Archive for category Tech Items

A Touchy Subject

I’m sure there has always been something that parents are cautioned to keep their children from spending too much time playing with. Trebuchets. Plague-ridden rats. The cotton gin. Lightbulbs. Disco.

For my generation, it was TV. Then it was Nintendo. For kids just a few years ago it was Gameboys and PSPs. The new danger fad is iPhones and iPads. Go ahead and Google it up (or Bing! it, if you like to advertise that you don’t really know how to internet) and you’ll find articles from all over on the topic. Mobile devices are bad for attention spans, eyesight, exercise and imagination. They will melt the minds of our youth (and, depending on whose radiation reports you read, literally).

But I’m not so sure.

As with just about everything, it seems to me that the negatives associated with all the above items (the ones in the second paragraph, not the first, silly) are the negatives of excess and abandon. Leave your child to be entertained by any of the above and then wander off to do your own thing and of course they’re going to develop bad habits. Joshua likes to lick the iPad, because babies are little insane people. If we weren’t with him to mention that he might want to avoid licking the electronics, he’d do it all the time.

So I’m not making the case that it should be open season with these devices. To the contrary, I’m of the mind that teaching a kid to lean on the TV (or similar device) for entertainment is a very bad idea. The first memory I have of a television was from when we finally got a Nintendo and my Dad and I played Super Mario Bros. I can’t even recall where the TV was located in that first house, but it should be telling that what I remember of it was not sitting and watching it alone, but an experience that involved the entire family gathered and having fun.

As I got older, though, I began to play the hell out my video game systems. I threw a ton of hours at playing and replaying Duck Tales and Zelda and Bubble Bobble. And I watched a fair amount of TV. My knowledge of Seinfeld became encyclopedic, and I watched a lot of movies. And yet, here I am, a functional member of society. I can even write.

When I was little, even during the Nintendo days, one of my identifying characteristics was that I would have at least one book on my person at all times. Usually I would be reading two, bouncing back and forth between plots as the mood struck me. And when I was older and playing my videogames, I also played soccer and ran track and did school plays and worked on the school newspaper. I was busy, so if I wanted to burn a couple hours playing video games, it clearly wasn’t the end of the world and I don’t recall anyone having to ride my case about it.

I think both—the universally accepted goods and the generally defamed evils—have benefited me. I’ve got a pretty solid vocabulary, a wide store of various trivia in my head and pretty dead-on reading comprehension. It’s served me well into my professional life. I’ve also got pretty good hand-eye coordination, decent reflexes and a good eye for spotting small details.

My point is that just because a child watches TV or plays a video game does not mean that they do so to the exclusion of all other things. Unless, of course, you allow that to become habit.

But I started in on all that when I was older. Joshua is still a pretty little guy, and his brain is still making all its connections. The way he interacts with things now will be part of what hard-wires him for later periods in life. So, it’s hard to say for sure how the decisions we’re making with him now will affect him—but I think the fact that we are conscious of what we expose him to means it won’t go too far off track.

We let Joshua play with the iPad and he watches little bits of TV—but those things are always done in our presence. We never leave him to play on his own or watch TV so we can get something else done. With the iPad we teach him how to use it: what buttons to press, where to go to find the things he likes to play with. We point at pictures and ask him what sounds things make. If the TV is on we sit side by side on the couch and we tell him to say hi to people on screen and laugh when he asks where they went anytime they’re not in frame. We’re careful, though, and he never spends more than 15 minutes at a time doing either thing — and at this point typically each happens only a few times a week. His attention tends to wander anyway, and we just help it along if it seems like he’s apt to go off and do something else.

We also read to him constantly. We sit him on our laps and we look at picture books in the day and have him ID things. Every night before bed we read at least six books to him, some we read several times because he asks for them again. And what does he like to do on the iPad? That’s right. He likes to read the Toy Story interactive book. He likes to push the arrows to turn the pages, and watch the little movies that animate the story. He likes to play a “If You’re Happy and You Know It” interactive song/book/thing, too, where a song plays in the background and he can poke various objects on screen to get reactions. Not everything on the iPad is Angry Birds. Touchscreen devices are very usable by little ones, and parents are a huge paying market. Developers know this, so there is a wealth of software available that’s centered around young minds. You just have to hunt around for them a little bit.

