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19 Things You Can Replace with an iPhone

(originally written for the Green Loves Gold blog)

The iPhone is the Swiss Army Knife of smart phones, able to tackle a wide variety of tasks that are generally divvied out to many separate devices. Consider investing in an iPhone (or similar gadget), as consolidating these products into one small phone significantly reduces an individual’s carbon footprint and allows for a quick simplification of one’s life.

Camera

Though it won’t win any awards for its 1.3 megapixel processor, the iPhone’s camera actually takes nicely saturated and surprisingly high-quality photos for a mobile phone camera. The iPhone’s camera really shines, though, when used in conjunction with note-taking apps like Evernote, GPS-tracking apps like Earthscape, and the handy, built-in ability to snap a photo and immediately use it as your phone’s wallpaper, email it to a friend, or use it as a contact’s mugshot in your address book.

Clock/Watch

It’s said that timing is everything, which is why the pervasiveness of clocks and watches in the modern world is not surprising. The iPhone’s built-in Clock app fulfills all of an individual’s timing needs with an integrated World Clock, wide array of Alarm options, Stopwatch capabilities, and a general Timer function. One can become even more of a minimalistic time-guru with time-tracking apps like TSheets and time-management apps like iProcrastinate Mobile.

Calendar

The calendar is a beacon of productivity, neatly slicing up the hours and days and months into manageable chunks of productivity. Google Calendar, voted Lifehacker’s best calendar application, stands out among the thronging masses of digital date boxes, with its effortless integration with email, directions, Google searches and every other calendar application out there. It’s no surprise, then, that Google Calendar has an elegant and simple iPhone version that one can access via http://calendar.google.com.

Landline

No doubt about it, these are the days of the mobile phone. In the United States today, one can generally gauge the relative age of someone by whether or not they still have a landline (though more and more even Baby Boomers are catching on and ditching the wired lifestyle). The iPhone is, among other things, a superb phone, especially since the 3G upgrade (which fixed many technical issues the original model had with its antenna). When in used conjunction with the forthcoming Google Voice and VoIP services like Skype, the iPhone becomes even more versatile and cheap than the most impressive networked-office-phone setup.

Boombox/iPod

There are some who would say Apple shot themselves in the foot by making the iPhone the best available iPod in addition to everything else it does because they are cannibalizing their own iPod sales as a tradeoff. Regardless of the economic ramifications for Steve Jobs, however, the basic iPod functionality of of the iPhone is impressive, allowing a user to bring a sizable music library with them anywhere they go, with super-intuitive navigation to boot.

DVD Player

The iPhone’s screen is jam-packed with pixels (480 by 320 with a resolution of 163 pixels per inch, and though this isn’t the highest in the portable media device field, most analysts agree that the iPhone makes far better use of the pixels it has by achieving accurate color reproduction and high quality black levels in its screen). This in mind, the iPhone makes a great replacement for that portable DVD player you take with you on the plane or for that daily subway-jaunt to the office. Further, by connecting the iPhone to your TV with a Composite AV Cable, suddenly all of your movies, slideshows and music become available for the whole room to share. If you don’t have any movies downloaded or ripped to your phone, there’s a quick and easy link to YouTube right on the iPhone dock, waiting to help you make your lunch break a little less tedious.

Address Book/Rolodex

The iPhone’s Contacts section is second-to-none, allowing a user to input scads of information about their contacts, from phone numbers and address to URLs, notes and photos. Additionally, Contacts syncs up easily with OS X’s Address Book software, Yahoo! and Google’s address book, and Outlook/Entourage saved Contact lists. One step closer to a paper-free office.

Weather Radio

In addition to its built-in Weather app, the iPhone app store boasts an impressive 25 specialized weather programs so that no matter where you are, you’ve got the latest information on that massive storm that’s about to come inland (or which days are best for that beachside picnic).

Calculator

There aren’t many people who carry calculators around with them on a regular basis (though props to those of you with the stamina), but for those who are looking to remove one less piece of electronics from their lives, the iPhone’s Calculator app fulfills that need and more. When upright, you’ve got your basic K-high school calculator. Turn it on its side, however, and suddenly you’ve got a super-detailed scientific calculator, ready and willing to fling functions and crunch cosines without breaking a sweat. Highly-ranked Grafly is available for those who want to build complex, 3D graph of arbitrary equations; there’s even a handy(?) Spacetime Converter app for those that want to take the theory of mathematics in a different direction.

