Cue the ambient noise

Being in lockdown doesn’t mean you can’t build your own escape.

Rebooting is a biweekly newsletter about how we can use technology to take better care of ourselves.

A quick note: Apologies for the lapse between issues, but it’s been a rough few weeks, and I needed some time to recharge. We’ll be back to our regular schedule with the next issue! But if any of y’all are feeling particularly down right now, this is a reminder to please take care of yourself. 


Fewer places gave rowdy eighth graders better opportunity for conflict than the pews of St. Joseph’s Catholic School. Most of us ended up on Mrs. Betterton’s shit list, but thanks to years of therapy, I’m finally in a place to admit I’d earned my spot near the top.

In an effort to get around my dad’s insistence that I finish middle school at St. Joe’s, I devoted my time to making the teachers want my removal as much as I did. My efforts went a long way, but I’d made a gross miscalculation in how much the school would tolerate if it meant pocketing more tuition checks. My antics brought me no closer to escape, but they ensured that, whenever possible, Betterton kept her eye on me.

I was never cut out for the hard stuff, so I mostly stuck to petty crimes like inflating the prices of Tootsie Pops and dress code violations. Mix those with the occasional disturbance in class and I’d given Betterton all the ammo she needed to finally take me down. To that point, her efforts of embarrassing me in class and holding me after school on Fridays, just to eat a little bit of my weekend, hadn’t done the trick. So, she needed to catch me off guard.

We weren’t given many freedoms there, but at least we knew that once we stepped off campus, the arbitrary dress code and general rules of decorum no longer applied. My first step in daily liberation was to untuck my shirt and toss my belt into my backpack until I was within the jurisdiction of St. Joe once more. If we had to be seen at the mall in our bland white polos and navy blue slacks, at least we didn’t have to look like total squares.

That freedom lasted until Betterton caught my friend and I between stores one Tuesday afternoon. She didn’t do more than stop to say hello, but the next morning I walked into class, greeted by a grinning nemesis and a detention slip on my desk. According to the future vice principal, I’d violated the unwritten rule that all dress code guidelines had to be followed so long as we were in uniform, and for my crime I’d earned a week in detention.

That blow wasn’t enough, though, if the defeat were to really stick. At the beginning of class, she made sure to tell the entire class that going forward, this rule was to be followed by all students, or they’d suffer my same fate. She’d cut out any hope I had of escaping her grasp, and my life outside the confines of my home felt entirely out of my hands.

That’s the same sort of feeling I’ve gotten after six months in quarantine, plus the lovely addition of frustration and existential dread. Since this will probably go on for at least a little while longer, it’s important to find ways to combat that trapped feeling and bring some sense of variety to all this monotony and isolation. I’ve tried to make this work by using ambient noise while I’m working to sort of fake being somewhere else, so I’m not dwelling on the woes of a global pandemic as I’m trying to get things off my plate.

A while back I started using Dark Noise (iOS only, sorry Android folk), an ambient noise app stuffed with enough sounds to scratch whatever particular itch you may have. Wishing you could be swimming under a waterfall instead of hunching over your work laptop all day? The waterfall sound can’t get you there, but a little imagination goes a long way. It’s not all natural sounds like rain or crickets, though there’s plenty of those. You can mimic a campfire, interior of an airplane, or even a train station if you’re missing your morning commute.

If one sound simply won’t cut it, you can dive into Dark Noise’s more advanced settings, which let you combine multiple noises together. There’s even a slider to make certain sounds louder or quieter, so it doesn’t have to be a mishmash of sounds fighting for your ears. Maybe you’d like to simulate a rainy day at the pier, complete with a nice breeze and the chirps of the seagulls. Whatever mix you pick, it’ll be uniquely yours, and it’s just a few taps away whenever you need to get away.

In the zone

That’s all great, but as is, Dark Noise is just another app sitting on your home screen or tucked away in a folder, and another thing you’ve gotta fumble your way to. It’s not a huge pain, but when I’m working, I want to get everything I need in front of me with as little effort as possible. Luckily, that’s not too hard since the app supports iOS Shortcuts, so you can automate the whole thing to avoid too much tapping.

You don’t have to make anything too wild or hacky, you can make a basic shortcut that starts playing a preset sound or one of your custom mishmashes. To do so, go into Dark Noise’s settings, tap on the “Siri Shortcuts” option, and pick the sound you’d like to have on speed dial. It will then get added to the Shortcuts app, where you can add it to your homescreen as a widget now that iOS 14 is out. If you add the widget to your widget pane in the notification center, it’ll be accessible from within any app, so if you want to pretend you’re reading by the fire in a far away cabin, you won’t have to leave your Kindle app to hit play.

