Kids and Touchscreens

Please excuse me as I unpack a Russian nesting doll of articles I'm just now catching up on.

On Tuesday, Mat Honan published a piece about parents using screens to babysit their children:

“But the ever-present touchscreens make me incredibly uneasy—probably because they make parenting so easy. There is always one at hand to make restaurants and long drives and air travel much more pleasant. The tablet is the new pacifier.

But these screens have a weird dual nature: They make us more connected and more isolated at the same time. When I hand my daughter an iPad with an interactive reading app, she dives in and reads along. But she also goes into a trance. It’s disturbing because, frankly, it reminds me of myself.”

Shawn Blanc had some thoughts on the matter:

“Letting our sons play a learning game on the iPad or watch an episode of The Magic School Bus isn’t wrong in and of itself, and we don’t want them to grow up feeling shame related to the usage of digital devices. But neither are we going to let them zone out for hours watching cartoons on an iPhone so we can live our lives without the “inconvenience” of little boys who constantly want our attention.”

So did Stephen Hackett:

“...the most guilt-inducing part of these articles? The fact that I screw this sort of thing up all the time.”

Boy, do these posts ever speak to me right now. My son Brendon is just over two years old, and has already shown surprising proficiency in navigating gadget interfaces.

He knows the Netflix app well enough that he can quickly find it on anyone's iPad or iPhone—no matter what page or folder it lives in—and scroll down to the kid's section and play one of his favorite shows, like Super Why! (Thankfully there hasn't yet been an issue of him accidentally pulling up Breaking Bad or some horror film.)

He has a "toddler tablet" of his own (given to us as a Christmas present from my brother-in-law) that he plays puzzle games on. He also knows how to turn on our PS3, put in a specific movie, and hit the controller's X button at the menu to play it.

If I'm being honest here, it all freaks me out a little.

Part of me knows he is growing up in a world filled with screens. I'm sure he will wonder how we ever got along without them. In that regard, it seems silly to prevent him from getting used to the technology while he's still an information sponge.

But like his father, he shows an unfortunate tendency to cling to a screen and zone out for extended periods until someone intervenes. The thing that really makes me feel guilty is that sometimes we just let him do it—not because we don't care, but because it buys us some uninterrupted time to focus on our respective projects. I'm not proud of it.

In our defense, we've been trying to get better about this. We've been gently introducing limits on his screen time, such as only letting him watching one or two episodes of something before we take the screen away and encourage him to find another activity. We try to keep our devices hidden from plain sight when possible, since he's prone to picking one up whenever the opportunity presents itself. We put other things in front of him instead, like a coloring book or some building blocks. We've also been spending a lot more time on the floor actively playing with him or reading to him, rather than ignoring him (which has undoubtedly affected the pace at which I publish articles here on the site, for good or for bad).

I don't know that any of this is effective, or even if we're necessarily doing anything right or wrong either way. I can't honestly say that screen time has ever had a negative effect on him—for all I know, I'm just biased because we didn't have tablets and smartphones when I was a kid.

I don't have any concrete answers here. All I can do is try to find the balance between using screens as a convenient/entertaining "pacifier" and using them purely for educational purposes.

If other parents are reading this, I'd love to hear your insight.

(Update: Just as I finished typing up this draft, Shawn Blanc and Stephen Hackett put out an episode of The Weekly Briefly podcast on the subject of kids and touchscreens. They make some great points about boundaries and the fact that all modern parents are having to navigate these murky waters. I recommend giving it a listen.)

An Obsessive’s Guide to Field Notes COLORS Editions

The guys at Field Notes put together a series of videos covering the last five years of their COLORS editions, and the stories behind each one.

As of this writing, it'll take just under an hour to watch them all. If you're a huge fan of Field Notes though (guilty as charged), it's worth setting aside the time with a cup of coffee in hand.

The Marine's Secret Weapon: Coffee

Former U.S. marines Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez wrote a blog post for the New York Times in August 2013 about how even terrible coffee can (and does) become a necessary social experience for soldiers on deployment.

