Not Just for Geeks: Magical [iPhone] Technologies

I’ve been writing this blog for a little while now, and haven’t yet given in to The Geek Side.  I can keep it at bay no longer.

iPhone compass

Technology may scare or, what?, even bore some of you. If this describes you, please give this blog post a try anyway. You may never want to take advantage of any of these capabilities, but I invite you to join me in wonder!

I’m tempted to describe how my iPhone has become my indispensable companion but . . . did you hear that?  The folks who wouldn’t describe themselves as “geek” just clicked away from this page, or gave a heavy sigh to muster the fortitude to keep reading, purely out of devotion to me.  Okay, okay.

Keeping my electronic calendar and address book with me at all times?  Having a cell phone?  Reading the latest news from The New York Times in the palm of my hand?  The bedroom aglow as I play solitaire? Access to the bus schedule while on the run?  All are now old hat, and required components in my life.

When I got my iPhone, I became dependent on a number of features that were new and wonderful to me. Like many “smart phones,” my iPhone can access the Internet, so I can browse the web, and read and send email from almost anywhere. Now Internet access whenever, almost wherever, is one of my civil rights.

My childhood home in Lincoln, Nebr.

My iPhone has GPS (global positioning system) technology built-in, so it knows where we are.  If I choose to, I can tell my iPhone to share my location with specific apps (a.k.a. applications).  Allowing software to know where I am, leads to powerful features that boggled my mind a couple of years ago.  I can search a map for an address and explore the area by map or satellite image. Just like a car-based GPS, I can have my iPhone show me how to get from where I am, to another location.  Except the iPhone doesn’t tell me “right turn, ahead.”  For that I need my son in the back seat reading the iPhone’s instructions aloud. I don’t know if my iPhone has freed me to be more geographically adventurous, or if it’s “dumbed me down”: I use the built-in Google maps app all of the time: when I’m a passenger, on my bike, or walking. How did I used to get anywhere?

This GPS technology underlies many apps that I never would have imagined a few years ago. The Starbucks app shows me where the closest store is, based on my current position. An app called “Sit or Squat” tells me where . . .  You get the idea.

Analyzing music

While I might have doubted their utility, in my dreams I might have imagined the sorts of GPS-based apps I’ve seen. In the past couple of months I’ve found apps that are beyond my wildest dreams: apps that blow me away.  I was playing pool with a bunch of people from work.  As one of the oldest there, I was proud to have recognized a song playing.  I crowed this to a friend, and told her what I thought the song was.  She immediately whipped out her iPhone and within a minute confirmed my identification.  WOW!  Apps like this one listen to music (using the same microphone you use to speak into the telephone), quickly compare it to patterns in thousands of audio files in an Internet database, and then report back to you the name of the song, artist, etc.  I can’t believe how accurate they are.  Like others of its kind, MusicID identifies the song, then gives me the option to go directly to iTunes and purchase Van Morrison’s “Moondance.”  Or, I could realize I’ve been overtaken by momentary technology-enabled nostalgia, and move on.

A geek’s job is never done.  In the process of packing for vacation, I ended up reading reviews of iBird Explorer Pro. Given how much I’ve spent on bird books over the years, I figured $30 wasn’t much to pay to see whether this app could replace a printed guide. If iBird was as good as my Peterson’s and other field guides I drag around, it would have to:

  • be organized according to some sort of species arrangement that isn’t intuitive to me (why are geese and ducks first and finches last?),
  • have an index by common name so I can actually find a Puffin without knowing its species grouping,
  • show pictures,
  • explain what it sounds like (“what-cheer cheer cheer,” Cardinal, in Peterson’s), and
  • describe the bird, including what I might mistake it for.

To match Peterson’s and others, iBird would also have a map showing where the bird lives or migrates, so I can double check whether it’s even possible that this entry describes the bird I think I’ve seen.

A buteo on the western plains in winter is not likely to be a Swainson’s Hawk, because their wintering grounds are in Argentina. (Audubon)

iBird Pro does all of this.  It’s a complete field guide in my pocket. In fact, while the drawings aren’t as good as Peterson’s (especially because they’re missing those handy arrows), there are also photos (like Stokes) so you can compare the perfect-world drawing (of a dead bird) with a photograph (still usually better than what you can see with your naked eye at 4 feet).

iBird Explorer

But wait, there’s more!   It plays bird calls and songs!  Of course it does.  The iPhone also functions as an iPod, so this makes perfect sense, but it still left me agog.   I used iBird at Nana’s to successfully identify as a Chipping Sparrow what I’d heard for years: a technology’s potential actually realized.  On top of that, in iBird can narrow down the list of possible birds by state (NY), Habitat (Forest), size (very small), and find out that the rare wren-like bird I’ve spotted in the Adirondacks is a . . . House Wren.

