22 September 2009

BFD (Best Free Downloads) for iPhone: Text Readers

I've mentioned in previous posts that I'm an old school kinda person. Others may brag about having their old TRS-80 in a box in the garage, but I have my favorite mimeograph in my office. I may not be using it to print newspapers anymore, but it's there. (Don't tell anyone, but I can't write these posts without huffing the processing fluid. Tiiiiiiiiiiight...)

My idea of technology serving man (Don't go with the aliens, Mr. Smeedley. It's a COOK BOOK!) is an application that does something simple, and does it better than the previous technology. Paper money is better than bartering with goats and chickens. Automobiles are better than horses. You haven't experienced air pollution until you've been around horse exhaust.

This is why I'm so infatuated with text readers like Lexcycle Stanza and the Bookz Text Reader. We're talking a serious man crush here. Both are dreamy, but Stanza has some advantages for most people. Either is better than the dopey commercial version: Kindle.

Text readers in general are a mashup of technologies that work together. In this case, Stanza and Bookz are nice little applications that pull text from somewhere and save them to your iPhone/iPod, and allow you to read them at your leisure. But where would they get something worth reading? We look to one of the best results of OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) on the planet. I'm talking about Project Gutenberg.

There are plenty of examples on the internet of good ideas taken to insane lengths. (Come to think of it, how egocentric is it to think that others would want to read my blather? Yet millions of wannabe authors like me are blogging their dreary lives everyday... for you, our beloved, fictitious readers!) Project Gutenberg is the brainchild of Michael Hart, who in 1971 decided that it would be a cool idea to take all of the great literature in the world and convert it to a digital format. The electronic ASCII codes could be passed from person to person via eight inch floppy disks until someone else could come up with the internet. The result: people could enjoy the works of Shakespeare, Twain and Poe for no charge.

Now think about the last time you walked into a public library. What kind of a sick, twisted freak would think "Gee, I bet I could re-type all of these books into my computer"? I know nothing of Mr. Hart, but he had to seriously be a burrito short of a full combo plate, sipping the multi-color Kool-aid, whack-a-ding-hoy.

But, like many things in life, his sickness was our gain. Someone really has transcribed all of the best Public Domain (and some copyrighted) books of the past and made them accessible to the common man. I personally have downloaded and enjoyed several of the OZ books, Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill, and a Mark Twain collection of essays. They really are easy to read on an iPhone/iPod screen.

This is where the Stanza pulls ahead of the Bookz Reader. Where the Reader (no relation to My Sickly Truly) accesses Project Gutenberg only, the Stanza also accesses several other free book sources, as well as several book stores. These will sell recent bestsellers for a modest fee.

So now you know my source for canine romance novels. Don't tell anyone, my fictitious friend.

20 September 2009

xkcd: The Way it Ought to Be

You know the story. Someone comes up with a brilliant idea, turns it into a story/business/technology, and sells it to a big communications conglomerate. They, in turn, decide its existing structure is not mass market enough so they turn it into a bland but very well produced blockbuster. I'd give some examples, but I really hate hearing from lawyers. Just Google (R) the words "movie" and any roman numeral. Better yet, type the word "Shakespeare" and "DiCaprio".

Well, once in a while, good truimphs over evil. One such case is xkcd.com.

Randall Munroe had a degree in physics. He worked on robots at NASA's Langley Research Center. One day he was going through some of his research notes and realized that the doodles in the margins were occasionally better than the research. He decided to scan the more cartoon-y margins and post them on a server. Readers flocked to the site, and today he has a fulltime job drawing cartoons and selling merchandise. No Disney, Time/Warner or Microsoft involved at all.

As you can see from the example above, his drawing skills are non-existant. For some reason, his very intelligent humor counters the bad art and makes it perfectly appropriate. Any tinkering with this formula would destroy it.

Even the name xkcd (all lower case, please) is a thoughtful joke. Mr. Munroe looked long and hard for a word with no phonetic pronunciation, also pushing for something that would be very difficult to turn into an acronym.

I'm in publishing, not physics, so some of the math is over my head. The humor, on the other hand, always lands below the hairline.

19 September 2009

Best Free Download for iPhone: PandoraBox

I don't really have an iPhone. I have an iPod Touch. It's basically an iPhone except that it doesn't have a camera or the ability to make cell phone calls. I'm not saying it can't be used as a telephone. That's another story for another BFD (Best Free Downloads -- what did YOU think it meant?)

In a nutshell, the iPod Touch is a music/video MP3 player with a difference. First of all, the screen is HUGE, so you can actually watch videos without getting a headache. More important, it can run applications like an email client, a web browser, a note pad, and other run of the mill applications. The best part: third parties can write their own applications (called by Apple marketing "apps". Isn't that just cute as sin?) that can really add wild functionality to the iPod. some of these applications can cost as much as $100, though the majority are between $1 and $2.

