Category Archives: Attack of the Robot Monsters

Articles and thoughts on technology.

Essential iPhone Apps (‘Cause Everyone Else is Doing It)

It’s June. That means I’ve had my iPhone for about four months and it has already become extremely hard to live without. In fact, I have no intention of trying to live without it. Not only does it sit in my pocket for most of the day, it recharges right next to my bed every evening. In short, you can have my iPhone when you pry it out of my cold, internet deprived, hands.

On the other hand, one of the single best things about the iPhone is the Apple App Store. And what could be better than sharing out a list of my favorite apps?

So here’s my list of favorite apps, in no particular order. Rather, these are the ones that I use on a regular basis; these are the apps I go to as primary functions in my phone.

Bloom – Brian Eno’s ambient music maker is a fantastic bit of stress relief kit. The interface is simple, clean, and, if I may say so, pretty. When launched, the app gives the user a blank field of pastel color. Touching the screen will produce a chime or bell, whose pitch and tone vary with where on the screen the user has touched. Generally, the pitch is lower at the bottom of the screen and higher at the top, with tone density going from heavy to light when going from right to left on the screen. Once a sound is produced it repeats itself, along with any others produced in short loops creating ambient, atonal rhythms from the touches the user has made. And the loops can be quite beautiful, and totally relaxing in a very zen way. I find it works beautifully as stress relief during a hard day. If I can find just five minutes along to play with Bloom, things seem much more workable.

Tweetie – A very functional Twitter client, this is probably the one app I use more than any other. (Yes, I am a Twitter fiend.) What I like about this particular client as opposed to the dozens of others available is the interface. I found it very easy to become used to, almost to the point of preferring it to actually using my computer.

Google – How anyone can live without Google at this point is completely beyond me. In addition to gMail, I am a fervent devotee of both Google Reader and Google Docs and I can get all three of those services through the Google app.

Kanji – As anyone who has studied Japanese can tell you, Kanji are one of the hardest aspects of becoming proficient in the language. This app is quite simple, but brilliantly designed. The visual interface is based on Tuttle’s Kanji Cards, with each screen focusing on one kanji. Touching the screen brings up additional information, including the various readings and words that use that character. There is an option in the top right to mark wether or not the kanji has been memorized or not. (It is also uncheckable in case the user has forgotten a kanji or two.) The other great aspect of this app is the organization of the “cards” based on JLPT level or Japanese school grade level. This is just a must have app for anyone who’s studying the language.

Kotoba – Another app I use everyday for studying, Kotoba is, simply, a very good dictionary for Japanese to English and vice versa.

BBC NewsReader – The Beeb’s app is different from other news apps in that it keeps a running update of the stories already loaded into the phone. Everytime you start the app, it begins downloading both recent information and updates to previous downloads. This makes loading pictures and older stories much faster on slow networks. The app breaks the news into three broad categories – Magazine, UK, and Americas. Within that, the user can define what kind of news they’re most interested in. The one thing I’m not quite happy with, especially in comparison to the two other news apps on my list, is that tapping on a story takes you to a BBC page that has to be resized before it could be considered remotely readable. However, for quick access to news that has a perspective different from the U.S. one, this app is a must.

New York Times – The NY Times has received a lot of (deserved) praise for their iPhone app. It serves as a prime example of how newspapers can remake themselves for the web and, in this case, the mobile web. The home screen breaks the paper down into its familiar sections – World, U.S., Politics, etc. From there, users have the option to scroll through stories in a given section or to choose the Latest, Popular, or Saved stories. And it’s this last option that really sets the app apart. The ability to save stories for later reading (as well as being able to e-mai them) adds a necessary functionality that recognizes that being mobile does not mean always having all the time you’d like to read up on the news. Further, the stories are automatically formated for the iPhone screen so that resizing before reading is not necessary.

New York Times Crossword – This is easily the most expensive app on my list. At roughly 10 bucks you have to love crosswords to make this worth the money. What’s more, you have to love the NY Times Crossword as there are cheaper (lesser) apps available in the iTunes app store. However, on the plus side, this is the same puzzle that appears in the daily paper. Players can submit their answers to an online database and find out if they have gotten all the cells correct or not. The controls are intuitive and easy to use; the screen uses a keyboard to input characters, but allows finger gestures for resizing the puzzles and for moving around the puzzle area. The puzzles start at a relatively easy level on Monday and get progressively harder throughout the week. For myself, this is my favorite lunchtime application. I find that nothing wakes my brain up as taking thirty minutes to play through a puzzle before heading back into the classroom.

