The Best Deal In Comics

2015-03-08 12.17.24Before we begin, I have to say that I am a DC Comics man through-and-through, my daughter is a Marvel fan, and my son leans to DC but follows some Marvel. A conversation with my daughter about comics usually goes something like this:

HER: Marvel is so much better than DC.
ME: I can prove that wrong by saying a single word.
HER: Please don’t.
ME: Batman.
HER: I asked you not to do that.

And so on.

That said, Marvel has mopped the floor with DC in two key areas: digital comics and feature films, and with their Marvel Unlimited service they have done something so superawesome that if it was done by DC I might never read a real book again.

The high concept for Marvel Unlimited is very simple: Netflix for comic books.

For $10 a month or $70 a year, you can subscribe to a service that delivers a huge pile of the entire marvel backlist right to your tablet or computer. A real comic costs about $3-$4 now and a digital comic about $2, so if you read 5 comics you’ve broken even.

How huge?2015-03-08 12.17.40

15,000 comics and growing, from Marvel #1 up to about 6 months ago.That includes 1,432 issues of Spider-Man, 1,301 Iron Man, 837 Hulk, 888 Captain America, 882 Thor, 1,528 X-Men, 701 Avengers, 790 Fantastic Four, and on and on.

Yes, there is a delay for new comics. August and September issues seem to be coming online right about now. They’re not giving away the whole store for $10 a month: just a fairly largish chunk of it.

The scans are bright, clean, and easy to navigate, with a full page view and a panel-zoom view. I’m not fond of the panel view because it tends to clip some of the edges, but the full page view is perfectly readable and can be zoomed for greater clarity. You can either read them on WiFi, or store up to 12 for offline reading.

Even more impressive is the way the content is curated and searchable. You can pull up all the issues by any writer or artists, or any character appearance in any comic. If instant access to 241 Steve Ditko comics, 720 Jack Kirby, or 572 by the Romitas doesn’t give you a bit of a thrill, then you’re reading the wrong post. My favorite feature is the “Comic Events” sort, where you can find every issue, in order, involved in certain storylines like House of M, Civil War, and Age of Ultron. This allows you to follow storylines as they snake through the entire shared Marvel universe.

Now if only DC Comics would get in gear and do the same thing…

Download the Marvel Unlimited app for free to see what you think, and subscribe here if you want to try it out.

Jack Lumber [App o the Mornin’]

Jack Lumber hates trees, and he has a good reason: trees killed his beloved granny. Now, Jack has sworn everlasting vengeance against all forms of lumber. He has an axe, he has a mission, and he has a woodchip on his shoulder.

Jack’s tale of vengeance forms the extremely silly connective tissue for this funny, polished riff on the slicing game genre pioneered by Fruit Ninja. In fact, there’s far more to Jack Lumber (PC/Mac: about $8; iOS/Android: $4) than just dexterous slicing. The visuals are terrific, with a sharp cartoon quality and some extremely funny touches. (Fruit Ninja was fun, but nobody would ever accuse it of being funny.)

For example, there is a completely random animal-collecting element which allows you to stack up critters in your log cabin as you encounter them in the game itself. Why is it there? Who knows. They don’t serve any purpose other than a bit of comic relief in between levels. It’s like asking why someone randomly shouts “PLAID” when you make a cut. Why? Because it’s funny.

Each level begins with logs of various shapes and sizes tossed in the air. When you touch the screen, time slows down. You need to trace a single line through the ends of each log, cutting them crosswise. When you lift your finger, the cuts execute all at once. If you missed a log, traced over a side rather than an end, hit an animal, or didn’t cut through every single endpoint, you’re penalized. Enough penalties and you fail the level.

Sometimes you need to pass through the same log multiple times to use it, or break bottles of syrup (purchased back at your cabin) in order to slow down time. There’s a lot less luck involved than in most slicing games. You really need to examine the screen quickly and find the fastest and most effective way through each log. This makes the game more like a rapid maze, since if you take a wrong “turn” with your finger, you’ll mess up.