I don't buy those. I buy the ones that are free. Amazingly, some of the free ones are really spectacular pieces of technology. I like spectacular technology. I like free.

So I have the iPod Touch because I'm cheap as used chewing gum. I'm so cheap that I've become an expert on free stuff. And since I hate Apple Computer, I have combined both my passions in a hobby I call finding the Best Free Downloads for the iPhone/iPod Touch. Let me tell you about a meta-cheap app.

PandoraBox is arguably the second coolest App in the iTunes store. It's free, and its purpose is to find other stuff that is free. Many apps are published as free because they either are a promotional item for a large corporation, or because they make their money from running little advertisements in the app. These are easy to find in the Apple iTunes store.

The part that makes PandoraBox such a great program is that it hunts down and lists applications that used to cost money, or will soon cost money.

There are over 35,000 apps available on the iTunes store as of this writing. Getting attention can be a challenge when 34,999 other applications are also screaming "buy me". One approach taken by desperate software developers is to offer their wares for free for the first few days. This will encourage early users to review the product and start some word-of-mouth buzz. PandoraBox hunts down these little treats and lists them. Sweet!

Some very good applications do not get any attention, and die from lack of interest. These applications are not bad products. They are just not well promoted, or not well explained to the purchaser. There are many reasons why an app can fail. Lack of quality or functionality are not necessarily the biggest reasons.

For reasons that are beyond me, the software developers often drop the price to free before discontinuing the product. PandoraBox lists these for the user who is willing to dig through the bad promotion to find the real value.

In the coming weeks, I will use PandoraBox to find you some of the most interesting applications available for free. Some will have amazing functionality and purpose. (examples: Skype, WebEx, iWoopi, Stanza) Some will just be interesting. "PoopTheWorld" comes to mind.

18 September 2009

˙˙˙ƃuoɹʍ ƃuıɥʇǝɯos ƃuıop ɯ,ı ʞuıɥʇ ı

Funny, I was going to mention something about Twitter in my last blog but I got distracted. Maybe I'll do it in the near future. It has to do with what the professionals in the industry are thinking, and why they have it all wrong.

I recently asked a friend who is deeply involved in the "social media" industry. He said that my opinion was right, but not popular, because the gurus are all trying to make money. I can't say his name because I haven't gotten permission yet, but he said most people sign up for Twitter for six months and then lose interest. I told him it was because they had passed their fifteenth birthdays.

But I'll talk about that in the future.

I mean, Twitter claims to have 20 million users. (More like 20 million LOSERS if you ask me.) That seems like a lot. Too bad most of them have already reached the legal age to buy cigarettes, so they aren't actually doing anything any more. But let's get a sense of proportion. SpaceBook.com and MyFace.com (you know who I'm talking about) have 320 million and 500 million users respectively. And from the invites I get, all of them seem to be active, or at least the incredibly lonely ones I knew in high school.

Never mind that. I'll save all of that for a future post. In the meantime I want to chat up this clever little site called http://www.flipmytext.com/ . It uses one of the hidden wonders of the standard fonts to turn one's text upside down. Isn't it marvelous? ¡sı ʇı 'sǝʎ 'ʎɥʍ

Not like Twitter, which is going to be on a shelf in two years next to pet rocks, Lizzy McGuire dolls, Furbys and expensive coats with anarchist symbols on them.

˙ןןop ǝɹınƃɔɯ ǝızzıן ʎɯ ssıɯ ןןıʇs ı 'ʎןןɐnʇɔɐ

16 September 2009

I Stepped in Some Twitter

I have no idea how it happened. One minute I'm a completely comfortable Luddite, hooking my clothe buttons and shaving with a sharp rock, and the next I'm addicted to my iPod Touch. An hour doesn't go by that I'm not checking on my iMafia members, scanning the walls of my SpaceBook friends and announcing to my Yammer mates that my jock itch has returned.

I think the turning point was when I bought that Commodore 64. Imagine my surprise when I opened the box expecting a new porcelain urinal and finding a "real computer keyboard." The moment I wired it up to my black and white television and turned on the 300 baud acoustic modem, I was in another world.

But that was three years ago. A lot has happened since then.

Now I'm considered something of an expert in the new technologies. I work for this big electronic design and graphics company and I receive hundreds of emails a day. Most try to sell me cheap watches and enhance my manhood, but occasionally someone actually wants my opinon. This blog will be my musings on the interface between silicon and soul, man and machina, GUI and ganglia.

Enjoy the ride.