D.C. has some tough issues on its plate right now. Here are few that I looked at over the last week:
D.C. has some tough issues on its plate right now. Here are few that I looked at over the last week:
In between snow doses from the sky this week, I learned during some national research that the Santa Barbara-Santa Maria metro area is sometimes referred to as the Santa Maria-Santa Barbara metro area. For the record, I’m not a fan.
Also, here’s a rundown of some D.C.-related things I covered:
Seems like I’ve been bouncing around nonstop since the holidays began, but here’s what’s been in my recreational diet of late.
Inherent Vice (2014) – All due respect to Paul Thomas Anderson, but I went into this one a little skeptical about how well Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice was going to translate to film – and it did feel condensed. That said, the tightly crafted shots and character performances from Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin and a handful of others kept the frenetic plot-twisting from the book alive and meaningful.
The larger plot is a massive, rickety construction for presenting everything that’s worth watching here. But that was kind of already the case in the novel. The leaps of logic and motivation just aren’t super-sensible, and that’s partially due to the detective noir genre that Pynchon used for the story, as well as compression of the longer story that leaves out conversations and beats from the original work.
What works the best is the perpetual vinegar-and-oil-splashing of contrasting and conflicting elements that keep the story alive. It’s a roller coaster and a poem about what makes America tick, and it’s funny while being tragic and gorgeous while being vulgar. Go see it for yourself.
Alias Omnibus – Marvel’s Max titles may be among my favorites that they’ve put out in the last couple of decades, but I somehow never got into Alias when it was originally in print. Then, by the time the omnibus collection got popular, I was late to the game again, and it was already going for way beyond my budget on eBay.
This is the kind of book that celebrates what Brian Michael Bendis writes best. It’s detective fiction. It’s crime fiction. And it’s stacked with little quips about Marvel history.
The Superhero Afterlife – A. David Lewis generously offered me a look at this one ahead of its release in November. It’s a critical look at the different ways that the afterlife gets depicted in superhero comics. Notably, he gets into really interesting territory here, picking apart what death means in serialized fiction and what resurrections and multiple planes of existence mean to notions of self—particularly through models of understanding that will make sense to Derrida readers. And that definitely worked for me.
It’s an exploration worth reading for Thor lovers, Greek myth lovers and comics folk in general. (Also, there’s a great little Fantastic Four/Wizard Magazine-related flashback that I’m glad he reminded me about. Thanks, A.D.)
Washington: A Life – I’m knee-deep in this one right now. Maybe it was visiting Washington’s Mount Vernon estate last year. Living in D.C. was probably also a motivating factor. But Ron Chernow’s biography has a been a really enlightening read so far. I’m amazed about how many holes there are to fill in from Washington’s early life—but I probably shouldn’t be, given how long ago we’re talking about. It’s a solid, even-handed look at his rise to power, strengths and weaknesses.
If you blinked, you might have missed my two appearances last week on FOX 5 WTTG to discuss transportation issues in in Washington, D.C. It was a real pleasure to sit down with Steve Chenevey and Allison Seymour to talk about getting around on New Year’s Eve and the current state of D.C.’s streetcar project on H Street.
Here’s the clip with that first interview.
Amid travels over the past month, here’s what’s been rolling by in front of my face.
Digital Death – A. David Lewis, one of the co-editors on this collection of essays, was kind enough to let me read through an advance copy a few weeks ago – and it really is an excellent piece of work. Its essays’ authors address a strong series of questions about how concepts of death have been altered by technology. These issues include how we memorialize loved ones, how we speak about death and how concepts within our daily lives and writing (especially online) may be evolving.
With Apple entering the smartwatch market soon and wearable tech pushing the Quantified Self movement into bigger, more mainstream places, a lot of what gets discussed in Digital Death challenges the reader to confront some ideas that are worth exploring. For instance, when you look back at the now Internet-famous story about a son racing his deceased father’s ghost in an Xbox game they used to enjoy playing, there’s a seed of something potentially a lot bigger going on. One of the essays in this book deals with where our data from social networks and other places goes when we die – and who should have the right to use it or own it when we do pass on.
The idea that we could soon be in a place technologically where people could preserve more complex digital ghosts of their loved ones and interact with them introduces all kinds of concerns and dilemmas. I mean, if a company like Google or Facebook has the data to render such a ghost, should it have to get legal permissions to do so? What does it do to the mourning process if such ghosts become crutches for bereaved people who don’t want to let go? (And who’s to say there’s any moral imperative or requirement that they should have to let go?)
