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.

Lost Cities [App o’ the Mornin’]

The original tabletop version Rainer Knezia’s Lost Cities, originally released in 1999, found a loyal following, and even migrated to the Xbox about 5 years ago. The premise and design of Lost Cities is very simple. There are five archaeological “expeditions”, each represented by a different color: white, red, green, blue, and gold. Within the deck of 60 cards, there are 12 cards of each color. Nine are numbered from 2 to 10, and 3 are marked with a symbol to make them “investment” cards. The idea is a variant on solitaire: you “explore” an ancient city by placing cards in colored sets, from lowest number (2) to highest (10). Before pacing a number card, you may place 1 to 3 investment cards to double, triple, or quadruple your earnings.

Placing cards, however, has a base cost: 20 points for each investment card, and differing amounts for numbered cards. The idea is that starting a “dig” places you in debt, and you have to play the right cards in the right sequence to wind up with the highest value for each color location. At the same time, an opposing player is doing the same thing, with the victor being whoever has the highest point value. Since you either discard or play each turn, the game quickly moves through three rounds.

Like Stone Age, the mobile version of Lost Cities (iOS: $4) opted for the larger iPhone market rather than the more limited iPad audience, and the implementation works well. Adding considerably to its appeal is a strong set of online matchmaking options, complete with an active leaderboard for ranking players. The game has an unpleasant (and humbling) habit of tracking your games, so you can watch the downward-marching arrow when you lose. Since both the live and AI opponents tend to be formidable, this might be a regular occurrence, but it’s still fun to have this classic in a portable form.

Stone Age [App o’ the Mornin’]

The original Stone Age board game is one of the most popular worker-placement titles around our house. It’s fairly light, but has room for strategy, benefits from a good pace, and (with the exception of a leatherette dice cup that smells like a wet donkey) has exceptional production work. If anyone was looking to introduce Eurogame novices to worker placement, this would be a decent place to start.

The decision for Campfire Creations to port the mobile version of Stone Age (iPhone/iPad: $7) to iPhone first was a bit of a surprise. Most Eurogames of this scope have found their native home on the far wider screen of the iPad. Campfire Creations, however, had a different notion: if they could make a game like this work on the smaller screen of an iPhone, then they could easily upscale to the iPad, which they did a few months after release by making the app Universal with support for retina displays.

The decision was challenging from a design standpoint, but paid off with a sleek, compressed incarnation of the game that works perfectly on both phone or pad. By some weird alchemy, they’ve managed to squeeze almost all of the major board elements onto a single screen without making it over-crowded, and made judicious use of sub-screens and pop-ups to convey more information. Since then, they’re made it a hybrid game that supports both platforms.

Stone Age has 2 to 5 players competing to grow their little neolithic villages in population, wealth, and achievement. Each tribes begins with 5 workers, who can be placed at various spots on the board to perform certain tasks. They can increase production of goods, “mate” in order to create more workers, forge tools, buy special bonuses from buildings or boats, or place works on a variety of production spots (food, wood, clay, stone, gold).
The goal is to collect the most victory points by building structures and buying points, specialists, and technology. Along the way, you need to keep an economy going and make sure there’s enough food to feed your whole village, or else suffer a penalty.

The app version captures the game with a wonderful degree of fidelity, even though it deviates sharply from the layout of the board. This was a bold and wise decision, since it allows complex interactions with a minimal amount of tapping. The only active sub-screen is for choosing how many workers to palce for a certain resource. All the rest, including huts, buildings, and ships, are place on right on the main screen, with bonuses and benefits clearly depicted at a glance, and more detail provide via popups.

If you’re familiar with the original, you’ll know this would have been a trick with a full-screen iPad layout. That the developers did it iPhone-sized is a miracle, and makes Stone Age yet another welcome entry in the growing genre of mobile boardgaming.

Content: Nothing problematic. You add new people to your tribe by placing two figures in the mating hut, but it’s not like there’s some kind of mating animation or anything like that. You just get another person to place for the next turn.

ToodleDo Task Manager [App o’ the Mornin’]

I’ve lost track of how many task managers I’ve tested over the past two years. I can’t say “all of them,” because task managers are as common as match-three games in the App Store and online, but I can say “all of the major ones, plus a dozen more.” Some I used longer than others. None ever really worked for me, until I found ToodleDo (web based: free with premium options; iOS/Android/Blackberry: about $3).