GPS

There was a time when finding directions meant looking at a map or asking a friendly soul at a small gas station exactly which turn to make. Those days are past. Cast the maps aside and throw away the GPS in your car (that you’re paying a monthly fee for) and instead start using the Maps app on the iPhone. This program has Google Maps built in, so you can easily search for a location, bring it up on the map and produce step-by-step directions to your ending destination. What’s more, if you don’t know where you are, finding your exact location is as easy as tapping a button, which will show your location on the map; another tap will show you how to get to anywhere else in the world. As an added bonus, Google Earth is integrated into the Maps app, so if you’re curious as to what the top of the building you just drove by looks like, you’re in luck.

Notebook/Sticky-notes

Though it contains a built-in Notepad app, the Evernote program for the iPhone has to be one of the singularly most useful things ever coded. You can jot down notes, record voice messages, shoot a photo and tag it for later and automatically sync it up with your (free) account online, making those notes available to you anywhere in the world, regardless of how you access the Internet. It works the opposite way too: download the Evernote program for your computer (also free) or add the Evernote button to your Firefox toolbar and anything you snag while surfing will be ready and waiting in your eager hands to be called upon at will. No more notes on paper, no more waste.

Banking

A popular paper-conservation tip: switch to paper-free banking and receive your bank notices via email, saving lots of trees in the process. A popular iPhone banking tip: if you are with Bank of America, download the free BofA Mobile Banking app. This piece of software allows you to do all your banking online, on your phone, anywhere, anytime. What could be more convenient? Well, maybe if more banks were doing the same!

Portable Flash Drive

Making use of apps like Air Sharing and iPhoneDrive, your iPhone becomes a larger-than-usual thumb drive, allowing you to carry around your work files, that script you’ve been working on in your free time, the secret documents from your OTHER work, and anything else you want to keep handy. Thumb drives aren’t very big, but having one built into your phone is one less thing to carry, further simplifying your lifestyle.

Tools

How many quarts in an ounce? Does a millimeter measure volume? Is that level? Where’s the lightswitch? Answer these questions and more with a combination of apps available for the iPhone, including Converter, Flashlight, RulerPhone and BubbleLevel. It’s like a toolkit in your phone (though I wouldn’t recommend trying to use it as a hammer).

Remote Control

The iPhone can be used as a universal remote control for almost any piece of modern electronic equipment. Open source projects like ngRC allow you to use your iPhone to control your Microsoft Windows XP or Vista Media Centers. The Intelliremote client for the iPhone also allows you to control Windows machines, though it works with a wider array of programs, like Winamp, iTunes and VLC. For the Mac purists out there, the standard Remote application released by Apple grants your iPhone control over iTunes on any computer on the same network. Great for parties. Freaky to the Amish.

XM Radio

Step aside XM, there’s a new (music) sheriff in town. Its name is iPhone, and it has dozens of music-listening options, ranging from Last.FM to Pandora and FlyCast, all which use different techniques to recommend music based on your particular taste. Oh and it’s free. It’s all free.

Kindle/E-book Reader

The iPhone has a smaller screen than e-book-specific hardware like the Kindle, but it also has some well-designed apps that make the reading experience just as enjoyable. The humble Stanza allows users to elegantly organize their e-book collection, and even to upload their own e-books in PDF form. Fictionwise, Inc’s eReader has less functionality, but a shorter learning curve as well, making it a good choice for your grandmother or near-sighted uncle to use on their iPhones.

Magazines

Cancel your magazine subscriptions! Save that paper for napkins, because with an iPhone in hand, you have access to the Zinio Mobile Newsstand, which proudly displays its top-selling titles in their entirety free for iPhone users. Texterity is also participating in the free periodical push, making over 50 consumer and business magazines available for iPhone users through their interface.

Newspapers

Reading the New York Times on an iPhone is a snap with the NYTimes app. Streaming the most up-to-date news is just a button-tap away. Check out the Australian News and Russian News apps as well, for a taste of what they’re reading overseas. Ever without apps, more and more local newspapers are optimizing their websites for iPhone viewing. Those who don’t are generally still legible, too, so the Backwoods Technology Hater Gazette might even be available for online consumption with the iPhone.

What gadgets do you use to replace a handful of other gadgets? Let me know below!

