Reporter’s Notebook: A Dozen Digital Media Discoveries

4/15/11Follow @wroush

Every day, I come across loads of interesting material that I’d love to blog about but can’t because I don’t have the time or the right venue. I usually just stick this stuff into Evernote and tell myself I’ll write about it later.

Well, it’s later. In today’s column I want to round up a dozen or so fun articles, websites, and apps, and other stuff you may not have come across before. There’s no particular theme here, beyond the fact that I said to myself “Cool!” or “That’s so perceptive!” to myself when I first stumbled across these items. Enjoy.

1. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP

This is a remarkable iPad and iPhone game from a small game development house in Toronto. Actually, it’s a little misleading to call it a game. It’s more of a musical-mythopoetic adventure, with graphics that are deliberately low-tech (they’re in 8-bit style) but ravishing nonetheless, and an amazing electronic soundtrack by Jim Guthrie. I can’t say I understand the storyline—something about a megatome, psionics, and trigons—but it doesn’t matter. The point is to immerse yourself in the game’s enchanting environment.

2. The Toronto Standard

There must be some kind of radioactive entrepreneurial-design pixie dust in the air in Toronto these days. Another company there, Playground Digital, just helped rebuild The Toronto Standard, a short-lived Toronto newspaper (1848-1850) that now provides a “daily digital briefing on the life of the city.” It’s not the briefings that impress me so much as the packaging.  Playground has reinvented the way Web content flows into the browser page; they call it a “liquid layout.” When you resize your browser window, the images and the columns resize themselves, always adopting the most elegant layout for the available screen width. And if you go to the site on a smartphone or tablet, prepare to have your mind blown—the whole site intelligently reflows when you switch from landscape to portrait orientation (and this in the Safari browser, not in a native app). The whole Web should work this way.

3. Give Me Something To Read

This site, together with Longform.org and Longreads, satiates my periodic need for a long piece of narrative journalism that I can really sink my canines into. It’s a curated list of interesting articles being saved to Instapaper, the mobile-friendly app where you can store and read stripped-down versions of Web content. Among today’s selections: “The Grand Tour,” a New Yorker article about Chinese tourists in Europe, and “A Political Meltdown,” a Walrus Magazine piece about Canada’s role in a shortage of medical isotopes.

4. The End of Content Ownership

Lance Ulanoff at PC Magazine is a consistently perceptive technology writer with a broad range of interests. This Ulanoff piece, from just this week, is a great example—it argues that much sooner than we think, we’re all going to stop storing our purchased digital content locally (whether they’re on our hard drives, like songs from iTunes, or on other physical media like books, CDs, or paper) and get almost everything from the cloud. Even books will be streamed from the cloud, page by page, Ulanoff persuasively argues.

5. Bing for iPad

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the slickest mobile app I’ve seen in weeks is from Microsoft. It’s the new Bing app for the iPad. Like Bing on the Web, it hits you first with a stunning full-screen image, then lets you dive into beautifully designed, smoothly functional sections on weather, news, maps, movies, images, videos, and shopping. There’s also an intriguing “trends” screen showing the content people have been consuming most. And search results are presented in a tiled grid with a handsome mix of images and text. The app behaves as if it were designed by the same team behind the  graphically snazzy Windows Phone 7 interface.

6. Google Art Project

Born as a “20 percent time” project by Google engineer Amit Sood, this is a collection of more than 1,000 high-resolution photographs of great works of art from 17 leading art museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. It’s a terrible thing to say, but the zooming interface lets you inspect these paintings in such fine detail that it’s almost better than standing in front of the real artifacts.

7. The Mars Curiosity Rover

Did you know that NASA is planning to follow up on the incredible success of the Mars Sojourner, Spirit, and Opportunity rover missions by sending a big brother called Curiosity? I didn’t, until I came across this slide show at CNET. The new 2.8-meter-long robotic vehicle is huge (nearly as big as the Lunar Rover, which carried two humans) and studded with the latest cameras and sensors.It will be launched to Mars on November 25, with a primary mission of determining whether the Red Planet ever supported microbial life.

8. Why Photoshop for the iPad Marks the End of the Desktop Computing Era

In this article Jesus Diaz at Gizmodo takes a close look at a preview version of the Photoshop app that Adobe is developing for the iPad. This isn’t a dumbed-down version of the powerful image manipulation package—it’s the real thing, and Diaz says the software looks like it’s going to work even better than the PC version, thanks to the iPad’s touch-based interface, which forces mobile developers to rethink things. “Why [would] normal people prefer tablets over full, powerful computers?” Diaz asks. “Why should we change when what we have now works just fine? The problem is that it doesn’t work just fine. Ask anyone who is not a nerd or a computer hobbyist and they will tell you that they hate them with the same passion they love their iPhones and iPads. The answer is in the complexity of the computer vs. the simplicity of the touch interface.”

