Sunday, February 28, 2010

Six Months with the iPhone: Some Apps Reviewed (Part I)

I've had my iPhone for six months, and while it hasn't been nearly as revolutionary as the commercials promise, it has changed my life in some very minor ways. Rather than writing the typical iPhone review and listing the usual pros (it's like having the internet with you all the time!) and cons (the battery life is iffy, why does AT&T's coverage go in and out so much?), I've decided to do a review of some of the most helpful apps I've found so far. This review will focus on general apps, while a following review will be about specific apps for people who love to read.

However, before we continue, I must offer this disclaimer: since the iPhone and its plan are very expensive, I don't like paying for apps. As a rule, if an app is over $2.00, I won't get it, and even then I usually waffle about purchasing an app that costs anything. Consequently, most of the apps I'm reviewing are free.

Evernote: Before getting the iPhone, I did several reviews on Evernote, and while both of them acknowledged the program's usefulness, I couldn't fully appreciate the program because I didn't have a way to use it when I was away from my computer. However, the iPhone has opened my eyes to the wonder that is Evernote. Besides being able to consult the various notes I need while on-the-go (such as copies codes), I have found the Evernote app to be invaluable in terms of shopping and cooking. Whenever I find an intriguing recipe online, I can easily clip it into Evernote, and I can consult the note when I am shopping for ingredients. The cooking part is considerably trickier; a recent article on discusses the joys and trials of cooking with the iPhone. However, when I am trying to save ink and paper, I consult my Evernote iPhone app when preparing a fairly straightforward recipe.

ReadItLater: I am constantly finding things online that I want to remember to read. However, I hate adding things to my bookmarks, so ReadItLater is the perfect compromise. It is very easy to add and delete pages using this, and my account syncs across my iPhone, my home laptop, and my work computer.

CauseWorld: This is probably my favorite app of all. The premise of the app is simple: you check into stores, donate karmas (you get 5 karmas per check-in, 10 check-ins per day), and Kraft Foods and Citi will give money to the charities you select. While this app doesn't replace volunteer work or other forms of civic duty, it does alleviate a little of my guilt for being another jerk with an iPhone.

Pandora: To paraphrase the hilarious video "Web Side Story," "Pandora, I've just met an app named Pandora." Although I do like my iPod and iPhone, one causality of getting an iPod (and not driving) is that I don't really listen to the radio. As a result, a lot of my new music came from television shows. However, Pandora allows me to create radio stations and find new music without having to resort to watching another questionable episode of Grey's Anatomy or One Tree Hill.

Yelp: I'm very bad at remembering restaurants, stores, and other places I want to check out. I'm even worse at trying to figure out where these places are. Almost four years into my Boston experience, I still get really lost here. However, the Yelp app makes things a little easier. Besides being able to bookmark places of interest and refer to them on my phone, the app also has the option that connects to my iPhone maps, which can make finding these places much easier.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Guilty Pleasures: Love Songs

As always, I am several days late and many dollars short with this post, which I wanted to do before Valentine's day. However, I won't let a little thing like lateness and poor timing stop me. In belated honor of Valentine's day, I wanted to write about some of the love songs I like (but only in secret). Yes, these songs are cheesy and, in some cases, badly performed and poorly written. Nevertheless, there is something about them that is so addicting that I will listen to them over and over again.

"Far Away" by Nickelback
Nickelback seems to be the requisite punchline for music and pop culture at the moment (a pickle has more fans on Facebook than the band does). I have a strong aversion to most of their songs, with "Photograph" being perhaps the stupidest song I have ever heard. However, the over-the-top angst makes this power ballad wannabe a very satisfying song (just ignore the music video, which features a stupid plot and really bad acting by everyone involved).

"You and Me" by Lifehouse
I have a serious Lifehouse addiction, and I know that I should get help. However, I've decided that nothing can stop my love of this song. It is cheesetastic, in a junior high dance sort of way, but that is part of its charm. Trust me, if being featured on Smallville can't convince me that this song is awful, then nothing will.

"Accidentally in Love" by Counting Crows
Unlike the other songs on this list, at least this one is cheery. Unfortunately, the infectious quality of this song is what makes it so damn annoying. Counting Crows, a band that isn't exactly known for being uplifting, apparently decided to go all out with this song to make up for their other, more depressing fare. If you hear this song once, it will haunt you for days. And don't get me started on the uber-creepy video, which features a CGI rabbit. Now, if you will excuse me, I must listen to this song at least five more times tonight before I can get it out of my head long enough to fall asleep.

