit “Create filter with this search” and mark “Skip the inbox.”

5. MOVE YOUR CHAT BOX. Did you know you can move your chat box to the right side of your inbox? To enable right side chat, go to “Settings,” “Labs,” “Right side chat” and hit “Enable.”

6. CREATE A CALENDAR EVENT RIGHT FROM AN EMAIL. The next time someone emails you about meeting for coffee, you may notice that the day or date in the email is lightly underlined. Click it to create an event in Google Calendar with the relevant details pre-filled. It will even link back to the original email in case you need it for context later.

7. CHECK INTO YOUR FLIGHT FROM GMAIL. Instead of opening emails and digging through them for important information, use Gmail’s quick action buttons to check into your flight, rate a restaurant, go straight to a doc and more. You’ll notice an “RSVP” or “WATCH VIDEO” or “OPEN FILE” when appropriate—just click!

8. DON’T STRESS IF YOU FORGET TO SIGN OUT. While you should always sign out of your Gmail account when accessing it on a public computer, if you ever forget, Gmail has got you covered. You can click “Sign out all other sessions” to sign out anywhere else you are logged into your account.

9. DE-CLUTTER WITHOUT DELETING. “It seems like a simple thing, but a lot of people never fully embrace the power of the ‘Archive’ button. I never file away or delete anything: I just hit ‘Archive.’ If I need to look something up, Search in Gmail always gets me what I need.” —Phil Sharp, product manager on Gmail

10. UNSUBSCRIBE TO UNWANTED EMAILS. “Every time you report spam, Gmail’s spam filter adapts to your definition of unwanted mail and does a better job of catching similar types of messages in the future for you. Plus Gmail will ask you if you want it to unsubscribe you at the same time. Two birds, one stone! So put that ‘Report spam’ button to good use!” —Vijay Eranti, engineer on Gmail’s spam team

11. LOOK AT CUTENESS ALL DAY. “I use Custom Themes to set my Gmail background to a photo of my teammate’s newborn Cavalier King Charles spaniel. Every day, I get to enjoy reading, writing and checking emails while staring into adorable puppy eyes.” —Anissa Mak, product marketing for Gmail

A More Efficient Way to Study for the AP Tests

Written on May 7, 2014 at 12:58 pm , by

We are in the thick of AP testing in my house. The student—Cole—who is facing these exams is not known for his aggressive study habits. One thing I have discovered is that studying for these tests is slippery. This may be why over half the students who take them don’t get a passing grade. And these tests are expensive. Therefore, I did my part: I nagged. I shut off all the distractions I could control. As the day grew nearer, I asked—with increasing desperation—if he was ready. Most of my efforts were met with an unnerving calm and the insistence, “I got it!” So when McGraw-Hill offered me a demo of its AP test prep program SCOREboard ($20 per test), I was in.

First SCOREboard offers a practice test that assesses where your knowledge stands right now. Then it prepares a customized study plan based on what you don’t know. Next it drills you, watching which answers you get right or wrong and asking how confident you are in your answers to determine whether you are guessing. Then you test again (up to four times). It keeps adapting the questions it asks so that you study only what you don’t know. Because, if you’re anything like my teen, you aren’t going to spend enough time on this and you don’t want to waste any of it. SCOREboard sets you up with a study plan that tells you—based on what you don’t know and how quickly you’re learning–how much time to spend studying before test day.

I came upon SCOREboard a bit late in the year for Cole to use it for any more than last-minute cramming. Still, it did give me another tactic to use while I was nagging. Armed with a code to try a practice test, I knocked on his door. “Are you playing video games or studying for your AP science test?” I asked. (I could see he was playing video games.) “I’m doing both,” he tried. “I’m playing video games while I study. But I’ve got it. Calm down.”

“Take this assessment test,” I responded, sending him the link from my phone. “If you do well on it. I’ll calm down and leave you alone with your video game.” That worked. He took the test, sure he’d ace it and get me to leave him alone. But when I came back to check on how it had gone, he was studying. “How’d you do?” I asked, fully aware that the only thing that would make him study was a very poor assessment. “Yeah. I’m studying,” he growled, clearly chastened by a dose of reality.

