My advice for new parents

My daughter is now three years old and she’s amazing. Naturally I now know everything there is to know about parenting so here’s my advice for new parents (particularly aimed at affluent middle-class fathers in NZ who have two cats).

The first three months are the hardest, followed by the next three months. The three months after that were also hard but then it started to get easier and more enjoyable. (Even if it was still a lot of work.) I’m writing this just after my daughter turned three – she’s still hard work but I adore her absolutely and we have quite a lot of fun together.

It doesn’t matter how you feel about becoming a father or whether you wanted the baby or not. Decide now to commit to doing the best job you can and being the best father you can be. Any of the alternatives aren’t going to be good for anyone.

You will never go back to your “normal life”. This is your normal life, embrace it.

Go to the ante-natal classes. Go to the breastfeeding course. Yes, both of you.

Forgive your partner already and ask for their forgiveness in turn. I see that relationships are built on loving reciprocity. You do something for your partner because you love them, they feel even more warmly to you and do things for you because they love you. It’s a beautiful spiral of loving caring – and the introduction of a young baby screws it up pretty badly. You’re both exhausted and have very little time to look after each other and little energy to give. But you’re both doing your best and there’ll be time in the future to reconnect. That said, give your partner what you can when you can.

Don’t worry if you don’t get an instant hit of love and adoration when your child is born. It was pretty amazing on a number of levels but for me the bonding process took time. That said – make sure you’re leaving yourself open to it. Don’t let the sleeplessness and hard work turn you resentful and closed.

Get stuck in – don’t let your uncertainty or doubt hold you back from doing everything that your child requires. We all had to change our first nappy or give our first bath. Don’t let anyone else disenfranchise you by doing someone on your behalf that you can do perfectly well yourself. Don’t be the father who doesn’t want to be left alone with his own child because he’s too scared to care for them.

Question what you think you know. You probably have all sorts of ideas on how kids should be raised based on what your parents did, what your friends do and that half-remembered show you saw on TV. Do your whole family a favour and do some reading about the best way to bring up a kid. In particular learn about what real normal child development looks like (bad news: “sleeping through the night” doesn’t happen as soon or as consistently as you’d like). This article does a reasonable job of summing up the views I came to about raising a happy and healthy child.

I said it was hard work, right? Get in there and do the housework and the shopping and the errand running and taking the baby out for a walk so its mum can get just a couple of hours sleep. No matter how hard you work it probably won’t be as tough as it is for the mum who’s staying up most of the night breast-feeding the baby to sleep.

Your baby won’t give a shit about whether it has a beautiful nursery.

Non-specialist doctors and pharmacists are generally pretty ignorant about pregnancy, infants and breast-feeding. Do your own research – but make sure it’s from reputable websites that are backed by the best and latest in medical science. Bookmark http://kellymom.com for great evidence-based information about the care and feeding of babies and their mothers.

Using a clip-on bed is a good compromise between using a cot and having the baby in bed with you. This is where you have a separate sleeping surface for the baby attached to your bed so that you can both care for the baby in the night without having to get up. Our daughter went from the clip-on bed straight to her own bed without any problems at about 14 months. Her bed is a double mattress on a base and it’s been absolutely brilliant. It means that either of us can sleep with her on her bed if we ever need to (it also fits the two cats as well).

Get a tablet computer with good battery life for those long nights where that damn baby just won’t sleep unless it’s on someone. Block access to Trade Me if your budget won’t allow it.

Don’t let your duties (paid work, housework, maintenance, etc) take away from your time spent at home looking after your child and supporting your partner. It can be tempting to avoid the stress at home by saying “Oh, I need to do this” but your #1 priority at this time should be your family.

You need a lot less stuff than the glossy brochures would tell you that you need. And do you really need a baby buggy at all? We never really used them, preferring front-packs and back-packs and good old fashioned carrying.

Parent the child you have. Keep an eye on the expected milestones but ultimately you have to care for your child as it is, not the ideal child you have in your head, not your friend’s child, and not what some book has told you to expect.

Parenting is hard work but the first time you get a big cuddle and an “I love you Daddy” from your child – oh. my. god.

 

The Fish’n’Chip Diet

Fat and Slim

I was fat from about age 10 to about age 26. It made me unhappy in a number of ways; buying clothes, avoiding swimming in public or just failing to laugh much at the man-boob jokes. I came to think of myself as a fat person, that there was no way I would ever be anything else.

