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5 iPhone Apps to Help You Keep Your New Year's Resolutions

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As we welcome another year, many of our readers are making resolutions to improve themselves. We've rounded up five iPhone apps (plus bonus apps, many of them free) to help you keep your New Year's Resolutions. Read on, if you dare....

1. Get In Shape

So you're a couch potato. 2008 was full of so much awesome TV and other passive entertainment that you packed on the pounds and really let your muscle tone go. Abs? What are those? You just have fabs, the squishy, huggable ab substitute. You need to get fit!

Well, iFitness ($1.99) is here to rescue you. The most popular fitness app on the iPhone, iFitness boasts over a hundred illustrated exercises, with visual aids as well as text descriptions; a log for keeping track of reps and weight; and the ability to create workouts that combine exercises. It's actually kind of a neat way to do exercise, reminiscent of Wii Fit -- by adding a layer of nerdily obsessive goal-tracking, you just might make exercise fun!

Other best bets: Lose It! (free), an app for tracking calories; iWorkout Lite (free), a video-based workout app that includes a basic pedometer function; Yoga STRETCH ($1.99), a beautifully designed yoga instruction app, and iMapMyRun (free), a tool to map your run route using GPS.

2. Reduce Your Spending

Credits cards have just one flaw: that pesky bill that comes at the end of the month. When the Global Economic Downturn hit, many of us tightened our belts just a bit. But it can be hard to track whether you're succeeding in cutting spending. Why not nerd out with an awesome free iPhone app that'll track your budget and automatically import your spending habits via online banking features?

Mint (free) is a pretty remarkable app for tracking your spending...until the next bill comes. Unlike other apps (like Quicken, the app I've tried five times to start using, and failed each time because it seemed like too much work), Mint does not require you to input your transactions. Instead, it pulls them from your online banking sites and then displays them in an iPhone-friendly view. You can view budgets, spending at individual merchants (I'm looking at you, Amazon), investments, and even retirement savings. It's really worth a look.

Mint screenshot

Other personal finance apps: Bloomberg Mobile (free) for tracking stocks; Trip Cubby - Mileage Log ($9.99) for tracking mileage for tax deductions; and Bank of America Mobile Banking (free) for BoA customers (...except those in Washington and Idaho, for some reason).

3. Educate Yourself With Awesome Lectures

If you read the mental_floss blog, you've seen me linking to lots of TED Talks over the years. TED stands for Technology, Education, and Design; it's a slightly fancy-pants conference in which smart people give smart talks to a smart audience. But maybe you haven't spent enough time with TED to really enrich your life. Wouldn't it be nice to have TED in your pocket at all times? (Note: statement does not apply to Ted, the pocket-sized hamster who eats your keys.)

TED Talks are available online and as podcasts. But there's another way to get them when you're on the go: the TED App (free). You can watch video or just listen to the audio, search for topics, and even save favorites. There are tons of great TED Talks out there: I recommend searching for Nicholas Negroponte (the visionary behind One Laptop Per Child), a talk about the Bonobo (see an ape build a fire, write, and understand spoken English), and Will Wright (for a great demo of Spore).

TED Screenshot

Other best bets in the educational arena: GRE Word Lite (free), an app with a small set of GRE study words (there's also a paid version with lots more); NPR Mobile (free), an app for tuning into virtually any NPR program segment (!!!); Stars (free), an app that displays constellations; and iSign Lite (free), an app that shows you some basic ASL (American Sign Language).

4. Read a Great Book

Admit it: you haven't been reading as much as you'd like to. You might also cop to never having read the classics...or actually, you just haven't read any books at all. In fact, you're probably not reading this blog right now. So let's get reading!

There are many great book-reading apps for the iPhone. While the iPhone's reading experience isn't as good as either a real book or an Amazon Kindle, it's still surprisingly decent, especially if you're crammed into an airplane, bus, or other unpleasant public transit experience. By combining a book reading application with the built-in iPod playing in the background, you can easily get lost in a book.

The best Book-reading app for the iPhone is Stanza (free). It offers a wide variety of free content, including "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" -- which is also a paid app elsewhere in the iTunes Store, but is in Stanza for free. Many classic works by Poe, Shakespeare, Wilde, Carroll, Wodehouse, and more are available -- so you can get started with free, high-quality books. There are also paid books available, should you desire to read Twilight or Blink on your phone.

Stanza screenshot

More best bets in Books: Classics ($4.99), a beautifully rendered book-reader for a limited set of classic books; The King James Bible (free), just what it says it is; and iPhone: The Missing Manual ($4.99), a surprisingly good reference to the iPhone's functions written by New York Times columnist David Pogue.

5. Eat Better

I'm blessed with an abundance of awesome restaurants in my neighborhood. I've even got a late-night food cart area right around the block -- and we're talking fancy gourmet carts, not crappy ones. But when I'm traveling, I like to find good food, rather than resorting to chains. Here's where Zagat To Go '09 ($9.99) comes in.

The Zagat app offers, of course, restaurant reviews. But it adds restaurant photos, GPS support (to find nearby restaurants), an easy way to make reservations, and "best of" lists in many cities. You can even search and sort by type of food, average cost, or quality of service. While there are several user interface problems (for example, scrolling is slow, and the "email a restaurant" function crashed for me), the core content is useful, and probably worth the ten bucks if you're a foodie.

