Family & Technology

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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Buggy Nights Is a Game (or a Movie?) That Will Have You Prancing Around the Room

Written on March 12, 2014 at 11:54 am , by

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve been covering technology since before my kids were born. So my son (now 17) has seen a lot of tech in his young life: big beige computers, gaming systems that no longer exist, PDAs, laptops, smartphones, tablets and wearable technology. It’s hard to get him to marvel over innovations anymore. But the creators of Buggy Nights—an interactive video from animator and director Mark Oftedal, illustrator Jon Klassen, composer Scot Stafford and producer Karen Dufilho—got him up out of his chair, prancing around the room, making us stop what we were doing to look, and saying, “Wow! That is awesome!”

He wasn’t the only one in our house acting silly over this 3-D animated world you peer at through the screen of your smartphone. I got up to walk and spin around and “play” this animation that’s somewhere between a game and a movie and a lot like opening the secret door in the back of the wardrobe and plunging into a world of magic and whimsy. Even the people who were part of creating it are blown away by it.

“I have been working in computer animation for years,” Oscar-winning director Jan Pinkava, formerly of Pixar and now at Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP), which created the hardware-software mashup that makes the Buggy Nights animation possible. “I was at Pixar for many years,” he says. “But I am still astonished by what’s possible in this little consumer device that’s in your pocket. One minute it’s about work, your calendar and email. And then…this world opens up in front of you. We are just scratching the surface of what is possible.”

Once you enjoy this production, what is possible is exactly what you will marvel over. I immediately started wondering what would come next. Longer films? Ways to see animations superimposed on the world I’m in?

“I feel that the technology is a bridge to a new territory,” says Pinkava. “We are hacking back the jungle, exploring a new territory of what we can do with this device. We can create this amazing interactive cinematic experience that is somewhere between a movie and a game—or a movie where you control the camera.”

Pretty amazing. It’s only on the Moto X at the moment because ATAP had to game the hardware and software together to make it all work seamlessly. But, as Pinkava says, this is just the beginning. If you have a Moto X—or know someone who does—look for Spotlight Stories in the Play Store or on the device. Buggy Nights is one of the Spotlight Stories.

 

 

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.

A Crisis Line for Teens Via Text

Written on February 19, 2014 at 9:15 am , by

I have two teenagers, and I know a lot of things about these complicated young people. Here are two: They like to text so much that it’s become the best way to talk to them. And they tend to stay up late for no good reason. (I do my best to stop that, but you can’t force someone to sleep. All you can do is not provide distractions.) From those facts, I extrapolate that there will be times—probably some of them in the middle of the night—when they’ll want to send a text asking for help. I’d like to think that they would always feel comfortable sending that text to me. But I was a teenager once, so I’m pretty sure there may be things that seem too awful to those inexperienced minds to confess to Mom. That’s why I like the mission of Crisis Text Line: to provide teens with free, 24/7 emotional support and information via the medium they already use and trust, text.

The average teen sends 3,339 text messages a month (and opens every text she gets). Texting is quiet and discreet, so kids can do it even if they’re afraid of someone in the room. They can text from school, late at night, whenever and wherever they’re in need, and no one in their world has to know that their thumbs are sending out a cry for help. This makes it the perfect medium for teen crisis intervention.

But here’s the best case for why Crisis Text Line is a good idea: It didn’t come about because someone dreamed it up. It exists because teenagers asked for it.

Nancy Lublin is CEO of DoSomething.org, an organization that helps young people take action on causes they care about. That outlet discovered that the best way to get messages out to teens was via text. Lublin started the project that became Crisis Text Line because the staff at DoSomething.org started getting shocking cries for help from the teens they were communicating with. One of those texts read,

“He won’t stop raping me. He told me not to tell anyone. Are you there?”

Lublin could do little but refer that teen to a crisis center. But she decided she had to do something to create a texting help line for teens that was empowered to provide assistance.

And she did. So make sure the teens you know are aware that free help is available via text 24/7. They just text “LISTEN” TO 741-741.