Cole took his AP test yesterday and believes he did well. Hopefully, that last-minute, targeted cramming helped. (It certainly did more good than the video game.) But we won’t know till July.

If you have a high school student, you might want to bookmark this site now so that you can get a jump on things early when the tests come around again.

Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at GeekGirlfriends.com.

These Kids Aren’t Spoiled: They’re Changing the World

Written on April 16, 2014 at 2:21 pm , by

I think it’s debatable whether todays’ kids are spoiled, overprotected, distracted, game-addicted or less polite than previous generations. That has not been my personal experience with the kids I know. And since the big, splashy, star-studded stage event We Day is currently touring the world, launching a year of social activism for youth called We Act, I happen to have some statistics at hand that I like—and that seem more in keeping with my experience—about today’s kids:

Through their involvement in We Act, over 2 million youngsters have gotten behind local and global causes, volunteered their time, raised money, attended camps to learn how to lead other youth to change the world, and used social media—another often-denigrated modern development—to raise awareness for causes they care about.

These kids have:

• raised $37 million for more than 1,000 local and global causes
• volunteered 9.6 million hours for local and global causes
• collected 4 million pounds of food for local food banks
• logged 7.5 million hours of silence to stand up for children in developing communities who are silenced by poverty and exploitation

It starts with the We Day event, which gets kids pumped up with the message that everyone—no matter how young—can make a difference simply by believing in a cause and doing something about it. Then the site provides schools and families with the resources they need to actually get involved in whatever social change they want to make happen. So maybe, instead of lamenting our kids’ failures (and our own parental mistakes that led there), why not watch the video (above) with them and see what happens?

If kids still doubt they can effect change, point out that We Day and We Act are part of Free the Children, which was founded in 1995 by Craig and Marc Kielburger when Craig was 12 years old. Craig rallied a handful of classmates to rescue children from child labor, and discovered that he could make a difference even though he was himself just a kid. Since then, Craig has become a social entrepreneur, a New York Times bestselling author and a syndicated columnist, and founded a youth organization that has taught 2.3 million young people that they can change the world for the better.

I’m sure there are some spoiled, overprotected kids out there. But they can change. And I can’t get behind this idea that today’s youth aren’t doing anything worthy. They seem like an impressive bunch to me.

Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at GeekGirlfriends.com.

Gamer Moms

Written on April 3, 2014 at 1:35 pm , by

When I met some friends for dinner at a popular restaurant recently, waiting for a table was a given. We all happily used the time to start catching up—except for Annette, who whipped out her smartphone. Hoping to lure her into our group chatter, I teased her a little about being all work and no play. “Oh, this is play,” she said. “My mother lives by herself in Texas, so we do our best to connect every day through Words with Friends.”

Turns out, as gamers, these two are in good company. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 74% of moms play video games, usually on smartphones and mobile devices. Even more surprising: Women over age 18 represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population than boys age 17 or younger. (Hello, Candy Crush Saga!)

Like Annette, I enjoy playing games on my smartphone and tablet. Developers at Zynga (the California-based social game company that racked up 10 million users in six weeks when it debuted FarmVille on Facebook in 2009) say women tend to gravitate to games that suit their personality. Artistic, visually driven types tend to enjoy FarmVille 2: Country Escape (Google Play, iTunes, free for April), in which players create beautiful environments as they complete short quests. Personally, I like logic, trivia, narrative and word games that test my knowledge rather than my reflexes.

For me, a few minutes playing Mah Jong solitaire is a terrific way to recharge my weary brain. So is playing QuizUp (iTunes, free) with a stranger whose total recall of literary character names never ceases to impress me, or clashing vocabulary swords with my game-addicted teen in Wordament. And when all is said and done, let’s just say I’m not averse to passing time by tossing birds at pigs (Angry Birds; all mobile devices) or growing plants to kill the invading horde of zombies (Plants vs. Zombies; Google Play and iTunes, 99 cents).