Zagat To Go screenshot

Other best bets in Food: Restaurant Nutrition (free), an app with nutrition information from many chains; and Weightbot ($0.99), a weight tracking robot.

What Did We Miss?

This roundup only covered a few of the New Year's Resolutions you might have made this year...what did we miss? Suggest more apps (or resolutions) in the comments. We're also curious what apps you use on the Blackberry or Android to achieve similar goals!

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10 Regional Twists on Trick-or-Treating
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Walk around any given American neighborhood on the night of October 31, and you’ll likely hear choruses of "trick-or-treat" chiming through the area. The sing-songy phrase is synonymous with Halloween in some parts of the world, but it's not the only way kids get sweets from their neighbors this time of year. From the Philippines to the American Midwest, here are some regional door-to-door traditions you may not have heard of.

1. PANGANGALULUWA // THE PHILIPPINES

Rice cakes wrapped in leaves.
Suman

The earliest form of trick-or-treating on Halloween can be traced back to Europe in the Middle Ages. Kids would don costumes and go door-to-door offering prayers for dead relatives in exchange for snacks called "soul cakes." When the cake was eaten, tradition held that a soul was ferried from purgatory into heaven. Souling has disappeared from Ireland and the UK, but a version of it lives on halfway across the world in the Philippines. During All Saints Day on November 1, Filipino children taking part in Pangangaluluwa will visit local houses and sing hymns for alms. The songs often relate to souls in purgatory, and carolers will play the part of the souls by asking for prayers. Kids are sometimes given rice cakes called suman, a callback to the soul cakes from centuries past.

2. PÃO-POR-DEUS // PORTUGAL

Raw dough.
iStock

Instead of trick-or-treating, kids in Portugal go door-to-door saying pão-por-deus ("bread for god") in exchange for goodies on All Saints Day. Some homeowners give out money or candy, while others offer actual baked goods.

3. HALLOWEEN APPLES // WESTERN CANADA

Kids trick-or-treating.
iStock

If they're not calling out "trick-or-treat" on their neighbors’ doorsteps on Halloween night, you may hear children in western Canada saying "Halloween apples!" The phrase is left over from a time when apples were a common Halloween treat and giving out loose items on the holiday wasn't considered taboo.

4. ST. MARTIN'S DAY // THE NETHERLANDS

The Dutch wait several days after Halloween to do their own take on trick-or-treating. On the night of November 11, St. Martin's Day, children in the Netherlands take to the streets with their homemade lanterns in hand. These lanterns were traditionally carved from beets or turnips, but today they’re most commonly made from paper. And the kids who partake don’t get away with shouting a few words at each home they visit—they’re expected to sing songs to receive their sugary rewards.

5. A PENNY FOR THE GUY // THE UK

Guy Fawkes Night celebration.

Peter Trimming, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Guy Fawkes Night is seen by some as the English Protestants’ answer to the Catholic holidays associated with Halloween, so it makes sense that it has its own spin on trick-or-treating. November 5 marks the day of Guy Fawkes’s failed assassination attempt on King James as part of the Gunpowder Plot. To celebrate the occasion, children will tour the neighborhood asking for "a penny for the guy." Sometimes they’ll carry pictures of the would-be-assassin which are burned in the bonfires lit later at night.

6. TRICKS FOR TREATS // ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

Kids knocking on a door in costume.
iStock

If kids in the St. Louis area hope to go home with a full bag of candy on Halloween, they must be willing to tickle some funny bones. Saying "tricks-for-treats" followed by a joke replaces the classic trick-or-treat mantra in this Midwestern city. There’s no criteria for the quality or the subject of the joke, but spooky material (What’s a skeleton’s favorite instrument? The trombone!) earns brownie points.

7. ME DA PARA MI CALAVERITA // MEXICO

Sugar skulls with decoration.
iStock

While Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is completely separate from Halloween, the two holidays share a few things in common. Mexicans celebrate the day by dressing up, eating sweet treats, and in some parts of the country, going house-to-house. Children knocking on doors will say "me da para mi calaverita" or "give me money for my little skull," a reference to the decorated sugar skulls sold in markets at this time of year.

8. HALLOWEEN! // QUEBEC, CANADA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
iStock

Trick-or-treaters like to keep things simple in the Canadian province of Quebec. In place of the alliterative exclamation, they shout “Halloween!” at each home they visit. Adults local to the area might remember saying "la charité s’il-vous-plaît "(French for “charity, please”) when going door-to-door on Halloween, but this saying has largely fallen out of fashion.

9. SWEET OR SOUR // GERMANY

Little girl trick-or-treating.
iStock

Halloween is only just beginning to gain popularity in Germany. Where it is celebrated, the holiday looks a lot like it does in America, but Germans have managed to inject some local character into their version of trick-or-treat. In exchange for candy, kids sometimes sing out "süß oder saures"—or "sweet and sour" in English.

10. TRIQUI, TRIQUI HALLOWEEN // COLOMBIA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
Rubí Flórez, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kids in Colombia anticipate dressing up and prowling the streets on Halloween just as much as kids do in the States. There are a few significant variations on the annual tradition: Instead of visiting private residencies, they're more likely to ask for candy from store owners and the security guards of apartment buildings. And instead of saying trick-or-treat, they recite this Spanish rhyme:

Triqui triqui Halloween
Quiero dulces para mí
Si no hay dulces para mí
Se le crece la naríz

In short, it means that if the grownups don't give the kids the candy they're asking for, their noses will grow. Tricky, tricky indeed

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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