Good humor, strong production values, and a dexterity element that also requires quick thinking: Jack Lumber is a winner all the way through.

Pudding Monsters [App o the Mornin’]

Cut the Rope is one of the best and most successful mobile games to date, with over 100 million downloads and a shelf of awards. So when the Russian team at ZeptoLabs did a follow-up to their hit franchise, gamers paid attention.

Pudding Monsters (iOS/Android: $1) are little blobs of jello that slide around on a chess-like board. (As with another good game–Pudding Panic–“pudding” is used in the more European sense of “dessert.”) Each blob occupies one square, and can move along the rank or file by simply swiping them in the direction you want them to travel.

One problem: if there isn’t something else on the board to stop them, they’ll shoot right off the edge and the puzzle is lost. If they hit an object, they stop. If they hit another monster, they fuse with it. The goal is to get all of the blobs 1) fused and 2) covering all three stars on the board.

It’s not usually too hard to slide the monsters until they blend, but sliding them so that the last one merges with the whole monster-blob on top of the third and final star is a bit more tricky. Along the way, new kinds of monster-blobs are introduced, including “frozen” blobs that need to activated, green blobs who leave a slime trail which allows other to stick rather than shooting off the end of the board, blobless eyes who need to be reunited with their blobs, and so on.

There are 75 levels spread over 3 worlds, with more levels coming. As sliding puzzles go, this is a lot of fun with a cute art style and a moderate challenge level. Is Pudding Monsters the next Cut the Rope? Probably not, but it’s very very good and a worthy follow-up that shows Zepto still has some tricks in their bag.

Content issues: None.

CRS Rice Bowl [App o the Mornin’]

Remember getting your little cardstock rice bowls each year at CCD class, folding them into shape, and dropping in change to support Operation Rice Bowl?

You can still do that (and you should) but you can also bring the practice into the 21st century with Catholic Relief Service’s Rice Bowl app (iPhone/Android: free).

CRS has created a series of daily meditations for Lent–some original, some from the writings of Pope Francis–with a focus on Catholic social teaching. All of the meditations come with the app, so it works offline as well as online, and you can sent daily reminders for a particular time.

The app also allows you to create a daily “sacrifice” for Lent, and tracks the things you’re giving up with a suggested value: $1.75 for a cup of coffee, $4.69 for a fast food combo meal, or any custom sacrifice with its name and cost. The idea, of course, is to give up things and allocate the money as a donation to CRS. This donation can be done from within the app, and it’s a pretty clever way of measuring the things we give up for Lent and turning them into a practical good through CRS, which does great work around the world.

A number of meat-free recipes and “Stories of Hope” (video and text) from people helped by CRS are included as well.

It’s a very effective use of technology to combine prayer, Lenten observance, and action. CRS has done a great job on this.

iPieta [App o the Mornin’]

iPieta (iOS/Android: $3) is  huge app, both in scope and size. At 181 MB, it demands a hefty chunk of real-estate. (By comparison, Cut the Rope only takes up 22 MB.) But it earns its space by placing a staggering library of documents and prayers at your fingertips.

The documents are divided into four sections: Bible, Calendar, Prayers, and Veritas.

The Bible tab includes the full text of both the Douay-Rheims and the Latin Vulgate. You can access these separately or as an interlinear page, alternating English and Latin line-by-line. Each chapter displays in a single scrolling page, and it’s fairly easy to scroll through the entire bible, individual books, and verse-by-verse.

The Calendar section offers both Ordinary and Extraordinary calenders, with the ability to switch between the two by shaking the device. Date, feast, readings, and liturgical color are all indicated, with each day linked to the text of the readings.