Doodle Jump – You know those games that take 10 seconds to learn but can eat up hours on end being played? Well, the iPhone has a lot of them and Doodle Jump is my favorite. The object is very simple. Maneuver your Doodle through a series of obstacles to see how high you can take him. The game functions by giving your character an automatic bounce off of platforms; the only control the player has is to move the Doodle from side to side by turning your wrist and taking advantage of the iPhone’s motion sensors. Great fun.

Brushes – This is the newest on my list of must have applications. I picked it up earlier this week after seeing the story where the cover of New Yorker magazine had been made with it. Not only was it a cool cover but the idea that this could be done on an iPhone was pretty spectacular.

CameraBag – While the iPhone camera is not the best cameraphone available, apps like CameraBag make it a lot of fun. I won’t say too much about it here as I have already written about it and posted photos I took using the app on this blog.

Text – I live in Japan. Japan is somewhat notorious for preferring phone based e-mail to text messaging. In fact, my last three phones did not have texting software on them at all. So having a phone that can finally text, combined with Softbank’s data plan which lets users text each other for free, is really, really, cool. Having texting available means I feel like I can finally keep up with services like Twitter and the now, sadly defunct, I Want Sandy, in the manner for which they were designed.

Stanza – People are still skeptical about the value of ebooks but this app should push at least a few people decidedly into the “for” column. Stanza works with several different online services to download books to the phone, where they can be read offline, one screen at a time. I’ve found that the small screen makes books feel longer than they are, but, on the other hand, that the rapid pace with which the screen changes makes them just fly by. In short, while this is not my favorite way to read, it is an acceptable and convenient way to read.

WordPress – Obviously, I’m a blogger. Not quite as heavy a blogger as I once was, but I do still enjoy keeping a blog up and running for those occasions when I want to say something that won’t fit into 140 characters. That’s where WordPress’ iPhone app comes in. It has a nice, clean design that makes it easy to log in and update any blogs you have hosted on WP. This is kind of a no brainer for anyone who has both an iPhone and a WP blog.

Wolfram Alpha – One of the best features of the iPhone / Safari combo, in my opinion, is the ability to put a bookmark on the home screen of the phone. What this means is that when I want to search for something on Wolfram Alpha, I do not need to open up Safari and scroll through my bookmarks. Rather I just touch one icon and there’s WA, ready for input. And while I’m not a heavy WA user (not yet anyway) I have been curious about the service and wanting to try it out. So, while the individual site may change, eventually, the capacity to keep it right on my homescreen won’t and that is something that I just love about the iPhone.

MLB.com’s At Bat – I’m not much of a sports fan. I enjoy watching the games but I don’t really keep up with the statistics or even the player rosters too much. But I love baseball. I love the romanticism and history associated with the game and I do try to keep up with at least the Padres every season. At Bat makes it much, much easier to do so. The app provides schedules, play by play, recaps, standings, stats, photos, live game coverage, and soon, live video streaming of games. The only downside is that those clever bastards at MLB.com have decided to charge by the season, rather than a one time fee. Still, as a way to follow baseball that doesn’t require you to be in front of your t.v. at a set time or wading through tons of newsfeeds, this is the app to get.

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Filed under All the Baby's Linkage, Attack of the Robot Monsters, Learning From the Master, Toad Web, True Thoughts on True Life

Wolfram Alpha

wolframalpha.pngWolfram Alpha has been around for a few weeks now, having debuted to a squawking chorus of voices. The initial reports from Mashable and Lifehacker sounded intriguing and promising but the talk on podcasts like TWiT and the virtual water cooler that is Twitter was more confused than relevatory. The single most coherent and reasoned explanation of / musings on was on Buildings and Food (a great site anyway).

The first question most people had was, what is Wolfram Alpha? The answer is that it is a knowledge computation engine, whatever that means. From the website:

“Wolfram|Alpha aims to bring expert-level knowledge and capabilities to the broadest possible range of people—spanning all professions and education levels. Our goal is to accept completely free-form input, and to serve as a knowledge engine that generates powerful results and presents them with maximum clarity.”

Wolfram Alpha was designed by mathematician Stephen Wolfram; the database/search functions are based on the programing language Mathematica which he also designed, way back when.

Taking the play-with-it-until-it-breaks approach exemplified by Gina Trappiani’s original Lifehacker post, here are the things I learned via WA.

I am 33 years, 10 months, and 8 days old today.

