Category Archives: daily life

Spilling coffee, working unpaid, and all those little things that make up a life.

Managing family screen time

Every parent I talk to about “screen time” is struggling with it. Managing appropriate use of screens is harder than ever and the generic advice we get isn’t catching up. For instance: how do you restrict screen time when schools expect homework to be done online? Or when kids get music through streaming? When our kids use screen time and what kind they use has a major effect on all our day-to-day routines.

In this post, rather than give the answers (which I don’t have anyway), I’ll give an unedited, disorganized view into what our family is dealing with and the strategies we’re considering. Please feel free to jump in on the comments with an “argh, me too!” or an “I found a good solution for that.”

With no further ado, we’re struggling with:

  • Getting to bed at a reasonable hour
  • Having enough “down time”
  • Making sure to take breaks even while gaming
  • Staying focused while doing homework

A big part of the solution is setting up family expectations and routines. We’re doing this, but with mixed results. It may come as a shock, but I am not a Perfect Mom. I set rules and fail to enforce them or even follow them myself. This is life.

I’m also finding myself stymied by the technology itself. Companies want my kids to be online at all hours, partly because kids’ online activity brings them advertiser revenue. So the technology is deeply manipulative. The kids end up in the middle of a tug-of-war between responsible parenting and capitalism.

I’m sure — or rather, I hope — that hardware and software tools exist that will simplify my parenting job instead of making it harder. So I’m on the hunt for them. The first part is getting specific about which problems need solving, the second part is imagining solutions that will help, and the third part is finding tools that meet my needs.

How technology is making it worse:

  • No stopping points
  • Manufacture of anxiety
  • Encouragement of addictive behavior (for financial benefit)

A side note on stopping points. . .

When I was a kid, television had advertisements–opportunities to get a snack, go to the bathroom. They were also a place a parent could step in and say, “Turn off the TV now!” Arcade video games also had stopping points. Run out of lives, and you have to put in another quarter to keep going.

It didn’t take long, though, for makers of arcade games to realize the “Put in another quarter to continue” trick. A stressed-out player who must win the Boss Battle is a great money-making opportunity.

As a parent, I have to say it’s much, much worse. Our first run-in with software that played tug-of-war with children’s attention was Webkinz. It was introduced through an after-school class offered at school. We’d say, “Time to get off!” and first there would be protests because the pet needed feeding or whatever, and then there were three minutes of mini-games you could only play upon logout.

So unfortunately, the old practice of setting a time and simply shutting off a device leads to power struggles specifically because the game player has something to lose if they don’t play for “one more minute.” And I’ll be honest, I suck at that. I know I should just set hard-core limits and let the kids figure out how to save their work from being lost, but it’s just not in my nature. So I need to automate it.

The worst offenders

For instance: Youtube autoplay. One video ends, another video chosen by youtube runs automatically.

Solutions we’re looking into:

  • Bedtime at the router level
  • Enjoyable online activities that encourage breaks
  • Software that enforces regular breaks from gaming altogether
  • For homework, a locked-down user account

Some things we need from a router:

  • Ability to schedule access for each device separately. A blanket “no screen use between these hours” won’t work for our family.
  • That access needs to be fine-grained, with different hours each day
  • That scheduled access actually has to shut off access to the Internet

Our current router has a setting to schedule access, but it is set for the same time each day. That’s not helpful. Worse, it doesn’t even shut off Internet access to the device. I think it just shuts off the ability of a computer to open new connections, but old connections work just fine.

So when I’m looking at feature lists for routers, they’ll talk about parental control and access scheduling, but it’s not easy to tell whether they’ll do what I want.

I’d also really love this:

  • Ability to shut off Internet to the house for a certain amount of time but maintain wireless connections

We currently do this by unplugging the router, which unfortunately also messes up our printer, which then has to be rebooted. (The printer is also the reason I can’t just pick a new wifi password every day, a strategy that’s often recommended. I don’t even know how to change the password on the printer!)

Online games that encourage breaks:

One of the worst offenders in our house is bonk.io. Games are quick and one morphs into another, leading to “just-a-minute-itis” and ultimately the unplugging of the modem, which, as I mentioned before, messes up our printer.

For Minecraft, some game modes are easy to break away from and others start family fights because quitting can lead to loss of hard-won inventory or worse, leave something they’ve painstakingly built open to griefing.

Personally, I found some help from a little Mah-Jongg matching game. Its moneymaking scheme is to grant the user only one life every thirty minutes, with a maximum of five lives, and to make the levels progressively harder. The point is to get users to spend money so they can keep playing but for me, this thirty-minute stop makes the game ideal for mandatory breaks.