Then I lost a lot of weight. I dropped from ~115kg to 75kg in the space of six months. More importantly, after bouncing back to 80kg I managed to stay at roughly that weight for well over ten years.

Recently I found that my weight was creeping up again and I decided that I had to do something about it. I’d got to 89kg and I decided that I wanted to lose 10kg – and that if I was successful I’d finally write that article about weight loss that I’d been planning.

Easy and Hard

There’s a funny contradiction involved when it comes to losing weight:

  1. Weight loss is actually reasonably easy. Eat less and maybe do a bit of exercise and you’ll lose weight.
  2. Weight loss is incredibly hard. Most diets are abandoned, many dieters yo-yo and end up weighing more than they started, long term weight loss seems particularly hard to achieve.

The problem is that deciding to lose weight isn’t a single decision. Sure, you can get up in the morning and say to yourself “From now on I’m going to eat better and be more healthy”.  But we all know that while this might last for a day, a week, or even just a few hours, generally you’ll start to slip back into your old habits.

The problem with weight loss, and what makes it so incredibly hard, is that it’s not one decision but hundreds and thousands of decisions. Yes to porridge for breakfast. No to the slice of birthday cake at morning tea. Yes to sushi for lunch. No to pizza for dinner. Yes to a cup of tea in the evening. No to the biscuits to dunk in the tea. Day after day after day.

The Trick

So, I reckon you need a trick. Or maybe more than one. What do I mean by a trick?

The time I lost a lot of weight didn’t start as a diet, it was just an experiment in a line of experiments.

I’d tried going saltless for a couple of weeks and found that I enjoyed many foods without additional salt. I fasted for three days just to see what it felt like (oddly, it gets easier). I even had a week of eating nothing but spaghetti with tomato chutney sauce and cheese.

I had read that you could reset your appetite so my next experiment would be to have three small meals a day – and nothing else. Just to see what it was like. Looking back on it now, I honestly can’t remember how much I had fooled myself about this not being an attempt to lose weight.

I didn’t weigh myself to start, nor did I weigh myself as I went (I didn’t own any scales). Instead I just started following this eating regime – and I found that I quite quickly started to lose weight.

So the trick in this case was that I wasn’t dieting at all, I was performing experiments on myself. Totally different. Best of all, it meant that I couldn’t indulge in the self-destructive behaviour of wanting to rebel against my own decision, something I still hadn’t grown out of at the time.

Obsession

I’m not sure if that particular trick could have got me all the way, particularly as the weight started to come off and I could no longer fool myself that losing weight wasn’t the point of what I was doing. Somehow I managed to transition to a second trick – I got really, really obsessive.

  • I refused all food outside the three meals a day I allowed myself. While I tried to be polite about it, that meant being completely ruthless about turning down celebration food (birthday cakes, etc), gift food (box of chocolates) or even just social food (cake at a café with a friend). Sometimes I let people assume I was allergic or had some other nameless health issue that prevented me from eating with them.
  • I thought about food a lot – what I’d eaten, what I was eating, what I was going to eat, whether it would be acceptable or not.
  • I learnt to enjoy the sensation of hunger and saw it as a sign that I was winning and in control of my body and myself.

This is probably setting off little warning bells in anyone familiar with eating disorders. Looking back on it, I think I managed to give myself a weird form of anorexia nervosa, with the main difference being that I actually was quite overweight. I also think that maybe I was just a bit lucky that I managed to stop when I did.

Other Tricks

Those are two tricks that worked for me. I’m sure there are plenty of other tricks that people have used to help themselves make those hundreds and thousands of decisions that result in a successful diet.

I used a different trick entirely when I lost my 10kg recently. The experiment trick was a once-off, and I’m not sure you can be obsessive enough while living with someone. Instead I went for something else that works for me – number-chasing.

I signed up for a calorie-counter site called MyFitnessPal.com. It calculated my daily energy requirements, I entered all the food I ate each day, and the site told me how well I was doing.

It’s not a great site in many ways, but the combination of number-chasing and being able to see exactly how much they were going to blow out if I bought that piece of carrot cake was often enough to help me make the decision to have an apple instead.

Appetite and the Fish’n’Chip Diet

But why the Fish’n’Chip Diet?

One of the important things I learnt is that weight loss is all about eating less. Exercise will only get you so far, and it seems that eating a lot of ‘good’ food is just as good a way of putting on weight as eating a lot of ‘bad’ food.