The selections included under Payers is vast, with separate sections for Divine Mercy, Sacred Heart of Jesus, Passion, Mass, Eucharist, Stations of the Cross, Devotions to Jesus, Holy Spirit, and vast selections of Marian prayers, novenas, saints prayers, common prayers, and more. These can be bookmarked for quick retrieval, or accessed through keyword searches. In addition, many of these prayers come with optional audio files which can be downloaded from ipieta.com and added to your device. This adds another 664 MB to the install, however.

Finally, there is the Veritas tab, which is just … well, look at what’s included:

  • Works of St. Augustine and St. John Crysostom
  • The complete Ante-Nicene and Nicene Fathers
  • Council documents from Nicea to Vatican II
  • The last 200 years of Papal Encyclicals, up to Caritas in Veritate
  • The Summa Theologica, Catena Aurea, and The Catechetical Instructions by St. Thomas Aquinas
  • Haydock’s Biblical Commentary
  • Baltimore Catechisms #1, #2, and #3
  • Catechism of Christian Doctrine (Promulgated by Pope St. Pius X)
  • Introduction to the Devout Life, by St. Francis De Sales
  • The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas Kempis
  • True Devotion to Mary, Love of Eternal Wisdom, Friends of the Cross, and The Secret of Mary, by St. Louis Marie de Montfort
  • The Dialogue, by St. Catherine of Siena
  • The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus, The Way of Perfection, and the Interior Castle, by St. Teresa of Jesus
  • Treatise on Purgatory, by St. Catherine of Genoa
  • Instructions on the Catechism, Selected Explanations and Exhortations, Excerpts of Sermons, by St. Jean-Marie Vianney
  • Ascent of Mount Carmel, Dark Night of the Soul, Spiritual Canticle, and Living Flame of Love, by St. John of the Cross
  • The Roman Catechism (also knows as The Catechism of The Council of Trent or The Catechism of Pope St. Pius V)
  • The Dolorous Passion, by Ven. Catherine Emmerich
  • Fathers of the Church (Eerdman’s version)
  • Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola
  • The Sinner’s Guide by Ven. Louis of Granada
  • The Rule of St. Benedict
  • Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
  • Confession of St. Patrick
  • Abandonment to Divine Providence
  • The Cloud of Unknowing

So, yeah. Do I really need to say much more than that?

All of it is searchable. And all of it costs … $3. I mean, seriously people: THREE BUCKS!

Pocket Trains [App o the Mornin’]

Pocket Trains (Android/iOS: freemium) is insidious. It’s insanely addictive, just like NimbleBits’ previous games, Tiny Tower and Pocket Planes. Pocket Trains follows the formula of Pocket Planes, but does it even better. You begin the game with a simple map of Europe and a couple of major cities. These are connected by train tracks, with one train running on one set of tracks. As you earn more money, you can connect more cities, build more trains, establish new lines, and continually expand.

Money is earned by hauling freight from city to city. Freight that goes further, or has a higher value cargo, generates more gold. You can also pick up crates and bucks. Crates have train parts in them: get enough parts and you can build a new train. There are quite a few train models, and you’ll want to upgrade as you go to increase your distance, fuel load, and hauling capacity. Bucks are used to uncrate the train parts and expand stations to hold more freight.

As you begin to sprawl across first the map of Europe, and then the entire world, you find yourself relaying freight from one train to another. A high-value cargo may have to go from Moscow to San Francisco through a series of cities and train lines, switching three or four times before you can earn the money for completing delivery. Managing these lines and maximizing profits it a key part of the game.

You can expand to North and South America, Asia, and Africa, but each new region costs 50,000 gold, and the price for each new train line increases each time you build one. By the time you gave 12 trains running, you can be paying almost 40,000 gold for each new line.

Pocket Trains is a classic casual maintenance game, and that’s the key to its fun-factor. You can check in a few times a day or once a week, spend 5 or 10 minutes directing your trains, or half and hour messing with loads, and then forget about it. The trains rack up their miles, earn their gold, and refuel without any fuss, so you can focus on just managing and expanding the lines.

