The Hieroglyph Project

Here’s a new project from Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination, inspired by a 2011 call to action from Neil Stephenson. What’s the Center for Science and Imagination, you ask? Bruce Sterling explains it well in a 2012 Wired article.

The goal of the Hieroglyph Project is to rekindle the spirit of mid-20th century “Big Idea” science fiction: the kind of writing that described (and inspired) a future society in which communications satellites, robots, and rocket ships were common technologies. The idea of Hieroglyph, then, is to provide a forum for 21st-century writers and researchers to dream up new big ideas to inspire new generations of engineers and scientists. To give you an idea of the scope and vision we’re talking about here, two initial projects are an insanely tall tower and a plot to send a 3D printer to the moon. Here’s an excerpt from the project’s ‘about‘ page:

What science fiction stories—and the symbols that they engender—can do better than almost anything else is to provide not just an idea for some specific technical innovation, but also to supply a coherent picture of that innovation being integrated into a society, into an economy, and into people’s lives. Often, this is the missing element that scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and entrepreneurs need in order to actually take the first real steps towards realizing some novel idea.

This should be interesting.

LibraryThing Responds to Amazon’s GoodReads Purchase

LibraryThing is poised to gain many new users in the wake of Amazon’s purchase of GoodReads. In the interest of enticing new members, they’re offering free one-year LibraryThing accounts through Sunday. To be clear, LibraryThing has always been free to join. However, there is a ‘pay-what-you-want’ annual fee if you want to add more than 200 books (suggested amounts: $10 a year or $25 for lifetime membership). This weekend’s special offer means that, for a year, you may add as many books as you want. If you don’t pay anything after the year is up, your books won’t be deleted, but you won’t be able to add more. What’s the money for? From the LibraryThing blog:

The money helps pay for the site, and keeps us advertisement-free for members. Also, we believe customers should be customers, with the loyalty and rights of customers, not the thing we sell to our real customers.

You can join the discussion on what the Amazon purchase of GoodReads means for LibraryThing (and ponder broader questions about Amazon’s increasing dominance in the publishing/bookselling world) here


I’m inclined to yawn at the prospect of yet another weather service/app, but Forecast is making me giddy. It’s a new offering from The Dark Sky Company, makers of the eponymous app that I rely upon to get ‘hyperlocal’ weather (i.e. to-the-minute notifications that it’s about to rain over my house).

Like the Dark Sky app, Forecast is smooth, attractive, and a pleasure to use. It differs in that it builds and expands upon Dark Sky in profound ways: it promises seven-day global forecasts; offers historical weather conditions; delivers even slicker fluid animations; and adds multiple layers of weather information. There’s also an API for developers. You have to check it out for yourself.

Forecast demonstrates just how polished and pleasant a web app can be. Add it to your home screen on your iOS device, and you’ll swear it’s a native app that you downloaded from the App Store.

I currently use Dark Sky and Garmin’s My-Cast to get my weather on my iOS devices. On the Mac, I often geek out with WeatherSpark (which offers an amazing depth of information, but is lamentably Flash-based). Forecast may displace all of these services.

A Scourge of Starlings …

… or a ‘murmuration,’ ‘constellation,’ ‘filth,’ ‘vulgarity,’ ‘chattering,’ ‘cloud,’ ‘congregation,’ ‘constellation,’ or ‘clutter’ (I’m not making these up). Whatever you choose to call a flock of starlings, these birds are impressive flockers.

The above video was the scene across the street from our house a few days ago. By starling standards, this was a very modest ‘filth.’ Probably only a thousand or so birds were perched on the trees above our neighbor’s house. The impressive part of it was the deafening noise they made on an otherwise quiet morning.

While starlings may be a scourge to many a birder, they are certainly interesting. Not only are they peculiarly loud, they often swarm together in vast numbers, demonstrating principles of emergent behavior on a grand scale. If you haven’t seen the following videos, you have to watch:

Starlings in North America have an interesting backstory. Here’s the story, sourced from iBird Pro: one hundred of these non-native birds were released in Central Park in 1890 by an industrialist intent on establishing a U.S. home for all birds mentioned in the works of Shakespeare. Now there are 200 million starlings roaming the countryside.

