9 articles

Yes, dear, video games can be beautiful

monument valley

Monument Valley, brought to us mortals by ustwo.

In my (overly simplistic) world view, there are basically two kinds of video games. The good ones of my youth (space invaders and pong) and the horrible ones of today (like soldier of fortune and those overly saccharine ones where you give a beauty makeover to a cat.)

And yet to be honest, I must admit that the above statement isn’t true. I’ve even written about some compelling video games and apps on this very blog. And as my daughter gets older, I find myself looking for more of these types of digital experiences. Because like I have always said… Video games are not the enemy. Bad video games are the enemy.

Enter Monument Valley.

It’s simple, but not stupid. It features a princess who is an intrepid explorer and has some complicated back story that we haven’t figured out yet because we have yet to travel far enough into the game. I say we, because this game is kind of like falling backwards into an Escher drawing that moves in ways that are so complex it often requires my daughter and I working together to figure out how to get our valiant heroine to the next level.

But isn’t that the perfect thing? A video game that brings us together, stretches our minds, and pleases our eyes whilst refraining from pounding our brains into mush with horrible music, bad graphics and loud noises? A tool for enlarging our imaginations rather than numbing our senses? A digital universe even my vinyl listening, rotary phone dialing, Waldorf-adjacent self can get behind?

Yes. Yes it is. And here’s the trailer for you to check out, so you know what I mean.

Three apps worth sharing with your kids

Drum roll please:

I am finally loading up a few kid’s apps onto the family iPad. We are a screen-wary family. Not 100% against all things electronic, by any means, but just very mindful of what kind of media we expose both ourselves and our daughter to. I am not against TV per se, I’m just not into bad TV, if you know what I mean, and this policy runs through all media… books, film, music and video.

My rule of thumb? If I don’t want to watch/play it, we don’t download it. And luckily, there are some real gems out there amidst the Barbie movies and the violent soldier-of-fortune style video games. Here are three of them:

Blek is a beautiful combination of elegant simplicity and a game that is really really challenging. Even for grown ups. In fact, I had to put on my pre-school teacher hat and remind my husband about the importance of sharing and letting everyone have their turn. There is no loud annoying music, no gun shots, no explosions. Just draw a little black line with your finger and try to hit all of the colored dots without touching the black ones. It’s about doodling, making patterns and spacial problem solving, but it’s hard to describe, so just watch the trailer. Or if you really want to go deep, read this review, which does a nice job of explaining everything.

Bloom is a generative music app created by Brian Eno. Which is all you need to know. But here’s a bit more. Created with the clearly brilliant software designer Peter Chilvers, this app turns your phone (or tablet) into it’s own unique musical instrument rather than trying to pretend that it’s a piano or a guitar. You make a pattern and it repeats. You add on to it and the pattern becomes more complex. You can also just turn it on and let it do its thing. An informative review, for the curious, is on gizmodo.

A screenshot of Hopscotch, a programming app for kids. There are videos of Hopscotch in action on YouTube, but the music was so horrible I couldn't bear to have them up here. Sorry...

A screenshot of Hopscotch, a programming app for kids.

Hopscotch is a coding app for young kids, or really anyone who wants to understand the fundamentals of computer science, which they define as “the study of computational thinking, or how to use logical thinking and abstraction to develop generalized solutions to complex problems.” And who doesn’t want their kids to master that?

Basically this app allows you to make games, stories, animations, etc by dragging blocks of code into specific arrangements. The code is translated into English, so that even the youngest programmers can make things happen on their own without having to struggle with difficult computer syntax. But the commands are the same, which makes moving into the more advanced stages of programing a snap for all interested parties.

Waaaay back in the 1970′s, when I was a kid, we learned how to make simple computer games using BASIC (this dates me…) and I still remember the thrill of getting the terminal to go through my predetermined motions and print out whatever I wanted. It was a profound and intelligent introduction to technology as a tool that I will never forget.

Now we have animals jumping through hoops and standing on their heads, but the basic intent is the same. If we can help the next generation to understand that these digital objects are tools with which we can help to create a better universe, our future begins to look very bright.

The Sandman doesn’t cometh nearly enough…

Sleeping_beautyedwardburne-jones

I have to admit to secretly being jealous of Sleeping Beauty… I could use 100 years of sleep right about now. (painting by Edward Burne-Jones)

Basically, I am in a constant state of tiredness. I’m either exhausted, or just plain tired, pretty much all the time. And I’ve heard that when we sleep 5 hours or less a night for 3 nights in a row, our ability to function is the same as when we are legally drunk.