9. Don’t Follow Your Passion

This essay by independent software developer and author Amy Hoy is a refreshing antidote to the heroic narrative running through so much of the writing about entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship. If you try to turn the activity you’re passionate about into a business, Hoy warns, there’s a high chance you’ll end up hating it. She calls it the “Poop Factor”: “Most of what goes into running a real business is very different from what you fantasize about.” Don’t go out and open a cute little café because you like coffeehouse culture or you want to discover the next Voltaire or Sartre—do it because you enjoy the nuts and bolts of running a restaurant.

10. Cooking for Geeks

This O’Reilly Media title by Jeff Potter, which is available in both print and e-book form, is a fantastic hybrid of an actual cookbook, a manual on the physics and chemistry of food preparation, and a meditation on the similarities between cooking and software engineering. It’s the first cookbook I’ve actually wanted to read linearly, from cover to cover. Thanks to Potter, I now understand the difference between baking soda and baking powder, and why you put baking soda into the mix for buttermilk pancakes, but not for regular pancakes. (Maybe you learned that in home economics class, but I was clueless).

11. Inside the DNA of the Facebook Mafia

Reading TechCrunch is usually a nasty chore—I do it because I have to see what the competition is up to. But every once in a while, TC rises above the snark and gossip and publishes something useful. Sarah Lacy’s February article tracing the cultures of Silicon Valley startups like Quora, Cloudera, Path, Jumo, and Asana back to their founders’ experiences at Facebook was such a case. If you barrel past the thrice-mixed metaphors in the headline, you’ll find a piece that helps make sense of such seeming mysteries as why Path CEO Dave Morin turned down Google’s $120 million purchase offer, or why it’s far easier to answer a question on Quora than to ask one.

12. The Atavist

The Atavist is a boutique publishing venture in Brooklyn. As this profile in Fast Company explains, freelance journalist Evan Ratliff, Wired editor Nick Thompson, and designer Jeff Rabb are trying to create a new sort of platform for long-form storytelling. You can get the text versions of their articles in the form of Kindle Singles, but they’re best consumed via the company’s iPad or iPhone apps, which add in multimedia items such as videos, photos, maps, an interactive timeline, and optional audio narration. Right now I’m reading “Lifted,” a Tom Clancy-esque story about a brazen 2009 robbery at a cash distribution facility in Sweden. I’ll be honest—the piece feels more like an art project than an offering in a serious periodical, so I’m skeptical about whether The Atavist can survive as a business. But in the meantime, it’s a really fun experiment.

13. Da Vinci HD

Today (April 15, 2011) is the 559th birthday of Leonardo da Vinci. I suggest celebrating by buying yourself a $0.99 app for the iPad or iPhone called Da Vinci HD, from a prolific but mysterious iPhone/iPad developer called Overdamped. The app includes more than 150 high-resolution images of da Vinci paintings, sketches, and studies. While most of these images are available on the Web, it’s nice to have them all in one place on a touchscreen, and heck, you can’t go wrong for 99 cents. (Plus, the images make great iPad wallpapers.) Overdamped has put out several dozen similar apps covering artists from Botticelli to Cezanne.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • JWilly48519

    So, which was this one…”cool”, or “perceptive”?

    > “Why should we change when what we have now works just fine? The problem is that it doesn’t work just fine. Ask anyone who is not a nerd or a computer hobbyist and they will tell you that they hate them with the same passion they love their iPhones and iPads. The answer is in the complexity of the computer vs. the simplicity of the touch interface.” <

    The sociopathology here is amusing…the writer categorizes himself and those like him as Normal, and relegates those not like him to Abnormal groups toward which his scorn is obvious.

    We're not all alike, we don't all perform the same tasks, and–to borrow an expression–vive la difference. It's great to celebrate improvements to tools and toys that are especially suited for particular tasks or user groups. It's not so great to show such disdain for those who don't need those improvements because they mostly perform text-oriented tasks, and/or don't regard the current paradigm as complex…particularly when the disdain is applied to what market studies show to be the majority.

    In my view, this piece was unperceptive, and definitely not cool.

  • http://dlw@alum.mit.edu Daniel L Weinreb

    I do not interpret Wade’s comments at all the way JWilly48519 does. I am in the “nerd or computer hobbyist” category (a professional software developer), and even I feel the way Wade says. He’s not being condescending; in fact, it’s exactly the opposite. It’s not the users who are at fault; it is the computer industry, which has made so much software that is unreliable and confusing to use.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    I just want to clarify that the quote JWilly48519 is reacting to is from Jesus Diaz, writing at Gizmodo, not from me. That said, I agree with Jesus that for certain tasks — such as digital drawing and video editing — a touchscreen interface is a huge help, and can quickly come to feel more natural than a point-and-click interface. Maybe Jesus went a bit over the top in his enthusiasm. But I don’t think anyone is arguing that people who mostly perform text-oriented tasks should be forced to give up their desktop or laptop PCs for tablets.