Software that enforces regular breaks:

This is new territory for me. It seems like we want something that will interrupt the user regularly with a reminder to take a break, to fill the whole screen, but to allow for a certain number of “Not just yet!” clicks.

But another option is to have a more optional reminder, combined with software that tracks success.

Locked-down user account:

Online homework is a problem. And the older kids get, the more of it they have to do. It’s like saying, “Here kid, have a nutritious dinner of soggy green beans and liver,” and putting it down next to a bowl of M&M. It’s no good blaming the kid for eating the candy–that’s not the origin of the problem. Adults set up kids to be distracted.

So I’m thinking  about making a user account that is in “kiosk mode” to prevent switching from homework to games.

The kicker here is that often, kids need to do research on google. And google is candy.

Finding solutions under capitalism

So I have some very specific things I want, but when I go online to find them, I have to wander through a mishmash of companies that want to sell me their products. It’s like going into a hardware store in search of a screwdriver, only nobody organized the shelves, and instead of one worker dedicated to helping find you what you want, you have fifty workers wandering around with supermarket circulars. You end up leaving with a hammer.

Tools I’m looking at

I didn’t write this post to sell tools, and in fact, I can’t vouch for any of these. I found them through a pretty ineffective method, google searching. It’s just that they made the cut for further investigation.

Desktop apps (Windows-compatible)

Big list of related apps at AlternativeTo website.

Stretchly

Stretchly is a free, open-source desktop app that gives periodic reminders to take breaks. You can customize the frequency and length of breaks but not from the user interface – you have to edit a configuration file. The developer’s page, with download instructions, is here.

It looks relaxing, but since it’s on the polite end of things, it would be easy to ignore. With configuration, it could probably with extended writing sessions both for homework and for me.

Cold Turkey

Cold Turkey looks like the opposite of Stretchly. It has customizable blocking of specific apps or the whole Internet, but once you’ve scheduled blocking them, it’s nearly impossible to get it back. I think our family is too chaotic for this.

ClearFocus

This app lets you configure work sessions and breaks. You can disable distracting apps or turn off wifi. You can also get statistics on your usage. There’s a free version (with a banner ad) and a paid version.

Down side: no Windows version. Bummer!

Tomighty

It looks like a simple Pomodoro timer that’s pretty customizable. Might be a good starter choice. It’s explained at Lifehacker and is available here.

Other stuff I haven’t looked at yet, but might be promising:

  • Focus Keeper
  • Focus booster
  • PomoDoneApp
  • StretchClock Break Reminder
  • Stand Up!
  • SelfControl
  • Freedom
  • HeyFocus

Not workable for various reasons:

  • Marinara is a web-based timer that has URLs you can share. I’m thinking about this for group writing sessions – imagine if we set up a google hangout or whatever, and every certain amount of time, we stopped for chitchat.
  • Forest is an app for phones that gameifies not using your phone. Grows a beautiful forest.
  • Pomodorium also gameifies productivity by letting you spend finished pomodoros (units of time worked) on enhancing a character. That could be something to try later.
  • Push by Zapier Chrome Extension – looks really cool as an integrated task management system. That’s too big for what I want.

Next Steps

I’ll keep looking into apps and modems, but the next thing I’m going to try is simply getting a user account on one laptop that works like a “kiosk.” Windows has a mode called “Assigned Access Mode,” which allows a particular account access to only one application–in this case, Firefox. The goal here is to stop homework sessions from turning into bonk.io games.

I’ll try to come back to this in a later post and let folks know how it went.

Update 2/6/2018 – Nope, you can’t use Firefox as the “Assigned Access Mode” application, at least, not without some extreme technical knowhow. So I went for the simpler solution of setting up a user account named “school” and deleting Chrome. Baby steps. 

– Kristin

(Image features a socket wrench poised to twist a nail and a hammer ready to pound a bolt.)

confused-muddled-illogical-disoriented.jpg

wrong tool for the job

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How to Celebrate the New Year

New Years has always struck me as an odd holiday. Winter’s just digging its fingernails into our lives, so . . . what’s different? I used to make resolutions but found they didn’t last. I’m the same person this year as last, more or less.

But this is what New Years is good for: clearing out 2017! All the sorrows and heartaches, and all the expectations I placed on myself but couldn’t fulfill.

Starting with email. You get to this screen, and you click “OK.”