Without any of the fun.

That being said, I am trying my damndest to do anything I can to remedy this situation, but the most obvious thing (Get more sleep!) seems to elude me. An engaged life in the big city with a kid and a husband and work and not much childcare does not leave a lot of room for shut-eye.

Enter sleepyti.me, which I am hoping is going to save me.

According to all sorts of science, we sleep in 90 minute cycles and it is much easier and more beneficial to wake up at the end of a cycle than in the middle. In other words, it’s not so much about how much sleep you get as whether or not your sleep patterns align with these cycles. So, in the case of shut eye, less can sometimes mean more.

All you have to do is tell sleepyti.me when you want to wake up, and it will calculate the optimal times for you to fall asleep. So if I need to wake at 6:15, I can fall asleep at 9:15 or 10:45 or 12:15 to reap the benefits of my natural cycles and wake up feeling refreshed. You can also tell it when you are going to bed, and it will give you the ideal times to rise and shine.

Needless to say, I will be trying this tonight. Anyone else game?

Monday, Monday– or more links about apps that will improve our lives (maybe)

I wonder if anybody ever made apps for her phone?

I wonder if anybody ever made apps for her phone?

Vertical videos have always driven me crazy… here’s an app called Horizon that keeps all your shots horizontal, no matter how you’re holding the phone.

Can’t bear the idea of going to the gym? Try Tabata, an app that delivers short (starting at 4 minutes) and sweet workouts you can do anywhere.

Why bother learning how to write more clearly and succinctly when there’s an app that will essentially do it for you?

Jauntful is an app that lets you print out (and digitally share) your own travel maps, complete with favorite spots and secret routes, so you have all the info you need in your pocket, without using up you batteries.

For the design-obsessed among us, there is finally Canopy, a filter that brings all the beautiful, useful and lovingly designed merch on Amazon into one spot.

Now that we’ve got all these well designed products coming into our homes, here’s a whole list of apps to help with spring cleaning – digital and otherwise.

And last, but definitely not least, we have Forecast, an app that gives you up to the minute weather reports wherever you happen to be.

F.lux will save your life

f.lux screens

The f.lux version (on the left) of your phone looks warmer and easier on the eyes by night, while by day it’s back to normal. Photo courtesy brit.co

Or at least, it’ll improve the quality of your sleep, which will in turn make you happier and more productive, which is basically the same thing as saving your life.

They say (and if you clicked on the links above or have been paying attention to this topic recently you know already) that spending time in front of a screen at night before bed is a surefire way to mess up the quality of your night’s rest. And if you’re anything like me, and have trouble fitting in 7 – 8 hours a night, Every. Second. Counts.

Well it turns out that a large part of what messes with your brain waves is the spectrum of the artificial light emanating from your iPad, or laptop, or smartphone. The light coming out of our screens is designed to look like the sun, which is fine during the day, but really confuses the hell out of our animal brains at night. By just looking at something a bit less blue, we can reduce the stimulating effect of the lights, thus helping to slow our brains down in preparation for a quality night’s rest.

Here’s where f.lux comes in. You tell it where you live, and it automatically adjusts the color temperature of your screen to match the time of day. At 9:30 am, it’s a blue skies and business as usual. But after sunset, the hue slides over towards a warmer tone. The first time this happened on my screen, I could actually feel the muscles of my eyes relax. It was insane. In a instant-gratification-I-totally-did-the-right-thing-yay-me kind of way.

I do not like telling apps anything about me. I erase cookies form my computer. I do not partake in any autofill options. I don’t even let my own browser remember my passwords. But I happily hand over my geodata to f.lux because it’s that good. If you have any questions, they serve up all sorts of links to research on sleep and screens to help prove their point.

You can use the default settings, or adjust the colors to fit more seamlessly into your own surroundings. And if the change feels too drastic (I like the sudden drop and subsequent eye muscle relaxation, but that’s just me) you can also fiddle with the speed of the change.

And did I mention, it’s free? So there is absolutely no reason why you don’t download this right away and begin taking better care of yourself. Because lets face it, there is little chance of us completely shutting off our screens for hours before we go to bed. But we can tweak the experience a bit and sleep better as a result.

Ain’t nothing wrong with that.

Monday, Monday – or more links about technology and other alleged brain helpers

WITCH computer

The WITCH computer read programs that were punched into strips of tape in the 1950′s.