So I didn’t really change what I ate – I just changed how much I ate of it. This meant that I didn’t have to give up anything including my beloved fish’n’chips. On the other hand, I did have to change my regular order from 1 fish, 1 sausage, 1 potato fritter and a scoop of chips to 1 fish and half a scoop of chips.

Now, you may think that sounds ridiculously small but there’s good news too. My experiment to reduce my appetite was entirely successful. If you eat smaller quantities for a while your stomach will eventually reset itself. The thought of eating my old regular f’n’c order now makes me feel just a bit sick.

The Nitty Gritty

There are lots of diets out there. I suspect that most of them work – for a few people. The above is what worked for me but I wouldn’t claim it would work for everyone. That said, here’s a summary of what I’ve learnt that I reckon might be generally applicable:

  • You can lose weight. You don’t have to be fat.
  • It’s about portion control. The amount you eat is more important than what you eat.
  • You can reset your appetite so that smaller meals will make you feel sated. I reckon it took me about two weeks to reset mine… but it’s very easy to creep it up again.
  • You need a trick or two. Something that will help you keep making those correct decisions.
  • Feeling hungry when you’re still getting enough to eat isn’t really so bad.
  • You don’t need to weigh yourself regularly to lose weight. Do it if it works for you.

And one final note: if you’re happy and healthy at your current weight I reckon you’re doing better than most people and should leave well enough alone.

My List of iPhone Gripes

It’s the end of the iPhone era for me.

I had been pretty impressed with the US iPhones that had leaked into NZ, and I bought an iPhone 3G on the first day they were available in NZ (using my own money even!) and upgraded it to a 3GS soon after that came out.

And it was great. Apple really were the first people to get the smartphone right. It was fast, had a useful screen and the touch interface had Apple’s usual attention to detail. My iPhone and I had a lot of good times together.

But by the time the iPhone 4 was released I just wasn’t as interested. It wasn’t just the hardware, or Apple’s control-freakery or any one thing in particular, but somehow I wanted to try something else.

What did happen was a Samsung Galaxy S II running Google’s Android operating system. I’ll be writing more about that later, but first I thought I’d finally get around to publishing my list of iPhone gripes.

These are my personal gripes. I know that some of them are probably features to other people, or can be fixed with more or less ease, or will be fixed in iOS5 but it’s really too late for that for me. So, in no particular order, a bunch of things that annoyed me about the iPhone:

  1. The failure to use the lock screen to display useful information.
  2. The way the weather app icon doesn’t change to match to match the weather.
  3. That the Maps icon is an American highway map.
  4. The difficulty of finding good apps – you can find a multitude of apps but it’s very hard to tell which are any good.
  5. The “icons, icons, nothing but icons” menu system.
  6. That the iPhone 3GS had very limited message notification and ringtones. You hear that “ding-ding” sound and every iPhone user in the room wonders if the message is for them.
  7. The way that iOS4.2 added new message tones for the iPhone 4 but not for the older 3GS.
  8. The lack of buttons, particular the way that the single button is used for search, task-switching, app-closing, and screen shots (about 10% of my photos are accidental screen shots),
  9. The lack of a physical camera button. Trying to do tricky shots wth the on-screen button is hard.
  10. The multi-second delay in starting the camera.
  11. The way that Apple offered free iPhone tracking… for the iPhone 4 but not the 3G or 3GS.
  12. The volume and mute controls on the 3GS have annoyingly sharp edges – and the mute button is too easy to activate when putting it into a pocket.
  13. There’s no icon on screen to show whether mute is on or not.
  14. That the iOS4 ‘upgrade’ killed the performance of the iPhone 3G and 3GS and Apple tried to stop you downgrading again. (This was improved in later versions but the performance is still noticeably crappier than it was.)
  15. The way that the 3G doesn’t get security fixes any more after just two years. (Launched July 2008, last fix Nov 2010).
  16. Apple choosing what political views are acceptable in apps sold in the app store – and there’s no other way to get apps.
  17. The inability to cache downloaded maps on your phone.
  18. The rotation-lock option cunningly hidden in a leftward swipe of the dock-thing when in task-switching mode.
  19. That you have to install iTunes to activate the phone or copy music to it.
  20. If you switch to a new PC, iTunes tries to get you to wipe everything from your phone (this can be prevented).
  21. That you can’t use the volume controls for page turning when reading electronic books.
  22. Lack of easy auto update for applications.
  23. If you’re in one application and click a link that takes you into another (e.g. a YouTube video link in the browser), there’s no obvious way to get back to where you were in the first application.

