That’s the last time you put a blade in me, you hear?

I’m really intrigued by the Switch, a multitool that you can add or remove components from yourself.

The circular hole/pivot point reminds me of my own pocket knife, the Gerber Remix, which I carry with me constantly.

The Remix is a skeletonized…well, remix of the older Gerber Chameleon, of which I owned two before I got this one.

When you use this knife, you slip your index finger through the hole that the blade opens around. This has two benefits: 1) it’s nearly impossible for your hand to slip off the knife handle and onto the blade, sparing you the possibility of stitches and a hospital trip, and 2) allowing you to hold the knife and your hand in a far more natural position while cutting. (If you’re the paranoid urban prowler type like me, it has a third benefit: if you have to pull it in a fight, it’s basically also impossible for anyone to take it away from you.)

It seems like such an obvious, valuable design…and yet I’ve never seen another knife that uses the open pivot point this way. It looks as though the Switch might, but I can’t really tell from those concept pictures. (It looks as though the body of the tool might be too wide to comfortably put your finger through.)

Imagine how much safer all knives would be if they had this simple feature! I mean, it would work for fixed-blade knives and even for kitchen and utility knives.

This, to me, is what clever design is all about.

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Cooking miscellany

So I’ve got a smoked black bean soup on the stove cooking right now, and I thought I’d drop some of my totally anecdotal cooking science on you.

I’m an improvisational cook; I tend to make recipes based on what I have in the kitchen, rather than buying ingredients to make specific dishes. Because of this, I tend to keep my pantry stocked with certain items which end up getting used in lots of different things. To wit:

Tomato puree and tomato paste. This is essential. Tomatoes are the base in almost every non-Chinese or Japanese dish I make. I know lots of cooks are snobs about their tomatoes (“I buy twenty pounds of tomatoes and boil them into sauce over a 48 hour period!”) but you and I live in the real world, or at least I do, and I can’t afford to buy fucking organic tomatoes in bulk and let them cook down like I’m some kind of goddamn Sicilian materfamilias.

Buy big cans and lots of them, they’re cheap. I never buy less than four 24 oz. cans of tomato puree when I go to the store and I almost always use them up by the time I go back. The paste is good for thickening soups and sauces and for more robust dishes.

Black beans. Almost as versatile as tomatoes. I use them in lieu of meat in everything from chili to Mediterranean dishes. Plus you can mix them with bread crumbs and egg and make veggie burger patties.

Balsamic vinegar. Balsamic vinegar is the Auto-Tune of cooking. It can make almost anything taste not entirely shitty. Red wine vinegar is fine too, if you don’t mind looking like a big pussy.

Olive oil. I use olive oil almost exclusively except for deep-frying, where it’s not financially feasible. If you’re really stuck for a dish, boil some pasta and throw some olive oil and balsamic vinegar over it with a few veggies.

Garlic. Garlic is non-negotiable. Everything has fucking garlic in it.

Beef and chicken broth. Unless you’re vegan, in which case you shouldn’t ever listen to my cooking advice ever.

A package of chicken breasts. Fresh are nice, but again, we live in the real world; I buy the Wal-Mart bags, three pounds of boneless skinless chicken breasts for about $7, and thaw ‘em a couple of hours before I use ‘em. I have razor-sharp cooking knives, so I can chop them even if they’re still mostly frozen…which comes in handy if you’re making something where you want to cube your chicken or slice it into actual strips instead of mushy creepy-looking tendrils.

Basil, oregano, parsley. My holy trinity. The wife is allergic to thyme so I don’t use it, but I make up for it a lot with fresh rosemary from the bush out front of our house.

Cumin. Cumin is a big ingredient in both Spanish/Mexican/Tex-Mex-style dishes and in Indian food. I go through more cumin than any other spice.

I also tend to use a lot of onions and mushrooms in my cooking, but that’s a personal choice.

Cooking isn’t about slavishly following recipes: it’s about getting a feel for what tastes good with what. I don’t give a shit about cultural accuracy in my cooking: I’ll mix up anything that tastes rad together. Call it “fusion” if you like. For example, I once made a really awesome jambalaya using Louisiana hot links and frozen chunks of mango that I dredged in salt and pepper (after getting the idea from an MIA lyric). Fucking awesome.

If you know how to make a basic soffritto/mirepoix, the basic mother sauces, and how to properly cook meat to keep it moist (hint: fast and hot), you’re set. Everything from there is just riffing on combinations of flavor and texture. I like combinations of sweet and umami or savory, personally, and I like my food rich and spicy. So I keep several kinds of salt; not the flavored sea salt shit yuppies buy from Bed, Bath & Beyond, but celery salt and seasoned salt and plain ol’ sea salt for crunchy texture. I have Crystal and Srirachi and Cholula hot sauce at the ready.

