Dig Quest: A Biblical Archaeology App for Kids

Dig Quest (iOS: free) is a light but entertaining educational app that gives kids a chance to explore Biblical archaeology by solving puzzles. Produced by the Israel Antiquities Authority, the app offers two sites to explore: Lod (location of an elaborate mosaic) and Qumran (of Dead Scrolls fame). 2014-11-23 15.27.45

In Lod, you brush away dirt to reveal the mosaic, and then play a timed visual quiz. At Qumran, you open jars and piece together Dead Sea scrolls like a jigsaw puzzle. Success unlocks artifacts with art and information. There are over thirty levels with fifty images of various antiquities, as wall as spoken excerpts from the Dead Sea scrolls.

The gameplay isn’t going to knock anyone’s socks off, but the process of uncovering and piecing together objects and texts and learning more about them should keep kids engaged and playing long enough to slip across some good educational content about ancient Israel.

This is an easy recommendation for parents and particularly home schoolers. The app is free, and IAA is planning to add content in the future.

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Apple Nixes App About Female Masturbation

Steve Jobs was always adamant about keeping the App Store porn free. Of course, anyone with a mobile browser can tap a gusher of porn on their Apple mobile devices, but Jobs didn’t want to be part of selling sexually explicit material.

This is all I can actually show you of the game.

Whether or not HappyPlayTime is porn is probably in the eye of the beholder, but when game features a cute animated vulva whose goal is to teach the women about the joys of self-pleasure, then it’s close enough.

Developer Tina Gong describes it as “a sex education game whose aim is to eliminate the stigma around female masturbation.”

“Stigma” is one of those “I don’t think that word means what you think it means” words, since the idea of any sexual act being stigmatized in our sexually insane modern culture is ludicrous. The Age of Reason was replaced by the Age of Porn in which we now find ourselves. Female masturbation? We’re supposed to be celebrating sodomy like it’s a sacrament and she’s acting like female masturbation has a stigma? Did she miss the past ten years?

Here’s the description by the designer:

Loving your body, in every way, is not a sin. No more shame, no more secrets. This little vulva is on a mission: to free the world from a silly social stigma.

Sexuality is one of the most basic instincts of human beings. Being comfortable with your own sexual pleasure is a prerequisite to both being able to healthily accept pleasure from others, and pleasing others. How can you exchange pleasure with someone else if you don’t understand what your own body likes? That’s why masturbation, and learning how to masturbate is such a fundamental life lesson.

Unfortunately for many women, there has been a cultural stigma that blocks access to self-stimulation. HappyPlayTime is here to eliminate this barrier as much as possible. By talking openly and lightheartedly about female masturbation, we are taking the first step to becoming truly sexually liberated.

Disclaimer: The research used in this game is based on cisgender females and does not include transgender females. For resources about transgender female masturbation, a good place to start looking is here: F***ing Trans Women Zine.

The disclaimer is just a precious little candle on a cake iced in pure bullshit.

Women who demand to be treated as more than mere vaginas, and then produce art that obsesses about their vaginas, are just another indication of a culture gone mad. Whatever your moral perspective on human sexuality, the idea that an anthropomorphic vajayjay can “help” anyone, or is anything more than attention seeking behavior, is absurd.

In any case, Apple told her to go tickle her bean elsewhere:

The developer created the app native to iOS, perhaps making a wish on Tinkerbell’s wings that the very well-known and universally applied Apple standards would disappear in a puff of wicked patriarchal smoke if she just scrunched up her face and thought real hard.

Because a giant frigging (literally) animated vulva that teaches masturbation doesn’t qualify as “explicit depictions or displays of sexual organs or activities intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings?” The entire point of the app is to stimulate erotic feelings. Not everything needs to be an app.

And now she’s got nothing but a long project of translating her app to HTML5, which is not a direct or simple process. So, good luck with that.

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.

The Mass Explained Volume 1 [App o the Mornin’]

The full title of this amazing app is The Mass Explained Volume 1: The Introductory Rites & The Liturgy of the Word (iPad: $25), and its title page lays out its goals: “Fostering a deeper understanding of and appreciation for thee Ordinary Form of the Roman Catholic Mass.”

And boy does it do that: in spades.

I’ve had The Mass Explained for a couple weeks, but I wanted to make sure my initial gee whiz impression of the technical aspects wasn’t influencing my appreciation of the content. This is, really, a book, but it’s a book for the digital age. It does things you wish some books could do, and it does them extremely well.

The author, Dan Gonzalez, merges solid research with a strong catechetical style and a superb sense of design to create something new in Catholic circles: a high-end multimedia learning experience that fulfills the promise of new media in the new evangelization.

The book itself begins with an introduction by Mike Aquilina, and then walks through–step by step–the origin, meaning, development, and practice of the mass from every angle. We begin with a look at the passover seder, then take guided tour through the practice and meaning of the Liturgy of the Word all the way to the Prayer of the Faithful in the course of about 330 pages.