There are some who may still say this sets a dangerous precedent, that we’re already teaching him to grow dependent on gadgets and he’ll never learn to imagine anything. Oooooor he’s not even 17-months old and already has a vocabulary of more than 30 words, loves books enough that he’ll request some three or four times in a row before bed and he already knows how to use a gadget that some people decades older than him have some trouble with.

It’s impossible not to admit that we don’t know what this will do for Joshua’s development (could I have made that phrase more of a jumble?). What I can be sure of, though, is that he will learn that things like the iPad and the TV are items to be used in moderation, that they are not replacements for books and that they are just another way he can play and interact with Mommy and Daddy.


Gotta Catch ‘Em All

As with Pokémon, it’s important to capture all your ideas as you have them. They are wily and fleeting and if you don’t wrangle them as they crop up, you run the risk of losing them forever. Some ideas will keep returning to you, but there are some that may have been triggered by something very specific or cropped up suddenly in the midst of other thoughts and if you miss them, they’re just gone.

To avoid those ideas sneaking off, it’s best to make sure you have a bag of tricks to snare them and keep them around for when they’ll be useful to you. Some of these items are pretty standard. But a few are more gadget-based ideas that you may want to consider. Here’s a good run-down of things you’ll want to have.

Pen and Paper – A notebook and something to write in it with. Ubiquitous. Just something you need to have. Take it with you to work. Keep it in your glove compartment. Carry if with you in your bag. A small notepad is a good idea for times when you won’t have something like a larger back to carry around. This way you can fit it in your pocket and not worry about needing to tote something everywhere.

Smartphones are doing a solid job at being excellent overall capture devices, but I still find them too cumbersome to really use for an extended period of time. The speed I can write far outstrips the pace at which I can thumb-type.

Voice Recorder – This is something I consider a must-have for the car. Long car rides are often where I do my best thinking. I make the trip up into the Los Angeles area from San Diego quite a bit. It’s a straight shot up the freeway and can take anywhere from two to three hours. I know the drive well, so my mind can wander quite a bit. The time to sit and think (see Colin Wright’s 20 Minutes of Awesome) and listen to some thought-provoking music can lead to some great ideas. However, you can’t write them down and because you’re stuck in a car (and just pulling off to the side of the road to jot something down is not a great idea), you’re apt to lose great ideas before you reach your destination.

A voice-recorder here is the perfect save. Just grab the recorder, hit the record button and start talking. You’ll be able to get every little nuance just as you want it. MP3 recorders can store a ridiculous amount of audio content as well. For about $40, you can get a Sony digital voice recorder that will record 280 hours of audio. That’s over 11 straight days of audio. So, if you really needed to, you could narrate yourself a few novels.

Again, smartphones will perform this function as well, but not as cleanly. It can be dangerous, while driving, to snag your phone and navigate your way through its menus to find the right function and then queue up a recording. With the digital recorder, you just hit the red button on the front and you’re good to go. However, applications like Evernote will not only record voice (among other things), they will also upload them to a central web location that can then be synced down to any other machine you have Evernote set up on. Pretty useful.

Part of the problem with voice notes, however, is transcription. It can be a hassle to rattle of twenty minutes of chatter and then have to head home and spend twice that time trying to write it all down. I haven’t found a great capture device/solution that will go speech-to-text in an all-in-one solution (let me know if you have one!), but you can always just snag something like Dragon NaturallySpeaking and have it do the heavy lifting for you. Fire up the application, open your word processor, hit play on  your recorder and then go make a sandwich.

Digital Camera – This is something that I will say you can probably get away with having your smartphone for, if you have one. Many ideas are prompted by something visual. A place or building or tree, anything. You might not need 10 megapixel clarity, but just something to trigger your memory, or allow you to get the general details of the scene that you can flesh out more on your own later. Digital cameras run pretty cheap these days (a decent Powershot will run you about $100) and are great and ever increasingly compact, but they can be tricky to juggle all the time unless you always have something to carry one in.

With these three items in your possession, you should be able to keep track of all those brilliant ideas. Write them, speak them, photograph the inspirations.

No Comments

Tech Confidential, Pt. 1

There are a pretty wide variety of IT Departments out there. They range from the singular techie to the complex team, from the cheerfully helpful to the ominously draconic, from the socially capable to the horribly inept. One thing is fairly consistent, though: You need them. Your IT Department will help you with everything from machine relocations to repair and replacement to installations to how-tos. They can be a great boon to your work or a point of critical stoppage for you.

