Author Archives: Don Engel

Potential Strategies for Escaping my Phone

Reading Digital Minimalism is reinforcing the ideas which led me to read it in the first place; I’m trying to get away from my computer and phone more. I’m thinking a bit about ways to be reachable but not too reachable.

I’m mostly thinking about eventually buying a watch with cellular service, which would allow me to take calls via a bluetooth headset. I’m hoping to find a bluetooth headset which is compact enough to fit in my pocket and maybe go over just one ear, with no buttons that would be pushed while in my pocket (maybe this one).

However, I’ve also rediscovered The Light Phone, which is a credit-card sized “smart dumb phone” which is designed to be used as a second cell phone, via call forwarding.
I think I still prefer the watch option, both for portability and for the specific feature set. I can disable or not install most apps, but having a calendar and the ability to click on the numbers of scheduled calls (esp. conference calls with long conference codes) is appealing. The Series 3 (and 4) already satisfies the cellular requirement, but are pricier than the Light Phone. The Light Phone wouldn’t work for international travel. In either case, I’ll need to either use my car’s built-in GPS (which doesn’t know traffic and is stuck on 2008 map data) or would upgrade to a dedicated GPS device (e.g. from Garmin or TomTom).

Removing the Unread Messages Counter on Gmail

As a big fan of Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love and Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, I’m now reading through Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, which I also highly recommend.

Digital Minimalism frequently mentions notifications as a tool that technology companies use to keep people using their services for longer periods of time, and notes that this presents the challenge of fragmented attention. Most of my notifications are disabled, but I really enjoy Gmail’s web-based interface. I’ve bookmarked a Gmail search result page so that I don’t have to see new messages in my inbox unless I mean to see them. Unfortunately, there is no built-in way to turn off the unread message counter. There are a few Chrome Extensions that will do this for you, but I am generally wary of Chrome Extensions from a security standpoint. So, before the kids woke up this morning, I decided to learn how to write Chrome Extensions and block the counter with my own code. I am sharing the very barebones code here so you can see and install it yourself without having to trust anyone’s black box Chrome Extension.

A Chrome Extension consists of a set of files – a manifest.json file and the other files to which it optionally refers (e.g. Javascript files, CSS files, icon images, etc). I’ve tackled the counter that appears in the left panel using CSS and the counter that appears in the title (i.e., on the browser tab) using Javascript. In all, I’ve written three very short files:

manifest.json contains the following:

{
  "manifest_version": 2,
  
  "name": "Hide Gmail Counter",
  "description": "Hides the Gmail counter.",
  "version": "1",
  
  "content_scripts": [
    {
      "matches": ["<all_urls>"],
      "js": ["remover.js"],
      "css": ["styles.css"]
    }
  ]
}

remover.js contains the following:

function nodeInsertedCallback(event) {
  if ((event.path[1].localName=="title") && (event.path[1].innerHTML.match(/Inbox \([0-9]+\) -/))) {
    document.title = event.path[1].innerHTML.replace(/Inbox \([0-9]+\) -/g,"Inbox -");
  }
};
document.addEventListener('DOMNodeInserted', nodeInsertedCallback);

styles.css contains the following

.bsU {
 visibility: hidden;
}

I then:
1. put all three files in a folder I called “Hide Gmail Counter”
2. chose “Extensions” from Chrome’s “Window” dropdown menu
3. turned on “Developer Mode”
4. clicked “Load Unpacked” and chose the folder created in #1 above.

That’s it. I now have no more counter and you can use the simple code above without trusting anyone’s black box Chrome Extension.

Tiles

My father had a few Tiles he wasn’t using, so I’ve decided to tag some things which I might lose. As my father uses Tile, my phone can also help find anything he (or others) loses. I’m starting my tagging with my backpack and water bottle. As these are things that I only use occasionally, I figure they’re likely to be left behind if I forget I’ve brought them with me. I think I may design (3D print or sew) something to more nicely attach the Tile to my water bottle. Here is the full list of things I’m thinking about tagging:

  • Umbrellas (I’ve lost two in the last 5 years or so)
  • Coats/jackets (I lost one at some point 5-10 years ago; we’ve had to search for the kids’ coats a few times)
  • Poster tube (I almost lost one before I presented at a conference)
  • Backpacks (I was using a laptop bag until recently and had a few close calls where I almost forgot it; we’ve had to search for the kids’ backpacks a few times)
  • One of my kids’ favorite stuffed animals
  • Luggage
  • Maybe my car, to track parking?
  • Maybe my kids, in case we get separated?

