Woofing Down Your Food

Guarding the fridge?

You shall not pass.

Some years ago, the folks at MIT Media Lab were working on an electronic pooch that was designed to help you stick to your diet. Wirelessly hooked up to your pedometer, your digital daily food diary and your digital bathroom scales, the dog would keep track of your progress. When you ask it, “How am I doing?” it would bark and wag its tail in an excited manner if you’d been good. Cheat on your diet, and it would flop to the ground and play sad music.

I’m a big fan of robotics, and I applaud the sentiments behind the project. Obesity is an, um, increasing problem worldwide and we need original solutions.

However, I think this particular project was barking up the wrong refrigerator. For one thing, it’s highly unfair to use a dog as a diet aid. Dogs are basically a stomach on four legs; in fact, I bet even a robotic dog could be bribed with a pork chop to ‘look the other way’ on your diet infractions.

For another thing, using a dog the size of an Aibo puts it at a distinct disadvantage. Here’s a quick quiz: How many times have you been tempted to kick that yappy terrier across the road? How likely are you to punt a dog who’s just given you a ‘paws down’ on your diet?

The no-mooching pooch system also required that you have 1) a pedometer, 2) a PDA or smart phone 3) a digital scale. In my experience, the people who own pedometers are those annoying, already hyperfit types. You know, the sort that smile while jogging, actually enjoy those cardboardy meal replacement bars, and who say irritating things like “no pain, no gain!” Here’s another quiz: How many times have you been tempted to kick that pedometer-owning runner that goes past your place every day at 5 a.m.?

A technology-based approach is a problem. Electronic gadgets are expensive, and research seems to indicate that it’s the poorest who suffer the most from obesity. There’s also the question of your technical ability — when your diet dog flashes “12:00” at you because you can’t figure out how to reset it, do you take that as a good report or a bad one?

You also just know that something like this would be subject to the same problems computers have. The email spam your diet dog would receive would either be depressing (LOSE WEIGHT FASTER TODAY! NEW PILLS!), or cruel (ORDER CHOCOLATE ONLINE NOW).

I think if we’re going to have robotic dog diet aids, why not put the dog to better use?

Guard dog: Even if you do succeed in getting past it to that cheesecake, you will have burned off lots of calories in the fight.

A bone to pick: Portion sizes too large? Robodog is pre-programmed to steal and bury the excess.

Dog bites man: Did you sneak a cookie? A dog bite in your ample behind should be an excellent source of what psychologists call “negative reinforcement.”

Dog goes walkabout: If you haven’t had enough exercise today, your dog will drag you out for a walk.

Woman AND man’s best friend: A very smart robotic dog would work out the source of the milk bone treats and just quietly bury the house weigh scales and pedometer. Think of it as a “don’t bark, don’t tell” policy.

Really though, I think roboticists would do much better to focus on developing more automatons for the house. I already own a robot vacuum; I love my dishwasher. I will buy the robot floor washer some day, and the automatic lawnmower as soon as I can afford one. Needless to say, I’m also hoping for a robotic clothes iron, and an automatic toy picker upper; I’m sure my husband would like a device that would follow me around to collect all my stray coffee cups, my misplaced glasses, and lost car keys.

But as for robot diet dogs, well… I think it’s safe to say that idea is pooched.


Photo Credit: Chandra Clarke (These are our dogs, Ginger and Sasha)

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Intelligent Design? Yes, Please


I’m not a fan of teaching creationism in the classroom, but it’s clear we could all use a bit more intelligent design in our daily lives.

I say this because I’m convinced that product designers never actually use the things they invent; if they did, they’d hurry back to the drawing board.

Consider, as a first example, the standard shopping cart (trolley). Most carts come with convenient seats for your toddler, and they’re set up well enough so that they won’t tip if you put your child in when the cart’s empty. They come complete with leg holes, and sometimes even wee seat belts. But for a reason I have yet to fathom, the default position for the little plastic seat/flap is ‘up.’ What’s worse, the plastic flaps are usually spring loaded, so they don’t stay down.

This means you’ve two options when trying to put your child in the cart:

1) Hold him high enough above the seat that you can use his toes to wedge the seat down while lowering him in. This assumes you can lift a squirming 25 lb. toddler up that high, and that he doesn’t accidentally kick your nose. It’s fun attempting this while your eyes are streaming, the cart is rolling forward, and your purse is sliding down your arm.
2) Use one arm to hold the seat down while trying to heave your child into the seat with your other arm. My son was far too picky for this maneuver; he refused to tour the grocery store upside down.

