A little more than three months ago, something awful happened: My beloved iPhone became irretrievably lost.
We were on vacation in Ocean Isle Beach, NC with my family. This was Lucy's first beach vacation, and we were excited to document it all, so we invested in a Lifeproof waterproof iPhone case so we could get some good photos and videos. And we did. The case worked great, and if that's something you're in the market for, I recommend it with one small caveat: If you're going to invest $50-80 in a waterproof case for your iPhone so you can take photos and videos out in the ocean, you might want to splurge and spend the extra cash and invest in the floating case that goes with it. Because let me tell you something: That ocean can be a bastard. All it took was one particularly nasty wave and it's the last you'll see of that multi-hundred dollar piece of electronics. In memoriam, here is the last photo ever taken by that phone, of Lucy going for a ride with cousins Emma and Will.
Needless to say, I was pretty upset about this loss. When I had purchased it only six months prior, I was pretty certain that was going to be my phone for the next 2-3 years. I have typically upgraded each year, but I felt that the iPhone 4s was finally at the point where I would be content with its features longterm. So when it went into the drink, there was absolutely a mourning period. Despite offers, I couldn't bring myself to use the older model iPhones that some friends kindly offered, instead opting for an old-school, circia 2007 non-smartphone to tide me over the three long months until the next iPhone model would surely be announced. I also justified it by recognizing that the $30 I would save each month on the iPhone data plan would put me that much closer to saving the amount necessary to buy the soon-to-be brand new model.
A funny thing happened over the course of the past three months, though. I've kind of enjoyed not being as connected as I once was. Don't get me wrong, there are lots of features that I still absolutely love about the iPhone -- especially when travelling -- like the maps, Facetime video chat, and having my music collection on hand at all times. But I've equally enjoyed not getting notified immediately whenever I get a new email or feeling the need to document my meal on Instagram. In fact, the date nights that January and I have been out on since losing the iPhone have been some of the most enjoyable in years, partly due to the fact that I wasn't nose-deep in technology half of the evening.
That said, I'm pretty conficted about today's Apple event, presumably announcing the new iPhone. The rumored features don't really excite me all that much, but that's never really stopped me from upgrading in the past. With the absence of my iPhone, my first-generation iPad has taken on a new level of importance as my portable connection to the Internet. I think I'm going to take a "wait and see" approach to see if the rumors about a smaller "iPad mini" being announced next month pan out. In a perfect world, Apple would release an updated iPod touch with a decent camera (at least 720p video, please) and at least 3G data capabilities. I don't really need the phone part of the iPhone, but the data connection and camera are a must if I'm going to spend that money.
Until then, I'll be carrying around my dumb-phone, texting T9 style, and rocking my circa 2004 iPod Photo for my music needs. I'm just old school, I guess.
I'm officially back on track for my goal of reading 52 books this year! My nightstand this month has hosted a wide variety of genres, from Irish detective mysteries to graphic novels to science fiction, it's been a full month. Here's a quick overview.
I was really, really conflicted about this book. Although I read it very quickly, it took me a considerable amount of time to decide if I thought it was a 2-star book or a 4-star book. I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt for now and going with a 3-star rating, simply because it did hold my attention and keep me interested. The problem with this book isn't necessarily that it's trying too hard -- Lord knows how many authors do -- but that one feels the author is constantly winking at the reader, trying to remind the reader of how clever he is. And I'm just not convinced that it worked.
I realize that my review really doesn't tell you anything at all about the book itself, so here's the long and the short: Cloud Atlas is a collection of six stories that take place over a span of 3 centuries interwoven together in a way that shows how the main character of one story affects the protagonist of the next. Like a matryoshka doll, Cloud Atlas takes you through the story within the story down all six levels, and then back out again. Every story is written in a different style, and while I found some of them harder to get through than others, I did appreciate each story's "voice" fitting the time period.
I'm sure you'll hear a lot of hype about this book over the coming months, as the movie adaptation is due out this fall. If the movie trailer catches your attention, give the book a shot. If you can forgive the author's occasional self-imporance, I think there's a decent story in there.
Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell -
I do love a good tragedy, and Tana French never fails to make me want to blow my brains out in the best way possible. This is the fourth book in her Dublin Murder Squad detective series, in each of which she tells the story of a lead detective in an Irish police force as they try to solve a particular crime. This book focuses on a triple-homicide in an abandoned housing development: A man and his two children are found murdered, with the wife as the sole survivor of the attack. Dublin Murder Squad's top detective Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy and his rookie partner are put on the case, and things slowly unravel from there.
I loved French's first three books, and she didn't let me down on this one either. If you like mystery books, definitely start with In the Woods and work your way through the series. I don't think you'll be disappointed.
Broken Harbor, by Tana French -
Jericho is one of those TV shows that I've been aware of for a while, but never had the time to check out. The first season premiered in 2006 and was cancelled after lackluster ratings. The fans convinced the network to bring the show back, but it was finally put to rest after another half a season. Earlier this year, I finally got the chance to watch this show on Netflix and really enjoyed it. It's the story of a nuclear attack on the United States as seen through the eyes of a small Kansas town. The first half of the season, in fact, the viewer is kept as in the dark as the town is and the details are slowly revealed as news makes its way to the town.
Jericho Season 3: Civil War is the continuation of the the Jericho story and picks up directly after the events of the TV show's second season. This isn't some fan fiction; It was actually written by the TV show's writers. I've never been a big comic book guy, but I was interested in knowing what the writers had planned, so I gave it a shot. Overall, there wasn't a whole lot of meat to the book -- and maybe that's just how comic books are? -- but I did enjoy seeing where the show was going. If you saw the TV show and are hungry for more, it's worth a read. Otherwise, there's not a lot of point in it.
Jericho Season 3: Civil War, by Don Shotz -
The author of this book happens to be my second cousin, and he recently had his first book published. I never really gave bridges a whole lot of thought, but I'm a little more knowledgeable about them after having read this short book. Having spent a few years living in Chicago, it definitely put the subject matter in a light that made it a lot more interesting. If you've ever wanted to know about the history of the various types of moving bridges in America, this is a great short read on the subject.
Chicago's Bridges, by Nathan Holth -
I love Philip K. Dick as much as the next guy, but man are his books hard to get into. I love his short stories (Paycheck, The Minority Report, The Golden Man), but his full-length novels are just really hard for me to work through for whatever reason. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the book that the highly-successful 1982 movie Blade Runner was based on. There are quite a few differences between the movie and the book, but the basic premise of a bounty hunter chasing down a group of six androids illegally on Earth remains. There are lots of philosophical questions about the nature of existance, but overall I was just kind of slogging through the book. Dick does short stories really well, but it seems like when he tries to devote more than fifty pages to a story it gets kind of rough.
Earlier this month I decided to go camping. Just me and my dog, Gus. I recognize that some may find the idea of camping in the woods without any company other than your dog a horrifying thought, but to me it sounded like a perfect 24 hours; No obligations, no distractions, just relaxing in the quiet of the outdoors. The only advanced technology I took with me was my circa 2007 phone-calls-only cell phone and my second generation Kindle. I planned to spend at least 75% of my time reading by the campfire, so I wanted to make sure my Kindle was loaded with some books appropriate for camping with one's best four-legged friend.
The Dog Stars the a post-apocalyptic story of a man and his dog who live in an airplane hangar in Colorado. For the nine years since a superflu wiped out 99% of the world's population, they've spent their days taking daily perimeter checks in a 1956 Cessna plane. Their only company is their gun-nut neighbor who helps them defend their land from the occasional roving gangs.
While there's nothing amazing here, it was a good read and really enjoyable. After setting up camp and getting a fire started, I sat down and read through the first 60% of this book in one go, stopping only to roast a hot dog or throw another log on the fire. If you're up for yet another post-apocalyptic journey of self-discovery, you could do a lot worse than this book.
The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller -
After tearing through The Dog Stars in my first day camping, I moved on to another story about a man and his dog. In 1960, John Steinbeck set out on a cross-country roadtrip with his French standard poodle, Charley, in an attempt to rediscover the America that he had lost touch with over the years. Appropriately, my opinion of this book matches nearly exactly with Steinbeck's experience on the road; We were both excited and eager at the beginning, and slowly lost interest over the course of the journey. There are easily a hundred quotables here, but the overall journey grew somewhat scattered and tired almost as quickly as it began.
