Tablet Drawing

Posted by TechyDad on August 23, 2013 under Technology

pencilWhen the boys got their Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 tablets, we first set them up for the boys to play some games, read e-books, and more.  After the boys were asleep one day, though, I got an idea.

I’ve had times when I wanted to illustrate my posts with drawings, but it never worked out.  I began to wonder if the problem was that I was using drawing programs with a keyboard and mouse.  That didn’t seems like a very natural way to draw.  Maybe I would have better luck with a touchscreen.

I searched around and tried a few apps, but nothing felt right.  Then I found SketchBook Express.  I’ll save the full review for another day, but suffice it to say that I soon found myself doodling Matt Smith’s Doctor:

fezzes are cool

I doubt that, right now, artists around the world are trembling in fear of my awesome talent.  Still, this felt a lot better than using a mouse or touchpad.  Perhaps if I used a stylus instead of my finger, the sketch would come out better.  (The one stylus we had was very thick and more meant for young kids to learn writing than for adults to draw with.)

I’m definitely going to try doing this more.  Don’t be too surprised if some drawings even appear here to illustrate posts.  Like the pencil above.

Have you ever used a tablet computer to draw on/with?  If so, what apps did you use?

Disclosure: My wife received a Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 as part of the Verizon Lifestyle Bloggers.  Our boys purchased the second Galaxy Tab 2.  This post wasn’t made as part of the Verizon Lifestyle Bloggers program, however.  All opinions above are my own.

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Prepping a Tablet For Children

Posted by TechyDad on August 19, 2013 under Geeky Pursuits, Parenting, Smartphone/Tablet Apps, Technology

prepping-a-tablet-for-childrenAwhile back, we uncovered a large mass of gift cards we had all but forgotten about.  Some were ours, but a lot of them were for our boys.  They would get gift cards in addition to their birthday or Chanukah presents and we would put them away.  After all, they had just received a pile of toys.  There was no need to for them to add to it.

We totaled up the cards and began to dread the huge influx of toys that would clutter our house.  Until, that is, we thought: Why have them get toys?  Why not suggest they put that money towards a tablet computer instead?  JSL and NHL loved the idea and now they each have a Galaxy Tab 2.

A tablet can be an ideal computer for a child.  They are small enough for a child to use easily, can be used for games, educational programs, or reading, and are portable enough to bring on the road.  Instead of bringing a big pile of toys in the car for a road trip, you can simply put the tablets in the kids’ hands and they will be entertained for quite some time.  On the downside, though, tablets are fragile, can lead to your child accessing inappropriate content, or can have your child access the wrong content at the wrong time.

Some tablets, like the Kindle Fire, come with parental controls built in.  We were sorely tempted by the Fire, but the availability of the Google Play store (or lack thereof) was a bigger issue for us.  So how does one take an Android tablet without built-in parental controls and protect it?  Here’s what I did.  Feel free to leave any further recommendations in the comments area below.

Physical Protection

The biggest concern is tablet breakage.  It doesn’t matter how well you lock the tablet down if the child drops it and cracks the screen.  Then you face either an expensive repair or replacement.  We’ve imposed strict tablet usage guidelines with the kids.  They know they aren’t to run with the tablets and should avoid walking with them whenever possible.  They are frequently reminded to take care of their tablets and that they are fragile.

Still, even the most careful child will have an accident from time to time.  That’s why we purchased Otterbox cases for our boys’ tablets.  They cost more than some other cases, but they do the job nicely.  The one time we had an incident (with B’s iPad), the iPad emerged without a scratch or crack on it.  It might have survived without any case, but the drop was several feet and could have easily broken the iPad.  Will it protect any device from any fall?  Of course, not.  No case would do that.  But the Otterbox does help to tremendously stack the odds in the tablet’s favor.

If the price of the case makes you pause, just consider what the price of fixing or replacing a damaged tablet would be.  I’d be willing to bet that the price of the latter would be more than the price difference between the Otterbox and a plain case.

Disabling Unneeded Apps

disable-appsThe next step is to decide which applications should not be used on the tablet.  For example, JSL is never going to use GMail or Google Hangouts on his Galaxy Tab 2.  Why, then, should those apps be available?  The problems is that some apps come pre-installed and can’t be removed.  (This is true for Android cell phones as well and the same steps can be used for them.)

