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Going Offline

It seems like this blog just came back online. I am taking two weeks vacation, and have decided to go computerless for that time. The computer is so much a part of my work, it really would be hard to get away from work without getting away from the computer. And my body really needs a break from sitting at a keyboard; it will be a big help in getting completely recuperated from the car accident I was in this summer.

I will try my hand (literally) at writing blog posts with pen and paper to post later, and might even need to write some Twitter “tweets” on paper just to get them out of my system.

I’ll still use the iPhone, which is admittedly just a small computer you can make calls with, for phone, calendar and address book purposes. All other iPhone apps (including all the apps for the kids) are going to be moved off the home page. My cool aunt rating is going to drop, I know…

We’ll see how it goes. Maybe I’m too addicted and you’ll see me running panicked back to the keyboard at the first pangs of withdrawal.

It’s almost been a year since I last posted. I didn’t mean to take a year off, but the next thing you know it’s October and you haven’t posted since last November.

I have a few ideas about what happened in the meantime:

1) I had to recuperate from the Geek cruise I went on in November 2008. I had land sickness for nearly 2 weeks. At the time, I swore I would never go on another cruise, but I’ve already signed up for MacMania 10 in 2010.

2) I hosted my first ever Thanksgiving dinner. The Aunt House turns out to be a good place for having 15 people, if you can wrangle the tables and chairs. I just agreed to host it again.

(I highly recommend Take Control of Thanksgiving Dinner, an ebook in a series of otherwise Mac-related topics. The geek guide to getting ready for Thanksgiving…)

Beward Jedi Dog Mind Tricks3) In April, I adopted a dog. I’ve wanted to for a long time. My wish list in life has been “a dog, a cat and a piano.” So now I can check one thing off.

My sister Peg (she of the Incredible family) encouraged me with the promise of dog-sitting readily available. “I don’t want to get a dog right now,” she said. “I want to be the aunt of a dog.” Everyone wants to be an aunt.

I found Dixie at a small animal adoption center in Portland called The Pixie Project. Before agreeing to adopt her, I took Violet and Dash over to meet her. My number one requirement in a dog was that it had to like children. Dixie stepped right up to the plate. We took her for a walk and we were all in love with her.

The kids helped to name her as well. Jack-Jack repeatedly suggested “Underdog,” but Dash suggested “Winn-Dixie,” inspired by the popular children’s book. Because I actually worked at a Winn-Dixie Kwik-Chek as a teenager, there was no way I could name her that, but just “Dixie” seemed like the perfect name for her.

I could start a whole nother blog devoted to the ups and downs of bringing a dog into your life. I might still do that. But suffice to say, having Dixie has taken a big chunk of my free time.

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4) I had a car accident in June. A woman slammed into the rear of my car while I was stopped at a light. I really think she must have been texting. According to the doctor, she had to be going at least 30 mph. to cause the bruises I had.

IMG_2122.jpg(This woman caused damage to 4 other cars. I was the first to be hit, and that pushed me into the Mercedes in front of me. See photo.)

Nothing was broken, except the car–my poor VW bug–which was totaled. But everything was out of whack. I’ve had to do a lot of chiropractic and massage and other treatments just to get back to normal. I’m almost there.

I could hardly sit at the computer for the first month, and have been gradually more able to work. Fewer hours of work + many hours of medical appointments = low motivation for blogging.

5) The kids are growing up. It feels more complicated to blog about being the aunt. They have more activities, so I spend less time with them.

6) The Favorite Aunt competition (no, it’s not really a competition) is heating up. Uncle Bob, secure in his lifetime favorite uncle status, got married last month. My new sister-in-law is wonderful. The kids love her. A lot. She better watch her back. Now she is fair game for the blog. ;-) More about Aunt Natasha later.

7) It takes a lot of time to blog! I’m attending the Blogworld & New Media Expo in Las Vegas (not as The Favorite Aunt, but for my real job). I just thought I’d do a quick update in case I mentioned this blog to anyone here. Now it’s an hour later. I could go on… but not right now!

