Technological magic that gives you the best

Last week, our On Tech editor Hanna Ingber shared the story of how her child came across a design app that revealed his amazing taste in interiors. We asked for your own stories about the surprising ways technology has helped you unleash your creativity or discover new joys.

Guys (sniffs), the responses were great. Today we share a selection of them.

On Tech’s mission is to explore how technology is changing how we live, who we are, and the world around us. We can’t ignore the harmful effects, but I also don’t want us to lose sight of the miracle.

How cool is it that we can share our internet knowledge with our parents or easily swap songs from our favorite decade? Also BIRDS! Birds are so wonderful. Here are edited excerpts from what some On Tech readers had to say:

Enjoying the magic of birds during the daily challenge:

The Merlin Bird ID app has transformed my morning walk down the path to get the paper.

Daily work became a joy. Now, instead of ignoring the sounds around me, I can focus on the birdsong I hear and recognize them. Birds change with seasonal migration, so the sounds are constantly changing. It became a kind of meditation.

Anne McLaughlin, Carmel, CA.

Communication via playlists:

Sharing music and playlists on Spotify with my kids was very bonding. They can hear the music I grew up listening to and I can hear the latest stuff they’re listening to. Surprisingly, we listen to a lot of the same music, old and new. It’s a lot easier than making mixtapes.

They’re 17 and 18 now, but we’ve been doing this since they were 13, when parents struggle to find ways to connect with their teenagers.

Jason, Corvallis, Ore.

Taking the pressure off perfection:

I was one of those kids who could never get the sticker off right away. I’ve always had to wait a couple of minutes or even days before deciding that my decal is staying at home for good. Likewise, I didn’t hesitate to sharpen brand new pencils unless absolutely necessary, and kept my felt-tip pens only for the most important drawings.

You will never find the quick drawings in my sketchbooks because they were delayed until I was ready with the full vision. I’d always collect and save these items for a special day or a big idea, and eventually my stickers got crumpled, my markers dried out, and my scrapbooks joined another pile of unused, unloved stuff.

And then I bought myself an iPad for graduation. I discovered the wonder of sketching, notes, drawings, and coloring—all digitally.

I had an infinite number of stickers at my disposal that could be picked up and replaced at a moment’s notice. I was greeted by endless colors and combinations.

I soon found myself journaling, experimenting with digital scrapbooking, and keeping memories in one place. If I made a mistake, I could immediately erase it with a virtual eraser. I could customize the stickers and letters to my heart’s content. My iPad has become an outlet for me to do whatever I want without fear of making a wrong move.

Sydney Lin is a sophomore at Vanderbilt University majoring in civil engineering

Teaching dad to repair with his own hands:

Years ago, my teenage son watched me grow as I unsuccessfully tried to attach a new lawnmower blade. I assumed he was bored when he got back to the house. Instead, he watched YouTube on his mom’s iPad.

A few minutes later he came out and quietly asked, “Can I try?” In less than a minute he did what I had been trying to do for half an hour. “Up until then, I thought YouTube was for cat videos.

This is the same guy who taught himself to play his new Hawaiian guitar on YouTube, along with many other unexpected skills.

Doug McDurham, Waco, Texas

Classroom learning transformed by audio production:

I realized that introducing students to podcasting opens new doors.

Students who were reluctant to participate in class discussions took advantage of the opportunity to share their ideas about topics they were interested in or to explore new topics. Students chose between three formats for their podcasts: narrative, interview, and investigative. Few, if any, projects offered such freedom.

Even though video programs had been available for some time, the freedom to record just their voice was liberating. They didn’t have to worry about how they would appear in front of the camera – they could convey their thoughts and ideas with just their voice. Groups could simultaneously share audio files and edit them to create a final product. What was once a class report has been reimagined.

Lisa Dabel, fifth grade teacher in San Jose, California.

Opera, after all, is not so terrible:

For most of my life I have respected opera as an art form that requires an incredible level of training and discipline. But, as for me, it was not for me.

At some point, around late March or early April 2020, friends told us about the Metropolitan Opera’s recordings of its past opera performances — free, new daily — through the company’s website and app. In a few days we had a new night routine: have dinner, read for an hour, and then sit down to the opera.

Within a few weeks, we began learning the names and styles of some of the leading opera singers. In a few months, we learned about the technical details of opera music, vocal preparation, scenography and costumes, and formed preferences for composers. (Sorry, folks: Wagner, no; Glass, yes.)

We thought deeply about the conflicts that arise when old, misguided beliefs (misogyny, racism, etc.) embodied in the “canon” are confronted with different choices and new ways of thinking. We encountered contemporary composers and librettists who challenged our assumptions about melody, story and plot construction, character development, and more.

Who knew there was so much to learn about such a venerable art form? I certainly don’t—and I’m so glad that technology has brought opera into our homes and lives.

David Moore, Sequim, Wash.

The Met Opera has ended its nightly broadcasts, but you can now watch and listen to past performances on the Met Opera on Demand online streaming service, which offers a free trial.


Tip of the week

Brian X. Chenconsumer technology columnist for The New York Times, co-authored the article article this week about digital breadcrumbs that can reveal the personal details of people seeking abortions. Brian is here with suggestions to clean up some information from Google, which has digital databases on just about everyone.

This month, Google said it would automatically remove location data when people visit places it deems confidential, such as abortion clinics and addiction treatment centers. For example, if you set a destination on Google Maps as Planned Parenthood or Alcoholics Anonymous, the company will remove those records.

Google’s critics argued that the company could, but did not, erase records of other types of location data, such as GPS coordinates and route information. (Google declined to comment.)

But you can control how Google stores data about you. A few years ago, I wrote a column explaining how to use Google’s auto-delete controls, which include settings to delete your web search and location records after a certain amount of time. It is worth reviewing the tips.

Here’s one example of how to configure location data settings:

  • In the Google My Activity tool located at myactivity.google.com, click Manage Activity, scroll to Location History, and click Manage History.

    On the next page, find the nut icon and click Automatically delete location history. You can set data deletion after three or 18 months.

  • For those who don’t want Google to create a record of their location history at all, there’s an option for that as well. On the My Activity page, click Manage Activity, scroll to Location History, and toggle the switch to Off.

  • Amazon tells regulators it may change: To try to end a three-year antitrust investigation in Europe, Amazon has proposed to stop collecting non-public sales data from independent sellers who sell through Amazon and allow them to sell through the Prime program without using Amazon’s fulfillment services. My colleague Adam Satariano talked about Amazon’s offerings and why Europe has become the focus of Big Tech.

  • Human trafficking behind online fraud: Vice News reported that online schemes that offer business or romantic partnerships as a pretext to siphon money from victims sometimes originate from industrial fraud centers in Southeast Asia that imprison and abuse workers.

    Read more: Last year, Nikkei Asia reported on abuse of online gambling workers and scams in Cambodia.

  • Instagram has so many features: It’s a place to see what friends are up to, watch short videos from strangers, buy NFTs or doodads sold by influencers, message others, and maybe soon write notes (for some reason). The Garbage Day newsletter wrote that Instagram is “an app that doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be anymore.”

    Related to On Tech: What is Facebook? Another packed app from Meta!

Lemurs! Lick the honey! From fruit! These little guys really know how to enjoy a treat.


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