Coming soon: my list of Android gripes. :)

Starving children and evil

I feel remarkably disturbed by the release of the report from the Welfare Working Group.

Given that:

  1. The Domestic Purposes Benefit is designed to be the minimum necessary amount for people to live on.
  2. Currently it increases as additional children are born to cover the increased costs of food, clothing and so on.
  3. The WWG will substantially increase the pressure to get into work earlier.
  4. Failure to comply leads to a cut of the benefit paid in steps down to 0.
  5. That these children, whether born to ‘good’ parents or ‘bad’, will still need to be cared for.

Let me be very clear about this – if your policies lead to children starving in a relatively rich country like New Zealand, you’re not just wrong or heartless, but evil.

One final note: some of the people who will be on the Domestic Purposes Benefit by the time these policies are implemented will only be so because they lost their partner in the Christchurch Quake.

The Compleat Home Entertainment System – Updated

Three and a half years ago I documented my home entertainment system. I thought that people both technical and non-technical might appreciate the chance to see how someone else had done it.

It’s time for an update. Let’s start with what we can do with it:

Features

  • Lounge – we use XBMC on the Mac Mini to play music, downloaded media and streaming Internet video. The all-in-one DVD player/amplifier is still used to watch movies on DVD.
  • Bedroom – we use an Airport Express to play music from the network storage via iTunes running on the Mac Mini in the lounge. Our iPhones are used as remote controls. (Yes, there are a lot of systems involved in that process. Amazing that it works so well!)
  • General – centralised storage of data, printing from anywhere, wireless Internet.

The Diagram

And here’s all the bits and how they connect up. As you can see it’s organised into three columns – output devices, players and network infrastructure:

Diagram showing the output devices, media players and network infrastructure

Major Changes

The major changes since the last update:

  • Dumped the old Xbox hardware for a media player and replaced it with an only slightly broken surplus Mac Mini running Windows 7. It’s still running XBMC. (Plex on OSX was rejected due to being a bit too unfinished – and I ended up hating the Apple Remote for not having enough buttons.)
  • Upgraded the wireless network to dual-band 802.11n and the wired network to gigabit ethernet for maximum performance.
  • Upgraded the network storage from 2 x 500Gb drives to 2 x 1.5TB drives, while still using the same old Dlink DNS-323 hardware.
  • Switched to an ADSL internet connection due to not being able to get cable any more. We ended up having to run PPPoE from the ADSL modem to the router to make the connection stable enough to use.
  • Added iTunes on the Mac Mini to enable use of an Airport Express as a remote music player.
  • Added a Logitech Harmony remote (not shown) to control it all. This has allowed us to dump the other three remotes into a drawer and ignore them.
  • Added an Xbox 360 (not shown) for gaming.

Next

It’s all working pretty well at the moment so no major changes are planned. The only limitation is that the Mac Mini isn’t powerful enough to play high-quality 1080p video. This could be solved by upgrading the hardware or by replacing it with a dedicated media player – if they ever get good enough (keeping my eye on the Boxee Box and the WD Live Hub). It doesn’t worry me too much at the moment.

Questions?

Feel free to ask any questions and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Strange Data Collection Method

I was taken aback by what I found in my post box today – a letter asking me to complete a survey about my respiratory health. The Medical Research Institute tells me that (link to scan of letter (PDF)):

You have been randomly selected from the electoral roll to participate in the first phase which involves completing the questionnaire on the other side of this letter.

Personally I thought that it was illegal to use the Electoral Roll for any purpose other than elections, but it seems that there is an exception for approved scientific/health researchers.

I’d be surprised if the response rate was very high or very representative.

And no, I didn’t fill it out. Feel free to use the code and URL on the letter to go and answer it for me.

OIA Bait

I was looking at the just released consultation document on Regulations and Codes of Practice for the Anti-Money Laundering/Countering the Funding of Terrorism Act.

They ask for submissions and add the following:

The Ministry of Justice does not intend to publish comment that it receives on this document. However any comment will be subject to the Official Information Act 1982 and may, therefore, be released in part or full.

This makes me feel like requesting all the submissions and publishing them (as Tech Liberty did for the ACTA submissions) just on general principle. Maybe if we keep doing that they’ll finally realise that it just makes more sense to publish the submissions themselves.