Anyway, this is a great book, and I highly recommend checking it out.
Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World – This 2007 book by Margaret MacMillan was my companion for down time during the Iceland trip. I’m a sucker for Richard Nixon history – particularly when it involves vignettes like MacMillan dishes out. One of my favorites comes early on regarding an exchange between Nixon and Ford about Henry Kissinger:
“Henry is a genius,” Nixon told Gerald Ford as he was preparing to hand over the presidency, “but you don’t have to accept everything he recommends. He can be invaluable, and he’ll be very loyal but you can’t let him have a totally free hand.” He advised Ford to keep Kissinger on as his secretary of state but hoped, he told an aide, that the new president would be tough enough. “Ford has just got to realize that there are times when Henry has to be kicked in the nuts.”
Those moments of Nixonian candor alone are worth the price of admission for this book, but it’s also a trove of research and historical explanations that illuminate the world stage today – both with its explanation of Russo-Chinese relations and the culmination of events, factors and people that made Nixon’s trip to China possible.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – I’m two episodes deep into the second season and can’t get enough of this one. Parts of the first season dragged a bit, but I’m constantly impressed with how many story elements the show can keep spinning in the air at once. Also, Lucy Lawless and Patton Oswalt have been a huge gust of wind in its sails. I’m glad I hung on through the end of the first season and even happier that it came back with an Absorbing Man story that was better than any I’ve ever read in the comics.
Slack – I’ve been using Slack recently in place of email for a lot of work things, and I’m pretty sold on it so far. At face value it seems like standard reinvention of chat rooms and instant messaging, but I love it as a group communication tool. Totally beats massive email threads – hands down.
We got back to D.C. last week from Iceland last week. If you follow either of us anywhere else, you probably caught a glimpse of what we were up to – but if you didn’t, here are the highlights in a Flickr album.
I’ve run into a handful of people this summer who asked me what I’m reading lately. It seemed like a roundup might be in order. Here’s what I’ve been looking at and listening to lately.
Snowpiercer (2013) – Bong Joon-ho had a heck of a time getting this film to the U.S. market, but I’m glad it finally arrived. The story’s parallels with BioShock have been documented elsewhere, but it seems to have struck a chord with fans of that series (a group to which I belong). I was actually more entertained by parallels with The Truman Show (1998), and the graphic novel‘s now on my to-read list.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) – When this franchise got rebooted again in 2011, I honestly walked away pretty indifferent to the project. The new installment worked a lot better for me, though. Part of that was do to the much richer cast of characters – but Dawn also had a really rich sense of place and setting. Much like Snowpiercer, the locations in the story where the action was taking place added layers of history and drama what the actors were doing. This is the Bergman fan in me talking right now, but I really love when films can minimize the number of locations they’re set in make what does get used as memorable as possible.
Boris – I just saw this Japanese group at the 9:30 Club Saturday with The Atlas Moth and Sub Rosa, and it’s been a while since I’ve had the pleasure of getting hit with a wall of sound that deep. The band’s newest album’s called Noise, and it’s beautiful.
NPR One – The team behind this app deserves a lot of credit. The old NPR app on iPhone had become a huge mess for me over the past year or so. For some reason, it had problems resuming play with one given station and I’d have to start playing another station and stop it just to be able to begin playing the first station again (Don’t worry, it was just as confusing as it sounds). Then, there were really odd issues with advertisements playing repeatedly (Seriously, one time I walked to work and heard the same government contractor ad more than ten times amid quick excerpts of the WAMU broadcast I was trying to listen to).
This One app is the real deal, though. It streamlines the entire listening experience, personalizes content in a meaning way and does some really interesting things with interactive mic-enabled functions. (Just don’t be surprised when robo-voices in the ads start talking to you.
I really can’t adequately express what a breath of fresh air this has been (no pun intended). And it’s got a lot of potential.
Hearthstone (Mac/iPad) – I am super late to this one, but it’s my new unwinding habit at night before I go to bed – and I was never a serious CCG player. Still, I cannot for the life of me beat the spiders in the story mode yet.