A great side benefit is that this forum also provides terrific data on when, where and to whom bad things are happening. If the Crisis Text Line sees a spike in texts after specific events or at certain times of day, this tells them that schools or cities need to provide help in those places and at those times. Maybe, Lublin says, that will make it possible to stop kids from being bullied, from cutting themselves or from being raped. You can watch her explain all this herself in the video below.

 

 

 

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.

Safer Internet Day: Protect Your Kids Online

Written on February 12, 2014 at 3:15 pm , by

 

I worry about what my kids are up to online. I talk to them about it so often that they have started spewing back rules and advice at me every time I bring it up. This sort of sass makes me happy. They might still make mistakes, but at least it won’t be because no one told them to be careful.

Earlier this week was the first official Safer Internet Day in the U.S. Everyone from Microsoft to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children participated to get the message out to parents that we have to take Internet safety seriously. If you managed to miss it, don’t worry. It’s never too late to change a bad habit, and most of us have a few.

Do you know who can see what you post to social media? Do you have to type a pin to access your smartphone? (Oops. What happens to all that personal data if you leave the phone on the bus?) Do you have security software on your phone? On your computer? Do your kids understand how to behave safely online?

I’m sure you answered no to at least one of those questions. And you’re not alone. According to the Microsoft Computing Safety Index, only about one-third of people surveyed are practicing safe Internet habits. That is one expensive collective fail! Microsoft calculates that, globally, unsafe online behavior cost $23 billion last year. The biggest expense was recovering from a damaged professional reputation ($4.5 billion), and people are falling for phishing scams to the tune of $2.4 billion. But don’t panic. Just do something about it—right now! You’ll make the Internet more secure, not just for yourself but for everyone else who uses it.

Microsoft has launched a campaign and website to encourage people do “Do 1 Thing” to stay safer online. So do your one thing. Then go to Microsoft.com/saferonline and spread the world. We all live on the Internet, and the practices of each person affect how safe it is out there. If it was harder to steal your data, if no one overshared information, if phones were locked and not so fun to steal, criminals would have to work harder to make less money. Maybe some of them would be forced to look for honest work.

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.

Going to College for Free with MOOCs

Written on February 6, 2014 at 11:40 am , by

 

My son is conflicted about college: Does he want to go? If so, where? What should he study?

He knows college is a huge expense, so he wants to make a choice that’s worth the money and effort we all will have to put into it. But he doesn’t know himself well enough yet to know what he wants. So he’s paralyzed.

Fortunately, there’s an education revolution going on that means he can explore college subjects and take classes at some of the best universities in the world from some of the best professors—without paying a dime or leaving the house. That’s all thanks to MOOCs, or massive open online courses. To see them in action, just go to edX.org and browse through the class list. EdX.org is a nonprofit online initiative created by Harvard and MIT that offers courses from those two universities plus UC Berkeley and many others in biology, business, chemistry, computer science, economics, history, humanities, law, literature, math and more. See a course you like? Sign up, commit to taking the class when you have time, and learn. That’s it. Some courses let you register, prove your identity, do the work and get a certificate of completion. And some have been collected into programs, called XSeries, that provide an understanding of a topic, such as computer science, and earn you an XSeries Certificate to prove it. (They do, however, cost a bit of money.)

I met with Anant Agarwal, president and founder of edX.org, when I was at CES. “This is not meant to replace college,” he told me. An online class won’t give you shared late nights working out code, poetry readings at the local student hangout, or the immersion in college culture that becomes part of your identity. “But the education system—as it is—is broken,” he explained. “It should not break families financially to send a child to college.” MOOCs can make the education portion of higher education universally available. A kid who could never afford Harvard can still take astrophysics there. A student in a remote location with no hope of ever getting to Cambridge can learn engineering at MIT. A high school teacher can add lectures from renowned professors to her AP science class. And my son can find out—for free, while still in high school—if he wants to study engineering by auditing a class at Harvard.

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.