[Screen shot reading: "Confirm bulk action. This action will affect all 1,827 conversations in Inbox. Are you sure you want to continue? OK/ Cancel"]

[Screen shot reading: “Confirm bulk action. This action will affect all 1,827 conversations in Inbox. Are you sure you want to continue? OK/ Cancel”]

I’d say I made a resolution to actually address my emails as they come in, rather than letting 1,827 of them pile up . . . but I don’t want to lie to myself.

Next step: the dreaded papers stack. Full of all those bits and pieces I figured somebody might want or need, and they don’t.

Every day begins a new year.

Happy New Year!

 

Anglicon 2017 Recap

I went to Anglicon this year, along with my son, to revel in Classic Doctor Who fandom. Much fun! It’s nice to meet people who liked Doctor Who before it was trendy. Highlights:

I lived the Classic Who tropes (not always on purpose):

  1. Losing track of companions: This began the moment I left home. I hopped in the car to pick up my spouse from the bus stop, but due to bad directions, I drove around aimlessly only to find he’d walked all the way home. It was a good omen.
  2. Wandering through corridors: The hotel room was a half mile from the convention area, along a twisty route. This would have been true to the show, except the walls didn’t wobble.
  3. Tea: I enjoyed a proper black tea in the Hospitality Suite.
  4. An unattended TARDIS: And as usual, someone had left the door open, and someone else had wandered in. (They fixed this by Saturday, though.)
  5. Losing track of companions (again): In the end, exhausted beyond belief, I kept trying to gather family members, and they kept wandering off.

Fanstruck by Sylvester McCoy:

I lined up early for a photo op with Sylvester McCoy so that I wouldn’t spend the entire con worrying about getting one. I needn’t have worried, since there was plenty of time for photo ops, but it was a delight to see him show up and perform crowd control.  Later, during his Q & A, he put on another stellar performance, getting down into the audience to answer questions with a quick wit and well-timed comedy. And finally, I hung out in the general vicinity as he wandered through the art show with his “handler,” admiring the art.

And Peter Davison:

He had so many stories to tell about his acting career. The audience questioned him about everything from his first time acting to his upcoming works. My second favorite: his account of directing The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, including the moment when all the actors were in their spots, the cameras adjusted, the lights on, and he was waiting around to hear people shout “Action!” only to realize that was his job.  And my favorite: his account of filming All Creatures Great and Small, with . . . actual animals about to give birth.

The game room:

I got a chance to play my first Doctor Who role-playing game, run by a game master who kindly took into account my inexperience (and that of my son as well). Something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.

The panel “Should the Doctor Be a Woman”?

Poorly named (because the next Doctor is a woman) but great in-depth conversations about the past and future of a female Doctor. I’d like to spend an entire post on that, so I’ll skip it here.

The film festival:

I only had the chance to see two short films but liked them both. The first was a sci/fi zombie crossover, “Father’s Day”, that was at the same time gross and heartbreaking. The other film, “Renegades,” by Grant Pierce Liester, was riveting, with small moments gorgeously done.

All the costumes:

So many people put so much detail and care into dressing up. It’s a delight to watch.

The Corgi parade:

One of the guests of honor is a Corgi who starred in Dirk Gently, along with his sister. I missed most of the Corgi antics. But on Sunday as I walked down the hallway, I found everyone lined up for something, and it turned out to be a parade of dogs (many in costume), led by a Dalek. Boy, were those dogs pleased with the attention!

And the conversations:

I mostly kept to myself (introvert!) but the conversations I did have were fun.

All in all:

I don’t attend many cons, finding them exhausting, but this one was worth it. Thank you to everyone who worked so hard to put it on.

anglicon-staff-2017

The Plum Harvest

It was enormous this year. With help, I’ve taken at least sixty pounds of it off the tree so far, and there are more left. These are just a few:

DSC03988

our plum harvest

What does a person do with that many plums, anyway??? When I was growing up, our family made plum jam. Way too much work! Also, I like them raw, not cooked. Very best: sun-warmed and overripe. The only way to get that kind of plum is to have your own tree, or stay on good relations with a friend or neighbor who has a tree.

There’s a limit to how many fresh plums you can eat in a day and still crave them. I’ve gone over it. So . . . I’ve frozen some, made some into muffins, and given some away, to lots of different people. Some are going to a Food Security project, still in its infancy.  It’s an anti-capitalist effort.