I live 5663 miles from my mother’s house, which itself, is 243.4 miles from where I went to university.

My name, Joel, has some interesting data attached to it: there are currently 222,373 people sharing my name. It was most popular as a birth name during 1979 / 1980.

joel.png

By comparing my first and middle names, we learn that my middle name is much more popular as a given name than is my first name.

Arizona became a state 97 years ago. Its highest point is Humphrey’s Peak at 3850 meters, while its lowest is the Colorado River at just 21 meters.

The average lifespan of American men vs. Japanese women is 75.92 years to 85.59 years, meaning that my wife is going to outlive me by ten years. But we already knew that.

lifeexpectancy.png

There are also a number of things I couldn’t find. For example….

A search for the average rate of oxygen consumption used by SCUBA Divers at one atmosphere resulted in this:

oxygen.png

Searching for the average lifespan of labrador retrievers brought back no results at all, only a suggestion to search on the word “dogs.”

Searching for “ the average number of e-mail addresses of teenagers” likewise brought back no meaningful results.

And finally, there are the Easter Eggs (which I found via this post, and this follow-up post on Mashable):

In the meantime, WA has released it’s first update, which has a few changes to the system, namely updating the linguistic structures recognized so that more queries will be returned. (Again, Mashable has the full list.)

In the meantime, Google has its new Google Squared, and Microsoft has launched Bing, both of which aim to change and modify how we search the web.

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Mario and His Stars

I am the proud creator / owner of a Super Mario Galaxy save-file in which the full complement of 241 stars have been collected. And when I say proud, I mean bring it up in conversations at cocktail parties and show strangers my photos of it because I’m so proud.

Now, as to why I am so proud, that’s a little trickier. I mean, sure, you could say it’s the innovative design of the game or the revolutionary way the Wii controller lets the player interact with an incredible physics engine. Or you could say that it’s the artwork, which retains the charm and lovableness that has been inherent in the Mario games from the start. Or maybe it’s just the cute story.

Whatever. The real reason is, one, I’m a completist, and two, it was an achievable goal.

Starting with the latter, I started playing the game during a short period where I felt like nothing else was getting done in my life. All projects were at standstills, my job was becoming routine, and there was no vacation on the horizon. Enter SMG. From the get-go, figuring out the puzzles and learning how to get the stars was a lot of fun. I won’t deny that. But it was also something I could do. Something I could achieve, no matter how small and pointless an accomplishment it was. So I did it.

And once I did it, I really, really wanted to play some more. Rather, I really wanted to recapture that same feeling. Not so much of beating the game, as was the goal when my friends and I went to arcades, way back when. But more of completing something. Of finishing completely and being able to check something off the list.

So, a friend loaned me his copy of Super Mario Sunshine, the predecessor game that had been made for the Nintendo GameCube (and one I continue to hope will be revamped for the Wii). I started it and quickly got close to the maximum number of “Shines” but, over a year later, I have been unable to finish. And it’s driving me nuts.

Not in the same way that Mario Kart Wii is, because at least in that one I can show continual and steady progress. (I’m down to just a half dozen unlockables and most of those have to do with the ghost races and getting star level ranks on some courses.)

Because I really want to finish the game. I want to be able to add that save-file to my SD card, right next to Mario Galaxy and Pikmin and Lego Star Wars and the other (few, very few) games I’ve been able to play to completion. Because I’m a completist. I have to finish. Leaving a game unfinished feels like having an itch you just can’t quite reach. Something nagging at the back of my mind, something I should be doing, something I should be achieving.

My wife is the same way with jigsaw puzzles. She doesn’t start them because she will not stop unless she finishes. Or passes out.

But anyway. Last night I restarted Super Mario Sunshine from the very beginning. There are some glitches or something and where there should be purple coins to get, there is nothing. So I’m starting over and I’m looking forward to completing this game. Right after I finish all the other projects on my plate.

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Resting Places

Trying another post from the iPhone, this time with photos.

Yesterday, my wife and I went to put flowers on her dad’s grave. He’s interred at a beautiful temple / cemetary near our house. We took a quiet walk around the grounds and I took a few photos, keeping others privacy foremost in mind and being respectful.

Anyway, here’s a photo of one of the small Buddah statues that surround the grounds and some of the flowering trees that are omnipresent.

I took the photo with my iPhone, using CameraBag and the Helga filter.

