Tuesday, September 6, 2011

At What Age Should Kids be Allowed to Watch TV?

I presume I'm not the only parent who wonders when television should be introduced to children. Fortunately there is quite a bit of guidance available. My guess is what follows barely scratches the surface. But I've done quite a bit of thinking on this subject and hope others will benefit from my philosophy on the subject.

Before becoming a parent, I heard this story (via Slate's daily podcast, which I recommend as an excellent variety podcast) about a possible link between early TV watching and autism. This article is a must-read for parents, although I will not harp on the TV/autism connection here; the article merely served as a seed to get me thinking on the subject of TV viewing by young children. (I do not intend to debate autism on my blog.) The article has a broken link to recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics; here is the fixed link.

Even if the observed link between TV watching and autism is subsequently determined to not be causal (and the source study only concludes correlation, not causation), there are certainly other considerations which are at least as important. For one, no matter how hard parents try to justify the benefits of their particular TV programming, TV time is not learning/interaction time (for example, consider this about the actual effect being the opposite of the intended effect). You might as well call it like it is: Use of the TV with younger kids constitutes a break for the parent; an opportunity to do something else, like prepare a meal, fold clothes, or sweep and mop. But while they're watching, your kids may be entertained, but their development has been temporarily placed on hold. This should not be controversial: Kids grew up just fine without TV before TV existed, so TV cannot be considered a child development magic bullet.

My own parental experience with TV can be summarized as follows:

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Cool $20 Model Helicopter that Really Flies!

When I was in college, I heard second-hand that there existed model helicopters that were just like a real helicopter in just about every way--cyclic, collective, tail rotor. Only two problems: They were a bitch to learn how to fly, and they were hundreds of dollars--heck, maybe more; definitely more than I could afford.

Recently I was browsing online for presents for my kids and found this. It's a small remote-controlled helicopter that works surprisingly well and is the best $20 toy I've ever bought for myself. (Recommended for ages 12 and up--so my boys get to watch me fly it since they're not old enough!) To keep the cost down, they've made a couple compromises that don't affect the fun factor:

Friday, August 26, 2011

Up next: Squeezebox

My next favorite gadget is my Squeezebox radio, or radios, as it were. (I bought one, then bought two more since the first one worked out so well.) They don't take up much space, they sound pretty good, they deliver whole-house audio at a fraction of the cost of competing systems, and they work well with Linux.

Without any sort of home server, you can stream all kinds of stuff off the Internet. I don't know how many different streams are available, and the number changes all the time I'm sure, but it seems every genre I want to hear is represented, even freestyle. (My favorite online streaming site, since before I had a squeezebox, is SomaFM. They cater more toward dance music so if you're into that you should definitely check it out.)

If you set up a server on your home computer, such as I did on my SheevaPlug, you can stream your MP3 collection to any Squeezebox client, hardware or software. (A hardware client would be, for example, the Squeezebox radio. More on software clients below.) The server software runs on all the major operating systems, including Linux. The Linux Debian package was plug and play; I'm so accustomed to having to tinker to get things working and it was refreshing to just have it work right off the bat; and months later, no problems.

My SheevaPlug

So I guess I'll start with my favorite gadget, my SheevaPlug (community) (buy--US) (buy--UK). But first, a little background.

I started messing around with Linux about five years ago; I did so in order to try out MythTV, an open-source DVR (digital video recorder--like a TiVo). I was replacing my home computer and rather than get rid of the old one, I installed Ubuntu Linux and MythTV onto it. (MythTV works great, maybe I'll post about it someday. It's actually usable enough for my wife to figure it out and not get frustrated too often, and that's saying a lot. I still use it to watch videos, although when I upgraded to HDTV I decided to go with a Verizon FiOS cable box because the open-source HDTV solutions are/(were?) very CPU-intensive and I didn't want to buy a bunch of new computers just to watch TV in HD.)

Once I had a Linux computer on my home network running all the time, I figured out many other things I could do with it. But I also got complaints from the wife about why are there two computers in the home office, why is that one running all the time, it makes the office really hot (and it did), it looks cluttered, it's noisy, etc. And it didn't seem elegant to me either but I didn't know of any way to simplify.

Searching around on Wikipedia revealed new developments in something called plug computing (currently with picture of the SheevaPlug)--computers that you just plug in and they start doing their job. They're based on the ARM architecture, instead of Intel; this is a different computer architecture designed for embedded systems, that is, computers that are tucked out of the way and take care of stuff for you, as opposed to, say, a laptop or desktop that you actively use for web surfing, word processing, emails, and the like. A little more digging around and I found the SheevaPlug. Here are its advantages:

Thursday, August 25, 2011


A little bit about myself. I'm shortly turning 40, work as an engineer, and own a house with an underwater mortgage and certain neighbors I'd rather do without. (I might talk about them in the context of wifi security.) I've been married to my beautiful wife, Cindy, for seven years, and we have two little boys, Joshua, 3, and Justin, 1.5. My wife is anti-tech (I've called her a Luddite at times) but begrudges me my technology hobbies as long as I don't clutter up the house and as long as she can use the things she wants to use, e.g. watch TV without tech support, use her laptop. (In other words, stuff we share is subject to the Wife Acceptance Factor, as it's known).

I use tech products of pretty much any type; I'm not irrationally attached to any particular platform. For instance, I know Windows quite well and use it on a daily basis at work (and when I need to use my wife's laptop), but I spend my personal computer time on Linux machines for reasons I will elaborate on later. I have an Android phone, a couple Apple iPods, and even a frickin' Microsoft Zune, how many of you can say that? (I got it because I wanted to see if it was better for listening to podcasts than my iPod, and it was, although I'm using something else entirely now. That would make a good blog post one of these days. Hint: The iPod wasn't the problem; it was iTunes.)

My little boys are very cute, and it's still too soon to know if they'll turn out more like mom or dad as far as tech goes. For example, Joshua liked playing with phones, but has moved on. He liked playing with my laptop, and now never even mentions it. Justin is going through Joshua's previous phase of liking anything that has flashing lights and buttons and stuff like that.

Why Blog?

I'm starting this blog for myself; I'm not expecting to get any regular readers whatsoever. I'm going to write about two categories; one technical, one personal:

  • Technology. Mainly, I've learned a lot about Linux from searching online, and I hope to return the favor by putting tips and tricks I've learned online for others to find through Google or what have you. It's going to take some time to get my stuff up (see next bullet), but if I help even one person through a vexing problem it'll be worth it. There will also be discussion about other techie projects I take on.
  • I'm going to talk about my family. I really don't know what to expect from this direction, but it's probably going to be about how to raise my two young boys (ages 3 and 1) in our current technology environment. Stuff like, when should they start learning how to use a computer? Should I get them an Xbox or a PSP or a cell phone and if any, when? And why the heck did I let my one year old play with my iPod Touch, I should've known he was going to break it. (True story. He bit it and it's no good anymore. I got $12 for selling it back to EBay for their green disposal program.)
I am a real person and this blog is non-commercial. I'm writing only for myself. I will probably recommend some products, but when I do so it will be because I've actually used them and they make my very, very busy life better.

Who knows where this blog will take me in the future, but these are my goals going forward.