Speaking of capitalism, and economics, what is the value of a fresh, ripe plum? The grocery store says it’s about $3.50 per pound, and since there are 12 of these plums in a pound, that would cost just about $0.30. In theory, if I wanted to sell all sixty pounds myself, I could get about $210. But that’s only if I could sell every last one, at that price. About half are bruised or have small bites, and we’re used to buying fruit that looks perfect. So it’s down to $105, barring clever marketing or packaging or whatnot.

Is that the only way to measure the value of a plum? What about its caloric value? About 30 calories. That would be 360 calories for a pound and 21,600 calories for the lot. Well, that’s interesting. Assuming that 2500 as an average daily caloric intake, those plums would feed a person for 8 days. (Do not try this at home, kids. Your colon can’t take it.) In a time of famine, this would be a windfall.

Or what about value in terms of time expended? Never mind the time it took to plant and water the tree, because it’s self-sufficient by now. But there’s pruning, keeping bindweed away, and hosing it down to prevent aphids. This year, an extra “climate change tax” of time because it rained ash, so I’m washing and drying the plums. Then of course, there’s the time it takes to pick the plums. Let’s estimate 30 hours annually. In that case, the plums are worth two pounds an hour.

In that case, one hour of labor gets me $7 worth of plums – not even minimum wage. Or, to see it another way, it gets me a third of my daily caloric intake. (Kids, again: Don’t eat all those plums in one sitting.)

These comparisons let me notice some things: first, we usually think of value in capitalism’s terms; and second, there are so many other ways to measure it.

What about the plums’ value to the tree? Clearly, since the tree just drops them on the ground, they’re worth nothing. On the other hand, if it wasn’t going to bear fruit, I wouldn’t have planted it in my back yard. So the tree owes everything to its plums.

How does the tree repay the favor? By sharing its plums. (Side note, it gives plums to the bees as well, which did the tree the favor of fertilizing the fruit in the first place, and which take bites of the fruit at harvest time.)

How do I repay the favor? Also by sharing the plums. And that brings me back to the food security project. It’s an anarchist thing. There is a hazy long-term goal of providing a sustainable source of food to a community, especially in case of economic collapse or whatnot. Will it succeed? Or will it go the way of many anarchist projects – abandoned in favor of something shinier? You can never tell.

All I know is that if people are truly interested in destroying capitalism, we have to build something else. And that “something else” depends on people not starving. It requires food to be produced, transported, distributed, and eaten. Somebody has to do that work. In any economic system.

In the meantime, twenty-some pounds of plums left my hands and went off to a meeting of anarchists, where they were shared and eaten and taken home. And valued.

Thanks, tree!

– Kristin

 

 

 

Why genealogy?

Elenor, Ellen, Eleanor, Helena. Every official source seems to list her name differently. Why? After some digging, I learned that she could read but not write.

But that’s not the main question. The question I started with: which one of her husbands was my ancestor? Odd, conflicting family stories. Brothers who ran away from their father, or stepfather. They were adopted, but by which one?

The answer, which comes out only partially, is that there was one hell of a soap opera happening in the late 1800s. Elenor’s first husband Thomas had married before, not sure what happened to her. So Elenor married Thomas, and then had two sons. At some point, after the birth of the oldest son, she either left or divorced Thomas for a Henry (who had abandoned his first family to go gold mining, and who would later start a third family, after Elenor’s sons ran away from home and Elenor divorced him). She took her two boys, but later, Thomas filed a suit to get the oldest son back.

The game of musical spouses notwithstanding, it looks like my ancestor, the father of the oldest son, is Thomas. It took me three days of research and the answer feels somewhat anticlimactic.

But now there are more questions. Why did Elenor give up her oldest son? And several years later, when she went back to retrieve the oldest son, did Thomas give him up? Was it because he was busy with his third family? Why did the two boys later run away? Did they stay in contact with Elenor or did the family lose track of each other?

This is a story for which I’ll never know the details. The two boys had a happy ending. What about Elenor? She was indigent when she divorced Henry. Did she manage to have a good life anyway?

So why do I research genealogy? I’m seeking answers. But to what question? I confess I don’t know.

Chasing around after long-gone dead people to whom I am only remotely connected, but without whom I’d never exist. There’s some deep mystery there.

I do feel a greater understanding of human history. It’s a muddle. It’s full of people trying to survive the best they can. Sometimes they’re the oppressors and sometimes the oppressed, and sometimes they move from one category to the other.

And every one of the official stories about our collective past is a lie.

