Sunday, October 31, 2010

Apps I Travel With: Audubon Guides — A Field Guide to Birds, Mammals, Wildflowers, and Trees

Now, I'm not a birder.  But, Mary Ann is, and on our road trips, we're side by side 24/7 except when she gets out of the car to set up a photo shot or take a nature hike, while I stay with the heater and my word processor.  So for some years, she has studied birds with books and classes and mentors, while I ask "What was that bird?" to the expert beside me.

But still, the interest rubs off on me.  I bought the iBird Explorer Pro bird apps when it came out (actually upgraded from the Plus version) and considered it the standard for more than a year.  The reason I bought the Audubon guide was that it included trees, wildflowers, and mammals as well as birds.  I had been looking for a tree guide for some time, and even blogged about it here.

On this trip, we saw a woodchuck and on impulse, I tried the Audubon guide and quickly found his database entry.  There was a button at the bottom called "Sighting", so I clicked it and after the iPhone located my position, it entered the sighting.  Soon, I was entering all kinds of bird and mammal sightings.  I even used it to identify the "Common Blue Wood Aster" and various trees.  The App offers to sync to the server, using an account I had to set up, and not only does it update the app with new photos, it uploads my sightings to the website.

To be honest, I tried the "Life List" button first, but that's harder to use, so Sightings would have to do for me.

On the website, it can list your sightings in various ways, including a map. I left feedback at the site that I would like a way to export my sightings in some kind of XML format so I could capture sightings from iBird and Audubon and any other tool at hand and combine them.  They replied with the news that they were looking to improve that part of their site, so who knows.

In any case, the sightings added a game-like bonus to the birding part of it, much like signing in at places with foursquare.  The only problem from my perspective was that since I was doing all the driving, I often had to skip adding a sighting of some bird or coyote that I saw because it'd be fatal to try to manipulate the app while driving a curving mountain road in the dark.  Oh, well.  It's not like I'm a real birder or anything.

There was a repeatable crash in the app which I hope they fix soon.  Here's how:
Enter a generic search in the Common Name Search field.  Several species will show up in a list.  Touch one and then from the bird's page, touch the up or down arrow in the upper corner of the screen to go to the next bird on the list.  Boom.  App crash back to the home screen.  It makes it a little harder to compare similar species, but I got used to it.

It was so much fun using the Audubon Guides that I didn't use iBird at all.  Not that I'll get rid of it.  The more guides the better when dealing with a bird I just can't quite identify.  They also make a Android version and the list of field guides increases every time I visit their web site.  I'll probably get more.  After the new wears of of this one.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Apps I Travel With: Maps

Just off a long road trip, I thought I'd mention a few apps that were heavily used.  The first one may not even count as an app since it's built in.

Maps on my iPhone and  3G iPad are no-brainers on trips.  Since I've started carrying an iPhone, the paper maps that used to clutter the dash have generally gone away, except when we travel in low coverage areas, like last year when we crossed Canada and we were very, very careful with our bandwidth usage.  This year, I brought my iPad, and it's a whole new game.  With the greatly increased screen size, you go from just checking your immediate surroundings to scanning the surrounding state to get the big picture of where you are and where you're going.

Now, the biggest problem with the Maps is when you're in the woods and there's no signal to update your maps.  On this last trip it was most notable deep in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park and on the long lonely roads in Upper Peninsula Michigan.  My iPad, with the 3G and GPS is always ready to put the blue dot on the screen, but unless it can get a map update over the air, the dot looks very lonely sitting on a gray grid.  We also had a Mifi, but it was never the case that there was Sprint network where ATT wasn't.

Back on our Canada trip, and before, I had learned a useful trick to get around poor coverage areas.  While sitting in a good coverage area, scroll the map through the area where you're going.  This loads map data into Maps cache, and so even if the only signal you've got is the GPS, it can display the remembered map.  I try to do it at several zoom levels if I'm worried about needing details.

One thing I'd love to see is a Maps preference to increase to the cache to several GB, and maybe an automated way to load the cache with the surroundings for a plotted route.  I doubt Apple would do that, but I'd buy a 3rd party app that provided that function.

It's also worth mentioning that I've bought other map apps, including the NAVIGON US and Canada app that is huge because of the built in street level maps for both countries.  Interestingly, I didn't even fire it up in the whole 6000+ miles of this last trip, because the Maps app is so much easier to use.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fall Roadtrip 2010

Attending the Archon science fiction convention in St. Louis every year has frequently become the starting point for an extended road trip and this year was no different.  Mary Ann was in need of some more fall foliage photos and I had a few places I needed to visit to promote my books, but other than that, we started off with no fixed itinerary.  We also stopped to visit a few friends along the way--mostly Mary Ann's friends because she's the social one.

Archon was primarily to meet people and speak on panels, since I was too late to get a table in the dealers room to sell my books.  It's always fun to attend, particularly because of the hall costumes.  I put on my best friendly-author face, met people, and had fun.

