I’m pretty much a technoskeptic. Not despite the fact that I make my living by doing computational things, but because I make my living doing computational things, I never expect anything digital to really work. Wanna read about why 166 start-ups failed? Click here. How about 21 heavily hyped technology projects that flopped? Click here. The Fleischmann-Pons cold fusion failure? Here is the Wikipedia write-up about how it ended. You get the point.
Smartphones, though: there’s an idea that was clearly going to make it. Certainly some brands, operating systems, and platforms have not survived. However, the basic idea of having a combined multi-platform communication device—voice, SMS, and email, with things like FaceTime widely available now—with a search engine interface, a music/video player, a camera, and the ability to run apps, is an idea whose time has come. About 334 million smartphones were sold in the first quarter of this year (I’m writing in 2016), with smartphones accounting for 78% of all mobile phone sales. I’ve seen poor kids in Mexico walking around with cell phones that they didn’t have service for, but that worked great as very inexpensive mp3 players. On my most recent visit to Guatemala, I saw plenty of teenagers in very traditional Mayan clothing with cell phone screens gleaming in their hands as they sat on the curbsides in the evening dark in Antigua, hoping for a few final sales of tourist trinkets. (You can read Rudy Girón’s article about Mayan use of smartphones here.) For a refugee, a smartphone is essential–you can use them to get maps; to share information about routes to wherever you’re trying to go, about border crossings to avoid or to seek, about sources of food and shelter; to let your family know that you’re still alive.
For me, cell phone service–getting it, keeping it, figuring out how to use it–has been a recurrent theme in my adventures in France. Looking back over the course of the past two years, I see that I’ve written posts on the language of cell phone service, the drole experience of dealing with an over-worked employee at a cheap telecommunications company, and precisely how much shit you’re in if something happens to the credit card that you pay your bill with–and that’s just the stuff that I had the energy to write about.
The thing is: with the amount of time that I spend on the road, my smartphone has become more or less indispensable to the smooth operation of my life, as well as to the maintenance of my sanity. Most of those essential functions come from the apps on my phone. Here are some apps that I’ve found especially useful for travelling. Suggestions welcome! (I’ve been able to put a link to a page where you can get both the iPhone and the Android versions for most of these–if I couldn’t, I put a link to the iPhone version.)
Pocket: this is the most recent thing that I don’t know how I ever lived without. What it does: it saves web pages and other assorted documents so that you can read them off line. If you looked at mine, you’d see long stories that I didn’t have the time to read when I first saw them, but that are great for reading on a plane or on the train ride to work; Wikipedia pages about cities that I’ve been to but didn’t have the energy to buy a guide book for; a bunch of sources for an editorial that I’m writing; and a bunch of Spanish vocabulary related to hand surgery. I use this app several times a day, every day.
A podcast player: I used to subscribe to satellite radio so that I could listen to French-language radio stations in my car. Now: forget it. I start my mornings by downloading the podcast of a French news show that I like, and that gives me an hour of listening practice every day while driving back and forth from work when I’m in the US. I listen to podcasts to get to sleep on planes, to learn French, and just to amuse myself when I don’t have the focus to pick up a book. Be sure to download enough stuff before getting on a plane, leaving your home for that long train ride to work, or whatever. I actually use the podcast app that comes standard with the iPhone, but I hear that there are really good alternatives out there.
WordReference: this app is a great interface to the best-known English/French/Spanish on-line dictionary site. Unfortunately, you have to be on line to use it–if there’s an off-line mode, I don’t know about it. One curiosity: I discovered one day that it doesn’t like it when you look up obscenities. Apparently there’s some kind of licensing issue or something, and if you try to look up the f-word on it, it will refer you to the actual web site.
Google news: I must open this app 20+ times a day, regardless of where I am in the world. (Minus China, I guess–Google is entirely blocked there.) It’s a great way to get news on a personalized set of topics, and you can set it to not download pictures in your news feed, which lets it get by with less bandwidth.
Packing Pro: this app for managing packing lists is so good that I gave it to my beloved sister-in-law, who is one of the very few people I know who is on the road more than I am. I think it cost $3.99 or something, and I’ve been using it for years. I actually throw in an extra little donation every now and then, just to keep the guy working on it–it’s that good.
United: whatever airline you fly on, they probably have an app that will let you stay on top of what gate your next flight is at, monitor the status of the incoming flight, fiddle with your seating assignment, and stuff like that. I was once in a plane that was landing quite late. Tons of us had connections that we were going to have to run to, and nobody knew which gates they were at. One of the stewardesses suggested that we all download the United app while we taxied to the gate, and it saved my butt that day, and many times since.
Yelp: in theory, the Yelp app is for finding restaurants wherever you happen to be. In fact, you would be amazed at the range of things that you can find with it–in one of those very meta moments in life, I used it to find an excellent place to get my cell phone screen fixed in Paris. (Allo iPhone, at 15 rue de Senlis in the 17th arrondissement–I fully recommend them.) Yelp has been available everyplace I’ve been lately but a little town on the Slovenian coast.
The Free Dictionary: a not-bad dictionary, especially for English-English, and you can use it even when you’re off-line. (I guess I coulda said English monolingual. Coulda is explained below in the language notes.) Be sure that you download whichever dictionaries you want to have available before you get on the plane.
NPR One: If you go to NPR for your English-language news, this app is a real boon. It tries to figure out what kinds of stories you like, and then plays them for you, one after the other after the other. (Yes, that’s how you say it.) It’ll mix Morning Edition and All Things Considered stories, podcasts, and whatever else it has available.
French vocabulary of the day:
gagner sa croûte: I think this is a casual way of saying “to make/earn one’s living.” Gagner sa vie and gagner de quoi vivre are other options.
télécharger: to download.
une appli: app. Une appli géniale is allegedly a “killer app,” but I’ve never heard this used. Of course, that means nothing.
English notes of the day:
coulda: Casual form of writing could’ve, which is the contraction of could have. You can say this in most contexts, and you can write it in very casual communications, but don’t write it in anything remotely official or work-related—it’s too casual.