App Review: The Velveteen Rabbit and John Henry

January 21, 2011

Today, I’d like to talk about two more apps from Ruckus Media in their Rabbit Ears Entertainment series, The Velveteen Rabbit and John Henry. Both are universal apps for the iPad and iPhone. The format of the two apps is similar. Each offers three choices upon opening the app – “Watch the Video,” “Read the Book,” and “Read and Record.”

“Read the Book” is what it sounds like – the stories are offered along with lovely illustrations. Pages are turned with a familiar page swipe. Unlike some other children’s book apps for the iPad and iPhone, there are no interactive elements or sounds when this mode is chosen. There are occasional subtle animation effects as new text slides into place over an illustration. The formatting and sizing of the images is excellent, especially on the iPad. The end result is an experience much like reading a traditional children’s book, which can be a nice break from the noise and action that can at times be distracting in some other apps. This format makes these apps perfect for bedtime stories, when you want to calm children down rather than rile them up.

“Read and Record” lets you record yourself or your child reading each page.  Then the book can be played back with your voice reading the story.

“Watch the Video” is the really unique feature of these two apps. They feature celebrity narrators narrating the story over the illustrations, but with additional animations and effects (particularly with John Henry, which has some nice train animations).

As for the stories themselves, The Velveteen Rabbit is the classic children’s tale of the toy rabbit that can become real if a child truly loves him. This charming, bittersweet story is sort of a precursor to more modern tales like Toy Story about toys having a life of their own. The narration by Meryl Streep is, as one would presume, superb. The soothing background music suits the beautiful illustrations.

John Henry is the folktale of the strongest man who ever lived, 45 pounds at birth and born with a hammer in his hand.  He can drive steel stakes like no other man, but has a showdown against a new-fangled steam powered hammer.  Denzel Washington narrates, with background music by B.B. King.  The effect is upbeat and well-suited to the mythical central character.

Both apps are well-done, preserving the charm of the classic stories while making good use of the capabilities of a new medium. The file sizes are large (281 MB for John Henry and 366 MB for The Velveteen Rabbit), so make sure you allow enough room on your device. They are available for $1.99 each from the Apple App Store.

App Review: A Present for Milo

December 8, 2010

I had the opportunity to preview a new app from Ruckus Media (their other apps include The Night Before Christmas and  The Velveteen Rabbit) called A Present for Milo:  A Touch and Surprise Storybook.  A Present for Milo is an interactive storybook style app aimed at children ages 2 through 5.   The story follows Milo the cat chasing a mouse through a house, with a surprise at the end.

The illustrations in this story are delightful.  The beautiful artwork from Mike Austin would be at home in a hardcover childrens’ book, and is a big step up from the graphics often seen in these types of apps.  The app features animation and sound effects when different pictures are touched.  There are a wide variety of effects, so that touching the same picture does not always invoke the same animation.  The animations themselves are lovely, adding to the atmosphere of the story rather than distracting from it.  In some storybook apps, animations and sound effects can feel tacked on to the story, but here they blend right into the rest of the artwork so that you feel that the illustrations themselves are moving.  I especially enjoyed the interactive elements in the piano scene, with its ticking metronome, floating musical notes, and even the ability to play the keys on the piano.

I tested the app with help of my 5 year old and 2 year old.  They both enjoyed the app, tapping on different pictures to see what would happen and giggling at the results.  The animations do require you to wait for one to finish before another can start.  I thought that might cause some frustration, but my 5 year old had no problems waiting, and my 2 year old didn’t seem to notice.

The story itself is a simple one, but there was enough going on to keep both of my children engaged.  I would like to have seen an option to turn off the narrator’s voice to give my 5 year old the opportunity to read the words herself, as the words are within her reading level.  Perhaps in a future update that feature could be added.  The only technical issue I had with the app was that I wish it had the capability to bookmark the last spot read or to save its state so that you can return to where you left off.  With a two year old, accidentally exiting apps happens on a regular basis.  That can be frustrating when you are nearing the end of the story and have to go back through it from the beginning.

Overall, A Present for Milo is an appealing, polished app with beautiful illustrations and engaging animations that young children will enjoy.  I would recommend it for children ages 5 and under.