Overall, though, I did enjoy the story and the writing. Travels with Charley serves as something of a bookend to Kerouac's On the Road. Written nearly ten years earlier by a man thirty years younger, it's full of excitement and hope that only a man first discovering America, without any expectations, can have. Travels with Charley, on the other hand, is scattered with disappointment at not finding what was expected.
Travels with Charley: In Search of America, by John Steinbeck -
After the somewhat disappointing Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I felt like I had to get a few of Dick's short stories back into my system. This collection features some of my favorites, including Beyond Lies the Wub, Paycheck, and The Minority Report. Great collection, if you haven't read much of Philip K. Dick's work, this is a great introduction.
Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick, by Philip K. Dick -
Like most good parents, I try to limit the amount of "screen time" Lucy gets. It really isn't too hard -- Lucy is naturally very active and curious, and the TV typically just doesn't hold her interest for very long. There are those times, though, when an episode of My Little Pony is necessary to get a meal prepared or to distract her from the pain of teething for just a little bit. Rather than just point her at the big TV, though, we've found that the iPad and iPhone are perfect for these little distractions. Well, almost perfect.
The one problem with watching videos on a touch-sensitive device with a toddler is that when they see something that excites them, inevitibly they will want to touch it. With an iPad or iPhone, this means skipping around, pausing, or leaving the app completely. Over the course of the past year, I have been looking for a good video player app that would solve this problem, but came up empty.
So I built one.
I'm excited to announce that the LittleFingers Video Player is available worldwide in the App Store for iPad, iPhone and iPod touch. It's built from the ground up to be a kid friendly video player that parents can use to play videos for their children without worrying about their excitement accidentally stopping playback. Here's how it works.
Browse through the different video sources on your device. LittleFingers works with the videos you already have, like the movies, TV shows, video podcasts and music videos in your Movies or iPod app, home movies in your Camera Roll, or video files you import directly into LittleFingers using iTunes. Just select a category of videos ad browse the list. When you find the video you want to play, just select it in the list.
Once the video has started playing, tap the lock icon in the lower left corner of the screen. The titlebar and video controls will slide away, leaving the viewer free to watch the show without distraction. At this point, any screen touches will be completely ignored so your little one can watch the show uninterrupted.
When you're ready to get the controls back, it's just a few simple swipes. The default unlock code is 3-2-1: Swipe from top to bottom with 3 fingers, again with 2 fingers, and then with 1. Presto! The video controls slide back into view so you can pause or go back to the video listing.
LittleFingers also has a handy home tab that lists your most recently viewed videos, as well as videos from all categories marked as favorites. Your kids' favorites are just a tap away.
And this is just the beginning. I have some really cool ideas for upcoming versions of LittleFingers, so if you have little one that like to watch videos on your iPad, iPhone or iPod touch, you're definitely going to want to check it out. It will be priced at $1.99, but for its first week of availability in the App Store, it will be on sale for $0.99.
I'm really excited that an app like this exists now, and I hope you'll help me spread the word to any parents you know that might be interested in something like this. The app can be purchased in the app store, or you can read more about it at http://littlefingersapp.com. We're also on Facebook and Twitter, if you'd prefer to follow updates there.
My reading list has seen some pretty good action over the past few weeks. I'm currently halfway through my goal of reading 52 books this year, and my to-read is is still stocked full of titles I've been looking forward to reading for a while. Let me give you a quick rundown of what I've been reading the past few months.
I don't read a lot of Stephen King's work, but the premise behind his latest book was intriguing. If you had the opportunity to go back in time and prevent an atrocity from happening, would you do it? I'm not going to give you and spoilers, but that's essentially the premise behind King's 11/22/63, in which the protagonist goes back to the year 1958 and must wait out the five years, working toward the ultimate goal of preventing the JFK assassination. It was a pretty hefty read at nearly 1,000 pages, but it was a pretty easy read. Very entertaining and definitely recommended if you're looking for a smart, but not too complicated read.
11/22/63, by Stephen King -
My good friend Jason has mentioned this book off and on for a couple of years, and I finally got around to reading it. At the surface, it's a story about a brilliant programmer who programs a computer system that, on the event of his death, begins carrying out a programmed mission. To go into more detail might spoil the story a bit. The characters were a bit two-dimensional, but the author clearly has a really solid grasp of the technical details he was talking about, and I appreciated that the technical details weren't just glossed over, but were actually explained assuming the reader had a moderate background on how today's technology works. That may not be a safe assumption for all readers, but it was for me and it made the read that much more enjoyable. Not a masterpiece, but a good technological thriller.