Speaking of grocery stores, I would like to suggest an international conference to establish Food Filing Standards. At the moment, Store A in my city thinks that curry paste belongs in the International Food aisle. Store B believes that curry paste is an Oriental Food, and shelves it there. Store C, where the staff clearly have never enjoyed a decent lamb bhuna, puts it in the… gravy section. Serves me right, I suppose, for shopping at stores named A, B, and C.

Coffee pots could also use a design makeover. We own a percolator, and in order to make a pot of coffee, you have to: Try to find the six cup line, which is poorly marked and in an awkward place relative to the pot handle; insert the tube which draws water to the coffee basket; thread the basket onto the tube; count the right number of spoons of coffee into the basket; remember to put the lid on the basket; put the lid on the pot; and finally turn it on.

Big deal you say? Remember that you have to do this first thing in the morning *before you’ve had any coffee.* Miscount the coffee spoons, and you end up with either brown dishwater or crude oil. Forget the basket lid and you have to chew your coffee. Forget the pot lid, and, well… let’s just say coffee fountains are not pretty.

And talking of not pretty, does anyone remember the Sony CD fiasco? In case you missed it, it was revealed that Sony hid some software on many of its music CDs. The software was designed to prevent people from copying the music with their computer. I can only imagine how this decision came about:

EXECUTIVE ONE: Gentlemen! We have to do something to protect our copyright. We must stop people from copying and distributing our music without our permission.
EXECUTIVE TWO: I know! Let’s hide some software on our CDs and install it on their computers without their permission!
EXEC ONE: Brilliant! And let’s design it so badly that hackers will be able to exploit it to spread computer viruses and spam.
EXEC TWO: Let’s get to it!

Let’s not forget appliances that don’t shut down when you press the Power button, pop can tabs that break fingernails when you try to use them, and laser printers that regard your instruction to print out an important presentation as license to make an origami swan.

I’d go on, but I’m running out of space.

Clearly, that’s a blog design flaw.

Photo Credit: ErikaWittlieb / Pixabay

A Pregnant Pause


If you’ve been on the Internet for any length of time, I’m sure some well-meaning friend has sent you or tagged you with a “forward.” That is, some message passed from person to person because it is either a dire warning (Ladies! Do not get into your car without checking your back seat first!) or something amusing (You are a child of the 50s/60s/70s/80s/90s if you recognize any of the following…).

Although I’ve seen plenty of forwards relating to motherhood generally, I’ve never seen any about pregnancy. So, in the interest of creating new and fresh forward material that you can use to annoy your entire contact list, I present:


You buy loose, strappy sandals as soon as you know you’re pregnant, because you just know that shoes will not be an option by the time you’re nine months gone.

You start every conversation with your partner with, “THIS time, we should…”

You toss out all three hundred of the pregnancy and child rearing guidebooks you bought for the first pregnancy. This is because your kid never read any of those books, and therefore does none of the things the experts said he would.

Every night you make sure there is a clear path to the bathroom because you know that morning sickness will hit you the minute you crack an eyelid to peer at your alarm clock.

You start laying in frozen and convenience meals as soon as you know you’re pregnant, because you know that cooking in the sleep-deprived first eight weeks postpartum is only likely to bring the fire department around again.

You wake up in the middle of the night, worrying about the impending labour and delivery. This time the question is not, “What will it be like?” but “Will it be as bad as last time?”

You wonder if you were really that big by eight weeks along in your first pregnancy.

Your stretch marks get stretch marks.

You announce the commencement of visits to the obstetrician for weekly internal checkups by saying “Let the indignities begin!”

This time around you recognize the “is she or isn’t she?” stares you get while out in public, and you buy a t-shirt that says, “Yes, this is a pregnancy, and not a random weight gain. You can safely ask me about it.”

Remembering how she hovered while were still being stitched up, you obtain a court order barring the lactation consultant from visiting you while you recover in hospital.

Other mothers realize that you already know what labour and delivery is like, so they don’t bother trying to scare you with their gynaecological horror stories. Instead they try to scare you by pointing at your first child and saying, “Whoa, are you ever going to have your hands full with two of them!”

The stretch marks on your stretch marks get stretch marks.

You worry that saying something like, “Mommy’s tummy is getting bigger because there’s a baby in there” to your first child will give him nightmares about being eaten up or something.

While suffering from backache, weight gain, morning sickness and exhaustion, you deal with the twenty-third toddler meltdown of the day and try to resist the urge to run screaming from the house.

You send your partner to a nightclub bouncer training school so he can forcefully prevent the janitor, the hospital consultant, the medical students, the cafeteria lady, the government inspector and the local shoes salesman from trooping through your birth recovery room. This is especially important if you want five whole minutes to just lie there and say “OW!” this time.

You hear your first child laugh and think to yourself, “Yes, it’s all worth it.”