My Daughter the Photographer

Written on January 29, 2014 at 6:04 pm , by

 

My daughter is a bit of a shutterbug. When she was 8, she would grab my big, fancy (and expensive!) DSLR camera away from me and run around taking pictures with it. Despite her tendency to cover furniture and walls with sticky fingers and crayon mess at that age, she was very careful with that piece of equipment. She was also quiet and uncharacteristically focused when taking pictures. So I let her. And on her 10th birthday, I gave her that camera. In the five years since, she has surpassed my photography skills and knowledge by miles. In fact, she has surpassed the skills of most casual photographers. We frequently frame prints of her shots and hang them on the wall. She includes photography in every imagining of her future she comes up with. My husband, who disputed my insane decision to give a messy 10-year-old a $500 camera, now tips his hat at my ability to recognize passion in one so young.

I thought that camera would last her a lifetime. But the functionality of cameras has evolved. These days cameras can connect to the Internet so you can post pics directly to Facebook or Instagram the minute you take them. She wants one of those. Of course, she can take photos with her cell phone to post. But for someone who has learned to take great pictures with a real camera, that’s just not the same.

I’ve looked at some very tempting connected cameras lately. Some have onboard Wi-Fi and others are so connected that they blur the line between camera and smartphone. For example, when I was at CES I looked at the newest version of the  Samsung Galaxy Camera, a very-high-end mirrorless camera that, like a smartphone, runs the Android operating system. (I liked the previous version enough to put it in the holiday gadget guide.) Many of Sony’s wonderful interchangeable-lens NEX cameras are Wi-Fi-enabled so you can shoot awesome photos and post them directly to Instagram, Google+ or the online photo storage and sharing space of your choice. Not all of these camera are terribly expensive, considering their high-end features and interchangeable lenses for professional results. But I’ve already given my daughter a camera. And she loves that camera and knows all its quirks and features.

So instead of springing for a new camera, I gave her a connected memory card for the one she already has. The Eye-Fi Mobi ($50 for an 8 GB card) will send photos from her camera—almost as fast as she can shoot—to her smartphone or tablet as long as both are connected to Wi-Fi. From there, she can tell her phone where to post the shot, how to back it up, or what to say about each shot as she posts it to Facebook or Instagram.

Some manufacturers engineer their cameras to work seamlessly with the Eye-Fi in order to bill them as connected. But the camera you already own and adore might be compatible with the Eye-Fi too. There’s a full list of cameras that work with the Eye-Fi Mobi card here.

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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The Future of Technology Looks Seriously Cool

Written on January 15, 2014 at 10:00 am , by

 

I survived—once again—the International CES in Las Vegas. Amid the massive displays of curved TVs, truckloads of consumer electronics, madding crowds and cacophony, there was an amazing amount of innovation.

If you read my article “Your Future Car” in 2013, maybe you doubted that the future held cars that could drive themselves. Well, I’ve seen it. Bosch demonstrated (above) a car that could park itself  even if you step out of it, so it can fit into a small space. Delphi Automotive showed off a prototype future-vision Tesla that possessed enough sensors to drive itself  (in a future where the infrastructure exists for it) and keep an eye on the driver so it knows who’s behind the wheel. It could also display a movie on the inside of the windshield and create an immersive gaming experience in the back seat for the teens, with each back seat boasting a set of speakers that play only for the person in that seat.

My photo of the interior of the future Tesla, taken with a DSLR and sent to my phone with the Eye-Fi Mobi.

If you read my article “Your Future Home,” you might have taken those developments for science fiction too. But I walked through a house where the appliances knew I was coming, turned on the lights for me, welcomed me home with a soothing “Hello, Christina!” and readied the kitchen for dinner. In the kids’ room, the lighting, Teddy bear and music all cooperated with the alarm clock to set a mood for the kids to go to sleep or wake up. And if a young one decided to sneak a tablet under the covers to watch some silly cat videos instead of sleep, the TV in the master bedroom would tell me by flashing a warning across the screen (all of this powered by Qualcomm’s Alljoyn technology).