A quick guided tour of Chapter 12: The Gloria should give you a clue of what’s inside:

The main part of the screen is book text, which explores in some depth the meaning of the Gloria. Footnotes are on the left, and flesh out certain elements of the main text (in this case, the sacred music of Vivaldi). At the bottom of the first page, you’ll notice a sound icon. This brings up examples of the Gloria from Palestrina, Vivaldi, Mozart, Schubert, and Puccini.

Page two continues the lesson by adding more audio file as well as an embedded video of a priest reciting the Eucharistic Doxology:

Page three of this chapter shows an example of the art elements, which can be zoomed and scrolled to examine the details:

The chapter (which is about 13 pages long) ends with a summary of its content:

Some sections also include fully panoramic views of locations such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher…:

…as well as 360 degree views of certain objects:

The book is undeniably impressive in both content and execution. It’s a catechist’s dream, at least if the catechist is teaching a room full of people with iPads.

Here’s where we come to my one reservation: at $25, it’s expensive for an app and even expensive for an App Store book. As they say of big budget movies: it’s all up there on the screen. The production values are top notch and the writer has done a great deal of work producing the text and adding multimedia content. There’s no denying it’s a slick piece of work. I don’t begrudge the creators their price point, but it does limit the audience.

The good news is that, purchased in volume (20 or more copies), it qualifies for Apple’s Volume Purchase Program, which offers a 50% discount.

Honestly, though, the price is my only reservation. This is an excellent app that explains the richness of the mass in the format and depth it deserves. It’s one of the best Catholic apps I’ve ever used.

And for those concerned with fidelity, don’t be. It’s a faithful catholic work with a Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur:

The app has received two declarations from the Church assuring that it is free of doctrinal or moral error. The Nihil Obstat was granted by Monsignor Terence E. Hogan, SLD, Dean of the School of Theology and Ministry at St. Thomas University. The Imprimatur was granted by The Most Reverend Thomas G. Wenski, Archbishop of Miami, FL on October 14, 2013. The app was also reviewed by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Approval from the USCCB was granted on December 20, 2013 by Monsignor Rick Hilgartner, Executive Director, Secretariat of Divine Worship.

Fulton Sheen Audio Library [App o the Mornin’]

This is short and sweet folks, since there isn’t too much you need to know other than, “You really should probably get it.”

The Fulton Sheen Audio Library (iOS/Android: free, with in-app purchase) is–and you might have already guessed this–a library of audio by Fulton Sheen. It includes almost 300 talks from various times and places, some gathered by topic, and other by event. These aren’t just audio transcripts of his TV or radio shows, but also old LPs and tapes with extensive series on all manner of topics, including A Retreat for Everyone (15 talks), Improving Your Life (28) Love–Marriage–Children (24), St. Therese of Lisieux (11), World History (22), the massive Sheen Catechism (50), and many, many more. Some are talks given to priests, others to children, but most are aimed at the layperson.

The basic app is free and comes with a generous selection of free talks (at least one in each category). If you want the entire compilation, I think the current price is $8 as an in-app purchase. They stream rather than download, which doesn’t thrill me, but the server is stable and I’ve never had any trouble with it. The sound quality is excellent.

Sheen is an amazing teacher and one of the best Catholic evangelists of the 20th century. He has an Irishman’s skill with words which made him eminently quotable. He also had a flare for the dramatic, good looks, a perfect voice, and a command of mass media. This is terrific stuff.

Tetrobot [App o the Mornin’]

Tetrobot and Co. (<PC/Mac: $12, Android/iOS: forthcoming) is a sequel to Blocks That Matter, a puzzler featuring a high-tech drilling robot called Tetrobot. (You can download a free computer demo of Blocks That Matter at swingswingsubmarine.com, or buy the whole game for $5.)

The sequel (confusingly) focuses not on Tetrobot but Psychobot, a helpful little flying robot tasked with repairing Tetrobot.

The Psychobot functions a bit differently, absorbing blocks and spitting them out to solve puzzles. Its job is to float through the inside of a machine removing obstacles and getting things running again. Psychobot is not too clever, however, and needs help finding his way in order to trigger an electric fence, flick a switch to open a gate, or throw a block to remove a hazard. 

The game shows a 2D cross section of the environment, featuring boxes, switches, levers, tunnels, electrical fields, and other odds and ends. The levels are more sizable than your typical 2D puzzler, requiring the gamer to trigger multiple events on various screens. This adds greatly to the complexity level for perfect, 3-star completion of each level. It’s possible to “complete” a level quite quickly, but doing so with a perfect score can be a real mind-scrambler.

The real challenge comes from manipulating blocks with different properties. Some are sticky, some float, some grasp, some fall, and so on. By stacking and throwing blocks, you trigger events that lock/unlock/alter the environment. As the game goes on, you’ll find yourself shot through water, transported across the map, flying through goop, and dealing with other events and distractions.

It’s all buoyed by a charming animation for the little robot and endlessly clever level design. As puzzlers go, it’s more complex than most, but allows simple ways through for people satisfied with only collecting one or two stars. You, of course, will not be so satisfied, so expect a solid challenge.

Content: No concerns. Rated: E

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.