After all, as the old saying goes, fun is where you find it. And my smartphone is always within reach.

Free SAT Prep Classes

Written on March 26, 2014 at 2:24 pm , by

My kids have frequently used the Khan Academy to improve their grades, catch up on classes and complete their homework. So the announcement (above) that this free online classroom has partnered with the College Board to make SAT prep free to everyone made me very happy.

My son has taken the SAT three times and plans to take it again. Every time he does, he plans to study. But somehow he never manages to get in enough studying before test day. Next time, he won’t be trying to drag himself through a book. And I won’t feel guilty if I can’t afford to buy him an expensive test preparation class. Because, according to David Coleman, CEO of the College Board, the Khan Academy will be the best place to prepare for this exam going forward. “To be clear,” explains Coleman in the above video, “this will be the only place in the world—and free to the world—besides on our own website, that students will be able to encounter materials for the exam that are focused on the core of the math and the literacy that matters most…There will be no other partnerships, so this will be the best there is.”

So that’s where my son will be taking practice tests, watching Sal Khan work through actual SAT questions, retaking tests, practicing with real SAT reading and writing problems provided by the College Board, and doing it all from whatever tablet, smartphone or computer he happens to be in front of. To make sure he’s on track, I can act as coach and check his progress online.

For 2016, the SAT will be completely redesigned to put the emphasis back on testing knowledge rather than mastery of test-taking tricks. The Khan Academy is working in partnership with the College Board to create study materials—available for free to everyone!—to go with the revamped SAT, too.

Free test prep for college, free college classes for all students. I love the democratic, egalitarian place the Internet is taking education. All we have to do is dial up learning instead of silly cat videos and we can change the world. It gives me hope.

 

Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at GeekGirlfriends.com.

Broken Smartphones Are a Trend in My Household

Written on March 20, 2014 at 2:12 pm , by

 

It’s been a rough month for phones in my house. My daughter dropped hers on the floor in the locker room at school and shattered the screen. Mine took a small tumble out of my pocket, landed on an edge and suffered a crack. Both falls would have been immediately forgotten if we’d had a case on our phones. Instead, I found myself researching repairs. And while it’s not that difficult to get a phone fixed—or, in some instances, fix it yourself—it’s much easier not to break the phone in the first place.

I broke mine in the morning and got it fixed by noon at a small phone repair place that was only a few blocks away, but I spent nearly $200. (iPhones are probably cheaper to repair than my Nexus 5, since there are so many of them.) My son fixed a phone he broke by ordering a replacement kit from eBay and watching a how-to video on YouTube. Otherwise, you can usually call your phone’s manufacturer, ship it to them and have it back—good as new—two weeks later. The cost will depend on the model and the size of the screen. Newer phones are usually cheaper to fix, since replacement screens are more readily available.

For all the small drops we experienced, any case—even a cheap one—would have probably offered enough of a buffer to prevent the screen from cracking. Of course, you can also get a bit spendy and protect the phone from water, serious impact and other hazards.

Here’s a selection of cases to keep from shattering your screen—and your budget.

This simple Catch case ($35) from STM is also a wallet and offers a small amount of protection.

 

The Otterbox Commuter case ($45) also doubles as a wallet and offers lots of protection. (The video below, courtesy of Otterbox, demonstrates how cool it is!)

If you own an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy and want to express your interests, personality or fandom—or just have so much style that you can’t be limited by an off-the-rack product—check out the artist-designed cases at Redbubble.com. Warning! It’s very fun to shop there.

 

For utilitarian protection that will keep your phone out of trouble and give you the look of a pragmatic worker bee, consider this Pelican Vault ($75) case. You have to install it, but your phone will survive practically anything once you do.

If you don’t own one of the most popular phones, your search will be a bit more difficult. But until you find the perfect fit, swing by Amazon and buy a $10 case. Even a little protection is better than a shattered screen.

 

Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at GeekGirlfriends.com.

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