A Present for Milo is out today, December 8, for the iPad.  It can be found at the App Store.  It is on sale for the first two weeks for $1.99.

Multitasking and iPhone 4.0

April 9, 2010

As we all know, yesterday Apple announced multitasking as part of the upcoming iPhone 4.0 software update.  I have already read a lot of criticism that this isn’t “true” multitasking.   Apple did announce several of the 3rd party multitasking features that many have been hoping for  -  streaming Pandora and other radio apps in the background, GPS apps operating in the background (they showed TomTom and Pandora running at the same time), letting downloads/uploads continue with apps that aren’t the foreground app, allowing Skype to function in the background, and so on.

So what’s missing?  Well, another facet of multitasking in iPhone 4.0 allows “fast app switching,” which allows a background app to exist in a saved but not active state.  When the user chooses to go back to that app (through an elegant new UI feature), it will start up right where it left off.  According to Apple, 0% of the CPU is required in maintaining the app in its quiescent state, allowing battery life and CPU cycles to be preserved.  Technically, several apps aren’t actually running at once, but can be called up quickly without having to exit back to the home screen and re-opened.

For those who feel this isn’t really multitasking, I would ask you to think about what multitasking really means to you.  I’m a person who likes to have several things going on at once.  On my desktop, I may have a Twitter client open, Mail, several web windows, perhaps my calendar, and more.  Back when I used to play online poker, I would often have several poker games active at the same time.  The truth, though, is that it’s impossible to take in and interact with all of that information at the same moment.  It’s really just “fast app switching” from one task to another.   There is an argument that that type of behavior actually makes us less productive – for example,  the sound notifying us that a new e-mail has come in is a distraction from whatever task is at hand.  Even when we decide not to look at the message immediately, some attention is taken from the active task, decreasing efficiency.

Right or wrong, however, we like to have the ability to multitask.  I’m sure we all have our reasons, perhaps deluding ourselves into thinking we are more efficient that way.  In my case, a lot of my desire to multitask is impatience.  With online poker, for example, I quickly bored of waiting for others to take their turn.  I enjoyed the challenge of having to think quickly with more than one active game.  I was always a better online poker player than a live action poker player, since patient observation of your opponents is far less crucial online.  Players tend to hop in and out of games more frequently, there are no facial expressions to read, and timing of play is more uniform, so devoting a large amount of attention to observation is largely wasted.  (In live poker, observation is of course an essential part of the game, but the action can move mind-numblingly slowly at times).

My reasons for wanting multitasking in the iPhone, with the exception of some special cases like streaming radio and GPS apps, are similar.  We do not yet live in a world where phone hardware and network speeds are instantaneous.  I get bored waiting for Words with Friends to connect or waiting for a web page or Twitter stream to load.  Ideally, I would like those tasks to happen instantly.  Since that is not possible, what I really want is fast app switching so I can do something else and go back to the task when complete.

Will the new iPhone multitasking accomplish this?  I think it remains to be seen, and may depend on the developer and the app in question.  If Words with Friends pauses in its interminable uploading while I’m doing something else and then I just go back to the app to continue waiting, it will not help.  If the app can complete its task while I do something else, I will be thrilled.  The programming details are over my head, but my take on Apple’s presentation is that “pausing” an app is one approach, but some apps will have the ability to continue uploading/downloading in the background.  It will likely be  up to developers to make the right decision for their particular app.

Security through obscurity

February 8, 2010

Recently on a discussion board that I frequent, several members were hit by a nasty little virus that they got from an Adobe Flash ad.  The ads were served by a legitimate company and appeared on a legitimate web site, but malicious code was embedded in the third-party ads, presenting a malware notice for a “virus cleaner.”  Of course it was nothing of the sort, but rather an unpleasant bit of malware that wreaked havoc on users’ systems, taking hours to remove.

During the course of the discussion about this virus, it was noted that Macs were not affected.  A Mac user might see the initial notice (I did myself), but there was no danger to a Mac system.  This discussion quickly devolved to the usual back-and-forth between the rather smug Mac users and PC users who sneered that Macs were not really any safer than PCs, but rather protected only by “security through obscurity” since almost 100% of virus/malware threats do not affect Macs, rather than by any sort of computing moral high ground.

