A Scourge of Starlings …

https://player.vimeo.com/video/62074237

… 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:

https://player.vimeo.com/video/9606636

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

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.

British Library App for iPad

new iPad app launched this week by the British Library that provides access to scanned copies of original versions of 19th century books. This app is free for now with 1,000 titles, but will soon be a paid app offering more than 60,000 titles.

The stand-out feature of the new app is that it offers full scans of original versions. While you can’t search or highlight text, take notes, or get word definitions, you do get to enjoy the real deal: aged paper, author notes in margins, embossed covers, engraved illustrations, and colored plates. I can almost smell it (I admit it, I love the smell of old books). Perusing through ‘Woods and Lakes of Maine,’ I was struck by how much context and texture is missing from straight-text digitized ebooks.

So this is an immersive way to explore old books on a modern device, but I have to admit that I’ve been spoiled by the interactivity of digital books à la Kindle and iBooks. The British Library app is almost like reading a real book, which is a great thing. But the lack of ability to draw on pages,  search text, highlight passages, or define words seems like a missed opportunity to harness the platform.

Since many of these texts have already been digitized, wouldn’t it be fantastic to offer users the ability to switch (or overlay, or display side-by-side) a scanned original page in a book and its corresponding digitized text? Then we could have the best of both worlds. At a minimum, we need a way to take some notes and add multiple bookmarks. That said, this is a great app for the book junkie. It’s free for now.

in iOS | 282 Words