Choosing a task manager is like choosing a pair of shoes. You have to try on several to find one that fits. What works for me may not work for another. It depends upon what kind of tasks you’re managing, if you’re collaborating with others, how you prefer to enter tasks, what platforms you use, what kind of tags and sorting you need, and how you like to be notified.

This was what I needed the software do: track writing assignments, including those with multiple parts (subtasks such as interviews and research); manage school projects (no longer needed since I finished grad school); track a section of the magazine I edit; try to slide in non-assigned (“spec”) work so that I don’t keep putting it off; and synchronize all of it among four devices: iPad, iPhone, laptop, desktop. It does all these things very well.

ToodleDo is free to try right here. The mobile apps cost extra, and upgrades are available to add features. I paid $15 to get subtasks for a year, but after working with them I found I could live without them and just piece out the different sections of an assignment task-by-task.

The strength of the app is in its ease of entry, scheduling/priority options, and management features. You can add a task quickly just by typing in “Quick Add Task” field on the web, or the “Add Task” field on the app.  It will add the task without any other data, or you can open up a simple submenu to set priority level and due date/time, assign to a folder, choose a repeat option, add subtasks, and set a notification alarm.

Once created, tasks can be searched and sorted in myriad ways, grouped into folders (Home, Work, School, Projects, etc), assigned to a hotlist, re-prioritized, and more. You can organize a list of tasks just about any way you’d like.

I like the ease with which you can attach documents, links, and blocks of text for each task. If you look at the web version, you’ll find some nice extra features on the tabs at the top: Notes, Outlines (simple outlining software), and Lists (field entry for making different kinds of customizable lists).

It’s simple, flexible system: a list with sorting and scheduling features. It works very well with the GTD system and other productivity techniques. It may be less or more than you need. Some people need massive collaborative software and project tracking, others are fine with a simple TaskPaper app. Some want slick mobile graphics, clever layouts, and all kinds of graphical flourishes. I wanted a sorted, data-heavy, scheduling list, and that’s what ToodleDo gives me.

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.


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.

My Home Screens

Slacktacular August continues as I soak up some R&R following a harrowing month of personal tragedies and my annual Giant Project (the Games Magazine Games 100 guide). Today I have to break from my break to tackle some curriculum writing, but not wanting to leave a me-shaped hole in the blogosphere, and indulging the narcissism implicit in blogging, I give you these glimpses of my work space.

I’m oddly fascinated with what people put on their home screens, partly because most people don’t spend precious moments of life tuning their devices to a fare-thee-well and thus their home screens are offensively disorganized.

I know this will seem like a pointless post to some, but many people also are oddly fascinated by this kind of thing.

I work among three devices: laptop, iPad, and iPhone, with a desktop PC for gaming. Here’s the iPad : 

Left to right, top to bottom, I have:

  • Work Folder: Various text editors, scanners, cloud storage, etc.
  • Media Folder: Streaming media, photo and video editing, and media guides.
  • Words Folder: Book apps, social media, news, etc.
  • Board Games
  • Card Games
  • Settings
  • iAWriter: Plain text editor: very simple, very zen.
  • Dropbox: The heart of the system.
  • Notability: I use this for recording interviews and taking notes, as well as for marking up PDFs.
  • MagicalPad. Mind-mapping. I haven’t gotten in the habit of using it yet, but I keep it there as a prompt, and you can use it for straight-up outlining. 
  • Photogene: My preferred photo editing, for the moment.
  • Recorder Pro: Voice recording for notes.
  • 30/30: Time management software. It’s hugely effectively for getting things done in tiny slices. I keep settings for 15, 30, and 60 minutes and just rotate through them as I need.
  • Disqus: Comment management page in Safari, since Disqus has no app.
  • Instapaper: I push stories to Instapaper for reading later.
  • News360: A decent way to get a selection of stories on pre-set set topics.
  • IMDB: You know that guy who was in that thing? Yeah, what’s his name?
  • Verbum: Indispensable Bible software.
  • Universalis: My Liturgy of the Hours. 
  • Kindle: Obviously
  • Dock: Chrome, Mail, Newsify (the ONLY RSS reader), Evernote, Toodledo (task management), Drafts (text capture)
  • Wallpaper: Rotating. This is Gyro Gearloose. Because.