I am not going to get into a discussion about the relative advantages and disadvantages of the architecture of OS X and Windows as they relate to security.  Let us assume for the moment that OS X is inferior from a security standpoint and/or that Apple is lax about security threats (both arguments made by Mac detractors).  I would still argue that even if OS X has large, gaping security holes, the risk to its users is far, far lower than it is for PC users, even those protected by religiously updated anti-virus and anti-malware software.

Consider this analogy to real viruses that affect human beings.  Let’s say there is a very deadly, highly contagious strain of an Ebola-like virus causing a hemorrhagic fever.  In Scenario A, there is a vaccine for it that is usually effective.  In Scenario B, there is no vaccine or cure for the destructive virus, but it only affects hedgehogs.  Which scenario would you prefer?

Obviously, Scenario B is the way to go, if you have a choice.  Vaccines, whether against computer malware or actual living viruses, can fail.  If people choose not to get or update their vaccines/antivirus software, the population as a whole is at increased risk.  HHV (Hemorrhagic Hedgehog Virus), on the other hand, does not affect human beings, whether or not they take precautions against it.  While it may be security through obscurity, and could be viewed as dumb luck rather than any moral superiority in its beneficiaries, it is still a far better situation.

For Mac users, it’s a condition that may not last forever.  If Mac market share continues to increase, security threats undoubtedly will as well.  Even now, no computer user is immune to phishing scams, identify theft, and the like.  For the moment, though, flying under the radar, while perhaps not the most valiant of defenses, is a highly effective security strategy.

Using Citrix with Mac Safari

February 8, 2010

Citrix doesn’t play well with Safari on a Mac. Apparently Citrix still thinks that Macs should be running IE5 (there’s a blast from the past), because in order to use Safari with Citrix, you have to “pretend” to be using IE.

To do this, you have to enable the “Develop” menu in Safari, which is hidden by default.

Run Terminal and type (or copy/paste):

defaults write com.apple.Safari IncludeDebugMenu 1

Hit enter.  Now open Safari.  The Develop menu should be there now. Select one of the IE browsers under User Agent, and now Citrix should be satisifed that you are actually running a Mac.

In actual practice, Firefox is still a better option for Citrix Mac users, since with Safari you will have to select the User Agent everytime you want to use Citrix.  Safari goes back to its default user agent settings when you close it.

Citrix on Mac: A Fix for SSL Error 61

February 8, 2010

The IT department where I work changed the certificate for remote access via Citrix this past weekend.  Wheras previously I had no problem accessing the VPN using Citrix via Firefox on a Mac, it suddently stopped working.

I got the following error:

SSL Error 61:  You have not chosen to trust “Network Solutions Certificate Authority,” the issuer of the server’s security certificate.  Error number:  183

This was a puzzling error.  I checked my certificates under Firefox and it seemed to be correct.  The certificate appeared in my Keychain.  I tried adjusting the Trust settings for the certificate on Keychain, but that had no effect.  No one at IT was able to help me because they don’t have much Mac experience.  A Google search showed that this is a fairly common problem that can affect several different certificates (the one listed above is the one I had a problem with).  Unfortunately, none of the answers I found got me all the way to a fix.  I thought I would post my solution here to see if it helps anyone.

1.  Go to Keychain Access and find the certificate that is a problem (for me it was Network Solutions Certificate Authority, but it could be any of a number of certificates).

2.  Export the certificate to the desktop (right click/export) – it will appear as Network Solutions Certificate Authority.cer

3.  Go to the Citrix folder on the Mac and look for a keystore/cacerts folder.

4.   If the folder isn’t there, you will need to create it.  To do this, go to Applications/Citrix ICA Client.  Create the folder keystore (Right click/new folder).  Within that folder, create the folder cacerts.  The path will be Applications/Citrix ICA Client/keystore/cacerts.

5.  Copy the certificate exported from Keychain earlier (Network Solutions Certificate Authority.cer) to the Applications/Citrix ICA Client/keystore/cacerts folder.  Some sources say you need to change the extension to .crt (so in the example, this would be Network Solutions Certificate Authority.crt), but that didn’t work for me. The .cer extension did.

Now you should be able to access the VPN through its usual website on Firefox.

For reference, I am using Citrix for Mac, version 10.00.603, and Firefox, version 3.6 on Mac OS X, version 10.6.2 (Snow Leopard).

