June 16, 2013
With all the attention Circa has been receiving lately, you’d think it was the best news app since sliced bread. And you wouldn’t be far wrong — it serves the news in bite-sized slices and offers a way to receive added slices on topics that catch your interest.
An article might start off as a few screens of information, but can grow over the days and weeks as more information becomes available. You use a checkmark system to follow along.
Once you get used to the concept, it’s a neat way to keep up with the news, especially stuff that might otherwise get lost in the shuffle. And it’s especially suited to mobile.
As an example, there have been rumours about various companies taking over or buying Hulu, a U.S. TV and video streaming service. They started swirling in March and there have been updates as late as June 6. As long as that story stays in my Followed list, I can keep up with the latest.
There are a few drawbacks to the app at this point, the main one being the limited number of topics. If you live outside the United States, nothing about your own country will be covered unless it’s something of interest to the rest of the world. The Politics section covers only American politics. And beyond that there are Technology and Science & Health.
I suspect Circa will broaden its range soon with the hiring of Anthony De Rosa as editor in chief. He has a fine pedigree as Reuters’ former social media editor, and a version 2.0 is said to be in the works.
De Rosa and CEO Matt Galligan have alluded to plans for partnerships with other news providers along with some original reporting of their own. Circa is a pure-play news app — not the product of an old-school news service — so it’s definitely worthwhile to watch where it is headed.
You could even, ahem, put it on the Follow list.
June 9, 2013
I’m not sure what the medical term is, but hunchitis might do. All those hours hunched over a smartphone or computer add up fast. Oh how we love our devices, but unfortunately they can twist our bodies into unhealthy shapes over time.
So is there an app for that? As it turns out, there are a gazillion apps out there to get you back in shape with exercise programs. Just try doing a search on pushups in the App Store. I got so many hits, I gave up counting.
The one I chose is called Pushups 0-100. The idea — as is the case with many of these apps — is to gradually work your way up to 100 pushups a day, three days a week.
With Pushups 0-100, you start off with beginner pushups — pushing off a counter while standing. They’re a lot easier than getting down on the floor. You start off with five minutes of stretches, which is a good idea because working on a computer or over a phone can get those muscles tensed up in ways they shouldn’t be.
Next comes fives sets of pushups with 90-second rests in between. The interface that coaches you along is nicely designed and easy to follow. You wrap up with another five minutes of stretches.
Looking ahead, the number of pushups gradually works up to five sessions of 20. After that, there is the option of moving up to intermediate pushups from your knees. After that, it’s full body on the floor.
Of course, you could just as easily do a similar program without an app. But an app, whichever one one you choose, has a couple of advantages. First, it’s nicely laid out for you, which is encouraging. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the icon sits there on the screen day after day, reminding you to get busy. It could even go in the dock and become an even more prominent reminder.
I’m only on the first couple of steps in Pushups 0-100, so the question remains as to whether I’ll be able to maintain my enthusiasm over the next few weeks. I’m hoping an app on the screen will do the trick.
June 2, 2013
I’m about as sure as I can be that Feedly will replace Reeder as my feed reader of choice.
With the demise of Google Reader, some tough choices have to be made. Reeder has long made a good front end for the Google service, but that service comes to an end on July 1. The app has options to use other feed services such as Feedbin or Fever, but neither of them appeal to me. Feedbin doesn’t allow for sharing with Twitter, Facebook and email. And Fever seems to like a pain to set up on a server.
Both also involve payment, and I’m fine with that. But why pay when there is free service that so far appears to be better.
And that’s where Feedly comes in. You sign up using your Google account and they take care of the rest. Once Google passes on, they promise you will be switched to their own platform — without you noticing the transition.
Feedly will eventually go with a freemium business model, which means you won’t have to pay unless you want more features. Since there are already plenty of good features, this won’t be an issue for anyone but power users.
I’ve been fiddling around with the settings in Feedly, and I’ve got the app just the way I like it. My only beef — and it’s small one — is that it insists on scrolling stories page by page instead of continuously.
Feedly, it looks like you’ve won me over.
Update: A coming version of Reeder will have the option of running off a Feedly account. This is so confusing.
May 30, 2013
A lot of journalists really love Twitter, likely because it reminds them of wire services — a constant stream of the latest news and information, along with some gossip and rumours thrown in.
And many of us join in because it seems exciting to be part of the headlong rush.
But really, there has to be more to it than that. After all, most of us are working for profit-making ventures and we don’t do stuff just because it’s fun — it has to contribute to the bottom line somehow.
The arguments in favour of Twitter are usually along the lines of branding. It’s a good way for news organizations and journalists to become known among the news junkies who frequently monitor Twitter. That makes sense to some degree, but it’s not exactly something you can put on a balance sheet.
