Screen Time

I have no idea about how to help our four-year-old (and, in the future, our four-month-old) develop a healthy relationship with technology. On the one hand, I feel that screens are an addiction for me, and I want him to not be as controlled by devices as I sometimes feel. On the other hand, I know that I have gained so much from the connection that my devices provide, and I also want my kids to be fluent in the tools of their generation.

Despite my love of technology, and my conviction that my smartphone enhances my life, I don’t think I have a healthy relationship with it. The first time I realized this was when a friend stopped talking during a meal when I was looking up something related to the conversation on my phone. I also check my phone first thing in the morning, when Apple’s ScreenTime feature came out I was ashamed by the number of hours I use my phone and the number of times I open it, and, most significantly, I find myself checking for updates when I am spending time with family and friends.

Despite being ruled by technology, I still wish I were better at it. I check my phone all the time, but I often fall behind on messages, and I feel very “non-native” to social media. I wish I checked my phone less, but I also wish I connected more online. I have the same wish for my children: I don’t want them to be controlled by their devices, but I want them to be masters of the online world.

As far as “screen time policies”, I bounce back and forth between wanting none for my small kids and wanting to have a completely open policy. An open policy would be to just let them jump in without limits and let them figure it out. If they play Minecraft all day today they’ll probably want to do something else tomorrow. For right now, we’ve settled somewhere in the middle. We haven’t had a TV at home for many years, and we started letting our son watch some TV and movies when he was two. We also started letting him play around on phones and tablets. As of now, if he asks to play with the tablet or watch a show, we sometimes say yes, generally limiting it to 20-30 minutes a day.

As I write this, I’m realizing that the obvious answer is to model the behavior that I hope to see in our sons. This is almost certainly way more important than any rules that we have.

I think I’ll start with not checking my phone in the morning and evening at home, or in the car taking my son to and from school (I’m not driving!). Reading on a Kindle is okay. We’ll see how it goes.

To Conquer the Air

After reading David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers, I was curious to learn more details about the invention of machine-powered human flight, so I read James Tobin’s To Conquer the Air.

McCullough’s book is more of a character study of the Wrights, including more details of their correspondence, particularly between family members, and providing a richer picture some chapters of their lives, particularly their time in Europe.

To Conquer the Air provides a richer context for the Wrights and their pursuit of flight, which I found very helpful and entertaining. The main characters were Samuel Langley, Alexander Graham Bell, and Glenn Curtiss, but many other characters were also fleshed out in more detail than in McCullough’s book. If anything, the extra context helps to emphasize how amazing the Wrights’ achievement was. While many others were pursuing flight with some limited success, the solutions that the Wrights came up with through research and experimentation led to such a superior result that no one could credibly question their accomplishment.

I’m glad I read both of these books, and I’m enjoying this “chain of books”, so I think I’ll keep it going. One of the character who caught my attention was Alexander Graham Bell. He seemed in moments to worry that inventing the telephone had been a stroke of luck, so he was eager to come up with another great invention, and he was fascinated by flight. He didn’t succeed, but he came across as an interesting and complicated character, so I’d like to learn more. I couldn’t find a biography on Amazon with a lot of reviews, so the next book in the chain is going to be Destiny of the Republic, in which he plays at least a minor role in trying to save James A. Garfield’s life.

3D Movies

I love going to the movies. And I’ve really enjoyed some 3D movies. But I hate that so many movies seem to be only available in 3D in theaters.

What I love about going to the movies is the experience of watching a movie with a large group of friends and strangers. The laughter at the funniest moments makes them even funnier; the silent attention in dramatic moments makes them feel more impactful. Ok, and also the popcorn, but they only have sweet popcorn at theaters in Beijing, which doesn’t really do it for me.

The 3D movies I have enjoyed have mostly been crazy action movies with things flying out of the screen. Sometimes, movies like that feel more immersive with 3D. For most movies, though, the 3D effects feel like a novelty, and I find it to be distracting rather than making the movie feel more immersive.

Maybe I’m not looking hard enough, but, at least in Beijing, it seems to be hard to find non-3D options for movies that are available in 3D. So while I can still go to the theater for the experience, I can’t really avoid the distraction of 3D.

I suppose I’m on the wrong side of the market with this. People must want 3D, and be willing to pay more, or else theaters would offer non-3D versions. I guess my best option is to set up a theater at home and invite friends.

