Category Archives: Media

Why I don’t love my smartphone

Samsung Galaxy

Not my new best friend

This week Ariana Huffington, she of great money and with a vast media empire, declared that we are too reliant on technology, with smartphones ‘blocking our path to wisdom’.

In a post for the Guardian, a national newspaper in the UK, she adds that ‘ours is a generation bloated with information and starved of wisdom’.

I find myself agreeing, although part of me also wonders how wise she is to make this argument. Isn’t her whole business founded on pedalling a hell of a lot of trivial information on whatever device people will devour it?

A short trawl of Huffington Post on any given day will confirm that the large majority of stuff on there won’t be making you very wise at all, but will actually make you despair at the utter shallowness of humanity.

However, I readily believe that people are increasingly fixated on screens – cell phone screens, TV screens, computer screens. I’m not immune to this evolution. In the evenings I find myself watching the television with a computer on my lap.

If I look over at the English Husband, he’s inevitably contemplating his next move on Scrabble via his iPhone.

On my daily commute today, there were no fewer than four people standing or sitting right next to me, all plugged into devices and staring at screens.

But I have caved in, as I always do, and have finally joined the ranks of people with a smartphone. The Samsung Galaxy Ace 3 is the newest thing in my life this year.

I resisted this push towards a bright, beeping phone bursting with information for a long time. I thought I was doing fine with my little Nokia that made texts and phone calls. It was starting to feel almost quaint.

But the relentless march of technology means that if I don’t get a smartphone eventually, I will feel like I’ve been left behind. And I happen to work in an industry (guess which one), where I’m positively an ancient, grumpy dinosaur because I refuse to join Facebook and have an aversion to social media.

My new smartphone, I don’t mind admitting, baffles me. Oh, it has lots of pretty pictures and, so I’ve been assured, does lots of remarkable things, but I can’t figure out half of them. The English Husband tells me that I will get used to it. Part of me resists this, though.

I don’t want to rely on it too much. I don’t want the phone to be an extension of my arm. I don’t want to learn that I can’t get out the door without first consulting with it. I don’t want to find that I check the phone before I brush my teeth.

This is not the person I want to become – but I also know that constant communication is addictive.

When I hear the beep of a new message, I have an overwhelming urge to check who it is from. I just can’t help myself. If I leave the phone on silent I worry that I might miss a message about one of my children.

I can’t seem to win.

I do occasionally hark back to the era before the mobile phone. For me, I only need to go as far back as 2006.

Because I held out for so long and clung to ancient technology, I had to arrange to meet people at a designated place and time and be prompt. Imagine that.

But when BT phone boxes started disappearing off the street and appeared instead on a revamped version of Doctor Who, I got my first cell phone.

My life feels no richer for it, but it is more convenient. This seems to encapsulate modern life: convenient but crowded with stuff.

I can, however, now take a picture and send it to my family in the United States in only a minute – and I guess that’s something to celebrate.

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Google Glass

Bob

Bob joked that one day we might ask our friends, ‘Are you one of those glassholes?’

I approach new technology with about as much enthusiasm as a trip to the dentist.

So the prospect of hearing about Google Glass at a small event in central London doesn’t make me rub my hands together in childlike glee. I would rather have a front-row seat at London Fashion Week, sadly now over.

Fortunately the man introducing us to Google’s big innovation is an amiable American named Bob, who speaks in plain English and doesn’t appear to be overly techie or robotic. I should also point out that he doesn’t work for Google and hasn’t been paid to give us the PR speech about how this will change our lives for the better.

Bob is on a whirlwind visit from New York. He’s been wearing Google’s hi-tech glasses for about three months and is incredibly enthusiastic about the experience. He tells me, in fact, that he hasn’t been this excited about a product since the launch of Apple’s iPad. I’m waiting for his enthusiasm to rub off on me, but I’m still skeptical. Bob hasn’t seen my phone yet, which does nothing but make phone calls. Imagine that!

His demonstration kicks off with a presentation about what Google Glass can do, which is much the same as any smartphone. You can film, take pictures, make video calls, get directions, search the internet and translate languages with the simple vocal command ‘ok glass’ followed by what you want to do. Touch technology also allows you to control functionality or scroll through different options.

The picture quality is good – the embedded camera is 5MP – but you can’t frame the picture like you would with a phone or traditional camera, so that would take a bit of getting used to if you’re as useless at photography as I am.

Filming is an entirely different story. The sound quality varies hugely depending on where you are. If you’re somewhere really noisy, the film will come out practically unusable because Google Glass doesn’t filter out ambient noise. You also have to learn to keep your head extremely still while filming, otherwise the shaky result might give your viewers motion sickness.