According to a Brittish study, it turns out that e mail hurts your IQ more that pot. Why am I not surprised?

And of course you all know by this time that screen time for kids under 2 is not super helpful for their brain development. SO throw out the Baby Einstein videos now, if you haven’t already…

Is this what keeping a journal has come to?

It’s a bird… it’s a plane… No.. it’s supercalender. Never miss an appointment again.“supercalendar” target=”_blank”>

Ok this one is potentially good for hours of fun looking for random things online. It’s a search engine, devoted to hastags…

One day I should do a whole links post just about the weather. In the meantime, here’s a beautiful new weather app to check out.

It is a sad sad day if stirring up memories has come to this.

Lose yourself in the thicket

I generally try to avoid falling into the iphone/ipad-as-babysitter trap: we don’t have a TV, our movie watching is fairly limited (Ummm, except for this summer, when I totally broke all my rules and watched a movie pretty much every day with my daughter mostly to give myself a break from being her solo-camp counselor/playmate/chef/confidante, etc. More on that later.)

But I digress. What I want to say is that while I don’t often use electronics with my kid, there are times (horrible traffic jams, 6 hour flights, etc) when a good app can be a lifesaver.

Thicket:Classic is one of my favorite of these apps. I found the above video on youtube (where there is a video for pretty much everything, thank you very much) and if you watch it, you’ll get a pretty good idea of what it does.

It’s an interactive art piece incorporating sound and motion where the possibilities are mesmerizing and endless. And the sounds, for the most part, are soothing rather than jarring over-computerized harmonic barbie voices singing about boys. (OK, I admit that I come as close to hating those musical Barbie movies as a person can come without other people being worried about said person’s priorities) I have Thicket on my phone, though I imagine it’d be pretty great on an iPad, too.

And, to be honest, it’s as captivating for adults as it is for kids.

Covering your tracks

KillSwitch graphic

Sure breaking up is hard to do, but at least the aftermath has gotten a little easier, thanks to the fine folks at KillSwitch.

Call me crazy, but I cannot get behind all of this extreme sharing everybody is supposed to be doing online. Yes, I have a blog, yes you all now know that my office ceiling has crumbled, but I don’t feel compelled to tell you everything I’ve eaten this week, or show you photos of me at parties with people just a tiny bit cooler than you so you feel kind of bad, or photos of my offspring doing extraordinary things like clapping her hands or being a messy eater. Not that this stuff isn’t cute or interesting, but I just don’t think it needs to be a part of my permanent public record. You are welcome to come over if you have a burning desire to see how much food my daughter spills at each meal.

Well happy day, I have just come upon an app that helps you to un-share. Aptly called KillSwitch, it will go onto Facebook and, with just a few hints to get it started, erase all traces of a particular individual from your Facebook page.

Billed as a break-up tonic, it promises to make “breakups suck less” by getting rid of all of those “kissy pictures, gushy posts and sappy statuses.” Which will probably be doing us all a favor, because lets be honest, how many of you really want to spend your spare time looking at photos of other people kissing?

Mind you, I am nowhere near breaking up with my almost-perfect husband. I just want to celebrate the fact that there are people out there, hard at work trying to help save us from our over-sharing selves. That there are folks who actually want to help us to let go and move on like we used to back in the day.

Thank you, KillSwitch people.for helping to make the world a better place. May you live long and prosper.

clean up time– recycling electronics

Just recently I said goodbye to my TV.

We began our relationship in my family kitchen in the mid 80′s and hung tight through various apartments and boroughs until finally, relegated to the hallway, it’s remote (which was the only way you could change channels) beyond repair, I decided that it was time for the television to be recycled. Especialy as I had no plans for it’s reduction or reuse.

One of the most convenient things about writing for the Krrb blog is that I get to research topics I’m actually interested in. Like this piece on recycling electronic waste I wrote a while back. So when it came time to move the TV out of my life, I just read that piece again. And the great news that I rediscovered is that the Lower East Side Ecology Center has a huge electronics recycling warehouse in Brooklyn that is ready and willing, any Tuesday through Saturday, to accept your electronic waste for proper recycling.

Like this stuff here:

They also host e-waste recycling events all over the city, if you’re not looking to drive over to the warehouse. The next one, for example, is on June 16th in Chelsea.

Such an easy way to do right by your environment. I loved my TV, but it’s time had come. We have finally graduated from a non-TV watching house to a TV-less house. Which feels more authentic.

Which is what this is about, right?

Bye bye…