English

I’ve been involved in English teaching in China since 2002. I first taught IELTS speaking classes at New Oriental from 2002-2004, and then I helped to found New Channel and worked there from 2004-2016. Since leaving New Channel, I’ve been encouraging students to practice English through my “Morning Reading Club” public WeChat account.

Two things stand out from the time I’ve spent in this space: 1) learning English well opens up lots of doors, both personally and professionally; and 2) many kids spend a huge amount of time learning English in school without much to show for it.

Number one is fairly self-evident, as many high paying jobs require English, many other jobs are enhanced by English, and learning English opens people up to a broader world of travel, communication and entertainment. I also happen to think that the opening of these doors is as good for the world as it is for the individual, as once they are open they lead to greater understanding between cultures and nations.

Number two has definitely improved over the years I have been here, which is to say that more students exit the educational system with fairly functional English. But there are still so many students who learn English in school from first or third grade through graduating high school, and yet still have basically no functional ability that stays with them through their lives.

There are a variety of reasons for this, including a focus on tests, poor textbooks, poor teaching methods (although I think the reason the situation has improved over the years is largely due to teachers getting better and better), and a lack of motivation on the part of students. No matter what the reason, there is a great opportunity for improvement. Could students spend the same amount of time but get better results? I think so, and I’m working on a project that I hope can help at least some students over the next few years.

Frameworks

Last week I read The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. I’d heard it mentioned in enough different contexts that I thought it would be interesting. It was.

The basic idea is super simple: people express and receive love in different ways, and it is helpful to think about how the person we wish to express love to receives love. The “five languages” are receiving gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and physical touch. Chapman posits that one of the “languages” is the primary way in which each of us receives love.

The book is short and to the point, and tells lots of stories to explain the different “languages”. Like lots of self-help/self-development/personal-growth books, it presents what it is saying as some sort of eternal truth, which it is not, but the framework is helpful.

Are there really “five love languages” in some sort of canonical sense? No. But the framework helps me to think about how I can better communicate love to people in my life. It’s also helpful for me to think about how I receive love from other people.

Many frameworks are subjective and arbitrary, but they can still help us do better in a variety of contexts. To stay in the self-help genre, there is Covey’s importance/urgency matrix; perhaps the most famous decision-making framework is battlefield triage.

Frameworks aren’t necessarily true, but they can be helpful.

Neighborhood and Community

We live in a community in Beijing with four buildings. It’s a “gated community”, but since almost all apartment buildings in Beijing are groups of buildings with gates, it doesn’t have the same connotation as a “gated community” in the US.

Each building has seven entrances and twelve floors, and each entrance has two apartments on each floor, except for the first and seventh entrances, which only have one apartment on the 10th through 12th floors. Assuming my math is right, that means there are 4*7*2*12-24=648 apartments in our community.

We’ve lived there for almost 15 years, and I think I probably know and have had conversations with people who live in about 20-30 of those apartments, even though I don’t know most of their names. I have visited 5 or 6 apartments other than our own over the years, depending on how I count.

We have a WeChat group for apartment owners, but the topics are essentially limited to complaining about parking, dogs, and the housing management company.

I don’t know why I don’t know more people or have more deeper relationships with people who live in our community (I am grateful for the relationships that I do have!). Part of it might be my personality, part of it might be cultural norms, and part of is might be the design of our community and neighborhood.

I started thinking about this after watching this video that Fred Wilson shared. I don’t know if I want to live in a city for the rest of my life, but wherever I live I want to be intentional about choosing an area with a design that encourages a vibrant community.

The Wright Brothers

Growing up in North Carolina, I always had a sense of pride about the “First in Flight” slogan on our license plates, and I even had a resistance to Ohio having “Birthplace of Aviation” on its license plates. Those feelings of pride and resistance, along with many feelings associated with my various identities, have faded over the years, and I greatly enjoyed reading about Wilbur and Orville’s adventures back and forth between Dayton and Kitty Hawk in David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers.

What an amazing story! They figured out how to build an airplane basically in the manner that someone might build a treehouse in their back yard. They just kept working at it and eventually figured it out. Of course, they were incredibly devoted to it, and worked hard for many years, but it seems like it really happened just through a combination of interest, devotion, and tinkering.

McCullough’s telling focuses on the brothers’ journey and their character, and although some might call it hagriographic, it’s a very engaging read. I particularly enjoyed the details from the brothers’ letters, and the descriptions of the challenges and excitement of life at Kitty Hawk. I wish, though, that there had been more detail on the history of attempts at flying, and on the specific way in which they solved it versus what else was being attempted at the time. Based on some quick research, it looks like To Conquer the Air might satisfy my desire to learn more about this.

