Win back your attention by turning your screen gray 📱⬜👀

The variety of colors on our smartphone screens pop like candy. As advertiser Bruce Barton wrote in his 1925 book In The Man Nobody Knows, “The brilliant plumage of the bird is color advertising addressed to the emotions.”

We tap into Instagram, scroll through a few photos, and return to the home screen to bounce off to other apps. And then we repeat the process again in a mindless fashion.

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After a while, we start to lose all conscious brain power. We fly between apps like we’re hitting buttons at the casino. The variable rewards keep us spinning in a ludic loop. Technology undermines our attention by bombarding our senses with a surfeit of stimuli that lights up like a Christmas tree.

Turn it gray. That’s right: we need to dull our screens to bore our senses. Turning the phone grayscale doesn’t make it dumb, it just makes it less attractive. Writes Nellie Bowles in the New York Times:

I’m not a different person all of a sudden, but I feel more in control of my phone, which now looks like a tool rather than a toy. If I unlock it to write an email, I’m a little less likely to forget the goal and tap on Instagram. If I’m waiting in line for coffee, this gray slab is not as delightful a distraction as it once was.

Want to give your thumbs a break and regain some attention? Study the instructions on Lifehacker on how to turn your screen grayscale.

Remembering Steve Jobs: ‘Stay hungry, stay foolish’ 📱

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Steve Jobs died six years ago today. He was 56 years old. His uniqueness, unconventional leadership, and big-picture thinking will never be forgotten.

Jobs made tech fashionable. He made sure to remind us that we are the creators.

Below are some of my favorite Jobs’ quotes.

“Make something wonderful, and put it out there.”

“Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.’

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”

“When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

Nick Turpin on the evolution of street photography

Images by Wells Baum

“You have to be physically and mentally present to recognize these things and be ready for them, to recognize that something special is happening on the street in front of you. That really is the skill. It’s almost more important than getting the photograph. It’s recognizing the significance of something.”

— Nick Turpin, How Our Changing Cities Are Transforming Street Photography

Our third eye, be it smartphone or standalone point and shoot camera, is only as good as the two we were born with.

China’s ‘Chabuduo’ Mindset

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Done is better than perfect, in some cases, as in updating a web design or app. But in China, ‘almost’ is a pervasive and dangerous mindset. Known as ‘Chabuduo’ or ‘good/close enough,’ can have disastrous effects when it comes to building everyday things, especially infrastructure.

James Palmer is a foreigner living in China and writes about his close encounters with Chabuduo, including everything from shoddy apartment pipes to broken front doors, poisoned food, to half-built parking lots.

Carelessness leads to death; one government official says there’s a deadly explosion every month. State-controlled tv even suppressed the news after the Tangshan chemical plant explosion in March 2014, killing 55 and wounding hundreds.

The Chabuduo attitude may come in handy on a farm when you have to use an old cloth to stop a broken pipe, but its substandard practices fail at scale in cities and at chemical plants where building with modern materials and following safety instructions prevent catastrophes.

For all Trump’s scaremongering on China, he’d be better off pointing to the people’s willingness to cut corners, their attitude of “good enough for government work.” But he’s more concerned about the thing China excels: making iPhones.

Craftsmanship is about care and expertise, not about faking competence and skipping the fundamentals. Half-ass effort yields half-ass results. Poor quality reveals itself eventually.

“In the end, what perpetuates China’s carelessness most might be sheer ubiquity. Craft inspires. A writer can be stirred to the page by hearing a song or watching a car being repaired, a carpenter revved up by a poem or a motorbike. But the opposite also holds true; when you’re surrounded by the cheaply done, the half-assed and the ugly, when failure is unpunished and dedication unrewarded all around, it’s hard not to think that close enough is good enough. Chabuduo.”

Read more: Chabuduo! 

Never sitting still

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We vacuum our free time up only to replace it with busyness.

Busyness is the purposeful avoidance of doing something with long-term significance in replacement for doing something with immediate tangible results, like answering email.