‘It requires you to be massively disciplined,’ admits Bob, who adds that wearing Google’s glasses means learning a whole new set of behaviors.

A big downside to extended use is the battery life, which averages about two hours if you’re not using the glasses for battery sappers such as filming. If they get stolen, there are also security issues because at the moment there is no lockdown mechanism. You also won’t be able to wear a pair with prescription glasses, although a solution is being developed.

Bob has tested people’s reactions to the glasses in public and it varies. In the United States, he says, there were people ‘swarming’ to him. But here, in the UK, there’s more caution, with people pretending not to notice. Bob calls it the ‘I’m looking at you, I’m not looking at you’ attitude.

The big question remains how it might change our lives. At the moment it’s too early to say. It’s hard to envision this piece of hi-tech kit becoming as ubiquitous as the iPhone. The cost, at the very least, would need to come down substantially. Estimates put the retail price at about $1,000 to $1,500. Optional extras include buying dark shades that fit the frames – I would call this the Hollywood look and it’s certainly not for everyone.

There’s also no guarantee the product will even make it into the mainstream market. A limited number of people in the United States will be able to get their hands on a pair later this year or early next. ‘This might just be a great experiment,’ Bob says, explaining at the same time that approximately 8,000 people are currently working on the product at Google’s headquarters.

He does, however, predict that Google Glass is part of a trend of wearable technology. Personally, I’d rather be wearing something else, preferably by Marc Jacobs.

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Rise of ‘sharenting’

Raging Bull

She knows nothing about Winnie-the-Pooh but she can tell you all about Netflix.

There’s a name for people like me, apparently. I am a ‘sharent’, a mom who blogs. I don’t know how many people would go around bragging that they’re sharents. I certainly wouldn’t go around telling my other mommy friends in the park that I have a new occupation called ‘sharenting’. It sounds suspiciously like something you should be ashamed of.

But the media/journalists love to put thing into neat little categories, so I have found myself suddenly acquiring this new identity. Mostly parents in their thirties and forties, sharents like to share random thoughts with strangers, often involving their unsuspecting children.

I suppose this is partly true of me. But I hope I don’t bore people with every single detail of my children’s life. Did I tell you about the time the Raging Bull finally put together a 45-piece Charlie and Lola puzzle almost by herself without throwing a tantrum? Or the time she made up an imaginary friend and ruthlessly killed ‘Sophie’ off the next day with a ballet slipper? No? Well, good. I don’t expect people to read about every single mommy milestone.

There has to be a limit to what people are willing to share. Should we be interested in what a baby had for breakfast, even if the subject is handled by the wittiest of writers? I definitely believe there should be a limit to what people post on Facebook, but common sense doesn’t seem compatible with social media. Or maybe a lot of people just start posting stuff when they’re drunk.

Well, in the interest of sharenting, and because I haven’t posted anything for a week, here’s the latest episode in my thrilling mommy life. Call it ‘Trials by Television’. In the last week we have lost the children’s best friend, the television.

The reason for the television’s absence in our life (it just refuses to work) is explained by some scaffolding that appeared overnight all over the house that we rent. No one warned us of this; why would they? So I discover, to my great alarm and increasing panic, that the television has no satellite signal because the dish is being blocked by a bunch of metal poles.

Let me just backtrack a little and tell you how the television has fitted into my life. Let’s see, it makes my weekend mornings infinitely more bearable because it can keep the kids entertained for up to two hours. It’s the ultimate pacifier, I’ve come to learn. If nothing else works and the kids are on the verge of scratching their eyes out or each other’s, turn the TV on and it’s like they’ve undergone hypnosis. No amount of cutting, cardboard or even scissors will have the same effect for as long.

I could pretend otherwise, but the TV has saved my sanity and probably kept me from going to a therapist. I know I have come to rely on it slightly too much, but when you get home from work and you stare into the black pit that is the refrigerator, the television will keep the kids mercifully tranquilized until you can figure out what to put on the table.

So imagine my shock when I discover that the cartoons will not be working for an indefinite period of time. Luckily, we have not lost broadband or the DVD player, which is now about 10 years old but still works.

I break the news about the television to the children on the bus on the way back from school. They take a bit of time to process the information and deal with it remarkably well.

The Raging Bull, in fact, shows signs of advanced reasoning when she says very calmly: ‘That’s okay, Mommy, because we can just watch Netflix on the computer.’

Out of the mouth of babes.

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A blog about blogging

Heartburn dust jacket

This is not an endorsement of Heartburn, although I liked it

Nora Ephron’s mother (a writer) famously told her that ‘everything is copy’. It was her contention that nothing at all is sacred when it comes to putting words on the page.