Daemon, by Daniel Suarez -
Daemon definitely left me wanting to know what happened next, so I was glad that I had the sequel ready to go. Pretty much "more of the same," which was a good thing. I could spend an afternoon debating some of the themes of the books and how I felt about where the author took the book, but for a short review I'll just say that it was a good follow-up, very smartly written, and didn't get too bogged down in sharp deliniations between the "good guys" and "bad guys." Realism like that always makes for interesting reading.
Freedom™, by Daniel Suarez -
As I've mentioned before, Haruki Murakami is one of my favorite authors, and A Wild Sheep Chase is one of my favorite books of his. It's the surreal story of a pretty typical, self-described mediocre man in his early thirties who is suddenly tasked with a seemingly impossible task. This task, if not completed, has dire consequences attached to it, so he has little choice in the matter as to whether or not he will attempt it. On the surface it's certainly something of a mystery, but I feel like it has a bigger metaphorical message about the time most thirty-somethings go through when they have to learn to leave some of their youthful selves behind or else fall into backwards-focused medicrity. It's something of a "coming of age" for those of us past our youths, but before midlife.
A Wild Sheep Chase, by Haruki Murakami -
It was my second time reading A Wild Sheep Chase, but I only just recently learned that it's actually the third book in a series -- The Trilogy of the Rat. Hear the Wind Sing is the first in the series, and is actually Murakami's first book. It was only recently translated and released in the States, and it's apparently very hard (and expensive) to find a physical copy of the book. Thank God for the ebooks. The book's direction is pretty meandering, and the style is a little rough, but knowing where the trilogy was going gave me a pretty good appreciation for this first book. If you're a big Murakami fan it's worth giving a read, but probably not worth going out of your way for if you aren't.
Hear the Wind Sing, by Haruki Murakami -
The second in The Trilogy of the Rat, this is a book I actually started reading more than two years ago and just couldn't get into. The style is even more disjointed than Hear the Wind Sing, and frankly I just didn't find it very interesting. It features the same narrator as the other books in the series, but it just feels more like "here's what happened to me during a span of a year or so" wherein he doesn't end up anywhere other than where he started. It does fill in the gaps between the other two books, but it didn't serve much purpose apart from that.
Pinball, 1973, by Haruki Murakami -
January heard about this book and the premise sounded interesting, so we thought we'd try reading this one together. The world's scientists one day discover that the Earth is slowly descelerating by a matter of minutes every day, and this is the story of this world as seen through the eyes of an 11-year-old girl. At first, I expected it to be a sort of science fiction thought experiment in what would happen in a world like this, and while it does address a lot of the scientific "what if" questions, it's really more of a coming-of-age story for the narrator. The author's writing is super heavy with the metaphors, linking what is happening to the planet to the struggles of being a teenage girl, but it was an enjoyable, winsome read. It somehow reminded me a lot of The Brief History of the Dead, which I read a few years ago and remember enjoying.
The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker -
This is a tough one to rate. On the one hand, The Afghan Whigs are one of my favorite bands from the 90's. I've listened to their albums for years without knowing a whole lot about the band's history, and I enjoyed learning a little more about their background and the process that went into one of my favorite albums. On the other hand, the writing itself wasn't very good. It had that feel when you can tell the author has a thesaurus on their desk, and they just keep looking up other ways to say "great" or "album" because they feel like they've said the word too many times. I almost felt like I was reading narration for a VH1 "behind the music" episode. In some ways that's a good thing; When discussing certain songs, I could actually hear the music as a backdrop to the narration. All that to say that if you're a fan of Greg Dulli or The Afghan Whigs, it's definitely worth your time.
Gentlemen, by Bob Gendron -
So here we are. 31 weeks in, 26 books down. Goodreads tells me that I'm 4 books behind, so I've got a little work to do to get caught back up, but I'm on a pretty good pace. I'll have an update for you again next month, but in the meantime please hit me up with any recommendations. I'm trying get in a wide variety of styles of books, so I'd love to read anything that you think would be worth checking out.