Too much Press and Hold

I really like the way that the iPhone recognises phone numbers in emails and turns them into touchable links.

Screenshot of email with highlighted phone number

But for ages I thought that all you could do was call the number.

Screenshot showing the short-press menu with Call and Cancel

This used to really annoy me because, being a modern kind of person, I generally prefer to text people than call them. Other times I just wanted the number to add to my address book, so I’d end up cutting and pasting the number into Contacts.

Then one day I lingered on the link too long and a whole new menu popped up! Hey, here were exactly the features I was looking for.

Screenshot showing the press and hold menu with call, text, contacts

Now, there are two problems here.

Firstly, there is no advantage to the user from this arrangement. In both cases the phone displays a menu with one or more actions and an option to cancel it. The required user actions are the same:

  1. Press (or press and hold)
  2. Press selected option or cancel

If the user interaction is exactly the same why not just show the full menu in both cases?

Secondly, and more importantly, this “press and hold” functionality is hidden from the user and there’s no way to easily discover it. I’d had my phone for a couple of years before I realised it was there (I’m assuming it wasn’t added in an OS upgrade) and I wonder how many people still don’t know about it. And what other convenient features am I missing just because I haven’t thought to check that they might be there?

To my mind, “press and hold” is a user-unfriendly way to add functionality and should be avoided wherever possible.

Appearing before a Select Committee

Last week I went to my first Select Committee hearing and therefore I’m now an expert. Here’s what I found out.

Why

The New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties sent in a submission about the Electoral (Disqualification of Convicted Prisoners) Amendment Bill to the Law and Order Select Comittee.

Current law says that prisoners given a sentence of longer than 3 years cannot vote; this bill extends that to all prisoners. The Council opposes this change and recommends that this provision should be removed from the law, not extended.

In our submission we asked to make an oral submission to the committee.

Subsequently we received an invitation to appear before them. We were allocated 10 minutes to make our submission. Kevin was to do the submission while I went to support him.

Where

We turned up at Parliament 20 minutes before our time and went through the main visitor entrance. The receptionist asked us our business, gave us a sticker and then pointed us in the direction of the hearing rooms. The door was closed and a sign said that it was closed to the public. We sat down and chatted to the other submitters.

How

Eventually (they were late) the committee finished what they were doing, a whole bunch of people in suits filed out, and the sign on the door was changed to show that it was open to the public. We all filed in and sat in the public seats at one end of the room.

At the other end was a large U-shaped table with the various MPs around it, each with a computer terminal and a sign with their name in front of them.

What

The proceedings of the committee were fairly relaxed. The chair of the committee invited us up, quickly did introductions around the table and then asked us to speak.

Kevin gave his presentation and then the committee asked questions. The questions were generally quite good and showed that the committee members had listened to what he was saying – although some were obviously using our submission as a launch pad to put forward their own points of view. One committee member even asked for a copy of the statistics we had included in the presentation and then raced off to take copies.

Then the questions stopped and it was time for the next submitter to make their presentation, so we made our way out.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Kevin McCormack of the NZ Council for Civil Liberties who wrote the original submission and then prepared and presented the oral submission.

Good Company Twitter

Companies are increasing their use of Twitter but it’s not always obvious what they should be doing on it.

It doesn’t help that different people have different opinions. I’m not interested in following companies to get deals or beg for favours, and I detest “retweet to win” contests that try to turn everyone into unpaid spammers.

Here’s five times that companies made a positive impression on me by interacting over Twitter:

  1. Welcomed Whittakers (@whittakersnz) to Twitter and asked when they were going to do Easter Eggs. Got told they were working on it.
  2. Orcon offered to help me resolve a problem with their service. (Not solvable by them, it needed Telecom to pull finger.)
  3. I complained about Netgear service and got a phone call (!) from their PR company in Australia. I declined their offer to help and sorted it out through the usual channels the next day.
  4. Responded to a question about where to get batteries by suggesting Dick Smith. Someone else responded and speculated that their house-brand batteries might not be as good. @DickSmithNZ responded with details of their current sale on batteries as well as a link to a report showing that their batteries were as good as the name-brand ones.
  5. I said I was switching from Vodafone to Telecom and received a “Welcome on board” from @TelecomNZ.

Each of these companies treated me as a person and, by doing so, made me feel better about dealing with them.

The winner is Dick Smith for their quick and useful response – but I admit I’m still hanging out for those easter eggs from Whittakers!