If you’re feeling particularly crafty, you can even integrate those shortcuts into more robust workflows. I’ve added the coffee shop sound to a shortcut that opens my writing app of choice with a template for this newsletter, so whenever I’m getting started on a new issue, I don’t have to remember to open Dark Noise before getting to work.

It’s not the solution any of us hoped we’d have by September, and I wish I had a better one, but for now, Dark Noise has been a nice way to give me some tie to the world before COVID-19 and the places I miss most.

📚 Good Reads:

Fear, hope, and zoom fatigue: Back to school during COVID-19 (Teen Vogue): Sending kids back to school was always going to raise concerns, but this piece gives a much needed look into how kids are reacting and dealing to this drastic change in their lives. The note of anxiety about being late to an online class is interesting, especially for those of us who might take for granted that our bosses accept we’ll usually start our meetings a minute or two past the set time. Without hearing from the ones who will be most affected by changes in schools and curriculums, things like that are gonna be missed, and kids are gonna be left anxious at just the thought of logging on. They’ll have enough of that in the workplace, let’s make sure we stall that as long as we can. 

How Can I Live a More Phone-Free Life? (Gizmodo): Writing about the relationship we have with our gadgets, I have to ask myself a lot of questions about how what I’m doing on my phone helps me. Mostly, it doesn’t! I don’t need to spend two hours playing a card game that gives me little more than a dopamine rush, but still I soldier on. There are ways around this, though, and this article sources a lot of great advice from experts about how we can distance ourselves from our phones while still using them to enrich our lives. Maybe your screen time won’t actually go down, but you’ll get a better payoff and a longer-term high from finishing a few books in your Kindle app than you would reading the same tired joke reformatted ad infinitum on Twitter. 

Gen Zers say Silicon Valley is elitist and exclusive. Can they build a new system? (The New York Times): As Paul Rudd’s dopey surfer bro said in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (which is nearly the perfect breakup movie) says, “When life hands you lemons, just say fuck the lemons and bail.” Facing a tech industry that’s been pretty exclusionary, a group of Gen Zers have built their own tech-driven community on Discord, Taylor Lorenz reports.

The Apple Watch is the new starter phone (OneZero): Earlier this week, Apple announced that users will no longer need an iPhone to use an Apple Watch. At least, not their own. The feature’s aimed mostly at kids, whose Apple Watches can now be paired with a parent’s phone, set up with notifications and GPS tracking. This is great for Apple, because it gets kids started on the Apple ecosystem at a lower price point than a phone would cost, and increases the likelihood that they’ll reach for an iPhone come time to get their first phone. This seems great for kids, too, since the Apple Watch’s screen is too small to do the same kind of doomscrolling and general time sinking that comes with an iPhone or iPad. On the other hand, it could also condition kiddos to be used to constant pings earlier than we’d like. Maybe it’ll all be okay, maybe even a better option, but it might take more than a feature that shuts off notifications during class to make sure we’re doing what’s best for kids who are still developing and learning.  

🌐 Just Browsing:

🧧The west coast is still on fire, and people still need help. Donate here. 📱If you’re nostalgic for the old Music Quiz feature that came on classic iPods, it’s back baby.  😰 I still use my anxiety shortcuts to help curb my stress, but if you want an app that’ll help you manage your anxiety, MindFull looks great. ⌨ Vice gives the rundown on the gentrification font, something you’ve probably seen around a new “up and coming” neighborhood. 🤔 Nicole Cliffe on thinking of charm as a verb, rather than a noun. 📺 New Girl is the perfect show to binge right now. 🎲 James Austin over at Wirecutter has an excellent writeup on why you should start a Dungeons and Dragons campaign with your friends or family. 

💕 And now, here’s something we hope you’ll really like:

Normally, I wouldn’t plug my own work in this section, but last week I was feeling particularly depressed, and making magazine covers featuring my pups brought me endless joy, so I figured I’d share them with y’all. If any of you would like to send magazine covers of your lovely pets, my mentions are always open.

1️⃣ One more thing: 

iOS 14 is out now! If you haven’t caught up, The Verge has a good rundown of all the new features. One of the most exciting is the addition of widgets to the home screen. I’ve been on the beta for a while, so I’ve had some time to get mine just right, and I figured I’d share mine with y’all! Once you’ve got yours set up, send them my way, and maybe I’ll feature a couple in an upcoming issue.

As always, if you have any questions, feedback, or just want to say hello, feel free to drop me a line on Twitter.

My thanks to Medea Giordano for editing this issue.