The King in Yellow – After finishing the first season of True Detectives, I decided to dive into Robert W. Chambers’ world here. His writing is so incredibly fresh after more than a hundred years. Can’t recommend this one enough.
Weapons of Mass Diplomacy – Here’s another one I was late to, but Christophe Blain and Edward Gauvin did an absolutely stunning job with this graphic novel. Its expressive, animated visual language and insights into the sausage factory behind diplomatic decision-making made it one of the best reads I’ve picked up recently.
Google Glass was noticeably absent from today’s Google I/O keynote address, but Google’s vision for Android and the wearables that it eventually powers was the chorus for the event. And I’m excited to see where that vision goes next, whether or not I become a smartwatch person.
I’m still holding out hope for Glass, though, and I’ve got an idyllic imaginary lifestyle in mind that could make use of it regularly—if it only had the right apps. Right now, the games are fun in a beta-version, novelty kind of way. The camera and sharing functionality is fine. And I dig the Tumblr and Twitter options. One thing persistently bugs me, though. (Sorry, two things. The one I’m not writing about in this post is how crippled Glass still feels when used with an iPhone.) The one I am going to write about here is the news app situation. CNN, Mashable, The New York Times and others have all put considerable efforts into their Glass presences, but none seem to have found recipes that look like they’re ready to define the Glass news experience just yet.
Here’s what the app that rules this space is going to have to do.
1. Realize that Glass isn’t naturally a home for clickbait. I’ve turned off a handful of apps just because—quite honestly—they’re useless. I like Buzzfeed and Mashable viral content as much as the next Internet user, but I don’t want an RSS feed of lists and hollow humor reads on Glass. That’s just not what I want to use this tool to experience. I’ve even checked boxes for the types of news I want only to get entertainment features and in-depth, not-necessarily-timely stories that frankly, I just don’t want to interrupt my midday behavior to examine (I’m looking at you on this one NYT).
2. Don’t make me read the full thing on another device. This drives me crazy. I’ve seen headlines that don’t give me concrete ideas of what their stories are actually about. Even worse, I’ll click through (or do the equivalent on Glass), only to find out that I’m not even looking at an article that I can experience. When I first downloaded the NYT app, it basically just seemed like an RSS feed of short advertisements for articles I could experience if I were looking at my phone, tablet or laptop—it wasn’t even giving me useful, absorbable information.
3. Give the reader useful, absorbable information. CNN actually has the seed of a really solid idea going with its app. Glass is a great platform for short videos. And video with audio is an excellent way to communicate news stories in a little window. Give me a clean, straight news headline with a 30-second clip of an intelligent reporter talking any day. (Just don’t give me garbage filler content with fluff items and uninformed reporters talking about how they don’t understand a topic. In other words, don’t just put cable news programming that I’ve already run away from in other places on Google Glass.)
4. Offer customizable breaking news options. The Breaking News app is one of the only things I give push alert access to on my iPhone—and for good reason. The second I see an app try to fill my opt-in feed with things I didn’t opt in expecting or wanting to see, I will shut it off. Don’t spew clutter. Offer a service.
5. Write for the medium. This may be redundant, but it gets back to the bad headlines and providing a compelling product beyond the click. Some people may want feature-y longreads, and there’s probably a market for that kind of app, but mixing up content written for print or the Web in a feed with content that actually reads or watches well on Glass only pollutes your product.
6. Give a regular and/or reasonable expectation for how much content you’re going to put out. There’s an alternative to this one, which is just to post all good breaking items under a give topic or topics. But most publishers I’ve looked at so far are fairly irregular and post combos of hard/fluffy news items, old/breaking news or mobile/Glass-friendly and non-mobile/Glass-friendly content. It makes it hard to judge whether I want the app turned on, and in most cases, I’ve found it’s just not worth the hassle.
7. Offer sharing options. This is the easiest one on the list to nail, and some apps are warming up to it (but not all of them, for some reason). Your Glass app may be more a part of your social strategy than your distribution strategy, but either way, put a share option in there and play to the medium’s strengths to help circulate your work and attract users.
8. Make the experience feel personal. This is going to sound bland and encompasses some items from above, but Glass is a screen that sits closer to the user’s face than anything else they’re reading (and it likely will until Google’s crazy contact lenses hit the market). Single-reporter video is a great example of what I mean here. But the advice could be applied to tone in any of the news apps that are in the Glassware store.