The game is free, but you can purchase bucks starting at $1 for 100 bucks and going up from there, as well as crates. This allows you move the game along faster, but I’ve expanded to a dozen lines on four continents and never spent a dime, so it’s possible to have a completely free experience if you’re patient.

As with all NimbleBits product, the visuals use a colorful, blocky 16-bit style, with little people on the train platforms and in the passenger cars. It’s quite a charming package, and a good casual game for people who just like to check in and fiddle with things for a few minutes throughout the day.

Universalis [App o’ the Mornin’]

Universalis (Universalis Publishing, iOS/Android: $14) may be my most used app. A lot of people have different tools to pray their hours or get their mass readings. I bought a Universalis PC codeyears ago and have used the offline, app version ever since. Before I had a tablet and a smartphone, I’d turn the months into epubs and send them to my Kindle. Now, everything is in one place on both phone and pad.

Universalis

I prefer it to other options, for reasons partly functional and partly aesthetic. I like the way it looks and works: the text and page options, page turning, and selection features.

The Hour are all in the app with no need for a connection, and you can go as far back or forward as you like. It puts every page of the Hours on your device with a total overhead of 13 MB, and allows you access them with a discrete pair of menus: one for day, another for hour/reading.

The text includes both the NAB and the Jerusalem Bible (the one I use) with an option for the Grail psalms (ditto). It has all 7 hours: Morning (Lauds), Terce, Sext, None, Evening (Vespers), and Night  (Compline). It also has the Office of Readings, Mass readings, and text of the mass, with optional prayers for priests. There are notes on the saints of the day, and liturgical calendars for US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and more. There’s also an option to set up an email service to send particular pages every day.

I know many just use free apps for this, and that’s fine. Since I bought a code from Universalis, my app was free, but I still think I’d get it if I had to pay the $14. They issue regular updates, maintain a clean text, and do a lot of work to get this material out there free on the web. I don’t mind kicking back a little to pay them for their efforts.

The Missio App

The new Missio app, launched last week, is being touted as the “first official app from the Vatican” is some quarters. That’s not quite right, since The Pope App from the Pontificium Consilium de Communicationibus Socialibus is pretty dang official.

I’m not sure what the long-term plans are for Missio, but right now it’s a pretty simple news aggregator app with the kind of clean and appealing interface I’d expect from Little i Apps, the folks behind the excellent Confession app.

CNS has a charming story about Pope Francis launching the app:

With the touch of an iPad, Pope Francis became the first pontiff to unlock a new smartphone application and expanded the Church’s footprint in the digital world.

“I was quite anxious that we were going to get the signal and it was all going to work. Because this isn’t made up, these folks are actually waiting for the Holy Father to hit this button before it works,” said Father Andrew Small in a May 17 CNA interview.

The launch of the MISSIO App took place May 17 in the Vatican’s Clementine Hall during a meeting of the Pope and the 120 national directors of the Pontifical Mission Societies.

The mission society’s application for mobile devices and smartphones collects news from Rome, stories and photos from the missions and other material and makes it available to the world.

The actual unlocking of the app was simple.

Fr. Small, the U.S. national director, presented his iPad to the Pope, who asked, “I push here?”

“As soon as the Holy Father hit the button, a little notice came across the top – what they call a ‘push notice’ – and it said, ‘Pope Francis has unlocked the MISSIO App.’

“And he sort of looked a little bit surprised,” Fr. Small recalled.

The button was labeled “Evangelizantur,” which means, “that they be evangelized” in Latin.

This is kind of footprint the church needs in the digital realm. I’m pretty well wired into these resources already, so I just don’t use standalone news apps like this, but it’s important to have this kind of presence on mobile devices. When people do app searches for “Catholic” or “mission” or related terms, we need to be there and be present in a professional and engaging way.