Speaking of. If you enjoy birding and use an iDevice, you owe it to yourself to get iBird Pro. Or Peterson Birds of North America. Or Audubon Birds. I have all three, acquired at different points when they were on sale. They’re all good, each with different strengths. iBird Pro is the most popular and offers a lot of depth, but the UI tends toward the cluttered and confusing; in contrast, Peterson Birds offers a fantastic UI for quickly identifying birds and has outstanding illustrations; Audubon Birds is somewhere in between in terms of UI, but stands out from the pack with a really cool service called eBird, which is an easy way to ‘log’ bird sightings and to see what species have been spotted by citizen birders near your present location. I hesitate to name one of these apps as the ‘best.’ If you enjoy birding, my advice is to wait for app sales and get all of them (I picked up two of these apps for .99 cents).

in iOS | 378 Words

Alan Watts, South Park style

A couple of days ago, Open Culture highlighted some Alan Watts talks that were animated by the creators of South Park back in 2007. That was news to me. What an unexpected pairing. If you enjoy these videos, be sure to see the ‘related content’ links at the end of the Open Culture post.

My exploration of the quirky, entertaining, informative, and often enlightening talks of Alan Watts began about 12 years ago when I started studying Zen Buddhism with his introductory book, ‘The Way of Zen.’ That fairly dry book led me to a raft of Watts audio recordings. Listening to a Watts lecture is a completely different experience. You may not agree with everything that he has to say, but it may lead you to think about the world quite differently. I think the bulk of his talks stand the test of time (although you may notice beat generation lingo and the occasional anecdote that would be considered quite politically incorrect by today’s standards).

If you’re unfamiliar with Watts, YouTube is a good place to start for some free content. Despite what some of the online fan comments convey, it helps to know that Watts didn’t see himself as any kind of a guru. He said he was a mere ‘spiritual entertainer’ with ‘nothing to sell.’ Alas, decades after his death, the Alan Watts collection of audio recordings are now for sale (and they aren’t particularly cheap). Years ago, I subscribed to a free Watts podcast that presented highlights from many of his talks. I checked to see if it still existed today. Apparently it does, but it appears that it has only recently been relaunched or refreshed. There is only one available episode which was published just a few days ago.

I was surprised to see that the people behind the podcast and the audio collections (the primary being Mark Watts, son of Alan Watts) also offer an iOS app which, while also pricey, does include 21 hours of lectures. I admit that I’ve added this app to my ‘maybe someday’ list. I also own a lengthy audiobook that I think is worth the price of admission, given that I’ve listened to parts of it many times. Final note: looks like the nonprofit behind all of this Watts merch, curiously called the ‘Electronic University,’ has big plans for the future. At least we know they aren’t spending it on pizza and beer.

I Won’t Miss Google Reader

I’ve used Google Reader for years, but I won’t miss the service when it shuts down later this year. There are plenty of alternatives (and more on the way). A few of the more intriguing choices are Feedly, Feedbin, Fever, and NewsBlur.

Like many users, I never actually visit my Google Reader page. I rely on third-party services that suck in my Google Reader subscriptions. For the desktop, I use Feedly. For iOS, I use Reeder. Will it matter that I’m no longer using Google Reader on the back-end? Not really. I take solace knowing that I’ll be using fewer Google services. My main concern is that this may be part of a broader trend with Google: trying to funnel us all into Google+ and clamping down on how (and if) third parties can use Google services. I wouldn’t be all that surprised if Google were to lock down Gmail someday soon so that it could only be accessed via Google’s mobile apps or their web-based service. It is an ad-based company, after all.

In any case, of the many alternative news aggregator services, my bet is that Feedly will rise to the top of the pack in terms of popularity. They’re poised to seamlessly transition existing Google Readers (without any required user action). That’s very handy, but it would only go so far if the service was so-so. On that front, I think the Feedly experience is one of the best out there. It looks great, it’s easy to customize to fit different workflows and visual preferences, and they’re aggressively honing the service to make it better.

As an example of this, I’ve just rediscovered Feedly’s mobile apps. I’ve used Feedly on the desktop for quite a while and like how easy it is to view and manage feeds in various ways. While I tried the Feedly iOS apps early on in their history, I wasn’t drawn in. Reeder was still a better experience on iOS. However, I tried the apps again last night. I’m glad I did. These apps have come a long way and I’m fairly convinced that they’ll work for me quite well.

As an aside, I also enjoy news aggregation services like Zite and Prismatic, but I tend to put these sort of services in a different category as they focus on presenting stories based on reader interests. They are fantastic for discovery and casual browsing and are certainly worth a look. Lastly, you may note that I haven’t mentioned Flipboard anywhere in this article. I must be one of the few people out there who just don’t care for it. Nothing personal, Flipboard. I note it here, though, because it’s an alternative highly-regarded reader that is also certainly worth a test drive.