Photo Credit: Marisa_Sias / Pixabay

A Change Is As Good As A Rest…Or Not


Well…the holidays are over, and now it’s time to get back to work for a rest.

I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted. You see, I have four children and two dogs. I am very clear on the origin of two inventions: rum-laced egg nog, and tranquilizer darts.

The excitement started building around the end of November when my neighbours, darn them, began stringing up Christmas lights. The stores started bustling. The Breakfast With Santa and Santa Claus Parade were held on the first weekend of December.

Given that a month represents a fairly large percentage of a child’s life, that’s an awful lot of lead time for kids. They say young children are like sponges, and this is true: by the time we picked up a tree in mid-December, my kids had absorbed so much excitement that all they could do was run around in circles and yell at the top of their voices for an hour after we got it home.

Decorating a tree with youngsters in the house was also more difficult than I’d anticipated. I think 3.5 seconds elapsed between the time I set down the box of baubles and the time my kids had them all on … all crammed into the same patch of tree space at knee height. My husband and I spent most of the evening hoping that the tree would not suddenly collapse like a bad in-store pickle jar display before they went to bed and we could fix it.

What followed was two weeks of constant repetition. The endless Christmas carols? No. Excessive TV advertising? No. I mean those mantras familiar to all parents:

“Don’t touch.”
“I said don’t touch.”
“What did I just say?!”
“Don’t make me come over there!”
“Boy is Santa ever going to hear about this!!!”

It’s not just the kids that feel the strain of having to be on their best behaviour. Knowing as I did what Father Christmas was going to bring, I was keen to see my kids’ reaction to it all, and keeping secrets proved to be tough. Meanwhile, I’ve been after my husband to clean up his language. He works with computers, and it’s been said that you never truly know how to swear until you’ve used a computer. Nagging wasn’t working, so I decided to hit him where it hurt: his chocolate-covered almond stash. The result? A ‘cuss jar’ half-full of the things, but a lot less swearing. Indeed, now when he’s mildly annoyed, he’ll catch himself by saying “almond!” Of course when he’s trodden on stray Lego in bare feet, he has to resort to saying “!@#$–I mean a very large TRUCK full of almonds!”

Yes, the neighbours think we’re eccentric.

It wouldn’t be an Important Event if colds and the ‘flu weren’t involved somehow. Indeed, illness combined with schedule interruptions, and all the special events turned out to be too much excitement to sustain. By the time the 24th rolled around, there were tantrums nearly every five minutes. My kids threw quite a few as well.

All that said, Christmas Day was a joy. There was that kitchen problem mid-morning (You know how in the movies, faucets suddenly blow twenty feet into the air, spewing water everywhere? This, apparently, is not an exaggeration.), but otherwise it went well. My kids’ reactions were every bit as good as I’d hoped and more. We had family over; the meal was a success. My husband and I ended the day with a toast to having pulled it off.

Of course, there is still the aftermath. The 3000 pieces of Lego that need a ‘storage solution.’ The thank you cards. The pine needles, which, like cicadas, burrow into your carpet to hibernate for up to 17 years, emerging only to breed more pine needles. The wrapping paper and boxes to recycle…

Sigh. I think I’ll go have one last egg nog. And another temper tantrum.

Photo credit: SuKd/Pixabay


Don’t Be So Elfish


This year, whether you’re preparing for Christmas, or Hanukah or you’re still just recovering from a particularly rambunctious Diwali, spare a thought for the poor unfortunates of the world.

No, no, I don’t mean the homeless and the poor. You’re supposed to be thinking of them anyway, and hopefully, doing something to help out. While you’re at it, however, consider:

The Poinsettia: Coddled all year in a nice warm greenhouse, given special food and water, spritz baths, and manicures. Then, on December 1, tossed on a smelly truck, dumped in the front of a store, and left to shiver in the freezing display racks. If a lucky “red,” purchased and used for a few weeks before being chucked out with the Christmas tree. If a “white” or “pink” or some other designer colour, left to shiver that much longer — until the reds are sold out.

Christmas Cake: Once a cherished tradition, now much maligned. This is thanks to a now-bankrupt bakery in Giggleswick, England that produced a huge but totally inedible batch of fruitcakes back in 1956. Many of these cakes are still in circulation, and are passed from person to person around the globe as “gifts.” The “Reclaim Christmas Baking Society” is attempting to collect these cakes and build a museum to bad baking, using the cakes themselves as bricks.

Radio and TV Announcers: Forced to say things like “Blu-Ray players make great stocking stuffers!” and “Buy your Dad his dream car this year!” without cracking up laughing. Forced to do everything in Christmas Cheer Voice.

Retail Store Clerks: Also known as “associates” and “representatives,” these poor souls have it particularly rough. Not only do they have to provide service at a rate of 452 customers per minute, they have to do so with a smile — even if the bratty three-year-old has just wrecked the stack of Barbie dolls that took an hour to assemble.