First, go to the System Settings area.  From there, find Application Manager or Apps (depending on which version of Android you have).  Go to the listing of all applications and find an application you want to disable.  When you press on it, you should see either an “uninstall” button, an “uninstall updates” button, or a “disable” button.  If the button reads “uninstall”, you can just remove the app from the device.  If it says “disable” then clicking the button will prevent the application from running.  If the button says “uninstall updates” then you’ll need to press this first.  After the updates are uninstalled, the button will change to “disable” and will allow you to disable the app.

Locking Apps That Kids Shouldn’t Use

app-lockWhat if you want an app available in case you use the tablet, but don’t want the kids using it?  Or, perhaps the app is so integral to the functioning of the device that it can’t be removed/disabled.  So how do you prevent the kids from using the app when you are not looking?  (After all, you can look over their shoulder all day but all it takes is a few minutes unsupervised for kids to get in trouble.)

For this, I installed App Lock.  App Lock lets you decide which applications need to be protected and to set a password to protect them.  So if you check your GMail on the tablet, but don’t want the kids looking through your e-mails, you can set a password on it.  If they try to launch the app, it will prompt for the password.  You can also set time and location locks, but those are premium features which cost either $0.99 per month or $2.99 per year.  So far, we haven’t decided to opt for the Premium protection, but it is an option.

For now, though, the basic level of protection is an effective solution to the problem.  Without knowing our secret passcode, the boys can’t access any applications that we deem out of bounds.

Time Limits Imposed

time-limitSometimes you want to allow your children to use an application but don’t want them spending all of their time on it.  NHL, for example, would spend all day playing games on his tablet (or at least until he drained the battery) if we let him.  However, I don’t want to cut off all gameplay entirely.  So how can I let him read on his Galaxy Tab 2 for a few hours, but limit how long his gameplay takes?

Enter Screen Time Parental Control.

This application will allow you to set a daily time limit and specify which apps count towards that limit.  So I can allow NHL unlimited Kindle reading time and permit him to use games with educational components (like MathDuko) as long as he likes, but other games will count towards his daily limit.

In addition to this, the limit can be overridden.  Tell me if this sounds familiar:  You tell your kid that dinner is in five minutes.  Five minutes later, the food is on the table, but your child is too engrossed in gameplay to come to the table.  You call again and five minutes later the food is getting cold while the child CONTINUES to play.  Now imagine that you just pull out your smartphone and load up the Screen Time Remote Control app.  Using this, you can send a quick message to your child’s tablet saying “Come to dinner now!” and lock them out of their games for a specified period of time.  Or, if you are trying to get out the door, but they have an hour of gameplay time left that they refuse to give up, you can override this with the remote control app to expire their time immediately.

Of course, these apps aren’t a substitution for good parenting.  The best protection for children using tablet computers is still talking with them, setting clear limits, consequences for purposefully crossing the limits, and support if they find themselves on the edge and don’t know what to do.  Still, these tools can give parents some additional ammunition for the digital age.

What are your favorite ways of protecting your children and devices?

Disclaimer: B received a Galaxy Tab 2 as part of the Verizon Lifestyle Bloggers program.  We purchased the other Galaxy Tab 2 ourselves.  I was not asked to make any blog posts in exchange for this device.  All opinions expressed above are my own.

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Expanding My Skillset

Posted by TechyDad on July 22, 2013 under Computers, Internet, Reading, Technology, Web Development
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wordpress_bookIf there’s one thing that working in IT has taught me, it’s that learning is never over.  The minute you stop learning, your value to potential employers drops dramatically.  Instead, one must constantly expand one’s horizons and learn new things.

Recently, my company bought me some books on WordPress and web development.  Though I know how to work in WordPress, these covered areas I had never gotten involved in but meant to such as developing themes and plugins from scratch.

One day, during a very rare end-of-day lull, I decided to crack open "WordPress Plugin Development Cookbook."  Within minutes, I had the basics down and was developing my own plugin.  No, it wasn’t fully functional, but the path to that was laid before me and it looked like it was a short path indeed.

Now my head is buzzing with WordPress plugin ideas (both for work and as side projects).  I can’t wait to apply the knowledge I’ve already gained and I can"t wait to finish the book and gain even more knowledge.

Do you often make it a point to learn new things?  If so, what have you learned recently?