Father’s Day 2019

Father’s Day was yesterday and was fantastic. We started the day cheering my father running in the Pikesville 5K and the kids helped him cross the finish line. Marianne and the kids gave me a Habitent for Father’s Day and we set it up after the race. The kids and I played in it for a while and we had a nice Father’s Day lunch with all three generations. I’m excited about using the Habitent with the kids on their first camping trip some time soon.

Deleting Un-deletable Videos on iOS

A few months ago, I threw together a quick iOS app (not yet published) which shows a video without playing its audio and without affecting the audio being played in the background. This was so that I could get on a treadmill and watch a scenic running video on my iPad while listening to unrelated music on bluetooth headphones connected to the same iPad. It works great – I just haven’t refined the user interface to the point of it being App Store ready. Most of my motivation was for my own use case, which is perhaps too rare to justify any further work to make it App-Store-ready.

Since then, I’ve found that I’ve been maxing out the storage on my iPhone 6S, which is a problem I hadn’t had beforehand. I was vaguely aware that I still had two hour-long HD videos from this project stored in my Photos library. For some reason, the trash button was greyed out and I couldn’t erase them; I hadn’t bothered to figure this out until this morning.

It turns out they were synced from iTunes on my laptop and could only be erased by telling iTunes to sync photos (which I had since disabled) and pointing it to an empty folder as the sync source on the laptop side. This erased the videos and I now have more breathing room for storage space on my phone.

Thanks, Dad!

Kindergarten ended on Thursday and camp hasn’t started yet, so I had planned on taking yesterday (Friday) off from work to watch the kids. Some meetings got scheduled at work that I didn’t want to miss and there was an 8pm deadline to submit a paper to a conference that I am very excited about. My father kindly agreed to take a day of vacation instead of me, which allowed me to get everything done (and more) and gave the kids a fantastic day with their grandfather. They played their first-ever game of mini-golf, went to lunch at Noodles and Company in the mall, and behaved wonderfully all day. I’m always grateful for having such a supportive family; this just seems as good a time as any to share my gratitude.

On a related note, we’re all looking forward to cheering my father on in a 5K tomorrow morning (Father’s Day morning).

Protein, Hydration, and my Ovo-Lacto Vegetarian Diet

I’ve been a vegetarian for over 27 years. For most of that time, I never focused much on my diet and I remained fairly healthy. Over the last decade or two, my weight slowly crept higher – not to the point of obesity, just to the point where I wanted to do something about it – and I occasionally would fit regular exercise into my schedule until something happened to disrupt that routine, like a new schedule constraint or a short-term minor injury.

Over the last six months, I’ve discovered that I have a much easier time achieving and sustaining a healthy weight by focusing more on what I consume. In particular, I’ve found that by consuming more protein and more water, my appetite is greatly reduced. This isn’t surprising; thirst is easily confused with hunger, and protein is widely understood to be satiating, and also something that carnivores naturally get in higher numbers through casual, unplanned eating. I’ve found a few vegetarian protein powders that work well for me. My current favorite is Platinum Hydro Whey. I found it’s also important to have a water bottle which I really like and which has measurement markers on it. I use a 32oz Classic Blender Bottle, which I fill to 24oz and drink halfway before mixing in one serving (41oz) of the powder. I had a colleague or two who had the same bottle and wanted to easily tell mine apart, so I ordered a few “replacement lids” in UMBC black and gold (technically, it’s Blender Bottle’s “Batman Black” color). After a few months of using a kitchen scale at both home and the office to weigh the powder each time to get the right amount, I’ve switched to a simpler approach of batching the action of weighing the powder; I now fill several 100cc BlenderBottle GoStak containers with 41g protein powder each (which just about fills the containers). This also makes it simpler to mix the powder into the water on the go.

I’ve found this to be an easily maintained and fairly pleasant approach to satiation, and I feel healthier – probably because of the water.