I’ve been a tech for almost 8 years now. It’s really the only major job I’ve ever had. I’ve run the spread from being half of a two-person team to managing a department with three techs underneath me, looking to expand up to a fourth. I work at a non-profit company filled with scientists from all around the world, and we have a pretty lax set of computing restrictions. Put another way: I’ve probably seen it all. I’ve certainly seen enough to tell you how you can be best friends with your IT Department.

It doesn’t involve bribes like cookies. You don’t have to compliment them on how much RAM they seem to have. You just have to follow some very basic, more or less common sense steps. This might not ensure you get immediate service, but I guarantee that if you follow these steps, you’ll get the best service that your IT guys can provide.

Things to Avoid Doing

– Please don’t send us an e-mail, and then call us to tell us you just sent an e-mail and proceed to explain the problem outlined in the e-mail. Even worse, don’t send an e-mail and then walk over to tell us about it. Doing any one of those things is sufficient. If you walk or call, and we’re busy, we may ask you to send an e-mail… but that’s because we’re busy, not because we’re brushing you off. It may even be because we’ve been told that all tickets need to be documented via e-mail so we have some way to track them. Doing these things in rapid succession makes you an insta-nagger. It tells us that you are either clueless as to the intent of e-mail, impatient in the extreme, needy or all of the above.

– Keep asking us if the item you ordered has arrived yet. We do not control the speed of the company’s that send us products, nor do we control the speed of the shipping department to bring the item to us. When we get the item in, we do not have space to keep it, we will tell you when it has arrived. Asking us every day where your new toy is is a hassle. I understand wanting to know, but ask Purchasing if you really want a report on where it is. We won’t hold onto something out of spite. We really don’t have the room for it. We’ll let you know.

– Silly internet things. This is a nebulous category, but you can sum it up by saying “Practice Safe Internet”. This means don’t ever send anyone your password via e-mail. Don’t click the window on your internet browser that says you have a virus (how would the internet know this? Think about it). Don’t sign up for random mailing lists. Do read all the messages and links and sites you’re about to click on. Look before you leap is a great rule of internet behavior. It will save you much pain.

– Berate your IT guys. IT is a largely thankless enterprise. It’s the kind of position where all you ever hear about are problems. People come to you when something is wrong, and they frequently assume that it is somehow, someway partially the tech’s fault. Take it easy on them. You don’t have to be thrilled to be seeing your techs, but they’ll try to make things better if you let them.

– Assume we all play World of Warcraft and don’t have lives. The two items are not mutually exclusive. Plus, and this may be a shocker, many computer techs do not play video games. I know. Shocking.

Things to Do

– Send us e-mails. A variant on the first item from the “Things to Avoid Doing” list. If you call us, or talk to us in person, we 100% do not mind your sending a follow-up e-mail. Just toss a note that says “Hey, thanks for helping with my problem. I just wanted to send this little recap for your reference.” Techs tend to have six things going on at once at all times. A reminder that we didn’t have to write down ourselves is very much appreciated. Trust me.

– Read the little windows that pop up. When your computer pops up a message telling you something, you need to read it. It doesn’t just say random things because it is fun. It says important things that you need to make actual decisions about. Read those messages. You don’t need to understand them. But if you read them and then ask you techs about them, they will love you for it… because it meant that you tried. You paid attention. I had work with a woman who managed to entirely wipe a portion of her computer’s drive by not reading pop-up messages. She said “A bunch of windows popped up, but I clicked away from all of them.” Well, one of those windows said “This drive is not readable by your machine, would you like to initialize it?” In computer-speak, that means “Would you like to completely wipe this clean and start over?” And she clicked “Okay” without even batting an eyelash.

– Remember that we’re just the messenger. IT guys don’t make the policy. Well… they do… but chances are not the ones you’re dealing with. Even if you have a one person department, chances are the policy your Lone Tech is enforcing came from the company’s heads.

– Also remember that your IT guys are probably swamped. My three techs are supporting a company of 300 people. So if you assume they’re all around all day long (they’re not), they still each need to be theoretically ready to support 100 different people. Some of those people are department heads and other people that won’t wait/can’t be made to wait. They’re not taking a long time on purpose. This connects back to the first “Do this” item. Reminders can be nice.

Don’t worry, I’ll have more stories/tips/advice from the tech world as time goes on.

1 Comment