Ephron, a once successful screenwriter whose credits include When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail, liked to repeat this quote.

In fact, she followed her mother’s advice when writing Heartburn, a semi-autobiographical novel about her adulterous ex-husband, Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein. In Heartburn, Ephron writes about the breakdown of her marriage while she’s heavily pregnant with her second child. She also somehow manages to make this tragic episode – which resulted in a divorce and premature delivery – hilariously funny.

Her ex-husband, of course, wasn’t very amused. Ephron died of acute myloid leukemia in June 2012.

The idea that everything is copy is nothing new. Journalists recycle bits about their life every day, some more than others. If you have a column, the more likely it is that you will plough the rich soil of your life for material. Sometimes you might experience drought.

I’ve been there. My blog is not so much something useful as something personal. I don’t blog about cutting-edge products or publish exciting recipes for fussy toddlers. I don’t have a small business to promote or a book about to published. I don’t test out beauty products or write about the latest fashion trends. If I’m occasionally fashionable it’s purely by accident.

Mostly, this blog is about me. So why share it with strangers? It does feel like I am opening up a diary for the amusement of others. Sometimes my readers might not even be amused.

Contrary to what the blog might you lead you to believe, I am a private person. I’ve never even had a Facebook account.

This has made me wonder about how blogging fits into my lifestyle. I sometimes feel like I am picking over the bones of my life looking for ‘copy’. It’s not unlike what carrion birds do to their prey. You could say I’m a bit of a cannibal, devouring episodes of my own life.

Sometimes this is vaguely uncomfortable – and I’m not always totally honest. Without a cloak of absolute anonymity, who would choose to be brutally honest? I hold things back on occasion. I fear the future. Will I look back on this and wince? Even worse, will my children?

Bloggers have been called many things by members of the mainstream press or even by other bloggers. We are self-interested and vain. We are self-publicists. We add nothing to debate and mostly write a lot of tripe. We just want validation and attention.

Some of this might be true some of the time. I don’t think it’s entirely true of me.

So why do I blog? I do it because I like to write. Occasionally, I think it might spark an idea for something. This is also a record. While it might not always accurately record my feelings, it’s as close as I’ve got to a scrapbook of my children’s early years.

On days when I delude myself, I think this blog might lead to discovery. Someone will find my blog one day and offer me money to write some opinionated nonsense. I don’t think this often. I’m hardly a real-life Carrie Bradshaw, agonizing over her columns while sitting in my trendy New York apartment.

I am also someone who spent a whole year unemployed recently, an experience that left me feeling fairly useless. I discovered that plenty of jobs in the media, where I have floundered for the last ten+ years, ask for a social media profile.

This means you tweet on a regular basis; you have followers (hopefully more than a handful) who hang on your every syllable; you know how to negotiate Facebook to find out personal details about someone; and, yes, you know how to blog. Blogging, as it turns out, can be quite useful if you are looking for a job where people might expect you to write.

So here I am, blogging about myself. Still looking for a job (disclosure: I have something that is temporary). Still feeling a bit like a social media outsider. Still wondering if this blog is practical more often than it is painful.

Everything is copy, Ephron said. She also happened to be a blogger. But she hid her illness – she was diagnosed in 2006 – from most people and chose not to write about it. And now I wonder why.

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Boredom is good for kids

With all the miserable spring weather we’ve been having – sorry if I’m repeating myself here – it’s easy to forget that the children have basically been hibernating indoors with me for the last several months. Yes, there have been occasional excursions to the park, where I’ve stood around counting minutes on my watch and exercising meditation (I try to visualize a warm beach). But for the most part I’ve led them from one coffee shop to another in my quest for distraction.

It’s scary, but the three-year-old orders ‘babyccinos’ (this is a cappuccino without the coffee) like a pro. ‘I want a babyccino,’ she says to me on Saturdays, a slight whine in her voice. She’s got addicted to them, I fear. The other thing she orders with regularity is a dose of television.

Both kids would happily watch wall-to-wall television if I let them. I don’t. But apparently a few hours a day is not detrimental, according to a recent study. The headline? TV time does not breed badly behaved children or impair their social development.

The Medical Research Council in the UK studied more than 11,000 elementary school children and found that watching television or using another screen (think iPad) does not lead to hyperactivity or social problems.

One doctor in Glasgow went so far as to say that it was ‘wrong to blame social problems on TV’. The article doesn’t say who or what should get the blame, but I wouldn’t be surprised if parents were top of the blame list.

Let them be bored

Yet another expert, in another news story that will probably confuse parents, said that it’s okay to let children get bored.