If you doubted my research in “Your Future Body,” this year’s CES was all about wearable computing and a future where the Internet of Things (your appliances, car, house) will know all about you because of the accessories you sport. There were so many “smart watches” (watches that convey key information from your smartphone so you only have to glance at your wrist to see who’s calling or texting) that I lost count. Activity trackers and wearable monitors were everywhere, in every shape and form. And more and more of them are getting ready to talk to your home and car.

It was a mind-blowing trip to the future, and I’ll be sharing items, services and cool ideas here as they move from prototype and proof of concept to actual products you can buy. I will say this, though: The future looks seriously cool!

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 Apps Will Ease Your Winter Travel Woes

Written on January 8, 2014 at 11:54 am , by

I am on my way to CES in Las Vegas. Getting to this annual massive gathering of all things geek has been an epic quest this year—cancelled flights, insane weather, mistaken rebookings that would have me arriving as the show ended, tears and a sudden overnight layover in a distant city. Sometimes travel goes well. And sometimes it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, I am always grateful for my smartphone and a little tech savvy.

When a flight was delayed by this crazy winter storm, I missed my connecting flight and there wasn’t another unclaimed seat on any flight out of Atlanta. So I found myself suddenly in need of a place to sleep. Did I sleep on the airport floor? Demolish my budget by walking into the closest hotel? No. I sat quietly (while others around me wailed, lamented and panicked), tapped a few times on my phone and had a room in a nearby (nice) hotel for a fraction of its standard price. In fact, my smartphone—and the right app—has saved me many a hassle on numerous adventures. When traffic threatens to derail a meeting by trapping me in my car, I (pull over and) tap my phone to find out the cause of the congestion and plot a reroute. When I’m in a new city and need to be somewhere on time—either by car, foot or public transportation—I pull out my phone for turn-by-turn directions.

I use a lot of apps to keep me on track. But here are three that helped me keep my cool on this particular journey—one that otherwise could have been an ordeal to make even the most seasoned traveler snap.

Hotel Tonight

This app has saved me quite a few times. Hotels hate to have empty rooms. So they release those that aren’t booked at noon every day for that night—to this app. When I realized I was stranded in Atlanta, I pulled up the available rooms closest to me;  it knows where I am because my phone does. I tapped, booked a room (at an upscale hotel for $100), got on the hotel’s shuttle and slept.

Waze

This navigation app gathers the collective knowledge of everyone else on the road who is also using the app (and you’ll see there are a lot of us) and uses it to inform you of what’s ahead. People can post what they can see in terms of accidents and holdups. But the app also tracks how fast those other phones are traveling, so you know if there’s a slowdown ahead and what routes have fast-moving traffic.

Google Maps

Google Maps has gotten so good at giving turn-by-turn directions that I depend on it. Meeting in an unfamiliar city? I enter my destination (it knows where I am because my phone has GPS) and tell it how I want to travel—public transportation, walk or drive—and it will take me right there. If I’m walking, I use a Bluetooth headset and it speaks the directions right into my ear. It even knows the train schedules for most urban transportation systems.

Social Media Sharing Can Boost Your Holiday Spirit

Written on December 18, 2013 at 12:00 pm , by

Google’s Auto Awesome tool can help you find your holiday spirit.

I’ve been so busy this holiday season that I’ve had a hard time getting into the spirit. Fortunately, sometimes it doesn’t take much to go from “Bah, humbug!” to singing Christmas carols. For me, it was a photo of a Christmas tree that did it. While I was traveling, my family trimmed our tree. I’d told them to go ahead whenever they had time, even though I wasn’t there. I didn’t think I’d mind, but when my husband sent me a text picture of the trimmed tree, the effect just wasn’t the same as sitting in front of it with a roaring fire. I fixed that quickly, though. Since I’d started using Google+ for my photos, I took advantage of a new feature in its Auto Awesome tool.

I simply uploaded the photo my husband had sent to Google+. And that’s all I did! Google’s Auto Awesome tool automatically animated the lights so they flickered and twinkled. When the work was done, I got a notification. Then I shared that animation with my family. Suddenly, I’m in the (geeky) holiday spirit!