In episode #66 of the Brady Bunch, Great Aunt Jenny comes to visit. She’s a scary looking old person (played by Imogene Coca), and Jan freaks out because Aunt Jenny looked just like Jan when she was Jan’s age. By the end of the episode, Jan really hopes she will grow up to be just like her aunt because her aunt is a cool, world-traveling aunt who is a lot of fun.

It’s a lesson I took to heart: world travel racks up aunt cool points. I already had quite a few of those from my stints in Germany, France, Ghana and Armenia. This month, I’ve doubled my score thanks to a 10-day cruise to Italy, Egypt, Turkey and Greece. All those countries plus a big boat!

I have to admit that “cool aunt point potential” was a factor as I planned the excursions and purchases. Here’s a few examples:

Camel ride in Sahara.
Cool Aunt rating: Very High.
Bonus: wild jeep ride to get out to the camels
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Jeep tour in Santorini.
Cool Aunt Rating: High.

Could have been higher if I was the one driving…
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Life boats and children’s life jackets on deck
Cool Aunt Rating: Medium.
Would have been higher if we actually had to use them…
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Souvenirs (T-shirts with their initials in hieroglyphics, Greek cookies)
Cool Aunt Rating: Medium.
I may need to do more shopping before I go home.
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Boston Red Sox fan in the café in Santorini
Cool Aunt Rating: Minimal, since I am not a fan myself.
An actual Red Sox player would have been better.
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Text Messages from the Cruise Ship
Cool Aunt Rating: Very High
Worth the international data roaming charge!
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Watchable: The Monkees

monkees.jpgOn the recent Camp Jean trip, I brought along a box set of The Monkees, Season 1. I bought this a while back on eBay because I thought the kids might like it. I was wrong. They LOVED it. They would watch the Monkees all day, if left to their own devices!

It’s always great to find something that the kids like and that you like watching too. Those old Monkees episodes really take me back. Smirk about The Monkees if you will, but in 1967, they outsold the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined. My little girlfriends and I loved singing the main theme song: “Here we come… walking down the street…” wherever we went. Everyone had their favorite Monkee. As a kid, mine was Davy (like 95% of girls, and the show clearly pushes Davy Jones as a heart throb to the exclusion of the others.) Aunt Judy’s favorite was Peter–she always did favor the underappreciated!

A big point in favor of taking The Monkees on vacation: all three of the kids, from little Jack-Jack (3 1/2) to going-on-jaded Violet (almost 10) really enjoy them. The Monkee goofiness works on several levels. Watching them now, I realize The Monkee’s most lasting contribution to culture is as a precursor of… Scooby Doo, another favorite of the niece/nephews!

monkeesbox.jpgWe watched a couple of episodes of The Monkees each night. They are short, they won’t cause bad dreams, and they have absolutely NO sexual innuendo! (Have you watched some of the shows aimed at kids lately? Sheesh…)

(The Monkees, Season 1, packaging is also cool: it’s designed to look like the old compact record players.)

Aunt hack ratings:

Age group: 3 and up.

Duration of activity:The episodes are about 20 minutes long. There’s no commercials, but the final credits run with big boxes of Corn Flakes and Apple Jacks plastered next to the boys’ faces. Old school!

Cost: $78 for the set on Amazon. Also available on eBay, for less in most cases. I paid around $45.

Child/aunt fun ratio: 45/55. What can I say? It’s fun for the kids, but it’s a little more fun for me. Depending on whether you love the Monkees, your ratio may vary.

Here’s something fun for kids and adults. plasq, the maker of the very popular Comic Life, has released an application for the iPhone, Comic Touch. I recently heard Keith Lang of plasq talking about it on the podcast MacJury. I was curious to see how it would work, skeptical that it could do much on such a small screen.