No one will be thinking about inbox zero on their death bed, says Dan Ariely, Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics. “Why is email available 24/7?,” calling the email game ‘structured procrastination.’

Play the long game

We pursue meaningless stuff all day like email and social networking instead of thinking or working on long-term projects because we can’t stand boredom. We’d rather be something rather than nothing, even choosing electrocution over silence. Joelle Renstrom, a writing professor at Boston University punishes students who leave their cell phones on by making them “sing a song or bust some dance moves in front of the class.”

But there are also people who are work-obsessed and take on too much. Their compulsiveness with doing is an escape from difficult emotions, caring more about their work than taking care of their kids, as one workaholic admits.

‘Try harder!’ ‘Go faster!’ ‘Do more!’

People schedule and accept more meetings just to keep busy. There’s a misperception that the more you work you have, the busier you are, and therefore more important you are. We become slaves to the ‘always-on’ Internet. Busyness relegates life to secondary status, which can take a toll on our health and relationships.

Yet, as much as technology increases busyness and productivity, it could also help save it. Apps like Headspace and Calm encourage people to use their devices to step back into the present.

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Busyness needs a deeper purpose for it to be justified. It can’t all be about enjoying the stimulation and creating unnecessary stress. Sometimes the quiet moments are exactly what we need to do better work.

Clack-clack: California Typewriter, the movie

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“Keep ’em typing!” says Kenneth Alexander, a typewriter repairer with over forty years of experience. He works for California Typewriter in San Francisco, one of the last surviving typewriter repair shop in the United States.

California Typewriter is also the name of a new documentary out from American Buffalo Pictures, which highlights “the portrait of artists, writers, and collectors who remain steadfastly loyal to the typewriter as a tool and muse, featuring Tom Hanks, John Mayer, David McCullough, Sam Shepard, and others.”

The life of a computer is 3-5 years. The life of a typewriter is a century. The typewriter once made writing faster and louder. Today, the typewriter’s nostalgic noise may be the only reason people want to use them again. Says typewriter surgeon Paul Schweitzer who still fixes 20 of them a week from his Flatiron office:

“If you want to concentrate, if you want to write in your own mind, write with a typewriter. You see the words hit the paper. There’s no distractions.”

Tom Hanks grew so nostalgic of the typewriting in the digital age he recreated it as an app, eponymously named the Hanx writer. “I wanted to have the sensation of an old manual typewriter – I wanted the sound of typing if nothing else…cause I find it’s like music that spurs along the creative urge. Bang bang clack-clack-clack puckapuckapuckapucka… I wanted the ‘report’ of each letter, each line.”

Part of the typewriter’s appeal is its rejection of the multi-tasking and impulsiveness behaviour of ‘Generation Thumbs‘ on iPhone and iPads. The beauty of slowing down and Internet-less device is avoiding distractions enhancing your mind’s focus, developing a concentration that many readers experience with the Kindle. Note, however, you can replicate the pace of a typewriter on your phone if you type with one hand.

Don’t expect the typewriter to enjoy the same comeback success story as vinyl– typewriter enthusiasts are a small niche. But do expect the typewriter to be live on in new formats, whether it’s an app or a distraction-free writing tool like the Hemingwrite “with a continuous wi-fi connection to your Evernote account.”

Google Photos frees up phone space automatically

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First it was iCloud, then it was Dropbox, and now I exclusively use Google Photos.

I switched because Google’s sync is faster, its grid layout is cleaner, and because Google has built in AI that arranges your photos by faces, places, etc. Google Photos also automates some of the stitching so it makes video montages and applies filters for you. The result is hit or miss, but you can save what you like.

And now Google Photos is even better. It’ll delete your photos off your phone after syncing them to the cloud so you don’t have get that 16GB iPhone nightmare that says “storage is full.” Previously, you’d have to manually delete photos from your library. Not anymore.

Like I said, I’ve been raving about Google Photos for a while. And it’s only going to get better, especially as it consolidates technology like Motion Stills into one central Photo app.