A note about Drafts: This has become key to my work. It’s not quite as good as iAwriter for long text writing, but I use it for taking quick notes, which I can enter using voice. (I gave up on Dragon after it crashed too many times with completely dictated article drafts left unsaved.) The beauty of Drafts is that you can push text anywhere: Dropbox, Evernote, Facebook: any place at all. It can append text to a file, create new files, and do all kinds of magic. I love it.

Here’s the iPhone:

This duplicates the iPad more or less, with a few iPhone-specific things:

  • gMusic: A really awful GooglePlay streamer that I have to use as I wait impatiently for Google’s native app.
  • CFSAC: Flashlight.
  • VSCOcam: Camera. I’m trying this out for a little while, but I’m not sure I’m keeping it. Camera+ is my standard goto for pictures.

And here’s the desktop:

PC taskbar, left to right:

  • Postbox: Mail software.
  • Chrome: Browser.
  • Open Office Word: I’m done with Microsoft Office products, but I still need to use Word.
  • Scrivener: I’ve been using this as my main word processor for almost a year. A sheer delight.
  • Evernote: Obviously.
  • Verbum: Bible software.
  • Folder: Root directory.
  • Corel Paint Shop Pro: My preferred photo editing for a long time now.
  • Kindle: For cutting and pasting citations.
  • Calculator
  • iTunes: I really, truly hate it.

Here’s my desk at the moment:


Ridiculous Fishing: Catch Fish, Shoot Fish, Have Fun

Ridiculous Fishing: A Tale of Redemption
Vlambeers, iPad/iPhone: $3; Rated: 12+
Content: Fish erupt in little clouds of pixelated blood when shot.

Drop a hairdryer-, toaster-, and chainsaw-equipped hook into the water, let it sink as low as possible, snag as many fish as you can on the way up, fling the fish into the air, and blast them to pulp with your orbital laser.

Folks, it doesn’t get any more fun than that. Ridiculous Fishing may be the easiest app recommendation I’ve made in ages, because it’s the kind of game that appeals to everyone.

Based a 2010 game by Vlambeers called Radical Fishing, Ridiculous Fishing was brought to iOS by Vlambeers, Zach Gage (Spelltower, Bit Pilot, Unify) and Greg Wohlwend (Hundreds, Solipskier, Gasketball), and there’s a high degree of quality on display in every aspect of this game. The 16-bit style is beautiful, turning retro, Intellivision-inspired art into a kind of absurdest/cubist masterpiece, and providing an arcade-style score to match.

Gameplay has a direct and simple appeal that makes Ridiculous Fishing almost impossible to put down. You begin the game with 50 meters of line, a gun, and a basic lure. The action is entirely vertical, with your character sitting in a boat floating on a narrow patch of sea. Drop the lure into the water, and move the device side to side, dodging as many fish as you can to get the hook down as far as possible. If you hit a fish, that’s the end of your descent, and you star to reel in.

On the way up, you have the opposite goal, moving the device back and forth to hook as many fish as you can. Once at the surface, you fling these fish up and use your gun to shoot them for money. The variety of fish is quite large, with some only catchable at certain times of the day and certain depths.

The money allows you to buy larger reels (up to infinite depth) and more gear. There are elaborate weapons, ranging from shotguns to miniguns and orbital lasers. Lures get more complex, with attachments like a toaster and a hairdryer to electrocute fish (earning you a second chance to keep fishing), and a chainsaw lure to get even more fish on the way down. There are dozens of unlocks, including lights for deep sea activity, clothing, fuel, tech enhancements, and more. There are no in-app purchases, with everything bought by money that’s easily earned in-game.

This is great stuff: perhaps the single most readily and widely enjoyable app game of the year so far. At $3, it’s a must have.

As for the subtitle–“A Tale of Redemption”–I haven’t a clue. There’s something of a story told in via Twitter-style messages, but I was two busy blowing fish into a sticky red paste to really care.


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 Magnificat Advent Companion: eVersions Now Available

The annual booklets from Magnificat are a regular feature of my Advent and Lent observance. Just in time for the beginning of Advent this Sunday, this year;s version is now available for iPhone/iPad, Kindle, and nook for a buck. I prefer this format since it’s always with me, it’s easy to navigate, and it doesn’t add to my pile of things I’m reluctant to throw away.

The companion includes original meditations on the daily gospel reading, prayers (morning, evening, night, O Antiphons, and different seasonal prayers), blessings, “The Advent Stations,” and an article on English Christmas traditions.

The iPhone version includes recordings of Rorate Caeli and Alma Redemptoris Mater. Very nice!