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The Double-Edged Sword of Technology

Posted by TechyDad on July 3, 2013 under Internet, Technology
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double-edged-sword-technologyIn a piece for the Washington Post, Robert J. Samuelson wrote that, were he in charge, he would repeal the Internet.  Though he admitted that the Internet brought with it some "astonishing capabilities", he claims these are more than offset by the existence of cybercrime and by cyberwar destroying "the institutions and networks that underpin everyday life."

Sadly, I think that Mr. Samuelson is overstating the risks, understating the rewards, and throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  Even worse, I think he might be more than a bit biased in his opinions.

The Risks

First, let’s look at the risks of being online.  Yes, there are criminal gangs who would like nothing better than to hack into your computer.  Mostly, this is to use it to send out spam messages or to show you unwanted ads.  Sometimes, it might be to see what useful data is on your system.  More often, though, these criminals attack big companies.  Why grab little bits and pieces of data from individuals when you can break into a database awash with personal information.  One decent database breach can net you thousands of credit card numbers as well as enough personal information to steal the identities of tens of thousands of people.  Meanwhile, people from other countries would like nothing more than to cripple our country by hacking our utility companies, airports, stock markets, and more.

Scared yet?  Good.  But instead of cowering in fear and pulling the Internet’s plug (metaphorically speaking since it doesn’t have one in real life), let’s use that fear to spur some security upgrades.

Computers should run firewalls and antivirus software, both of which should be kept up to date.  People can be taught not to open any links they are e-mailed unless they come from a trusted source (and even then be suspicious).   They can be instructed not to run random software that they "bought" from a really cheap website hosted in Russia.  If that version of Photoshop was only $39 when it retails for hundreds of dollars, perhaps you should wonder just WHY it is so cheap.  As for those databases, they can be secured as well.

Of course, nothing is unhackable.  You can put fence after fence in the path of a hacker but some might still slip through.  This doesn’t mean you need to make it easy for them.  The more difficult you make it to hack in, the more you a) convince people to hack some other computer/server and b) require advanced hacking skills (which not every hacker might possess) to break in.  Raise the bar enough and your server, though not "unhackable", will be hack-proof enough to survive most attacks.

What about cyberwar?  For this, I’d recommend something that is indeed unhackable: an air gap.  This means disconnecting the sensitive computer or network from the Internet.  Why does a power company’s computer system need to be on the Internet?  Why would an air traffic control system?  Don’t connect these systems to the Internet and even the most skilled hacker won’t be able to penetrate them.  Want to see an air gap in action?  Try to hack the CIA’s sensitive information.  The CIA’s website might come under attack from time to time, but the actual sensitive information isn’t stored there or anywhere accessible from there.  (Documents might leak via people, but this isn’t an "Internet" issue even if said people post the documents online.)

The Benefits

Ok, so the risks, while there, aren’t so horrible and can be protected against.  Did Mr. Samuelson understate the rewards of the Internet?  Here, I must stop and admit my own personal bias.  I work as a web developer.  Were the Internet to disappear tomorrow, I’d be out of a job.  So, although there are plenty of economic benefits, I won’t focus on those.  Instead, let’s look at the social ones.

I’m a geek.  I like shows like Doctor Who and Star Trek and various other things that people around me don’t normally like.  In addition, I have Asperger’s Syndrome and don’t know too many people in real life who struggle with that.  In fact, I don’t know too many people in real life at all.  I struggle with real life interactions while I thrive online.  Were I to go back to "the old way" of meeting and talking to people, I’d wind up not talking to many people.

In addition, the people I did talk to would have a decidedly region-locked viewpoint.  With the Internet, I can talk to one person in New York, another in California, a third in Canada, a fourth in Australia, and a fifth in the Middle East.  Heck, I can even follow the tweets of someone orbiting the Earth in the International Space Station (@astro_luca and @AstroKarenN).  Try doing THAT sans Internet.

Furthermore, research would become a chore again.  Prior to the Internet, researching a topic meant going through thick encyclopedias (which sometimes might be a few years old), leafing through newspapers, or scanning through microfiche.  It was a slow and laborious process.  Nowadays, a few key Google or WIkipedia searches can get you much of your data.  While you should always back it up with better sources if your query is for a serious endeavor (e.g. a research paper), the Internet can jump start your research in ways that non-Internet methods can’t.

Is there a lot of fluff on the Internet?  Of course.  There’s a lot of trash too.  The key, though, is realizing that one man’s trash is another’s treasure.  I love Doctor Who and Disney.  So when I saw an image of a Dalek merged with Figment, I fell in love.  Someone without a passion for either of those, though, might look upon that image as a waste of bandwidth.  Meanwhile, I’m not a fan of Game of Thrones and so wouldn’t appreciate a parody video of it while a fan might find it the funniest thing he’s seen in months.