Update:

Please see posts from Chris below in the comments from May 21, 2010 and his update on June 2, 2011 for a solution using Terminal.

Review of Lines, a Disney Wait Time app from TouringPlans.com

January 31, 2010

There are several Disney World wait times apps available now for the iPhone on the App Store, some for free and some for a fee.  They vary in quality in terms of user interface and features, but they all suffer from the same limitation.  Their usefulness is almost entirely dependent on other people using the same app in the same park on the same day.  On a busy day, there may be several people using the app at the same time.  On the other hand, there may not.  Or there may, but those people may have reported a wait time for a ride hours before you want to ride it.  It doesn’t do you much good to know that the wait for Space Mountain at 10 am was 30 minutes if you want to ride at 4 in the afternoon.

Lines Beta addresses this limitation, resulting in an extremely useful app.  Lines was created by the people at TouringPlans.com who also write the popular Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. Lines allows users to log in and submit wait times, which are then visible to other users.  Lines goes far beyond other wait times apps, however, in also displaying estimated and forecasted wait times.  So for example, if no one has posted a wait time for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, there will still be estimated information about waiting time and fastpass distribution times for that ride for the current time as well as throughout the rest of the day.   These estimates are derived from the substantial data the TouringPlans.com people have collected over the years.  They are guesses, but highly educated ones.

The Lines creators also use the information submitted by users.  With other wait times apps, I have often felt it is a bit futile to submit waiting times which will be out of date almost as soon as they are submitted.  With Lines, the data entered by users can be used to refine future estimates, making the app even more accurate in the future.  The developers have added a little incentive for users to submit times by awarding “badges” such as “Early Bird” for submitting times during the first hour a park is open or  “Park Hopper” for submitting times from more than one park in the same day.  The top time submitter for a given ride has their user name displayed on the ride’s page.  These are fun and often humorous little ways of acknowledging submissions and encouraging more in the future to see what badges the developers have created.

So how good is Lines in actual practice?   I had the opportunity to try it out at Walt Disney World last week.  Overall, I was impressed.  The estimates and forecasts weren’t always perfectly accurate, but they were generally very close.  It wasn’t particularly crowded when I was there, but there did seem to be quite a few people submitting wait times, which was great.  Having an idea of waiting times and likely fastpass distribution times was invaluable, particularly at the Magic Kingdom.  At Epcot, there are large boards with wait times and fastpass times set up in a few key locations around the park, but at the Magic Kingdom, that information is much harder to come by.  Knowing in advance that Space Mountain fastpasses are gone and the wait is 70 minutes, for example, saves a long trudge from Adventureland to Tomorrowland just to find out that information.

The user interface is clean and simple.  Within a given park, times can be viewed alphabetically, by time, or by land.  When submitting a wait time, the user can submit times for the standby line as well as fastpass and single rider lines if available, all with one submission.  Some additional information is given as well, including park hours and Extra Magic Hours, a crowd calendar, and best/worst parks for the day.  A 10 day forecast is also available for viewing crowd information for upcoming days.

While Lines works on an iPod touch (or any computer with the Safari browser for that matter), it requires an iPhone for full functionality, simply because WiFi is not widely available in the parks.  There are several places in the parks, particularly in certain queue areas (Soarin’ and Nemo come to mind), where an AT&T 3G signal does not reach.  This means that submitting wait times or viewing updated wait times won’t be possible until the device is back within range of a wireless signal.

Lines is a web app, meaning you do not purchase it through the app store.  It works through the Mobile Safari browser on the iPhone.  On the iPhone, the user goes to the address http://m.touringplans.com to bring up the app.  The app can be bookmarked to the home screen by pressing the “+” sign and selecting “Add to Home Screen.”  The app will then appear as an attractive icon with all of a user’s other apps, indistinguishable from apps purchased from the App Store.

Lines does require a TouringPlans.com account.  Initially Lines will be available with a free account, but the developers plan to make it part of a TouringPlans.com subscription, which costs $8.95 for a year (50% off with purchase of one of the 2010 Unofficial Guides).  The developers have plans to offer Lines on other mobile platforms in addition to the iPhone in the future.