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Filed under Attack of the Robot Monsters, Captured Bits of Light, Left From Seattle

Songbird

While it isn’t quite ready for prime time, Songbird is an excellent music player with the potential to be a one stop music application.

The biggest thing that differentiates Songbird from other library managers like iTunes is the built in browser. Based on the Mozilla engine, the browser works just like any other, only that when you surf to a music site, Songbird automatically searches the site for .mp3 files that can be downloaded and arranges them in a window at the bottom of the screen. This makes reading music blogs a whole lot cooler as you can immediately download the file you are reading about (if it has been posted to the site). Legal issues aside, it is a great way to find new music.

The initial download comes with a few bookmarks preloaded; there are a ton of music sites and blogs that are greatly enhanced by viewing them through Songbird. Some of my favorites are Muxtape, eMusic, and Gumdrop.

Songbird also recently added their own version of Coverflow, letting users scroll through their library by album cover, much like in iTunes. While this is very cool, there are still some issues – like getting all the album art – that need to be worked out.

Hopefully, too, future versions will add video support and better integration with the major music shopping sites as well as podcast management. For now though, Songbird is a decent player and library manager but it is not quite a replacement for iTunes. Yet.

*I’ve written about Songbird before, here.

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Filed under Attack of the Robot Monsters, Plugs and Shoutouts, Toad Web

Crayon Physics Deluxe

Crayon Physics Deluxe is an innovative and charming game that uses the iPhone’s touch screen to demonstrate a new way to game.

The premise is simple: On each screen there is a ball and a few simple elements, like a box or a ledge drawn. The user must draw new elements and move the ball from the starting point until it can cross the star, completing the level. The graphics are deceptively simple, creating the look of simple crayon drawings on newsprint, like a child might create, but the physics engine that moves the ball around is fully developed and simultaneously beautiful and frustrating.

One of the most exciting and challenging aspects of this game is using your finger to draw new elements onto the screen. Exciting because it is novel and intuitive and fun, challenging because the iPhone’s screen just isn’t that big, and when you have big, sausage sized fingers like mine, achieving the necessarily delicate touch is sometimes difficult.

The iPhone version of the game has 50 levels to play, as well as a sandbox where users can create and save custom levels.

One of the few drawbacks to the game is the lack of save features. For example, if you stop playing on level 25, the next time you turn on the game, you’ll have to skip all the way to level 25 to resume where you left off. Other than that, the game is simple, beautiful, and a great way to spend a few dollars and a lot of time.

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Filed under Attack of the Robot Monsters, True Thoughts on True Life

Pocket Cocktails

Back in university, my roommates and I had a poster on the wall that gave the recipes for a few dozen different shooters. 44 Shooters or something like that. Dan’s favorite was one called Nutty Irishman. Anyway, in college, we made most of these things, as well as a lot of conventional cocktails and a few that we made up ourselves.

(The snowball: Five parts milk, four parts vanilla ice cream, three parts vodka, two parts Kahlua, one part flavoring agent of choice [Frangelica and Bailey’s Irish Cream were popular] and ice. Blend everything except the flavoring agent, pour into frosted glasses, top with the flavoring agent. Serves five.)

These days I tend to stick to beer; maybe I’ll have the occasional scotch for a nightcap.

And then, sometimes, I just really want a cocktail. Enter Robert Maran and Deidra Jones’ Pocket Cocktails for the iPhone. The app is a little pricey at $5, but I got it for a sale price of $.99 and for that, it is beautiful.

Immediately after loading, the user is presented with an attractive, retro styled menu pages featuring options for Martinis, Classics, Summer (which I presume will change as the seasons progress, but maybe not), Wine and Beer, Creamy, Shooters, Warmers, and Mocktails, along with a row of buttons along the bottom for a random cocktail and the (surprisingly useful, but basic) sommelier.

Once inside, the options are presented in an easy list that makes good use of the iPhone’s touchscreen by letting users scroll through alphabetically. Tap on a cocktail and a picture of the cocktail comes up with options for just the picture, the recipe, or the ingredients necessary. Each cocktail also has the option to save it to a favorites menu.

One of my favorite features is the random button, which brings up a friendly red screen and the instructions “shake for a cocktail.” Which it does if you do.

But the real test of the application was getting it out into the store. I got vodka, checked the app, and bought the other necessary ingredients for a Bloody Mary. As I said before, I don’t know if I would have paid $5 for the app. In fact, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have. But for a dollar, or even two, this is a fun app to have in your pocket.

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Filed under Attack of the Robot Monsters, True Thoughts on True Life