OMG, it’s great! You can take a photo with the iPhone and turn it into a little comic with speech balloons, thought bubbles, and captions that look like real comic book stuff. I created the little one below with a photo from Camp Jean in about two minutes–without having to read a manual.

You can also use photos from your iPhoto library. Special effects are available. Best of all: you can email the finished product in a couple of taps! I wish I had this while we were on the trip–I could have sent some funny stuff back to my sister and brother-in-law.

As a geek, I’m excited by this glimpse of how cool the iPhone can be. As an aunt, I know this is going to earn me lots of cool aunt points!

Comic Touch is $4.99 at the iTunes App Store.

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iPhone Apps and Kids

iphone1.jpgThis is my first post in my series of travel tips gleaned from Camp Jean.

I described in an earlier post how the iPhone is an indispensable part of my savvy aunt’s toolkit. A good chunk of my trip preparation time was spent downloading the latest software for iTunes and the iPhone so that I could install some of the new third-party iPhone applications. (Of course, I backed up my computer completely before attempting to do any of this, with my favorite Mac backup utility, SuperDuper.)

Until the iPhone App Store was launched, there was no way to put games onto the iPhone. You could play them online using a wi-fi or AT&T network connection, but if you were without a connection… no games. I knew that our destination, the Oregon Coast, was not going to be well served by any internet service. I have often bribed Dash with a game of Bejeweled on the iPhone, and I didn’t want to be without this vital element of my aunt coping skills.

(I did learn that it was a bad idea to let Dash play with the iPhone Calendar.)

I loaded up a lot of free games from the App Store that looked like they might be fun for the kids. In the end, I did not download Bejeweled for the iPhone because it was priced at $9.99, and I think Dash was already starting to get tired of it. It took a little time to find good things to download: you can go to a page of the top iPhone free apps, but that will include lots of stuff besides games good for kids.

To save you time and money, fellow iPhone-owning aunts, here are the best ones I found. The links go to the iPhone App Store in iTunes, so if you don’t use iTunes, you don’t want to click on them. (and why aren’t you using iTunes?)

(Disclaimer: I’ve already documented. on this blog that I am willing to let my niece and nephews play with a $600 gadget. Violet, Dash and Jack-Jack are not particularly destructive and the iPhone is remarkably hardy. In the year since I bought the iPhone, we have had a few drops, but nothing has damaged the phone so far. As they say, YMMV – Your Mileage May Vary!!)

PhoneSaber (no longer available)
This will sound really silly to a lot of people, but trust me: this is one of the most fun apps. It turns your iPhone into a Star Wars light saber. When the app is launched, you can wave the iPhone back and forth, up and down, and it emits the appropriate sound effects.

Age group: 3 and up. Most adult geeks I know love playing with this too, so good for uncles/boyfriends…

Tip: You did read the disclaimer, right? Kids could easily get carried away and iPhones could go flying out of little hands. I use the Speck ToughSkin iPhone Case which gives more “grippage” to promote a firmer hold.

Update: Oh no! George Lucas has forced them to pull PhoneSaber from the iTunes App Store. The rumor is that a licensed version might be available. So far iTunes hasn’t deleted this from my phone, but lots of kids and adults are going to be sad about this.

TapTap Revenge
A little like Guitar Hero for the iPhone. Music is played, colored bubbles must be tapped in time with the music. Violet and Jack loved this.

Age group: 7 and up. Too fast and complex for the little ones.

Tip: There is a co-op mode where two players can play against each other. Try to imagine two children tapping on your iPhone simultaneously. Re-read the disclaimer. Put the iPhone on a table so they don’t have to hold it, and to decrease the chances of the iPhone being dropped.

iphone2.jpgPearMe
This is a matching game. It can use your photos to create a game over 3 to 42 card-pairs, which means you can set it to be easy for the little ones or more difficult for the older ones. It’s very basic. Tap one card to turn it over, then tap a second card. If they match, the pair gets put in your pile. If they don’t, the cards are flipped over and you try again.