15 Years

Today is our fifteenth wedding anniversary. 15 years ago today, my wife and I gathered with friends and family to commit to join together as a couple and family.

We met five years before we got married, and we got engaged on Christmas Eve of 2002. I was a bit nervous about proposing, so I told the class of several hundred students I was teaching that day about my plans in order to give me some pressure. I knelt down in the snow in the middle of the PKU campus, and she said yes!

People often say that “marriage is hard”, and it’s true. Two people sharing their lives together requires a lot of communication and compromise, and in moments that can be challenging and painful. But it’s also a beautiful thing to work together on decisions, and to share memories that are collected over the years. We are building something together, even when we don’t know exactly what it is, and that something grows in importance and meaning as time goes on.

There used to be only two of us, and now there are four. Our boys have brought us more joy than we ever could have imagined, and also challenged us to grow in new ways. With one child, it suddenly became hard to find time alone, but we reveled in watching his every move. With two children, it’s hard to find time together with each child on their own, but it’s such a gift to watch them interact.

We’ve had many adventures over the last fifteen years. I am grateful for them, and I am grateful to have a partner to share adventures with in the years to come.

Caffeine

I didn’t use to drink coffee, but about ten years ago my office moved to a building with a Starbucks on the first floor, and my addiction began. For a while I was drinking two Venti Brewed Coffee per day (one in the morning and one in the afternoon), which is roughly the equivalent of 10 Espressos, although I didn’t know it at the time.

I began to notice that if I didn’t drink coffee for more than a day, I started to have a terrible headache, and it would evolve into something that felt like the flu without a fever.

This was disconcerting, so I tried to stop several times, but it was so easy to just drift into a coffee shop and come out with a coffee. I found myself strategizing about where I would get my fix. I don’t mean to compare my addiction to addictions that ruin people’s lives or even kill them, but I could understand how a more dangerous addiction could be rationalized and take over a life.

Sometime before our first son was born, I quit cold turkey. It took about month of slowly receding agony and malaise, but it led to a period of relative calm and clarity over the first months of our son’s life. Then I slowly fell back into the addiction. It started with allowing myself to have a coffee whenever I met someone at a coffee shop, and grew into needing it every day.

I thought about cutting back, but the prospect of going through withdrawal was enough to keep me from making a serious effort. Then a friend explained that people can easily build a tolerance for caffeine, but they can also pretty easily scale back without much difficulty (not true with many other drugs). I don’t know if this is accurate or not, but it gave me a strategy, and I’ve slowly cut back all the way to one Decaf Americano per day.

Maybe it’s a mirage, but in general I feel calmer and more balanced. Sometimes I feel in a bit of a haze and want to use coffee to wipe out that haze, but I’m hoping that over time the haze will fade. I’ve heard, though, that prolonged usage of caffeine can change your brain for good, so we’ll we’ll see.

This struggle sounds sort of silly, but I’m glad not to be depending on a beverage to function. I do love coffee and tea, though, so I’m not sure how long it will last. Maybe this is an opportunity to understand moderation and self-control.

Blue Skies

One of the things that living in Beijing has done is give me an appreciation for blue skies and clean air. Yes, that appreciation comes from exposure to horrible pollution, but it’s an appreciation nonetheless.

Bad air days in Beijing are depressing. It actually took me a while to realize this–not only do 400 AQI days make for post-apocalyptic scenery, they also made me feel like the world was ending.

Fortunately, the overall air quality in Beijing seems to be improving. The average AQI is still pretty bleak, but there are fewer horrible days. I remember hearing a while back that the plan was for the air in Beijing to be healthy by 2035. Well, healthy is actually a pretty high bar, so it’s about time to turn the corner and head in that direction.

Maybe I’m kidding myself. I’m pretty sure that any increase in AQI is associated with decreased life expectancy, there was a study a while back that claimed pollution was shaving five years off of life expectancy in northern China, and I haven’t even mentioned food, water or soil safety. So we’re definitely making a health compromise by living in Beijing.

We planned to leave Beijing back in 2016. Our son was one year old, and checking the AQI each morning to see if we could take him outside just felt terrible. But we were reminded of the charms of Beijing in the year or so that we were gone, and by the time we were back here our son was old enough to enjoy more of the wonderful things about the city, so here we are for now.

Today the sky is blue and there is a smile on my face.