Update: April 22, 2016

Okay, so this is great. It looks like the iPhone that I owned at this time I wrote this post was the iPhone 3G, which, you’ll note, is a bit of a Newton compared to today’s models.

I want to make that clear, because it kind of puts the above post in perspective.

Can we talk about the 1.3 megapixel camera? Or the 480×320 resolution? And that it’s a lovely replacement for your portable DVD player! I’m pretty sure this must have been pre-App Store, as well, based on the number of links to independent develop sites for those apps.

But moving past the geek-worthy time capsule that this post turned out to be, I want to note that this marks a moment that I’ve returned to several times over the years in which I flurried between bigger-picture philosophical musings and highly practical how-to style posts. I ended up refocusing on the former eventually, and I tend to relegate the latter elsewhere, but you’ll see a lot of this, particularly early on, before I knew exactly what I wanted this blog to be.

Blog

How to Effectively Collect Your Thoughts

I am a lister.

There’s no doubt about it. When something needs to be done, I will jot down notes with ferocity, slicing out the unnecessary fat like a ninja-turned-butcher, aligning the elements in a grid or thought-web or doodle-laden spiral with equal intensity. It’s how I get things done: visualizing them so I can knock them off, one by one, feeling a small burst of achievement each time I whip the pen across the paper, as if carving hash marks into a bed post.

But with all my listing, my organizing, my Inbox Zero and GTDing, I still find myself periodically feeling stressed and overwhelmed, as if I am forgetting something important.

I decided that what I really needed was a sure-fire method of clearing my mind and collecting my thoughts. Something that I seldom do is nothing. If you see me during the day, I likely have a reason for walking the direction I’m walking, and if I’m just sitting there, you can bet that I’ve got a phone in my hand and/or a keyboard at my fingertips.

Though productivity is generally seen as a positive trait (as well as somewhat of an occupational hazard when you enjoy what you do for a living, like I do), I’ve found that taking a small amount of time per day to do absolutely nothing helps me to focus, make connections that I would not otherwise have made, remember things that I would otherwise have forgotten, and generally de-stress when I’m feeling overwhelmed.

When I say do nothing, I literally mean ‘nothing.’ No TV in the background. No music to mentally sing along to. Do not doze, do not read, do not play Tetris (though this is something that I usually recommend for small breaks during the day), and do not eat a snack. Just sit comfortably and let your mind wander where it will.

The first week I started doing this, my girlfriend came home from work and I was just sitting on the bed, leaned up against the headboard, staring into space through glazed eyes. She was understandably shocked, being accustomed to my usual whirlwind of movement, but I was completely in the zone, and afterward was able to meet a project deadline that had completely slipped my mind and type out the details of an idea I had just come up with for a side-project I’m involved with.

Make sure to keep this time reasonable, or you won’t keep up with it. The first week I did it for 30 minutes per day, but since then I’ve done it for 20 minutes, as after that amount of time I start to get jittery and my physical environment starts to distract me. Figure out what you optimal time is and stick with it.

The big goal here is to realize that sometimes doing nothing is the most productive activity one can take part in, and that even though modern technology and organizational skills can take you far, sometimes just dropping the intensity and focus for 20 minutes can be a good investment of your time.

Update: April 22, 2016

Here we have the origin story for something I still do and recommend today: my 20 Minutes of Awesome. Just sitting and doing nothing for a period of time each day, which allows my brain to unspool.

Note that at this point I was still GTDing and listing and doing other lifehacker-sounding things. I guess I still Inbox Zero, but a lot of the tricks and gimmicks I used adhered to seem a little superfluous now. I’m not trying to optimize every moment, so I’m more able to just say, “If it’s in my inbox, I haven’t responded to it yet,” and let that be. I seldom make lists, I rarely Pomodoro.

That’s not to say these aren’t valuable things to know about, but I prefer less-branded techniques these days, and instead focus on core principles. I don’t buy things I don’t need. I don’t do work that doesn’t feel good, that doesn’t align with my philosophy. I don’t do business with assholes. I don’t allow clutter to develop, because it gets in the way of how I like to live. Simple things, unnamed, largely, but useful. And far easier to develop on-the-fly, since everything ties back to core principles, rather than NYT-Bestseller-named ‘time optimizers.’

Blog

10 Ways to Become Inspired

Inspiration is a finicky creature; always there when you don’t need it, but as soon as you do it cannot be found.