I’m currently experimenting with setting a repeating three hour timer through the day to make sure I’ve had enough protein and water, to curb any buildup of hunger to which I would respond less responsibly.

Special Shirts and a Snake

Our twins had their last full day of kindergarten yesterday. Normally, the school has a polos-only dress code. Yesterday was a “dress down” day, when they could wear whatever they liked. We told them this and they took us more literally than we intended, describing the shirts they wanted to wear: yellow lightning on a blue shirt and fire on a yellow shirt. We made a project out of it and had some fun with them using felt and hot glue.

After school, we were playing outside and became friends with a black rat snake that was going for a walk on the sidewalk in front of our house.

Today is kindergarten graduation and, soon, summer camp!

Today is our Eighth Anniversary

Our religious wedding was eight years ago, on June 12, 2011. Over this past weekend, I was talking with my uncle, who is researching biographies of various ancestors. My uncle said that it’s possible to find some of their experiences, but hard to know what they were thinking during those experiences; that people rarely write down their thoughts. This helped validate my recent decision to start this blog, and I have some catching up to do. An anniversary seems a good time to write down some of the details of our wedding.

My wife and I first met on May 29, 2009, at a social for postdoctoral fellows working at the Johns Hopkins University hospital campus. It was sponsored by the postdoctoral association and I had heard about it without seeing the flyer, so I presumed there was no cost to attend and showed up without cash. My wife, a then-stranger who was on the postdoctoral association leadership, covered my cost of entry. She was wearing a necklace with her name transliterated into Hebrew and she had a non-Israeli accent, which got us talking for most of the evening. She invited me to see the movie “Up” in the theater with friends the next day and we discovered we had a friend in common when Jacob arrived. We had our first date a few days later on June 3, 2009. We had our civil wedding in the Towson courthouse on July 2, 2010. The courthouse only allows a few people to attend (my guests were close relatives) and we had our religious wedding ceremony about a year later, which was eight years ago today.

We designed the ketubah ourselves – it’s an infinity symbol (which is also engraved in our wedding rings) with the Orion nebula in the background and the Orion constellation in the infinity itself. My ring was originally the wedding ring of my paternal grandfather’s parents and their initials and marriage year are engraved as well, from when they were married.

We were married by the rabbi of the synagogue my family has been attending since my great-grandparents (my mother’s father’s parents) were founding members. My brothers served as best men and the two maids of honor were my wife’s friends. The chuppah holders were my cousins, my wife’s uncle, and a friend of mine. During the wedding, my grandfather (then 94 years old) sang the Motzi (blessing over the challah bread) and we all sang happy (5th) birthday for my cousin’s daughter.

The wedding and reception were held in the Engineers Club in downtown Baltimore, a short walk from where we lived at the time. We loved the venue for its beauty, for the location, for its engineering identity, and for its history.

Pocket Preservation: Keyless Entry and a Silicone Sheath

I wear nice pants (often suit pants) to work, and had more than one suit have the pockets reach the end of their useful lives long before the suit was otherwise showing signs of wear. The culprit was my keys and keyring, which would also scratch other items in my pockets. I eliminated most keys by shifting to keyless entry where possible, using number pad locks on doors at home and using the keyless entry fob for my Prius. The one key I couldn’t easily eliminate was my office key.

A few winter breaks ago, I took on a project to address this. I decided to turn my office door handle into a capacitive touch sensor. I programmed an Arduino to sense the secret sequence of taps on the outer door handle. In response, a motor pulled down the inner door handle and thus unlocked the door. It worked perfectly, until I tried it with the door closed. I turns out my office’s metal door frame grounded the handle, so the capacitive touch “interface” of the door handle only worked when the door was open. While there were some fun possibilities to address this while still using the Arduino/motor approach, that winter break came to an end before I had time to try them.

In the interim, I found a solution which has been appealing enough that I’ve prioritized other projects over returning to the Arduino door handle. The interim solution was to buy a silicon cover for my one remaining key, preventing it from sawing into my pants or other pocket items.

I’d like to get away from carrying things altogether, so I may eventually invest in an after-market keyless entry number pad for my car and may return to the Arduino door handle project eventually.