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Issue [#242]: 'Screen time' is a useless concept
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How's it going? I'm writing this with a head cold. Having read that a disproportionate number of people die in January, I'm making sure I pull through by drinking plenty of whisky this weekend as disinfectant. At least, that's this week's excuse...

I'll be travelling each week for the next month and a half, so I took this week a bit easier. I hope you're looking after yourself, too. Just a heads-up that I'll be publishing Chapter 3 of #uppingyourgame: a practical guide to productivity soon, after having written the draft this week.

Talking of publishing, this week a publisher approached me to ask if I would be interested in writing a book for them. I've rebuffed these enquiries in the past, prefering to self-publish. However, I'm more open to the idea at the moment. If you've got experience in these matters and could give me some advice, I'd love to hear from you!

If you're new to this this newsletter, then welcome! It's good to have you onboard. I don't track readers, so why not hit reply and tell me who you are and where you're from. I always like making new connections. :)

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Things worth commenting on this week

As ever, I read these this week, but they weren't necessarily written in the past seven days.


1. It doesn't matter whether or not WhatsApp has a 'backdoor'

According to an article in The Guardian, WhatsApp, the instant messenger owned by Facebook, has a vulnerability meaning that 'secure' messages can be intercepted. The particular approach is known as a 'Man in the Middle' (or MITM) attack, and isn't actually limited to WhatsApp.

Most of the popular messaging apps use same cryptographic protocol, developed by Open Whisper Systems. This has been reviewed by cryptographic experts and is seen as exemplary. However, as ever, the devil is in the detail. For the protocol to be effective in creating a secure channel, end-to-end encryption has to be turned on, which it isn't by default in Facebook Messenger and Google Allo.

While WhatsApp is encrypted end-to-end by default, the associated metadata is accessible to Facebook. Don't know what that means? Try 'activity records'. So, yeah, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out, a lot can be inferred from these activity records.

Of course, as Open Whisper Systems are at pains to make clear, there is no 'backdoor', as we'd normally understand it, in WhatsApp. But for Facebook to have paid $19 billion for WhatsApp and made it free, that metadata must be extremely valuable.

So, what to do? I suggest using Signal on iOS or Android, and reading the EFF's Surveillance Self-Defense. And no, I don't think it's overkill for private citizens to read up on this stuff and implement changes to their day-to-day practises. At least, that is, if they want to continue to be a private citizen.

Bonus: You might want to check out this from a lawyer who re-wrote Instagram's terms and conditions. Instagram, as you'll be aware, is also owned by Facebook — you know, the company who also buys up offline data so it can better track you and serve you up to advertisers.

2. 'Screen time' is a useless concept

As a regular reader of OLDaily, I remember reading a few years ago that Stephen Downes regularly spends around 16 hours a day on, or a near, a screen. I'm not quite that extreme, but, when you factor in the time I spend in front of my laptop, on my smartphone, and playing games like FIFA 17 on my PlayStation, it must be close to 12 hours.

Do I limit the amount of time my children spend on their tablets? Absolutely. We've found that when they spend time on screens in the morning, they tend to be grumpier — so, unless it's Duolingo or Khan Academy (which they do before school every morning) we only allow them on their tablets after lunch.

Each day is a zero-sum game for us humans. Time spent doing one thing is time not spent doing something else. We need to help our children How to live on 24 hours a day. It turns out that moderate screen use is correlated with a boost in teen wellbeing.

Screen time guidance, if required at all, should be based on evidence, not hype. I think the thing that concerns me, and most educators, is not the use of digital devices, but their use by some parents as a form of cheap and easy babysitting. That trend of semi-automated luxury parenting looks like it's set to continue, sadly.

3. Getting kids ready for life

Sue Cowley, whose book Getting the Buggers to Behave I found extremely useful in my first couple of years of teaching, wrote an interesting blog post this week. In it, she talks about the importance of learning through discovery, and how this is at odds with the current way we teach children.

A few years ago, as part of the research Graham Brown-Martin did for his Learning Reimagined book, he interviewed Prof. Keri Facer. In a short video clip, she explains how parents want their kids to be OK and set up for adult life. The only way they know how to do this is use the language of 'good grades'.