9. Know your Glass reader. This echoes something every publisher needs to consider, and maybe it’s something news apps just don’t know yet about their Glass audiences. But all too often I feel like I’m getting news items that aren’t what I want on my menu. I may be spoiled by my sprawling Feedly and Twitter lists, but so far I can’t find an experience on Glass that helps me skim the most important headlines out of those soups in an efficient way.
10. Make some clear, objective-oriented design decisions. Google obviously did with Glass. The cards and feed have been sculpted in ways that make lots of sense, and they’re evolving. If apps like Flipboard and Circa can innovate and make homes for themselves on mobile, someone out there should be able to make something work on Glass. And when they do, it’s going to help define the next era for Android in ways I look forward to seeing.
Aside from the overabundance of snow in D.C. in Q1, 2014 has been a great ride so far. If you’re looking for me on a day-to-day basis, check out InTheCapital, where I stepped on as managing editor in January. It’s a daily news site for info about tech, innovation, politics, education and lifestyle goings on in Washington.
Google Glass has been a little short on new toys to play with in 2014. The latest news from the mother-hive is that there won’t be a software update this month; however, an upgrade to Android KitKat is in on the way (interesting!), and that could bring some help for Bluetooth support and battery life management. As those new items bake at Glass HQ, I’ve been nodding and swatting through the five mini-games that the Glass team has released. And though they feel extremely demo-ish, it’s interesting to see what they bring to the platform.
If you tell Google Glass to “play a game,” you’ll see a menu with the options to try games called Tennis, Shape splitter, Balance, Clay shooter and Matcher. If I had to rank them from most fun to least fun, I’d probably keep them in almost the same order:
Each one is an interesting exercise in the Google Glass interface capabilities, and as someone who really enjoyed the WarioWare games for the Nintendo DS and Wii, all five of these games made me curious to see what something similar could look like on this headset.
What follows is the good, the bad and the ugly of what’s beyond that menu as of March 2.
Tennis should be a concept that come naturally enough to most users picking up Glass. The ball and the court are both familiar, though if you have played real-world tennis before, you are going to be tempted to throw out your neck in a fit of futile attempts to put spin on the ball. Nevertheless, after you fully grasp how simple the head-tilt controls really are, things get easy.
Shape splitter will make you feel much more like you’re in a Wii- or Kinect-like experience. Actual hand-waving is involved, and once you get a couple of seconds into the gameplay, you will realize (SPOILER WARNING) that you are actually just playing a simplified version of Fruit Ninja. Good grief, though. If Google Glass actually did turn into a full-on portable version of Fruit Ninja on Kinect, I think this puppy might finally have a single app that justifies the hardware cost.
Balance is the epitome of a game I thoroughly do not enjoy but just sat through to see how it made use of the Glass controls. Blocks fall on your dotty-eyed character’s head. You have to tilt your head back and forth to try to balance the block. My recommendation for breaking your high scores on this one is to just line the Glass screen up with some flat-line reference points (like the edges of a shelf or door) and keep your head as still as possible. The controls are extremely sensitive, though, so don’t waste too much time on this one (unless you’re into that sort of thing).
Clay shooter is a lot more fun. It is a shooter after all. You use voice commands to launch your targets. Officially, you say “Pull” to launch your targets and “Bang” to shoot, but Glass is super-forgiving, and you can ultimately make up your own stand-in commands if you like. The targets explode into little rainbow fragments when you hit them, and you’ll find some motivation in trying to hit them all. Again, the concept is very basic (reminds me of a game on the old black-and-white RadioShack system I played in the ’80s), but inspiration is there.
And then there is Matcher. It’s a memory game in a 3D beehive full of hexagon tiles that flip over to reveal shapes and colors. The coolest thing about it is that you’re playing within a 3D space that you have to turn around in to advance. Like the rest of these mini-games, the experience never comes remotely close to Flappy Bird levels of addiction. However, the timer will give you something to return to as you attempt to get higher scores.
At the end of the day, I’d love to see any of these game evolve into more fully-formed concepts. Then again, that’s kind of what the Glass experience has been like on most front thus far. And that’s not necessarily a complaint; after all, everyone using a Glass set as an Explorer now is a beta-tester and/or developer. In the meantime, these games were enough to get my curiosity bubbling. I can’t wait to see what happens once we get into KitKat Land.