Retail Store Cashiers: Even worse than being a clerk is being a cashier. The checkout area is where store managers locate all the “novelties,” like the Singing Fish, the Dancing Hamster, and the Talking Santa. These toys are activated 1567 times a day in extreme cases. Recent studies show that the only people who actually buy these toys are the cashiers themselves, so they can take them out to the parking lot after work and run over them repeatedly with shopping carts.

Department Store Photographers: Ranked the second worst job to have in the retail sector (right after in-store janitor), photographers must hate this time of year. This is because every parent thinks that Christmas is the perfect time of year to buy that set of 54 wallet-sized photos of their child. And how easy do you think it is to make a toddler smile when he’s just been whisked through the “Our Toy Selection is Huge!” display and told he can’t touch?

The Elves: Santa gets milk and cookies. The reindeer often get carrots. The elves get nada — they have to stay home at the North Pole, freezing their little elvish tushes off. They spend Christmas slumped over cups of lukewarm cocoa, exhausted by a full year’s toy-making labour, while the delivery team gets all the credit and glory.

So this year, take a moment or two to make things better for others. Buy a nice warm blanket for the local poinsettia display. Don’t push the “Press Me! I Sing!” button on the Scooby Doo Santa toy at the store. And leave a box of take-out food for Santa to take back to the elves. A nice, hot curry, perhaps.

Happy Holidays.

Photo credit: Stevepb / Pixabay

A Snowball’s Chance in… Oz?


Not content to come in fourth in the world medal count for the summer Olympics, Australians now want to make the podium more often in winter sports.

Yes, Australia, that dry, flat, and unspeakably hot country with roughly 20 million people and 98 million sheep.*

To that end, Aussies built a $45 million (US) winter training facility in Melbourne, where temperatures regularly exceed 30C. (For American readers who don’t understand metric units, that’s hotter than 10 football fields.) This madness is apparently inspired by the fact that Australia scored a gold in freestyle moguls and a bronze in aerial skiing during the last winter Olympics.

Now, I applaud competitive spirit, I really do. I also appreciate a desire to beat the odds, daring to dream and attempting the impossible. But this project raises many questions.

First there is the issue of how Australians plan to find enough snow to ski properly. I’m told by a reliable source that it does snow periodically in the Blue Mountains, but I have yet to see photographic evidence of same. I suspect what’s really happening is that the local icing sugar factory is having emissions problems.

Of course it is possible to manufacture snow — ski resorts do this all the time if there isn’t enough local precipitation. However, the technique requires the air temperature to be either just above freezing, or below freezing; otherwise all you get out of the machine is water. Indeed, Australians have been unknowingly buying used snow making equipment for years: business liquidators have been marketing them as lawn sprinklers.

Assuming you attempted to make snow only in the Australian “winter” and only at higher altitudes, there’s still the question of ground temperature. Snow might come out of the machine only to melt on contact; seeds that have been dormant for decades waiting for a drop of moisture would suddenly spring to life. Skiers would find themselves trying to slalom through mud and tropical rain forest. At this stage the kangaroos would call their mates over to point and laugh.

There’s also the issue of the Australian’s national dress. Winning at skiing, like most other Olympic sports, has come down to a matter of milliseconds. A loose t-shirt and shorts aren’t very aerodynamic. Neither is a surfboard strapped to the back.

Indoor training would be possible, but costly. To compete in figure skating, speed skating or hockey, you need … ice. To make a decent ice surface you need lots and lots of water, something that can be hard to come by in arid Australia most years. You also need something known as an ice resurfacer (also called a Zamboni), a device especially made for making ice smooth. If Australians think their airplane tickets are costly, wait until they see the shipping costs for one of these babies, which weighs in at 2900 kg (6400 lbs).

Apart from the technical aspects, there’s the problem of the athletes, coaches and spectators themselves. An ice rink is a climate-controlled building, and most Aussies have strange religious objections to either central air or central heat; they prefer to tough it out.

That said, Australians are well-known for suffering hypothermia if the temperature drops below 20C; they shake their fists at the sky if a single cloud dares to drift by. Thus, they will categorically *not* want to train or sit in an ice rink, which is about as toasty as their food freezer. Plus there’s the problem of all that beach sand they’ll track into the building, which will make the ice into mush. They’re going to have to import their athletes from Canada.

The real kicker however, will be at the Olympic podium. That’s because assuming they can overcome all these geographical and climatic obstacles and produce world class winter athletes, you just know the announcer is going to credit the medal win to…

…the Austrians.

* Give or take.

Photo Credit: Tylerindiana / Pixabay