On many levels, I'm something of a misanthrope. About 90% of modern culture is of no interest to me whatsoever. I think that People Magazine may well be the scourge of modern humanity, and at a social gathering this weekend, when most everyone was talking about how fabulous it is to live in the city, where there is plenty to do at all times, I quietly thought to myself that I could very easily spend the final years of my life in some mountain hu, honing mystical exercises until the bears eventually find my dying corpse and decide to devour me.
Ah, but the 10% of modern culture that I do like...well, that's the little slice of the pie that leaves me in complete awe of this strange, tortured, quaint, divine and demonic creature we call humankind.
Recently, Apple corporation released the newest software release for the I-phone, and though I didn't bother to upgrade to the fancy 3G phone itself, the software update is enough to convince you that humanity is both the most ridiculous and the most holy of creatures.
For those of you not in the know, several months ago, Apple opened up the source code used to create applications for the I-phone to just about anybody who wanted to tinker, and the result is that upon the official release of the new phone and software, several hundred applications already existed. Many were free; others are available for fees that range from .99 to $49.99. You download them to the phone, and thereafter they are free and clear for use anytime, anywhere.
For a week now, I'm stunned by both the silliness and the incredibly ingenuity of what I've seen. First, some silliness:
• One application requires you to do nothing more than hold down an lighted button on the screen of the I-phone. The game is to see how long you can squeeze the damn thing. It does nothing other than this, whatsoever.
• Another application displays a little miniature light-saber from star-wars. When you sweep the phone through the air, it makes that throbbing electronic laser sound from the movie. Silliness personified.
• There is a "flashlight" application that does nothing but cause the phone face to glow brightly. This is to help you find your keys in the dark, supposedly.
But there are a remarkable number of applications that are stunning both for their inventiveness and their usefulness.
• I am currently reading Thomas Wolfe's classic novel "Look Homeward Angel" in completely comfortable fashion on the I-phone. I downloaded it for .99, and find it a whole lot easier than carrying a 2-pound novel in my backpack on the daily bus ride.
• In an application called "Pandora" (utterly free), you tell the I-phone what kind of music you like (either a single song, or an artist), and it then creates a virtual radio station that selects songs in this genre. I've tested this on walks, plugging the I-phone into my car stereo, and plugging it into a cordless dock which I use to play music when I'm gardening, and the application works like a charm in any circumstance. There are no commercials whatsoever, and the only "hook" to it is that, should you happen to like a song you hear, you're allowed to tap a button on the face of the phone to download it permanently to your system for .99.
• Another application lets you speak a verbal memo into the built-in microphone on the I-phone. The verbal message is instantly whisked off to file server somewhere in cyberspace, and a moment or so later, a written transcription arrives back at your phone in the form of a memo. I generated a grocery shopping list in this fashion over the weekend; dictating it verbally, then using the written list as a guide when walking through the store.
• AOL radio is an application that lets you select from among hundreds of commercial radio stations nationwide. Should you want to listen to the Boston REd Sox baseball game, for example, you can instantly find a Boston station to listen to.
• An application called Box Office instantly produces theaters, showing times, and reviews of all movies playing in your area. And should you happen to not know your zip code, another button instantly pinpoints your GPS location, then spots all movie theaters in a 5 or 10 mile radius. Should you be hankering for, say, a barbecue restaurant, you can also use this feature to find all options, and then plot a turn-by-turn route to your destination.
And finally, my favorite...."Zen" turns your I-phone into a miniature sand-and-stone zen garden. Your finger both places small elegant stones, and serves as the rake to sweep the sand into soothing parallel lines. Should you like what you see, you can click a snapshot and save the image for use as a screen-saver.
Truly, it is the best of times. And the worst of times.