“We never expected it to become an obsession. Coffee was more than just a drink. It was a way to remember what it’s all about, a way to connect with old friends, a way to make sense of where our paths in life had taken us.”

A fascinating aspect of life in the military that most of us never have to think about. Makes me wonder what other ways soldiers find to bring bits of home with them into the field.

Tonx Bought by Blue Bottle Coffee

From the Tonx blog:

“As Tonx has grown we’ve added friends to the team, assembling top talents in green coffee sourcing, coffee roasting, software development, design, marketing, and customer service. One thing we lacked though was a dedicated production facility that would allow us to continue growing and improving. Getting there meant either raising a serious wad of venture capital (no picnic!) or finding a partner in the industry that shared our values and ambitions.

With Blue Bottle, we have found a more established company that still has an innovative startup culture, continues to evolve, and is dedicated to improving people’s experience of coffee on an ambitious scale. And they have resources we could only dream of.”

This is one acquisition I can get behind. Congrats to everyone at my favorite coffee subscription service!

For more info, Wired has the full report.

Creativity, Inc.

Speaking of Pixar, there's a book coming out tomorrow called Creativity, Inc. that I can't wait to read. Written by co-founder Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc. grants readers a peek into the creative process at Pixar and how other businesses can apply the many lessons he has learned from managing teams of creative people over the years.

If this excerpt at Fast Company is anything to go by, Creativity, Inc. is going to be an excellent book. Pre-order it from Amazon or from the iBooks Store.

Building the Next Pixar

Evie Nagy of Fast Company interviewed a bunch of Pixar alums about working for one of the best animation studios in the world, and how those experiences translated into their own ventures.

Articles like this make it difficult to pick out the best quotes because they're all so good, but I particularly enjoyed this one by Suzanne Slatcher (who helped create Finding Nemo's Sydney Opera House, the car-like rock formations in Cars, and the iconic house in Up):

“A computer will make something perfectly square, perfectly spherical, and that’s just ugly and boring. All of your time is spent kind of messing it up, which is the opposite of most people’s jobs…the real world is a big old mess and most people’s time is spent tidying it up.”

Here's another good'un for anyone who thinks they always need the newest, shiniest thing to do good work (emphasis mine):

“John Lasseter understood that this was a new medium, but the fundamental medium was storytelling, not technology. The technology helped, but it was just a better pencil—it was marrying the artists and storytellers with the technology in a way that they both really understood and appreciated. That was the key to Pixar's creative success, and it still is.”

There's plenty more where that came from, so go read the whole article.

'Ducks'

Kate Beaton, who draws the hilarious webcomic Hark! A Vagrant, just published a more personal 5-part short story called Ducks:

Ducks is about part of my time working at a mining site in Fort McMurray, the events are from 2008. It is a complicated place, it is not the same for all, and these are only my own experiences there. [...] Ducks is about a lot of things, and among these, it is about environmental destruction in an environment that includes humans.”

If you have ten minutes to spare today, it's worth reading.

Monument Valley

Monument Valley

My latest iOS gaming obsession is Monument Valley, a new platformer inspired by the art of M.C. Escher. You play as Ida, a silent princess who must navigate a series of seemingly impossible architecture by solving puzzles and avoiding the Crow People and other strange inhabitants.

Each level presents a structure that looks impossible to traverse at first, but by moving or rotating sections of the environment, you can alter these optical illusions to create a path where none existed before. Watch the official trailer and you'll see what I mean.

Monument Valley - 2

As noted in a behind-the-scenes video, every stage is like a different work of art, beautiful enough to be printed out and hung on a wall. As you interact with Ida's world, you are greeted with pleasant sound effects and music, so I recommend playing with headphones for the best experience. (I wonder if the developers plan to release the soundtrack, because I would buy it.)

Monument Valley is one of the most gorgeous and thoughtfully considered games I've seen on iOS, one that answers the question, "Are video games art?" with a resounding yes! And it's only $4, so there's no reason not to treat yourself to one of the best iOS games of 2014.