You can also turn snaps of snowy landscapes into wintery animations by uploading them to Google+. Auto Awesome will automatically animate your photo with falling snow, let you know when it’s finished, and make the animation easy to share with friends via Google+ or email.

If you’ve ever signed on to go caroling and found yourself standing in the cold lip-synching because you can’t remember the words, Google and your phone can help with that too. Just tap the microphone on Google Search (on your iPhone or any Android phone) and say, “Let’s go caroling.” Before any of the search results, you’ll get a list of popular songs. Click the one you want to sing and your phone will play the music and show you the lyrics. All you have to do is follow along.

 

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.

 

Teach Your Kids to Create the Future

Written on December 5, 2013 at 12:33 pm , by

If you are among the 141 million people who shopped online on Cyber Monday or participated in the brawl that was Black Friday, and if you put any technology in your cart, I encourage you to take a minute to think about how much human brilliance went into creating a world where a $200 tablet is possible. And when shopping for your kids, I suggest you think about the role you can play in nurturing that sort of brilliance.

You might know that much of the amazing innovation we have seen in our lives started with a famous statement by John F. Kennedy that began the commitment to go to the moon. But it is a statement made by Bill Gates much more recently (in his 2008 testimony before the House Committee on Science and Technology) that worries me. He is one of the people who contributed to creating a world where you can wrap that sweet tech gear and put it under the tree for your kids. And he’s concerned about the future. “The United States’ preeminence in science and technology,” he says, “has long been the source of our global economic leadership…But that position is at risk.” Why? Because there is a “severe shortfall of scientists and engineers with the expertise to develop the next generation of breakthroughs.”

Take a minute to stop and think about the innovation that went into that smartphone or tablet. Twenty years ago a machine that could process that much information or display that quality of graphics was the stuff of science fiction. According to the Computer History Museum’s time line of computer history, Apple introduced the Lisa in 1983. This was the first personal computer with a graphical user interface…and it wasn’t much of one. The Lisa’s sloth and price ($10,000) led to its failure.

The Internet you intend to connect to with the $200 tablet you tossed into your cart for the kids? In 1983 it was in such a state of infancy that there was nothing to connect to. Then called ARPANET, it was a way for universities and the military to collaborate, and would not be renamed the Internet until 1995. Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web (which is what essentially made the Internet usable for the rest of us) in 1989, but no one really noticed until 1990.

Do the math: Technology transformed the world in my 17-year-old son’s lifetime.

My point? If you are raising kids, help them understand that people accomplished all this in a very short time, and not because someone taught them exactly what to do in school. For the most part, those people were once children who liked to play with toys that let them build stuff. Steve Wozniak, for example, liked to build things as a kid. So his father took the time to explain electronics to him. Woz sites that as a major reason for the path he took toward building the first personal computer and thereby changing the world.

I’m all for buying the tablet, smartphone or computer and putting it under the tree. But would you teach your kids to read and not teach them to write? Why not also take a minute to help your kids envision themselves as creators of the future of technology, the people who will develop the next generation of breakthroughs? It might not take that much effort.

 

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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VIDEO: Social Media Eases Fear of Bullying for Boy with Glasses

Written on December 4, 2013 at 9:30 am , by

 

We all know that bullying hurts. But sometimes the fear of being bullied can be just as painful.

Four-year-old Noah Fisher burst into tears when his mother, Lindsey, told him to put on his glasses. Noah was afraid that everyone was going to laugh at him because he had to wear them. So with the help of her friends, Lindsey used Facebook to show Noah that glasses were pretty cool.

She started the page “Glasses for Noah,“ and to her surprise around 40,000 people from all around the country expressed their support for him. They posted various pictures of themselves in glasses, and even some famous faces made an appearance. Noah’s favorite was The Hulk. According to his parents, Noah is getting more comfortable in his glasses every day.

We think Noah looks pretty cute and happy in his glasses. Don’t you?