– Kristin

Picture of deeply entwined tree roots

We usually show genealogy as “a family tree” with happy ancestors adorning the branches. But our past digs deep, becomes unknowable fast. And many stories, like Elenor’s, become like bramble. (Image from the public domain.)

 

 

 

Let that be a lesson to me!

Somehow I ran down my iron stores and ended up with iron-deficiency anemia. In retrospect, it was inevitable. I’m a pre-menopausal woman, and although I’m not a vegetarian, I rarely eat red meat. Also, I donate blood.

The symptoms came on gradually and didn’t scream out “iron deficiency!” For starters, my red blood count was normal less than three months ago, when I last gave blood. But I was frequently lightheaded and had activity-related headaches, and a normal aerobic workout would wipe me out for the whole day. Oh, well. Now I know. I’m taking the supplements and starting to feel better, except for the upset tummy that iron supplements cause.

But it’s also a metaphorical object lesson. I just kept right on giving blood, without making sure I had enough iron in reserve. In other words, I ran myself into the ground. But I do that in many other areas of my life as well. I give other people more of my time than I mean to. And since the last presidential election, I’ve pushed myself to be more politically active than I can handle, which has meant an important life goal (my novel) has been sliding.

So my goal for the next month or so, as I build back up my iron stores and my energy: practice being selfish. I’ll see how it goes!

 

 

 

Shadow work and the gift economy

In earlier posts I’ve discussed shadow work — the unpaid labor that complements wage work in a market economy. This includes everything from childcare and housekeeping (which together make up ten hours of my unpaid day) to commuting to shopping — basically any efforts that make it possible for a worker to sell their labor. I’ve also discussed subsistence work — the unpaid labor that provides for basic human needs — and the ways in which subsistence work can also function as shadow work, by making a wage laborer cheaper to maintain. Finally, I looked at work from a market economy perspective and a household economy perspective.

So there’s another kind of economy that is worth looking at: the gift economy. In a gift economy, basic needs are met through gifts rather than barter or market exchange. As it turns out, some peoples have historically run on the basis of a gift economy, and all peoples have incorporated gift economy principles and practices to some extent.

There’s a helpful discussion of gift and market economies in the article “The Khoekhoe Free Economy: A Model for the Gift” by Yvette Abrahams, found in the anthology Women and the Gift Economy: A Radically Different World View is Possible, ed. Genevieve Vaughan.

The essay discusses the history of the indigenous people of South Africa, the Khoekhoe. Their gift-giving economy was lost after hundreds of years of colonialism, slavery, apartheid, and structural adjustment–but many aspects of it remain. For example, it is the tradition at mealtime for a family to keep a little in the pot, in case someone knocks on the door and needs it.

Women give huge amounts of free labor, and according to Abrahams (writing in 2003), women’s subsistence farming provides about 66% of the food that feeds the continent, but it is never included in economic figures because it is given away, not sold.

This would be a workable economic solution except that women’s ability to farm is limited. For one thing, whites own 85% of the land in South Africa. For another, women have access to it only if they have a husband or a son.

So today in South Africa, the gift economy is broken in some important ways. It’s not a free social exchange, for instance, if one person needs the gift in order not to starve. It’s also not possible to gift when you have nothing. Abrahams writes: “Today, I cannot give away my labour. I have to work in order to eat.”

Also, the free labor operates not only as subsistence but also as a free subsidy of the wealthy. Abrahams writes: “Women’s non-waged labour provides two-thirds of all the food that Africans eat each year. In a way, it leads to greater independence, but in another way, it is a huge subsidy of the globalized capitalist economy.”

In other words, the gift economy is being exploited by the market economy. And the free gift of subsistence labor that people provide each other, to meet human needs, is being transformed into shadow work.

Is there a way to turn that around? Could understanding the relationship between the market and gift economies help us build a radically different future?

If you start to think about the gift economy, it is everywhere. The land gives freely of itself, providing sustenance and water and asking nothing in return. And from the moment of a child’s birth, their parents are providing the free gifts of food, shelter, and love. Even in the Western world, people are constantly giving each other presents — for birthdays, holidays, housewarmings, baby showers, weddings — and holding potlucks, and giving to charities, and volunteering, and the list goes on. Gift-giving is a normal human activity. Perhaps it is the market economy (which we mistakenly imagine is the only one that exists) that is artificial.

But if we have a gift economy, right here and right now, it is a broken one. When the market economy takes the free gifts but provides nothing in return, the gift economy runs out of steam and fails. We need to fix it.

Next up, I’ll talk about some more gift economies, both familiar and new.

– Kristin

womanand_giftcover