Shawn Blanc's Preferred iPad Keyboard Setup

In my experience, the two most popular iPad keyboard setups have always been:

  1. Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover, which is a keyboard, hard shell cover, and docking stand rolled into one.
  2. The combination of an Incase Origami Workstation and an Apple Bluetooth keyboard.

I use the former, while Shawn prefers the latter. His reasoning is perfectly solid:

“However, I have three quibbles with the keyboard case class of iPad keyboards (which includes cases, covers, folios, etc.)

  1. Most keyboard cases are designed to a specific iPad form factor. If you upgrade your iPad every so often, then you must also upgrade your keyboard case.
  2. Because I don’t mostly use an external keyboard when using my iPad, I don’t want a keyboard cover that attaches to my iPad. Though I do enjoy using the iPad for writing, that is not my chief task.
  3. For the iPad mini, it’s universally acknowledged that no good keyboard case exists. Of the ones that do fit onto an iPad mini, they have to be so small that they’re awkward and uncomfortable to type on.”

Point #2 is where I differ from Shawn. I actually do use my Logitech Ultrathin keyboard nearly constantly because all my writing is done from my iPad. Even when I'm not typing, I still keep my iPad docked on the Logitech just because it works so well as a stand and as a protective cover when closed. I almost consider it a part of my iPad at this point.

Like anything, each setup has its pros and cons. It all depends on your needs.

Fantastical 2 for iPad Released

Fantastical 2 has been my calendar app of choice for the past few months. My one quibble so far has been that it was only designed for iPhone. I have used it on my iPad in 2x mode, but it has never been a great experience.

That all changed with today's release of Fantastical 2 for iPad. All of Fantastical's key features—including the DayTicker and its ability to understand natural language input—have been carried over from the iPhone version. The main difference is that the iPad app takes full advantage of the larger screen to display more information at once. It's more than a basic calendar; it's a detailed dashboard for my schedule.

As it stands now, the iPhone version is where I will quickly create new events, and the iPad version is what I'll use to manage and review existing events. I recommend picking up both if you haven't already done so, especially since the iPad app is on sale for $10, a discount of 33%.

The Invention of the Aeropress

Zachary Crockett, writing for Priceonomics:

“There’s really nothing bad to say about the device other than the fact that it’s a funny-looking plastic thingy. Then again, its inventor, Stanford professor Alan Adler, is a world renowned inventor of funny-looking plastic thingies”

Great article about the history and making of the Aeropress, one of my all-time favorite household gadgets and easily the best coffee maker I've ever owned.

(I also love how they refer to an Adam "lonelysandwich" Lisagor video simply as, "An AeroPress fan's artsy instructional video.")

Blogging is Not Necessarily an "Amateur Thing"

Yesterday, I happened upon a blog post by Dave Winer that irked me a little (something he's managed to do in the past). He writes:

“It is possible for a professional reporter to blog, even when they're doing their job as a reporter. But it is not a professional act.”

[...]

“Why are bloggers important to reporters? Bloggers are your sources. They are the people who previous generations of reporters had to reach by telephone.”

His worldview seems to be divided thusly: there are bloggers, and there are reporters. Reporters are a step above bloggers—or, they are at least held to a higher standard. Their work must be objective, well-researched, and probably edited by a third party before publication. Bloggers are free to do whatever they want, accountable to no one but themselves. They share their knowledge and expertise for free.

I don't want to put words in his mouth because I don't follow his work that closely and I don't know him personally, but my gut tells me I'm on the right track. Assuming that I've correctly understood his gist, I have a few thoughts on the matter.

  1. There is more gray area to this topic than Dave is allowing here. While he grants that journalists can often be bloggers, it is not a two-way street in his mind—not because of differences in expertise level, but because bloggers do what they do for free.

    But that's not always the case is it? The web is laden with bloggers who get paid, some quite handsomely, to do nothing but write blog posts. The quality of work between these people—and even between a given writer's posts, sometimes—can vary wildly, but the fact remains that they make a living doing what they do. To me, that is the very definition of professional.