Age group: 3 to 10. It can be customized to have as few as 3 pairs, and using your own photos makes it fun for older kids who have otherwise grown out of matching games. There is a timer and it counts how many tries you take, so there is a competitive element that appeals to the older ones (including Uncle Bob) as well.

Tip: This is 1000% more fun for kids if you customize it with photos of them and things they know, like your house, pets, toys, etc. Click the little “i” icon in the lower right corner to access the customization options and then click on “Available Photos.” By default, there are a bunch of photos of European locations and lusty young women. (Typical…) You can delete these and add photos from your iPhoto library or your iPhone Camera roll. It’s a little tedious, but worth it.

BubbleWrap
This provides a piece of digital bubble wrap that you tap on to pop the bubbles. It’s fun in a silly way that works for Jack-Jack (age 3), but it is also a game. After you’ve popped a number of bubbles, some of them randomly re-inflate and you have to pop them again. There is a timer and a score, which appeals to Violet (9) and Dash (8).

Age group: 3 and up. Adults have fun with it too.

Tip: As I might have mentioned, some of these games are potentially hazardous to your iPhone’s health. A good case and a steady surface on which to place your iPhone will help minimize your risk.

I’ve downloaded some others that look promising, like DizzyBeeFree and JirboBreak (which is not free, but only 99 cents). The kids have played with them briefly, and I’ll review them and more apps as we find them in future posts.

2728719023_05fb91b673_m.jpgA few years ago, my sister and co-aunt Judy started flying Violet and Dash down to California to spend a week with her in an event that has come to be known in our family as “Camp Judy.” She takes the kids to swimming, golf and tennis lessons, feeds them very healthy food and teaches them lots of songs.

As this summer approached, I wanted to do something similar. There was talk that the Incredible Family might be moving back east, and I thought it would be a nice idea to have some bonding time with the kids. So I booked accommodations on the Oregon Coast and made plans. Besides Violet (age 9 1/2) and Dash (age 8), I also planned to bring Jack-Jack, who is 3 1/2.

(My sister and brother-in-law asked me at least ten times, “Are you sure you want to bring Jack-Jack?”)

In the meantime, Grandpa Bob (or, as I call him, “Daddy”) was planning to come out from Miami, so he was added to the Camp Jean contingent. As was my brother, aka Uncle Bob.

We spent three nights in Twin Rocks at the Ocean Rogue Inn. It’s a great place to bring kids. The ocean is right there. They have a play structure, horseshoes, buckets and shovels. There are picnic tables and grills, too. We had the one unit with 3 bedrooms, kitchen and dining room (#7).

I took lots of video, and will edit that into something later this week. I took all of these photos with my iPhone.

hp22.1.jpgPer Uncle Bob’s request, we visited the Tillamook Air Museum and saw lots of cool planes housed in a World War II blimp hangar, the largest wooden structure in the world. (photo from their website)

DSC_2303.pngFor the next two nights, we drove down to Newport so that we could make a visit to the amazing Oregon Coast Aquarium. This is where Keiko, the “Free Willy” whale, was housed before being returned to Iceland. The tank where Keiko lived has been turned into a walk-through aquarium featuring LOTS OF SHARKS and other fish. (photo from their website) You can also see otters, seals and sea lions (Jack-Jack’s favorite) in their outdoor ponds. The kids were fascinated with everything for at least an hour and a half, which I considered good!

We came back by way of Corvallis, which gave us an opportunity to visit with niece-equivalent Anne (that’s her photo at the top of this blog) who leaves today for a whole year (gasp!) in Thailand on a Rotary International exchange program.

We got back to Portland late Saturday afternoon. Grandpa Bob and I went in search of some at least moderately healthy food, and ended up at Old Wives Tales. I went to bed and slept soundly until 10 a.m., which is highly unusual for me.

I think Camp Jean was a success, although not as educational (and certainly not as healthy) as Camp Judy. Of course, it’s not a competition. :-)

I’ve got a lot of ideas for next year, what works and what doesn’t work. I will post more specific tips and advice in a series of posts on traveling with the niece/nephews.