The other thing we’re told is that it can be used to drive traffic to the website, boost pageviews and help keep the ad rates up. But all the data I’ve seen shows only a tiny percentage of visits to news sites is driven by Twitter. In fact, you’ll have much better luck with Facebook.
So while I’ve jumped into Twitter wholeheartedly, there has always been a nagging doubt about whether this was really helping anyone other than the people who own the service.
The first step toward a solution came with embedding a widget on the website. Lots of news sites do that, but we figured we would be more deliberate about how we use it.
The main advantage of the widget is that it updates quickly. So if, for example, someone is at the scene of a bad accident, they can take a picture, put it on Twitter and it’s available to our website readers soon after. And that was the key — providing content not just for Twitter (which pays nothing) but for the website, which actually does generate revenue.
But the trouble with placing a widget based on our account was that there was a lot of duplication. It seemed silly to tease a story with a link on the Twitter widget when the story might by sitting right beside it on the web page.
Also, we wanted to make it easy for the reporters to contribute through their own accounts. This would help them with their own branding and make the widget seem like more of a team effort. That’s when we came up with the idea of a hashtag unique to our site — in this case, #kamnews.
By running a widget based on a hashtag, we could target material specifically for it. What gets the hashtag? Just about any kind of picture that’s news related. It can be something breaking or it can be a behind-the-scenes look at a feature we’re working on. Also videos — so far Vine seems to work best because the videos it produces are short and upload quickly. Bits of text are also OK, but we’re concentrating on the visual because it is more engaging.
There are a couple of couple of limitations, though. First, videos don’t display unless you click on a link labelled Show Media. I worry that people will instead click on the link for the video itself and be taken offsite. There may be a way around this, but it is not immediately apparent.
The second worry is that the hashtag could be hijacked by disgruntled readers or people doing promotions. This hasn’t happened so far, but it’s still early days. A way around this would be to create a separate account just for the widget. But then all tweets would appear to be from the same user instead of the variety we are striving for. Also, the need to switch between accounts could create some confusion, especially if time is of the essence.
Still, the early results are encouraging. It’s far too early to know whether there has been a boost in readership, but it sure feels like there should be. A targetted hashtag widget brings in a stream of fresh content in addition to all the other updates we do — making the website more vibrant than ever.
It’s also a bit of a morale boost. Filing pictures to a service run by a major U.S. corporation is OK, but filing straight to the loyal readers of our website feels great.
May 26, 2013
Somewhere between 1968 and 2013, something went terribly wrong with science fiction movies. I realized this after watching the original Planet of the Apes for the umpteenth time — just a week after seeing Star Trek Into Darkness.
For some reason I never tire of Planet of the Apes. Such unforgettable lines: “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!’, ‘You know the saying, ‘Human see, human do’ ‘, ‘It’s a mad house! A mad house!’. Such unforgettable scenes: the hear-no-evil-see-no-evil-speak-no-evil tribunal, the interspecies kiss, the half-buried Statue of Liberty. An engaging plot with a timeless message and a twist at the end.
I could go on and on.
Meanwhile, Star Trek Into Darkness could be summed up as a series of explosions with bits of dialogue in between. The few memorable scenes are scenes I would just as soon forget: Spock pre-echoing Kirk’s cry of “Kha- a-a-a-a-an!”, young Spock getting useless advice from future old Spock, Carol Marcus showing off her undies. And what is the darkness referred to in the title? Darned if I know.
What happened to science fiction in general is what happened to Planet of the Apes. Sequel followed sequel, each worse than the one that preceded it until the movie-going public couldn’t stomach it any more and refused to pay good money for the garbage being pumped out by Hollywood producers devoid of imagination.
The difference these days is that we get so-called reboots. The original Star Trek movies got boring as hell, so they were rebooted with Star Trek The Next Generation. And when those staggered into deserved oblivion, JJ Abrams came along with the latest series. Hollywood is likely hoping the same thing will happen with a reboot of Planet of the Apes. Their policy, it seems, is that there is a fresh crop of suckers born every generation.
But it’s not just terminal sequelization that is the problem. It’s also the over-reliance on special effects. The original Planet of the Apes would never have made it out the door because there is way too much plot, way too much character building. Star Trek is a gold mine for directors taking advantage of short attention spans — the main characters have built-in stereotypes with little need to evolve except in the most superficial way. That leaves lots more time for things that go boom.
With all the science fiction movies coming out these days, you’d think a buff like me would at long last be happy with the selection at the theatres. Alas, good science fiction is as rare as it ever was.
May 25, 2013
The Internet is a weird place where otherwise civilized people can get themselves worked up into a lather about the most trivial and inconsequential subjects.
Take smartphone market share, for example. Several articles have been published recently insisting that we should care — or even worry about — how many iPhones are being sold versus how many Android-based phones are being sold. For some reason this is extremely important to some people — so much so that they have tied themselves up in knots with lengthy articles explaining the pros and cons of market share.