Baby. Bathwater. Bye-Bye.

No technology is without its risks.  Television can be used to educate (Sesame Street) or to play mindless fluff like some reality shows.  Cars can be used to speed travel or to run someone over.  A hammer can build a building or bash in a skull.  Electricity can light our way or fry us to a crisp.  Nuclear power can generate electricity or blow us up. 

Technology isn’t evil by itself.  It is only a tool.  People make those tools do some wonderful things and some horrible things.  If we banned technology every time someone used it for the wrong purposes, we’d be back to living in caves.  (No fire, though.  You might burn someone with it so it’s banned.)  Ditching the Internet just because a few malcontents and thieves misuse the power it grants doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

Where The Bias Lies

So why would Mr. Samuelson want to turn off the Internet?  Perhaps the answer lies in where he works: The Washington Post.  The Post, along with many other newspapers, used to be THE source of up to date information about national and world events.  If you wanted to see who won the Presidential race or what was going on in other countries, you’d pick up the newspaper and read.  All the news would be printed there for you – or at least all the news the editors deemed fit enough.

With the advent of cable news, newspapers began a decline.  After all, they printed once a day.  Maybe twice if they ran an "evening edition."  Cable news programs, however, could update stories on a minute by minute basis.  If a big, important court case was nearing a verdict, you could read about it in the paper the next day (if they were able to stop the presses) or you could tune in and watch it happen live.

Once the Internet became popular, though, the floodgates were opened.  Suddenly, news could be relayed instantaneously about any topic.  You didn’t need to worry about the fact that CNN or the Times didn’t cover elections in Peru.  You could look at a few Peruvian websites to see how things were going.  Once social media took off, information would even spread from person to person.  Yes, this means that rumors can spread fast as well, but that’s a risk with the old methods as well.

With the news speed turned up to Ludicrous, newspapers just couldn’t keep up.  Some have managed to slow their descent, but many have gone out of business or are headed that way.  Were the Internet to go away tomorrow, newspapers (and columnists like Mr. Samuelson) would benefit greatly.

Sorry, Mr. Samuelson, but the Internet isn’t going away.  Yes, there are plenty of risks, but there are way more rewards.  And while I might need to dodge a hacker or stalker or troll here and there, I wouldn’t trade being online for all of the printed encyclopedias and microfiche in the world!

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I’m Bored, Entertain Me

Posted by TechyDad on July 1, 2013 under Parenting, Technology
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im_bored"I’m BORRRRED!"

Every parent dreads hearing those words come out of their child’s mouth.  This means that the child will get increasingly antsy and agitated as he or she tries to figure out how to pass the time.  This can be somewhat understandable if the boredom strikes during a long winded speech.  However, when it occurs between the ordering of food and said food’s arrival, it’s less likely to garner sympathy.

Recently, I’ve noticed my kids getting bored when, by all rights, they shouldn’t be.  They’ll complain about having nothing to do – while standing next to a veritable mountain of toys.  They’ll whine about how there’s nothing to do when we just need to sit quietly for a bit.  Boredom seems to strike the moment that they cease being entertained.

(At this point, I’d like to pause to point out that they don’t do this ALL the time.  They seem perfectly able to entertain themselves sometimes.  Other times, they’ll become bored at the drop of a hat.)

I’m a "techy dad", so it makes sense that my kids are "techy kids." In fact, they are wizzes at the iPad, computer, Nintendo DS, Roku, or pretty much any other electronic devices. At times, though, I fear that today’s always on-instant entertainment environment has made kids today unable to handle "downtime."  Yes, I realize that makes me sound like an old geezer – even more so for having used the word "geezer."

Kids aren’t the only ones affected, though.  I’ve found myself instinctively reaching for my phone to check Twitter, browse the web, or read some e-mail while waiting.  When I can’t use my phone, I’ve often found myself coming close to declaring my boredom in a loud, whiny voice.  Before I judge my kids for their lack of tolerance to lack of entertainment, perhaps I should put away the smartphone and wait a mile in their shoes.

But first, I need to check this incoming tweet…

Do your kids complain about being bored?  Do you ever find yourself unable to handle downtime without the aid of a smartphone or other electronic device?

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