"Love Story" by Taylor Swift
This may be the most embarrassing song that I like. Even when you stop to consider that much of my musical library is made up of 80s songs and original cast recordings, this is easily the nadir in terms of my musical tastes. In addition to Taylor Swift's questionable vocal chops (let's face it - Auto-Tune was made for voices like hers), there is also the little matter of The Scarlet Letter. For reasons unknown to me (and most English majors), Swift dropkicks The Scarlet Letter into the song. What does she even mean when she says, "You were Romeo, I was the scarlet letter"? How does this begin to make sense? I've spent many a night thinking about this before I go to sleep. I even googled the song lyric to see if other people can make a convincing argument that makes sense (I didn't find any of these answers convincing).

Despite the fact that I chide myself over the fact that this is the most played song on my iPod (no, I am not exaggerating), I can't help but listen to it and even sing along once in a while. Even more damning: I had to decide whether I wanted to include this song or "You Belong with Me," another trite but catchy number from Ms. Swift.

Please feel free to talk about your own cheesy song choices in the comments section!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Love Songs: A Musical Disconnect

Some love songs are incredibly sad, and there isn't anything wrong with that. We've all been through a bad patch where all we want to do is eat ice cream and crank up some emo music. Some songs, like "End of the Innocence," have a wonderfully evocative melody to go along with the rather melancholy lyrics.

However, what happens when the music is very peppy but the song lyrics indicate that the singer is just a drink or a "Dear John" letter away from sticking his or her head in the oven? First, the listeners are tricked into getting the music stuck in their heads, which causes them to listen to the songs over and over and over again. These people might even start dancing around to the songs, not realizing the sad, troubled relationships hidden behind the bouncy tunes. This leads us to discussing the strange musical disconnect between depressing lyrics and music that could easily be piped out of an ice cream truck. This disconnect becomes even stranger when you realize that the song in question is (supposedly) a love song.

Consequently, if you are looking for a passive-aggressive way of telling someone that "Things just aren't working out," try dedicating one of these songs to him or her.

Before I list some of the more incongruous pairings of depressing lyrics/ happy music, a quick disclaimer: I really like some of these songs. "Getting Better" and "Let My Love Open the Door" are on permanent repeat on my iPod. However, even I must admit that these songs can be a real downer if you start paying attention to the lyrics.

"Alone Again, Naturally" by Gilbert O'Sullivan - You are probably thinking, "There is NO WAY that the music to this song is happy. It's called 'Alone Again, Natually' for heaven's sakes!" In response, I must admit that I had the same reaction. When I first read about the song in I Hate Myself and Want to Die, I could not believe that a song that was so blatantly depressing could have a happy melody. However, I was wrong.

Not only does the music make you want to bop your head and shuffle around in a rhythm-free way, it almost (almost) obscures the singer's tale of woe. The song starts with the singer threatening to throw himself off of a tower because he was left at the altar. The song is all downhill from there. He believes that God has abandoned him. Then his parents die, leaving him "alone again, naturally." To quote Neil Patrick Harris from his awesome Rifftrax for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: "Not an atom of hope left."

"Punch and Judy" by The Cascades - Most of The Cascades' songs are about broken relationships, but the music is straight out of the bubblegum pop songbook. While all of their songs are depressing, "Punch and Judy" deserves a special mention because, when you get past the tune, you realize that the singer is stuck in a verbally (and possibly physically) abusive relationship. To get the full effect, check out the videoke version on YouTube.

"Let My Love Open the Door" by Pete Townshend - First, this is an awesome song. No question about it. And it is one of my top 10 songs of all time. That said, the original, fast-tempo version sounds very upbeat, but the lyrics tell us a very different story. It is basically about a man trying to convince the object of his affection to give him a chance. This isn't a bad story by any means, but it doesn't quite fit with the upbeat music. Perhaps that is why I have a very strong preference for the slower version of the song.

"Getting Better" by The Beatles - "Getting Better" makes an interesting contrast between the band's "I Want to Hold Your Hand" days and their deeper, more cynical songs. On one hand, the music is just as upbeat (if somewhat rougher) as their early songs. However, instead of lyrics like "She loves you (yeah yeah yeah)," they are singing about a guy who, quite frankly, sounds like a jerk. Yes, he is trying to reform, but it is a little disturbing to hear the "angry young man" sing about how he used to beat up his girlfriend. (Why are there so many seemingly happy songs about abusive relationships? Is this part of an obscure 12-step program?)

Friday, February 5, 2010

I Need a Snow Day, Stat!

Even as the mid-Atlantic coast is getting pummeled by Old Man Winter (I'm sure people in Washington, D.C. are cursing Puxatony Phil even as I type this), I am a little envious. While snow can make life much more difficult, there is something rather soothing about snow if you are sitting in a warm apartment and not stranded on the side of the road or inching along the interstate. Even if the snow day didn't come on a school day and cancel classes at the university, it would give me a good excuse to sit at home and relax for a bit. Oh well, I should count my blessings that Boston hasn't gotten hit by a snow storm recently...