While I appreciate the zen-like simplicity of the two button “News” and “Donate” design, some better sorting options would be welcome. Media type, source, and search fields are needed to beef this one up a bit. Also, either I’m nuts or this thing is locked into landscape mode for iPad, and portrait mode for iPhone. That’s just weird.

Missio is an important reminder that we are, once more, primarily a missionary church. Everywhere is mission territory in the modern world. That means the Pontifical Mission Societies will only grow in importance in the upcoming years, and this app will be there to grow with them.

Avocado: An App For Couples

I’m always fiddling with my reminder/calender/task manager utilities. Right now I’m entering all my tasks into three different apps–Astrid, Wunderlist, and Toodledo–in a kind of task throwdown to see which will replace Pocket Informant, an app that’s more of a chore to use than the chores it was meant to track.

One thing I’ve never been able to find is a simple, easy-to-use utility that allows my wife and me to have the same information (lists, appointments, and the like) on our phones, synchronized and updated instantly and with no fuss. Avocado fills that gap. (Available for iOS and web for free, Android is free on Google Play, $1 on Amazon. Unlimited lists and photo sharing available for $20 per annum.)

Avocado is communication for couples. It’s locked down to two users who share a life. It features a lot of standard text- and photo-based features, which are fun and effective, but mostly repeat things available in standard texting. I don’t tend to use the messaging since texting does the job just fine, but the texting is free, and may be of interest to people with limited or no texting plans. There are also options to send a “hug” (hug your phone), or “kiss” (kiss your phone) which are just slightly on the wrong side of the line between “cute” and “weird.” You can send “moods” and captioned photos, and it’s a nice way to stay in touch throughout the day.

But that’s not where its real strength lies. The ability to make and keep lists that are instantly updated for both users is Avocado’s real secret weapon. We use it to keep shopping lists for the different stores we use. Items can be added, annotated, altered, and checked off, and the other user sees the result instantly. You can swipe to “cross off” an item on a list, and then swipe again to restore it for the next shopping trip. (You can turn push notifications off if the constant updating gets too verbose.) There is no simpler way to maintain single lists for two people to use and modify. Trust me, I’ve tried.

It’s useful for shared tasks beyond just shopping lists. It’s a perfect app for keeping gift lists for Christmas, task lists for things to do around the house, and general to-dos which can be pushed to either user.

It also handles those small–but easily forgotten–agenda tasks that either person can do, like picking up the kids, getting prescriptions, or remembering appointments. Rather than adding an agenda item to a regular task manager and then sharing it, these shared tasks can be added to Avocado’s simple but effective calendar, with advance reminders that can be customized for either person.

You can even integrate some of Avocado’s features into your prayer lives, such as setting daily reminders to pray the Angelus at noon. Even if you’re not in the same place, pausing during a busy day to pray at the same time creates a connection that grounds both your faith and your marriage. Mobile devices don’t need to isolate us: they can also draw us closer to each other and to God.

A task and list manager tailored for the unique demands couples is kind of genius, particularly when it simplifies the functions of standard calendar and task apps. The basic app is free, with $20 a year for unlimited photos and lists.

The End of Stolen Cell Phones?

In 2011, 42 percent of all property crimes committed against individuals in New York City involved the theft of a cell phone. Cell phone theft may seem like a fairly minor crime in the grand scheme of things, unless it’s your phone, and then it’s the worst thing ever.

It’s also a crime that can be reduced through technological means, once the major carriers decide to put away their differences and do something sensible. And–mirabile dictu–they’ve done just that. AT&T, Verizon, Mobile, and Sprint have come together to begin sketching out plans for a central database for stolen phones. When it’s done, any phone reported as stolen will be unusable in America.

Right now, most phones use SIM cards that are easy to swap out, thus allowing stolen phones to be resold.  In the new plan, each phone will be assigned a unique International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number; a technique that’s working well in Europe. At the same time, Sen. Chuck Schumer is introducing legislation to make altering IMEI numbers a felony.