The senior researcher at a school of education argued that boredom helps kids develop their creativity.

I’m all for a bit of boredom, frankly, and the long winter has provided plenty of opportunities for staring out the window at the frozen landscape.

Modern, middle-class parents seem to think that if Annabella isn’t doing piano lessons on Monday, Mandarin on Tuesday, ballet on Wednesday, swimming on Thursday and vocal lessons on Friday she is going to suffer some sort of stimulus deprivation and end up without meaningful, well-paid work as an adult.

I don’t know how many of my friends shuffle their kids from one activity to another, constantly searching for something that will tap into their child’s inner genius and get them into the holy grail of education, a decent high school that doesn’t cost the earth.

As a working mother, I can’t be part of this frantic ferrying around, so there’s not a lot of extracurricular activity.

I feel bad about this sometimes, but I’m starting to reevaluate this useless guilt. We need mental space; doing nothing is not always negative. It can lead to bursts of creativity. Study the sky, watch the clouds.

Lay off the lamb

What I fear more than boredom is kids who literally don’t know what to do with themselves if they aren’t holding some sort of electronic device in their hands.

I’ve seen what an obsessive social media habit can do to adults. There are people who can’t live without checking their iPhone every few minutes; they feel totally lost if they leave the phone at home by mistake.

This, I’m telling you, should be more worrying than a few hours of television a day.

As proof that our social media habits are out of control, a little black lamb – resuced from the snow in North Yorkshire – has its own Twitter account and has already tweeted 200 times since being born on March 24. The ‘micro lamb’ has over 1600 followers and mostly tweets about being stuck indoors; she signs off with a lot of ‘baas’.

You know what, this lamb should just be allowed to get bored.

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Obama: four more years

It’s big moments such as the election that make me feel very isolated and far away from home. I watch the events of yesterday unfold from a distance of 6,000 miles and wish I could be closer. There’s no one I can share it with here. The English Husband is, to put it bluntly, not American and sometimes I feel the difference in our cultures pretty acutely. I sense that the kids will be somewhat alien to me, too, if we continue to stay here.

But I have to hand it to the Brits – they know how to cover a US election. What I’m always impressed with as an American in a foreign country is just how much news coverage the US gets, the election included. We are not talking about a 3-minute segment with a pundit in the UK who talks about the differences between Democrats and Republicans.

The biggest media outlets in the UK, including the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, have thrown huge resources at this election and they have an army of reporters and correspondents in the United States, giving a literal blow-by-blow account of what happens. The BBC, for instance, aired its famous, live election-night program that started at 11.35pm GMT yesterday; it goes on until the winner is declared. It wrapped up today at 7am, with the presenters and guests starting to look a little worse for wear.

I didn’t stay up to watch it, but it’s a testament to how much the US matters that the BBC does it at all. I can’t imagine ABC News doing something like this for the UK’s election. My guess is that anchor Diane Sawyer would do one of her famous dewy-eyed looks at the camera, announce the result in 10 seconds and then cut to a 1-minute recorded package.

In my dreams

Two nights before the election I have a restless sleep that’s punctuated by dreams related to politics. Last night it’s more specific. I have dreams about Mitt Romney winning the presidency. In my dreams, the headlines read: ‘Mitt just tips it. Yip.’ I toss and turn, wake up and then toss some more. In the middle of the night I want to go over to the television and turn it on, to see what’s happened, but I know I’ll get sucked in and stare at it like a zombie.

In the morning I switch on the TV as Obama’s victory speech is being broadcast live. My mother calls me at 7.15am, just before I go to work. The first word out of my mouth is simply ‘Obama’. At that moment I wish, more than anything, that I could be there in person to hug her.

In London, without exception, I can tell you that the mood is one of jubilation. In the office I can hear many people breathing sighs of relief while saying how happy they are that he’s been given another term. They’re not even American, but they seem to care. He’s a popular man here and in other parts of Europe. The world respects America more because he is in office. Of that I have no doubt.

On a funny footnote, the BBC reported today that a woman who lives near Obama’s ancestral village in Kenya has named her newborn twins Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Perhaps she is expecting that they will grow up waging bitter childlike wars against each other.

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The demise of print: Newsweek

Newsweek magazine goes online

Newsweek magazine ends print edition to go online-only

Just spotted this news, which seemed to add a bit more steam to my story about the demise of print. My parents have subscribed to Newsweek since I was a child and it has sat in our bathroom as reading material for as long as I can remember. The Brother can tell many tales about how it has provided hours of entertainment in the bathroom. Shame those days are over. How many people will read a tablet while on the toilet? I wonder…

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