Aunt hack ratings:

Age group: 3 and up. I wouldn’t have wanted to take Jack-Jack any younger.

Duration of activity:Six days/five nights (and 6 hours and 53 minutes…)

Cost: Lodging: $803; Gas: about $70; Food: about $350; Air Museum: $7 for kids (children under 6: free!); Oregon Coast Aquarium: $8.75 for kids (children under 3: free — I think the lady at the cash register was trying to give me the chance to say that Jack-Jack wasn’t 3 yet, but I can’t lie in front of the kids! I’d say he got $8.75 worth of entertainment, though.)

Child/aunt fun ratio: 60/40. It’s not always fun to ride herd on three kids of varying ages/interests/food dislikes/moods, but it was still a great trip. I was tempted to go for a 65/35 child/aunt fun ratio here, but on reflection, I’m sure there were definitely moments when the kids were not having fun either.

warriors.jpgI just got hooked on these books. Violet and Dash recently discovered the “Warriors” series and until they finished all six books, they were taking them everywhere and constantly reading them. (I have learned it’s preferable to have a child reading at the table in a restaurant instead of a child who tells you every 43 seconds how boooooored they are. On the other hand, I wouldn’t extend this dispensation to a Game Boy.)

“Warriors” is the saga of four clans of cats, living in the wild, adhering to what they call (mew?) “the warrior code.” The cats hunt prey, patrol their territory, mentor their apprentices, take care of their elders and try to keep the fragile peace amongst the four clans. There are many skirmishes with rival clans and outside threats (dogs, badgers, foxes), as well as intrigue and drama within the clan.

Into the mix comes a nearby housecat (sneeringly referred to as a “kittypet”) named Rusty, who was caught hunting mice in Thunder Clan territory and then is invited to join the clan. Rusty becomes Firepaw (his apprentice name), and later Fireheart (his warrior name).

When I noticed my sister and brother-in-law (aka Mr. and Mrs. Incredible) reading the Warriors books too, I was really intrigued. So I read the first one, “Into the Wild” where Rusty becomes Firepaw and tries to live up to the clan’s expectation while being thwarted by a power-hungry cat nemesis named Tigerclaw.

I ended up reading all six books in the series. I just had to know what was going to happen to our hero and his clan. I can read one in less than two hours. They are all 200+ pages long, but the typesetting is very big and open. Dash, who is 8, had no problem finishing one after the other.

Then I read the second series, “Warriors: The New Prophecy”, where the next generation of apprentices play the starring role. Another six books with an interesting environmental underpinning. There’s a third series, and the only thing preventing me from reading it is that I feel a little embarassed about reading 18 books meant for young kids.

Best way to explain the story: it’s Harry Potter with cats! Four clans with special powers, into which a young male comes who must prove himself and save everyone from an evil genius cat bent on total domination. Sound familiar? Firepaw even has two best friends who help him get in and out of numerous scrapes and rule-breaking adventures. Check out the lineup:

Fireheart: Harry
Graystripe, his loyal friend: Ron
Cinderpelt, his female friend, very smart: Hermione
Bluestar, clan leader: Dumbledore/McGonagall
Tigerclaw: Voldemort
Thunder Clan: Gryffindor
Shadow Clan: Slytherin
Kittypet: Muggle

The books are an easier read than the Harry Potter series, shorter and less complicated. They are a bit graphic when it comes to killing and eating prey; the phrase “juicy vole” comes up a lot, and if you love bunny rabbits, well, you might not like some of the scenes. There are a lot of fierce battles, and cats actually die. (I even cried at the end of one of the books…)

Aunt hack ratings:

Age group: 8 and up; obviously, some adults can even get hooked

Duration of activity:I can read one book in less than two hours; maybe double that for kids?

Cost: $6.99 per paperback, but you might as well buy the whole set, which is $24.41 at Amazon. They also had them at the library here.