Lines is a terrific addition to the Disney apps currently available for the iPhone.  After using it for a couple of days, I found myself using Lines over any of my other wait times apps, and finally deleted them.  What sets Lines apart is its ability to predict waiting times.  This valuable information allows the  Disney visitor to avoid standing in lines as much as possible.

Other Reviews of Lines:

TouringPlans.com Lines:  Consumption, Contribution, & Gaming

Review of the iSkin solo FX SE

November 22, 2009
I have tried a lot of cases for the iPhone.  I have been on a bit of a quest to find the perfect case.  Most recently I tried out the iSkin solo FX SE, available for $34.99 from the iSkin site.

The solo FX SE comes in three varieties, clear, black, and pink, while its cousin the solo FX comes in purple, red, orange, blue, and green.  I have had trouble finding a pink case that I like, in a shade that isn’t too obnoxious, so I was eager to try this one out.

The solo FX SE is easy to put on and remove from the iPhone, but it also has a snug fit, with a nice seal around the edges that should hopefully prevent dust from getting in the ridge around the screen.  The case itself is a rubbery material somewhat reminiscent of those jelly shoes from the 80s.  It has a nice feel in the hand, however, with the texture on the back keeping it from being too slippery.  The iSkin site informs us that the case is treated with a substance called “Microban” to “inhibit the growth of stain and odor causing bacteria.”  That sounds good to me, especially in this age of H1N1.

The case is well-made and fits correctly over the ports.  The on/off switch and volume buttons are covered.  The keys are a little bit difficult to press in the case, requiring a firm touch to activate.  The camera, headphone port, and docking port are exposed.  The opening for the headphone port is perfect for the headphones themselves and works with my Monster cassette adapter for my car, but another cassette adapter that I have does not work with this case because its cable attachment is too large.

You can see through the back of the case to see the Apple logo, a feature I love.  It always seems like a shame to me to have a beautiful device like the iPhone completely covered by a case, so it’s nice to be able to see the phone itself.

Overall, I like the case for its attractive design and protective features.  For $34.99, I think a case should be excellent, and this one does not miss the mark.  The case also comes with screen protectors with a mirror-like finish when the device is off.   I have not yet tried the screen protectors, as I currently have my favorite Power Support Anti-Glare screen protector in place.

Pros:
1.  Offers good level of protection without adding bulk.
2.  Attractive.
3.  Antibacterial!
4.  You can see the Apple logo through the case.

Cons:
1.  The buttons are a bit difficult to press.
2.  May not work with all accessories requiring headphone port.

Trying WordPress

November 22, 2009

It seems like a lot of people are switching to WordPress these days, so I thought I’d give it a try.  I have imported my earlier Blogger entries.  We’ll see how it goes.

Verizon and the iPhone?

November 15, 2009

Apple rumors are always flying, and the iPhone/Verizon ones are among the most popular. While I’m sure Apple would love to tap into the Verizon customer base and sell more iPhones, market share alone has obviously never been Apple’s sole motivation. They currently have a pretty sweet deal with AT&T. Once the iPhone is available for more US carriers, they are not going to be able to command the same subsidies from the carriers.

That said, Ralph de la Vega, AT&T’s CEO, has himself implied that the iPhone won’t always be exclusive with AT&T. I am sure it won’t. But there are a few big stumbling blocks that still have to be overcome to get Apple and Verizon to play nicely together.

This rumor states that they aren’t exactly close to churning out CDMA iPhones:
http://www.tuaw.com/2009/11/12/rumor…zon-nowhere-n/

I think more telling, though, is the series of ads Verizon has put out lately attacking the iPhone.
“There’s a map for that” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YCbYTrYD5y8) and “Misfit Toys” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JgrBtn8XdU) go after AT&T more than the iPhone itself, but the “iDon’t/Droid Does” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e52TSXwj774) commercial goes directly after the iPhone, which can’t be making Apple happy.

This post points out that the new Droid ads running in Sports Illustrated go after Apple policies, and maybe even Steve Jobs himself:
http://www.theiphoneblog.com/2009/11…et-steve-jobs/

These ads are entertaining, but it seems like a strange way for Verizon to woo Apple. I wouldn’t hold my breath for a Verizon iPhone by summer, although to be fair, with Apple, you never know.


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