As a journalist, I prefer an iPhone because the hot new apps I want to use or review often come to iPhones first. For some reason, developers seem to prefer iOS (the system that runs Apple devices), possibly because iOS users tend to spend more money on apps.
This may change in the future, but even if it doesn’t there is no reason why an Android phone can’t work just as well if that’s what you prefer. So what you have to wait longer for an Android version of Vine? It will come eventually, and meanwhile there are other apps, such as Tout, that are just as good.
As far as market share goes, smartphones are considered by some to be a special case to think about because they belong to an emerging market and we don’t know yet how things will eventually shake out. Who will win? Who will dominate in the long run? These are interesting questions, but hardly worth losing sleep over.
I say let Apple, Google, BlackBerry and Microsoft worry about these things. There is nothing we mere mortals can do about it one way or another. The phone we choose to buy is a drop in the bucket for their overall profits or market share. And at a guess, the way things are going, we will at least have Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android to choose from for many years to come.
May 19, 2013
If you’re looking for more reviews and resources for journalists, a good place to start is the British-based site journalism.co.uk. I especially like the tools and tech section. The navigation and search functions appear to have a few bugs (unclickable buttons; blank pages for search results), but with some patience you’ll find plenty of valuable information.
May 18, 2013
Twitter has gained a reputation for having the latest up-to-datest news, but that’s not always the case. Those tweets have to come from somewhere, and if the sources are not forthcoming you have to wait seconds — even minutes — to read all about it.
A good app for getting through this bottleneck is Breaking News. It’s updated every few seconds with bulletins from an alphabet-soup of reliable sources such as AP, AFP, BBC and NBC. And Reuters.
Just as I started writing this review, I learned from Breaking News that a powerful explosion has rocked Damascus. Not sure what to make of it, since there are precious few details. But for those who feel the need to know, the knowledge is there.
I also learned about deaths from violence in Iraq and Yemen, and about a woman killed by a bus in Florida.
Admittedly, this isn’t news for the faint of heart. I console myself with the belief that my knowledge of these events in no way affects them. Still, unless the latest news is particularly vital, I tend to leave this app on the back burner.
Another problem is that it concentrates on world and U.S. news. A great update would be a way of tweaking it to focus on countries or even cities. That way, if someone gets killed by a bus, there is better chance it will be someone you should know about.
May 11, 2013
What do journalists do in their spare time? Those at the business publication Quartz play a hot new game on their smartphones called Dots.
The concept behind Dots is simple. You get a six-by-six grid of different coloured dots and clear as many as possible within one minute by connecting like colours. As you clear them, more dots drop down from above.
The more you clear, the more points you get. This is important, because you can use those points to trade in for special powers such as the ability to clear one dot alone.
Why would you want to do that? Because the key to big scores is making squares. When you make a square, every dot of the same colour is expelled from the grid. This leaves fewer colours, making it easier to create more squares and rack up even more points.
And the single-dot power-up makes it easier to rearrange other dots to make the squares.
I learned this strategy by reading a rather lengthy article at the Quartz website that goes into detail on how best to improve your score. The folks there seem to believe that anything below 500 is unworthy. About the best I’ve been able to do is 167 — clearly putting me out the Quartz league.
Along with the single-dot power-up, there are two others you can can get with points — a time pause and an exploder. Dots generally gets good reviews at the App Store, but some people have complained that there should be a greater variety of power-ups. I can see what they mean — the novelty of Dots wore off fairly quickly for me.
Also, I wonder what it’s like to work for a publication where the employees spend much of their time playing games? Seems like a job at Quartz truly is something to aspire to.
May 4, 2013
Reuters has to be one of the best designed news apps ever. It’s easy to navigate and looks good doing it. The articles appeal to a business audience, but general readers will find them just as engaging.
After being overwhelmed by the eye candy in the new aggregator app, Vū, delving into Reuters is a welcome relief. That’s not to say there aren’t some polished animations — there are — but they are not a distraction from the main thing you want from a news app — the news itself.
The news comes in categories known as streams. Once you’ve chosen a story, you can flip up or down to the next one. In addition to Home, there are eight other streams. You can also search for any topic you like, with suggestions appearing as you type.
It would be nice if you could go deeper into the rivulets that feed the streams, but there doesn’t seem to be a way to do this. For example, after performing a search on “Apple products” I noticed that the results were in a Gadgets stream. I would like to see an update to Reuters that would allow you to save Gadgets as a stream along with the main ones.
In addition to the streams, there are a couple of useful tools. Stories can be saved so you can read them later. And you can create a watchlist that shows the latest stock prices for companies of your choice.
Reuters has set a high standard with this app. Creators of other news apps should take note.