    You might as well say that podcasters aren't professional the way radio hosts are, but that wouldn't be true either.

  2. Positioning bloggers as mere sources to be mined by reporters seems like a huge marginalization to me. Or a generalization, if nothing else.

    Not all bloggers treat their writing as some kind of public journal or as a venue to rant about whatever political nonsense is happening that week. That kind of thing certainly exists, but there are also plenty of bloggers who go the extra mile to report facts just as well (if not better) than a reporter might. And I would argue that there are also plenty of paid reporters who have produced unprofessional work. It's very difficult to be objective 100% of the time.

  3. I don't think "blogger != reporter" is a very useful distinction to make anymore. In a world where anybody with a smartphone and internet access can break a story hours before a reporter even knows anything is happening, it seems inevitable that the role of reporter will be gradually downsized in favor of crowdsourced information.

    Sure, there will likely always be a need for sharp editorial voices to stand out above the crowd and help us make sense of it all. Great writing is great writing, no matter the source. But if some brave soul decides to live-tweet a violent riot happening nearby, does that make her less of a reporter than someone gathering facts in safety from thousands of miles away? I don't necessarily think so.

    Here's another way to think about it: if somebody goes all-in on a journalistic story, investigating the hell out of it, doing interviews, the whole nine yards...but the next day decides to post about cat GIFs, what do you call them? A reporter one day but a blogger the next? Why draw that line in the first place?

I guess what I'm trying to say here is that the line between "blogger" and "reporter" is growing fuzzier all the time. It's not a one-versus-the-other scenario that I see playing out in the future, but more of a merging of the two sides.

To think otherwise is to be stuck in the 20th century.

David Sparks Talks iBooks on the Technical Difficulties Podcast

Speaking of podcasts about writing, David Sparks recently guested on Technical Difficulties to discuss how he uses iBooks Author and other such tools to write and publish his Field Guide eBooks. Anyone considering getting into the self-publishing game should give it a listen.

One interesting point that came up in the conversation was the fact that a project created in iBooks Author doesn't necessarily have to be sold on the iBooks Store; it could ostensibly be used as a tool for putting together something special that can be freely shared with friends and family. Or anyone else with an iOS device, for that matter.

Shawn Blanc and Patrick Rhone's Guide to Writing

A fantastic conversation between two writers I respect and look up to. I only wish it had been longer.

Two points in the discussion that I particularly enjoyed:

  1. It's important that writers have fun writing. Sometimes I need to be reminded of this fact myself, and this was definitely one of those times.

    I've got about ten fairly large articles in the works, and I've been stressing for weeks about how to make each one top notch, but unable to focus enough to finish any one of them, which itself is another point of anxiety for me. Too much stress and not enough fun.

  2. Our audience's perception of our work can sometimes be skewed, and understandably so. They only get to see the stuff we choose to put out there, not the assembly line that brought it all together. They don't see all the drafts, edits, revisions, cuts, tough decisions, or the eureka! moments that it took to reach the final product.

    They see us posting photos on Instagram, or taking our kids to museums during the day, and perhaps they wonder, "What the hell is this guy doing not writing?" But that's rarely the whole story.

    As Shawn mentions on the podcast, there are a few benefits to working from home. As long as you're taking care of the negatives (managing your own health insurance and taxes, etc), there's no reason not to take advantage of the positives as much as possible.

So yeah, fantastic episode. Go listen.

'9 of the Most Beautiful Buildings We Ever Tore Down'

Gizmodo:

“The years between 1880 and 1920 changed American cities completely: From elevators to air conditioning to electricity, the monumental buildings born during this period seemed like living things, humming with life. But as quickly as they rose, many of them were torn down—victims of the same progress that pushed them up.”

Such a shame about these buildings, particularly the Chicago Federal Building. I wonder what architecture we will be mourning in 2050.

(Also: did you know I wrote a beginner's guide to urban design a year ago?)