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Snowden is working on an untrackable iPhone case

Edward Snowden is developing an iPhone case that will let you know if if you’re being tracked.

According to the US’s “third party doctrine,” the government has the right to hack into your phone’s signals and steal it’s metadata, including your email and photos.  Even phones on “Airplane mode” can still be hacked.

This is why Snowden hasn’t owned a mobile phone since 2003. Phones are “kind of like kryptonite to me” he told Wired.

Snowden is collaborating with hardest hacker Bunnie Huang on the build. While their device is mainly for journalists, they want to make it available to anyone looking to go off the grid.

“We want to give a you-bet-your-life assurance that the phone actually has its radios off when it says it does.” – Bunnie Huang

Environmental stimuli from cavemen to generation thumbs

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The caveman wakes up and sees the same panorama every day: the zebra, lion, and scattered trees. A person today wakes up to the instant simulation of their phone, a convergence of distraction.

The savage caveman goes hunting for food, a full-time job. Today’s person orders a Starbucks latte from bed to pick up on the way to work.

The caveman communicated in pictures because they didn’t have notepads. The millennial generation consumes more information on the screen in a day’s worth of tweets than a caveman consumes in a lifetime.

The caveman adapts to his environment. The modern person controls his environment, from the cities and parks to the genetically modified crops.

The human brain adapts to anything. But advancement comes with unintended consequences, surely more good than bad.

Listen to this Podcast: HBR IdeaCast: 477: How Science and Tech Are Changing the Human Body

Sunday Social Roundup

  1. Facebook is following in the footsteps of Snapchat and exploring expiring content. Finally, Facebook realizes that competing against Snapchat with Slingshot is a waste of time. People just want additional popular features in the existing Facebook, not entirely new apps.

  2. Apple introduced the iPhone 6, 6+, and it’s Smart watch this week. I went ahead and ordered the 6+ because I’m still running with the inferior camera of the iPhone 5. Bigger is better, I hope. Oh, and Apple also introduced Apple Pay, which plans to replace the physical credit card and turn your phone into a digital wallet. Finally. Is the TV next?

  3. Facebook, Yahoo, and Twitter plan to take on YouTube in the bid to attract video stars. I finally realized why these YouTube video stars have more fans than brands on YouTube, because they act like they’re your friend.

  4. Will Ferrell is challenging gamers to raise money for charity. Donators will be able to win the opportunity to play with the actor which to be broadcasted on Twitch. What I love about this is using a recognizable face and a new platform (Twitch) to support a good cause.

  5. You’ll never win an argument on social media because it’s too democratic a platform (everyone has a microphone) and its too fast. The only good news is that the arguments are ephemeral as people quickly look for the next chance to opine.

Replacement Measures

  • The Cloud replaced FTP
  • Twitter replaced RSS
  • The iPhone personalized the Blackberry

There’s only one way to mainstream: Remove the ugliness on the front-end and make the software intuitive for everybody.

Streamline the tools, make it pretty, and call it something else. Everything is but a continuation of something else.

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Damp and cold this week, but at least it made for some grimier pictures.

NYC on the Grid.

Idle Movement

I sat next to this old man yesterday. He just sat there on the train and did absolutely nothing for an hour. He didn’t sleep, read, or squirm; he just breathed and blinked about fifty times. It was beautiful, honestly.

In an age of the Smartphone and constant distraction or “productivity,” I find it absolutely remarkable that someone can just sit that still.

The first thing I did (phone in hand, naturally) is write down the observation in Evernote so I could come back to it later. But I wonder if he was thinking the same thing about me in his mind, observing this young guy typing ferociously onto a small screen. Was he going to remember that moment like I’m remembering it? I recorded it after all, otherwise it’s just be another observation in the dust.

But I was still so jealous of his anti-digital stoicism.

People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.

A.A. Milne

Maybe I don’t have to remember everything. Maybe I don’t need to meditate just to regain my focus and disconnect like it’s the early 1990s. Maybe the next train ride I’ll just sit there and ride into Grand Central hands-free.

Stop, I’m dreaming…