As someone who’s livelihood depends on being creative and tapping into my inspirational reservoirs very quickly when I need them, I’d like to share with you a few tricks to jump-starting your own creative engine so that you will be able to make greater use of it in the future.

1. Read about knitting

It doesn’t have to be knitting, but reading about a topic that you are completely unfamiliar with can really get the right side of your brain working. You will learn new vocabulary and skills and be introduced to a whole new subculture that you may not have even known existed, all of which helps your brain make new connections that didn’t exist before, rounding out your world view and increasing the chances that you will make some new, valuable, topical connection you can use with whatever it is you are currently doing.

2. Walk backwards in public

The trick here is to put your head in a different space than usual. It’s easy to get caught up in the mundane, hum-drum, habitual existence of every day life. This tends to limit your creativity because you are not taking in as much outside stimulus as you could be. A quick fix for this, especially if you need an idea immediately, is to do something wildly different than you normally would. Or even better, do something wildly different than ANYONE would. Some examples:

  • stand on your desk and look at your office from a different perspective
    try not to speak for the day and come up with other ways to communicate
  • lay down for 10-15 seconds, wherever you happen to be (credit to Tim Ferriss for this one)
  • invent a new handshake and use it with your coworkers
  • walk from your car to your office, your office to lunch, etc. backward (be careful not to trip!)

This method is not for the weak-willed, because you will be doing something strange in public which could be embarrassing. Be tactful, too, and be sure to explain clearly to anyone who asks that you are working on a creativity-building exercise. They may still look at you strangely, but they will likely also be kind of impressed that you take your work so seriously.

3. Snap some photos

For one year, I carried a camera with my absolutely EVERYWHERE I would go. School, work, dates, even the bathroom (though I didn’t take it in the shower…I left it on the sink). The experiment was a really eye-opening experience because when you walk through life with a camera, you are constantly on the lookout for the perfect composition. You are gazing at the familiar through a completely different lens (pun intended), and all of a suddent the boring becomes exciting and the ugly becomes beautiful.

So try carrying a camera around for a few days, and determine that you will photograph anything that strikes your fancy. The best kind of camera to use with an exercise like this is a point-and-shoot model that is compact, fits in your pocket and turns on and off quickly. I highly recommend Canon’s Powershot SD1000, which is what I used during my experiment and still use today (I prefer the model with the black circle, though they also have an all-silver version if that is more your speed).

4. StumbleUpon something new

One of the better free online services out there is StumbleUpon, which will display a random web page with the click of a button. If you create an account with SU, you are able to go through and tell it all about your interests, which it will use to customize content. I suggest that you add a handful of random non-interests in addition to your legitimate ones so as to expose yourself to information outside of your normal realm of expertise.

Once you’re in, click that Stumble! button over and over for some nice, juicy external stimuli. Delicious.

5. Go to the library

I mean the physical library. The one that’s kept in a building, not a server. Something that is unfortunately lacking in our online lifestyle’s is an easy way to be exposed to ideas other than our own. We get our RSS feeds from websites we like, emails from people we know, visit websites that we’ve heard about from one of the latter, and basically keep ourselves in a bubble of non-existential-conflict and mind-candy.

At the library, however, you can walk by shelves upon shelves of unfiltered, semi-organized reading materials (and at most libraries, viewing and listening materials as well) that may or may not be what you’re used to. Eureka! Snag something at random and read the first couple pages. If it doesn’t grip you, move down a few rows and do the same. You’ll find some really great ideas this way that you definitely would not have been exposed to otherwise.

6. Write a haiku

Really, it doesn’t have to be a haiku…just some kind of creative writing. Poetry is a nice first choice, however, because it is a lot more subjective and less girdled by grammatical rules than short fiction or an epic fantasy novel. Write a poem about anything. Write it about your stapler. Or your shoes. Write a poem to your significant other or the weather or an imaginary pet. It doesn’t really matter what you write it about, so long as you are able to really let loose and go crazy with it, rather than overthinking and overplanning. It can rhyme, but it doesn’t have to (though generally it’s a bit more fun to try). Try handwriting it, too, as that seems to get a person more engrossed than typing (and it exercises a possibly-neglected skill set).