Dictionary.com [App o the Mornin’]

In the best of all worlds, I’d have complete access to the OED on my computer and mobile devices with all updates for a nominal price. This not being the best of all worlds, such a thing doesn’t exist, and the price for the OED web service is far from nominal. (Last I checked it was several hundred dollars a year.)

Lacking the OED, I’ve made due with Dictionary.com (free with premium upgrades, iOS/Android), and you know what? It’s pretty darn good.

Dictionary.com does what I need: not just standard definitions, but good definitions with synonyms, sample sentences, audible pronunciation, and word origins for many words. Their sources are various, and include the old Random House Dictionary, American Heritage, Harper Collins, and others. The word origins and historical samples for some entries seem deeper than those sources, which makes wonder if they’re deriving some content from the OED.

In any case, the apps are strong in the kind of features wordies like. It’s not all that often I need to look up a dictionary definition, so I use Dictionary.com more for noodling around and browsing, and it excels in this. They provide a word of the day, blog posts on unusual word topics, lists of trending words and recent searches, and various other ways to browse through content. A thesaurus is included, with synonyms available for each word, and voice search is built in.

The appeal of the system comes from the fact that the base package is free, but a fair amount of muscle can be laid on the bone if you buy some premiums. Ad-free, expansive sample sentences, idioms & phrases, grammar & tips, and various dictionary add-ons (large slang, science, medical, and rhyming dictionaries, including some art) are all available. If you use the in-app purchase bundles, you can probably unlock the entire thing for about $14, but the $5 premium version has most of what you’ll need.

My kids use it as their go-to dictionary for school assignments, and I like being amble to meander through this great language, hearing pronunciations of obscure words and learning useless facts about etymology. It’s already taught  me that parageusia means “an abnormal or hallucinatory sense of taste,” derived from the Greek “geus,” meaning “taste.” [Cue Johnny Carson voice] “I did not know that.

The Rivals For Catan [App o’ the Mornin’]

Klaus Teuber’s two-player version of Settlers of Catan went through a much needed streamlining and revision a couple years ago, creating a more balanced, user-friendly game.

The Rivals for Catan (USM, iOS: $4) uses the themes and setting of Catan, such as quasi-medieval village life; gathering rock, wood, wool, gold, brick, and stone; and spending it on upgrades. Instead of a map, however, each player has a town center made of cards in front of him, and begins with two settlements and a stretch of road. By drawing cards and spending resources, the player expands the road, adds and upgrades settlements, and constructs specialty items, such as buildings or heroes, that add resource bonuses or point advantages. The goal is to build enough to reach a set number of victory points.

In the basic game, 7 victory points is the win limit, but The Rivals For Catan app includes all of the special card sets, adding new kinds of buildings that match various Eras: Gold, Progress, and Turmoil. These add subtle strategic changes and have a way of making the game, which is a really a face for points at its basic level, into a more interactive and cut-throat affair.

If you’ve played the original tabletop game, know this much: the app is 100% faithful recreation for the iPad, making good use of the game space. Your town center and cards are visible at all times, and you can toggle to see your opponent’s lay out with one tap. It takes a few minutes to get the hand of the gameflow and the way the interface handles resources by turning cards (thus mimicking the original), but after a tutorial and a few turns, the controls become quite natural.

Rivals includes hotseat and internet play (including GameCenter player matching), which is a welcome treat for those who don’t care for AI opponents. It’s a straightforward and clean adaptation of a fun little addition to the Catan family.

Newsify [App o’ the Mornin’]

RSS feeds are essential to my work. It’s the only way to track hundreds (sometimes thousands) of headlines as I try to keep abreast of several major subject areas: games, technology, religion, archaeology, and science. Dozens of RSS readers, both PC and mobile, have passed through my life in the last decade or so. Sometimes we’d see each other for a while. There were good times, laughter, the thrill of new love. But they always ended in tears and heartbreak, and a “It’s not me, it’s you” speech.

After using MobileRSS, Feedler, Pulse, and Flipboard, I settled on Newsify (free: iOS). It handles the newspaper-style layout far better than the over-hyped Flipboard, but still manages to integrate a sidebar that allows rapid switching between groups and feeds. This is it, folks: a find as important as plutonium and s’mores … combined! The last mobile news reader you’ll ever need. At least until the developer breaks it with a new “upgrade.”

Newsify works because it’s both simple and powerful. You can syn with either Feedly or via cloud, and the instantly populates the reader with folders and feeds. The app works well on a Touch or iPhone, but it really shines on an iPad. Navigation among folders and feeds is a snap with the slide-away sidebar. It’s easy to choose all folders, individual folders, individual feeds, starred items, or unread content.

Newsify loads all the items faster than any similar app I’ve used. The headlines and summaries are laid out in either an unending scroll, or newspaper style format. Full text loads super-fast in a window. It’s easy to push stories off to Facebook, Twitter, Pocket, or any number of other services. I find it works perfectly to glances over headlines, identify the stories of interest, and then send them off to Pocket for later reading.

It’s very attractive and readable, with the ability to modify fonts and colors, but without the fussy graphical flourishes that tend to slow down apps. Items can be marked as read as you scroll by them, or in batches, or not at all. It works exactly the way I want it to work: fast, simple, powerful.