Back to Sue Cowley and, having explained that some people think that the whole focus of education should be on attaining good grades. She disagrees:>

If, on the other hand, your most important value for ‘an education’ is for the child to take ownership of her life, to make decisions based on her personal viewpoint, and to follow the path that her heart dictates (which might not necessarily be about her intellect) then you probably won’t be quite so focused on the tests. If you think that social mobility is a fault of society, and a responsibility of government not schools to fix, then you will take a different attitude to how and what education should be. As a result, you will value different kinds of learning experiences, beyond that of children sitting in rows of desks, listening to the teacher and being drilled in a set of facts and skills to help them pass their exams. You might feel that ‘closing the gap’ should be more about giving children access to varied life experiences, and helping them learn what they think about those experiences, rather than focusing on the academic at all costs. You might focus on emotional well being, over and above intellectual prowess.

As Ewan McIntosh explains, innovation in formal education is hard work because "Leadership in schools is so busy problem-solving with their instruments of schooling that they’re not finding the real challenges teachers and students would love to get their teeth stuck into".

No need for me to go into details, but I found first-hand this week the barriers to innovation in English schools. I'm not apportioning blame, not by any means. It's a structural problem, probably only realistically solvable by removing education as under the direct control of government.

4. If you want to earn more, work less

That's the seemingly-paradoxical title of this BBC Capital article which that, statistically-speaking, you're more likely to get a promotion or a raise if you leave work on time.

Inevitably, the article cites the crazy work culture in Japan, where people routinely die from overwork. However, having worked with American colleagues at Mozilla, I'm not surprised to learn that the problem is almost as great in the US:

If there’s another country that’s notorious for its long work hours and lack of time off, it’s the United States. A recent Gallup poll found that the average full-time employee in the US works a 47-hour week, nearly a full workday longer than the standard nine-to-five schedule. Moreover, nearly one in five workers (18%) reports working 60 hours or more per week.

Despite sacrificing time off with family and friends to toil away in the office, a separate report from the US-based campaign Project: Time Off discovered that long-working office martyrs were less likely than their peers to have received a bonus in the last three years.

Productivity has to be for a reason. I'm all for the approach that Jason Fried, CEO of Bascamp, takes with his calendar.

Alternatively, you can do the opposite of this, and fill your calendar with things like 'Monday afternoon: think creatively about the problem we've got with X'. That way, you're busy, but in a good way. Newsflash: meetings and emails don't count as work, people.

Want to start with baby steps? Try this routine every Friday afternoon.

5. Now's the time to go open source

As a daily reader of Hacker News, and having worked for a global tech company, I keep up-to-date with the less arcane aspects of the developer community. After all, these are the people that not only build your favourite apps, but make decisions that often filter down to the mainstream after a couple of years.

It was developers who first started adopting MacBook Pros, en masse around a decade ago. Now, it seems, they're abandoning them in their droves. I could choose from any one of a number of articles, but there's a sense that macOS (as OS X has recently been renamed)is increasingly locked down, bloated, and buggy. In addition, the latest MacBook Pro, is not well-liked at all.

I haven't used a MacBook Pro since I left Mozilla two years ago. Given that I'm self-employed, I'm in a perfect position to use whatever I feel is best. For me, Linux is best. It gives me the amount of control I want/need for day-to-day tasks. I dabbled with a Chromebook Pixel, but this week I ordered a Dell XPS 13 9360, with Ubuntu pre-installed.

I'll probably end up installing Elementary OS, but having first found out about Linux 20 years ago, this marks an important milestone for me. The reason I'm writing about it here is because I honestly believe that open source software and operating systems are crucial to democracy and free society in the 21st century and beyond.

As the New York Times states, Silicon Valley companies didn't exactly need much of nudge, but the ascendancy of Donald Trump has meant that they've taken a distinct 'right-turn'. I'm not particularly interested in lining the pockets of people who have political, moral, and social beliefs that I find morally abhorrent. So I'd rather self-host an alternative to a recently-acquired app, use a browser that has my back, and maintain my own domain.

There's much more to discuss here, including the privacy trainwreck that is Windows 10, and the continuous, unaccountable, warrantless surveillance that EU countries are moving towards. But this newsletter is already too long...

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Other stuff worth reading

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Things I published this week

Until next week!

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Doug Belshaw

Dr. Doug Belshaw is a consultant and co-op co-founder who helps people and organisations become more productive in their use of technology.

Some people say he's got a muscly forehead. Others say that he lurches from one existential crisis to the next. No one has ever seen him uncritically use a piece of commercial software.

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