7. Call an old friend

Now, I don’t mean call someone who is older than you (though that may be the case in certain circumstances). What I really mean is to call someone up from your past that you haven’t spoken to in a while. Still have your best friend from college’s number? I wonder what she’s up to! Let’s find out! Have a name and number in your phone that you can’t place? Give them a call and relive that random weekend 3 years ago where you met the guy with the whatever at the place. This serves a double-purpose of stirring up nostolgia, as well as helping you get closure, rekindle an old friendship, and/or just being an interesting thing to do. I mean, really, why don’t people do this more often?

8. Play Exquisite Corpse

Exquisite Corpse is a drawing game derivative of an old Surrealist parlor game called Consequences. The rules are simple: one person draws something on a piece of paper, then hands that paper to the other person. That second person then adds to the drawing before handing it back to the original person. Repeat ad infinitum. Fun ensues.

There are a lot of variations on this game; some include time-limits, each person using a different color pencil, etc, but the overall idea is the same and very valuable in boosting your creativity. You yourself are able to create something of your own, but then are forced to adapt and change it based on the actions of an outside influence. It’s a perfect microcosm for life, and you’ll probably end up with something kind of cool/strange looking to hang on your wall.

9. Listen to some new tunes

It is incredibly easy to find new music right now, if you go to the right websites. I myself am constantly shuttling between Last.FM and Pandora, two sites with the same purpose: to create a dynamic radio station for you based on artists you like. They are both remarkly good, though if you keep either one searching for songs related to Amanda Palmer for days at a time (guilty), you’ll likely end up hearing a lot of repeats. The trick is to start with someone whose music you like but don’t listen to all the time, and then when you hear something great from a musician you don’t know, enter their name instead. This creates kind of a constantly growing tree of interconnected musicians for you to choose from.

For example, I started out typing in CSS (Cansei de Ser Sexy) which led me to Santogold which led me to New Young Pony Club which led me to The Sounds and on and on and on. Play it loud and try to get into whatever comes on. Music has been shown to effect mood and a person’s perception of the world. Use this fact to get new insight and ideas!

10. Travel

This tip may not seem as immediate and easy as the others, but you might be surprised by how quickly you can set up a trip, get packed and be out the door. Try this: go to JetBlue, CheapFlights, TravelZoo or whatever discount plane ticket service you prefer and look for their last-minute deals (they all have them, though you may have to click around to find the right section). Find something that’s leaving TODAY, coerce a friend or loved-one to take the trip with you and go. Alternatively, if you have something pressing come up in the near future, schedule the trip for the upcoming weekend.

The trick here is to keep yourself from building up a trip as a monumental occassion that you have to plan months in advance for. Hell, if you aren’t able to fly somewhere because of financial or time constraints, hop in the car and drive a half-hour to someplace you haven’t been. Or ride your bike. Or walk. Whatever you have to do, get yourself into a novel environment posthaste. This will force you to take a look at the world from a different perspective (that of someone who is new to an area, rather than someone for which there are no surprises). It can also be a nice mini-vacation that you can use to clear your head and relax some of your tension, which is never good to have when you’re trying to be inspired.

What do you do to become inspired? Let me know by commenting below!

Update: April 22, 2016

Well holy hell, reading this post was a stiff shot of nostalgia.

I mention StumbleUpon and a camera, both of which are hopelessly outdated. But I laughed out loud at how many links to MySpace are on this page. MySpace! (I know, as I type this, that all of the networks I use today will be just as hilariously outmoded if I revisit this post again in seven years — so thanks in advance for being gentle in mocking present-day me, Colin-from-the-future).

There’s something almost Buzzfeed-ish about this post, the way it’s written. I was clearly trying out a writing style that I felt was bloggish, and as a result a lot of it comes across uncomfortably sugary and offputtingly inviting (maybe I’m just having a visceral reaction to the ‘leave a comment below’ line, which reminds me of how happy I am that comment sections on blogs aren’t really a thing anymore).

I no longer recommend that camera. When I don’t use the camera on my phone, I use this guy. I do still recommend taking a photo a day, though. And really, the other tidbits of advice are still relevant, as well. I goodnaturedly mock myself because this is such an old post and it feels so embryonic compared to how I write today, but looking back at my older posts (and books, for that matter), I’m happy the advice isn’t terrible.

There are, of course, many options for streaming music today. I tend to use Spotify, but I think it’s largely down to personal preference at this point, as they’re all largely the same and provide recommendation algorithms that are quite solid.

Oh, and these days I use other tools for travel, which are listed here.