My next point of interest was visiting the area around Oquawka, Illinois, where the Golden Girl time travel novel was set.  I handed out copies to the local libraries and visited the indie bookstore Burlington By The Book, in nearby Burlington, Iowa.

Mary Ann was, of course, taking photos, and she has been well ahead of me blogging about this trip, so be sure to pop over to her blog site to see some of her pictures.

Two stories in the very early stages have significant scenes in the Detroit area, but since I'd never actually been there, I wanted to visit, and in particular, see the St. Clair/Detroit River waterway that connects Lake Huron with Lake Eire. But since we hadn't scouted out the Lake Huron coast either, why not head that way, and since we were in the neighborhood, why not visit the Michigan Upper Peninsula again and revisit our favorite spots, like the Seney National Wildlife Refuge and Munising, where Lighter Than Air was set.  We felt guilty but giddy for fitting in that brief visit.  The Lake Huron coast and the Detroit area were just what I needed to see to fill some plot holes in the new/unnamed works.  We even got to hop over to the Canadian side so Mary Ann could get a good sunset photo of the Detroit skyline from Windsor.

By this time in our trip, I was more concerned with writing down the new plot details and turned the navigation details over to Mary Ann.  She had more places to visit and we headed towards the Atlantic coast, with Cape May, New Jersey as her target spot.  I believe she was well pleased.  We spent several days there while she put in some heavy birding, and I began the process of reading out loud the unpublished novel Bearing Northeast as an editing exercise.  The novel will likely be out this spring.

After leaving Cape May via ferry, we headed south down the coastline, visiting the Outer Banks for the first time.  Birds and lighthouses were her prime focus, but eventually, the approaching deadline to be home was making its presence felt, and we set our bearing towards the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, where she was confident she could get some good fall foliage shots.  From previous trips, we headed for Cherokee, North Carolina, since that was on the quiet side of the park and we knew there were motels right next to the park entrance--essential for her plans to get up before dawn every day and get up in the mountains for sunrise photos.

Arriving at Cherokee was a bit of a shock.  Since our last visit, a casino and a great deal of hotel construction had changed the appearance of the town.  The tribe appeared to be making every effort to pull a lot of that tourist money away from Gatlinburg, Tennessee on the other side of the mountain.  Still, the old motels were still there and we got our spot.

Once Mary Ann had gathered a few hundred GB of high quality photos of mountains, trees, and water falls, it was time to head home.  We passed through Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi too quickly, remembering many previous trips where we took our favorite route along the Natchez Trace Parkway instead of the interstate.  But she had a class to teach on Tuesday, so as I drove, she was building a slide presentation on her laptop, with just a few token visits to wildlife refuges along the way so the days weren't entirely just highway miles.

Monday, we arrived after dark, with 6719.5 miles on the trip meter.  It was hardly a record, but it was enough for Mary Ann to get her photos and hone her birding skills, and for me to recharge my writing batteries with new ideas.  However, I wouldn't be averse to heading out again, any time now.

BTW, my cell phone trip photos are here.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Pubit: We Are Experiencing Technical Difficulties

On the road, it's difficult for me to spend time time resolving problems when a website is having technical difficulties.  Pubit, the publishing site for ebooks for BN.com, is particularly frustrating.  Some of my books are just not being published.  I enter the data, and once I've done that, a cryptic message appears: 
We are experiencing technical difficulties. Please try again later. We apologize for the inconvenience.

That's nice.  Unfortunately it does nothing to help me resolve the issue.  I had hoped to make a bigger announcement when all the titles were uploaded, but I'm not sure when that will happen.  However, some of my titles are there for your Nook and are already selling.

If I resolve the problem, I'll let you know.

UPDATE: 3/20/2011 -- After many months, I still cannot make several of my books available for sale on Pubit.  Some are selling fine, and others get the technical difficulties message documented above.  Someday, it would be nice to get the others available for sale.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Adding books to Pubit

I've been wanting to add BN.com to my list of markets where my ebooks could be purchased for some time. My paper versions were there, but the ePub route eluded me. In my usual fumbling way, I couldn't seem to find the magic gateway.  Well, maybe it was because they were still working on it.  Of course, it had to happen while I'm on the road and behind the wheel most of every day, so I won't be adding them in bulk.  If I'm lucky, I'll do one per day.

The Pubit website is fairly straightforward, about as easy as Amazon and iTunes Connect to manage.  They all need the same information, after all.  You enter the metadata like title, author, ISBN, etc.  You upload the ePub files (which I already have), and the cover art.  You check the mark that says you don't want DRM added, and then confirm that you have the rights to publish it.  That's about it. If I had a good workday at home I could get all of my titles uploaded in a day or so.

Instead, I'm enjoying the fall colors and scenery here in Wisconsin (today),  I'll be heading north as soon as I check out of the motel room, heading for the UP.