If MusicID can tell me what human song is playing, and iBird can sing me a bird’s song, shouldn’t there be an app that listens to a bird and reports what the bird is? That’s the beauty of technology that “just makes sense” as soon as you’ve used it: it immediately sparks the imagination. And impatience. The iBird web site explains that the complexity and individuality of bird voices, and the simplicity of the iPhone microphone make it impossible to add this functionality to the software. For now.

After I’d recovered from showing iBird Pro to everyone who expressed the slightest interest, I moved on to explore a few new, although by comparison more mundane, iPhone apps. Over Labor Day weekend, I hung out with a fellow geek and ended up downloading: Google Search–say, aloud, what you seek, and the Google results appear; and Now Playing–find a movie showing and directions to the theater, watch the trailer, or check on the schedule for release on DVD.  With my Boston Breakers upcoming season in mind, I downloaded ScoreMobile. Covering a wide variety of sports, ScoreMobile not only reports scores and standings but also provides information about a game in progress. I used it to check who was on base, the number of outs, and other real-time, riveting, World Series stats; it almost made baseball interesting.  The Women’s Professional Soccer league, however, is not among those included by ScoreMobile. I checked with ScoreMobile and then wrote to the WPS, begging that they provide the “feed” (e.g. data in a particular structured order) ScoreMobile needs by season-start next March.

After my lesser iPhone discoveries, the next mind-boggler arrived. I rented a Zipcar to take our son to band while my partner had our car elsewhere.  This urban, short-term rental car company was an excellent alternative to lugging a horn a mile, even though I certainly lugged mine a mile to school, through the snow, up a Nebraskan hill, in the dark.  Zipcar, in and of itself, is a great idea that’s well implemented. It’s geared for people who need to get groceries or run other short, round-trip errands. They’re parked at T stops and other places accessible via public transportation. You don’t have to add gas to the tank unless it’s down to 1/4 or less, and the gas card (as well as the get-out-of-garage-free card) is stuck in the visor, so you don’t have to pay extra for the gas.  The really cool part is that you unlock the car by tapping your plastic membership card onto a pad on the windshield (RFID technology); the keys are waiting for you inside the car.

Zip car iPhone remote

The day before the band trip I made my Zipcar reservation and saw a banner on their web site that said “try our free iPhone app.”  Of course I downloaded it. I immediately opened the app and signed into my account. There was my upcoming reservation, and a map of all the Zipcars near my iPhone’s current location: standard fare for me by now.  However, under “drive,” I saw a picture of a car “whoop whooper,” as we call it in my family.  Very interesting!  It has pictures of a locked padlock, unlocked padlock, and horn: just like the physical object. I waited with bated breath for the next afternoon when I could take the app for a test drive. I approached the car, and pressed the horn button. My iPhone honked, but not the car. I opened the car door the traditional way, by tapping my Zipcard, then I tried the horn button. I waited. HONK said the car. I clicked the locked padlock. I waited. The car doors locked. Woah!

Of course the Zipcar app “only” turns the iPhone into a virtual whoop whooper. The car has no idea the iPhone exists. The iPhone transmits over the Internet to the Zipcar computer system, which transmits back to the car. Another band parent, to whom I was crowing about what I’d just been able to do, told me there was an iPhone app that allows you to not only un/lock but also start your own car, from any distance. Boy did that take the wind out of my sails. I still can’t figure out how a fellow band parent one-upped me, only one day after remote-starter manufacturer Viper announced their brand new iPhone app. Apparently, wasting gas by starting up your car when you’re still blocks away has been possible for a relatively long time; Zipcar was just (barely) the first to create an iPhone app to take advantage of this technology. Nonetheless, especially as someone who owns a merely adequate car, I am still amazed. I can honk the horn of my Zipcar from the band room: whew hoo!

If I find myself bored while waiting for the next technology that will leave me agog, iPhone-based or not, I’ll just take another look at my iPhone’s Compass app. How the heck does that thing work? Even if I have the Internet and the telephone service turned off, the compass still works. My iPhone can’t communicate with GPS satellites. It can’t have a magnet in it because that would destroy the computer innards.

My answer?    It’s magic.

Audubon: National Audubon Society Pocket Guide: North American Birds of Prey
Stokes: Field Guide to Birds, Donald & Lillian Stokes.
Peterson’s: A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies, 4th Edition, Roger Tory Peterson


  1. geek alert – you are lucky I have a soft spot for geeks 😉 Great job – great writing. Really. K

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