Child/aunt fun ratio: 55/45. Kids will enjoy them a little more because they won’t overanalyze them and they don’t have the embarassment factor of reading a kids book. :-)

Here’s a new site that is targeted to aunts! SavvyAuntie.com is “the first community for cool aunts, great aunts, godmothers and all women who love kids.”

I learned a new term from their press release: PANK (Professional Aunt No Kids). :-)

Go check it out and register to take part in the community. It’s a nice-looking site and there are lots of interesting resources.

doozlakids.jpgI recently got a license to Doozla, a new program from one of my favorite Mac software developers, plasq. These guys are known for products that appeal to your inner child: Comic Life, which lets you create comic books from your own photos, and Skitch, which has elevated the mundane task of creating screenshots into something really fun.

So I was curious to see how they would approach a program specifically targeted at children.

I put my testing panel (Violet, Dash and Jack-Jack) to work. They love trying out new software. Also, it was TV Turn-Off Week, and they may have been a little starved for any kind of screentime. My sister Peg (aka Elastigirl) said it would be OK if it was something educational.

Doozla is a drawing program with four options: freehand drawing, coloring pages, backgrounds you can draw on, and webcam snapshots for drawing. The choices are presented in a very clean and simple way. Violet and Dash (who are 9 and 8 years old) had no problem navigating to what they wanted to do. They played a bit with the coloring pages, but found them too easy. What really sparked their interest was the webcam option. Provided you have a built-in camera, Doozla will snap a photo which you can then decorate with the drawing tools.

Jack-Jack, who is 3 1/2 years old, was more interested in the coloring pages and backgrounds, but he doesn’t have the mousing ability to actually use the tools. At first, I was disappointed, because I thought it would be so much fun for him. But then I realized that he found it very entertaining to watch me do the coloring according to his instructions. (His personality has become a bit imperious of late…) We also took a web cam shot, and I colored him in as I prompted him, “What color do you want your eyes to be? Do you want a blue beard? etc.” So Doozla will keep a toddler entertained, with the caveat that you might have to be part of the entertainment.

The tools are very easy to use and there are a lot of fun elements, as befits a product from plasq. When you click on a tool or a color, a little voice says the name with a kind of squeal that is hilarious. We clicked numerous times on “bright yellow” just to hear it. I really like that they’ve included semi-transparent colors, which makes it more fun to draw on the web cam pictures. There’s a control panel so you can prevent kids from printing (boy, would that cost you a lot of ink!) or quitting without you entering a password.

By default, Doozla opens in full-screen mode, which means that kids would not be able to move out of Doozla and into, say, an internet browser. A password could prevent them from quitting the program, so in theory you wouldn’t have to worry about them using other programs or accessing other files. But the full-screen mode can be toggled on and off without a password, which would circumvent that protection. An option to prevent kids from leaving full-screen mode would be a great enhancement.

The little ones, like Jack-Jack, are going to need your help anyway, so its unlikely that you’d be leaving them alone. A 4- or 5-year-old could probably entertain themselves with Doozla. At first I thought the older kids would not be interested, but the next time I came by the house, Violet showed me several more drawings she’d made in the meantime. It’s fascinating to watch her learn the program, and then learn its limitations. She started thinking of things she’d like to do, like patterns and copying, that are beyond Doozla. I’m going to get her copy of Photoshop Elements soon. I think she and Dash are ready for the challenge.

Doozla is a great introduction to computer use for the toddler/preschool set. They’ll learn basic drawing concepts (color selection, line tool, paintbucket, etc) and develop mousing skills in an easy and fun virtual environment. And with a developer like plasq, you can be sure that it will be interesting to watch this software evolve from its v.1 state.

Aunt hack ratings:

Age group: 3-7; older kids will play with it, but not for long

Duration of activity: 30 minutes

Cost: $24.95 (Download and buy at plasq’s site.)

Child/aunt fun ratio: 60/40. It was fun to color in Jack-Jack’s web cam photo.

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