Note: this is mostly for stove cooking. I can’t bake worth a shit. I’m horrible at it. But I can walk into your kitchen and make something awesome out of whatever you happen to have.

I fail a lot and make weird shit; the other night I tried to make a Burgundy sauce for veggie burgers and ended up with a sort of hideous wine gravy that was completely inedible, mainly by adding too much flour to the mix. But there’s no such thing as failure in cooking…merely lessons to be learned.

Now, if I can just figure out what the fuck to do with tofu….

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Money. Goddamnit.

Just wrote a long letter to a family friend asking for advice on raising a small bit of money to keep me afloat until I can finish Stikki.me. Now it’s 3 am and I’m sitting here, spooked, and hoping the power company will let me make payments before shutting off the lights.

I’ve thought about going the Kickstarter/IndieGoGo route again the way I did with Dbasr, but I feel weird about it. I haven’t abandoned Dbasr, not by a long shot, but it was just too much work for me to do by myself without having enough money to pay the bills. All the code is sitting there waiting to get picked up again. I started playing with Stikki as a way to earn money to work on Dbasr, and that’s still very much the plan. But I’m afraid people just think I took the money and did nothing with it — which is, of course, not true. I’ve busted my ass on Dbasr, the way I’ve busted ass on Stikki. I am grateful for the support I got. It just wasn’t enough to devote myself full-time to finishing that project yet.

I feel really guilty about that, actually. But you can ask my wife  – there were times I worked on Dbasr for literally twenty-four hours straight without sleep, and I do almost the same with Stikki. But I’m not a trust fund kid and I don’t have any financial reserves. When the bills come due, I have to stop working on these things and find paying work, and it’s hard to balance paying and personal work, especially when you’re just married. When I was 21 I probably could have just done an eight hour gig and then holed up and written code until I passed out, but I can’t do that now. I barely sleep as it is; I usually go to bed around four or five am and wake up around ten thirty. And I think Rosalie enjoys it when I occasionally pop my head up and actually interact with her and acknowledge her existence, instead of simply staring at the laptop and muttering darkly about APIs and MVC framework. She also enjoys it when I take showers and shave instead of rolling out of bed and onto the computer.

(In fact, I think the combination of poor hygiene, the stream of swearing about apparent gibberish like “JOIN queries” and “consumer keys” and the straggly beard makes me resemble nothing so much as a random crazy street person, except I have a laptop instead of a shopping cart. Which is no good for Rosalie’s nerves, I know.)

I just keep hoping if I work and work and work I’ll get Stikki finished and money will start coming in. But the last two weeks have fucked me. I couldn’t work, thanks to first the anxiety attacks and then the Xanax zombiedom from trying to chemically defuse the anxiety attacks. I don’t have any money left. I’ve been eyeing my guitars, trying to figure out if I could pawn them for enough to pay the power bills. (Short answer: no. They’re not exactly high-end musical instruments.) I need to work on the two paying projects I’ve got right now basically for sixteen hours a day until the end of the month to barely cover our rent. Which also does my anxiety problem no good, nor does it particularly please my wife.

The worst thing about all of this is that I am absolutely, utterly convinced that I can make Stikki profitable enough to be happy. I’ve done the math, and unless I am staggeringly stupid I can earn enough from advertising to pay the bills within just a couple of months. I can see the Promised Land, where you don’t sit up at three am worrying about bills. I just can’t reach it.

Feel free to ignore this, by the way, and if I sound like I’m whining, well, yeah, I probably am. I’m just tired, and I need help and I don’t know where to find it or even how to ask.

I’m going to go to bed and try to finish the last Harry Potter novel now.

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Sleepwalking

So I’ve been under the weather recently.

About two weeks ago, I started having a weird sensation in my chest. It felt like my heart was leaping, the way it does when you go over the curve on a rollercoaster or get startled. My heart would do a strange thump and it would be as if my breath were slightly knocked out of me for a second. It made me feel really weak. No, truth be told, every time it happened, it felt like I was about to keel over and die.

As an overweight man who smokes like a chimney and whose exercise mainly consists of hauling his fat ass and a big laptop bag from home to one of two nearby coffee shops, I was rather concerned, as you might imagine. I ignored it for about three days, and then Rosalie insisted I go to the doctor. So we went to a local cheap clinic, where a nurse put an EKG on me for about sixty seconds before disappearing for forty-five minutes. Finally a doctor showed up with a laptop in his hand, where he — I kid you not — appeared to be Googling my symptoms.

He told me it was heart palpitations and not to worry about it, that 50% of the population gets them at some time in their lives and that it wasn’t a big deal. He told me it was basically a slowed-down panic attack, caused by stress and anxiety. He told me to stop drinking five big coffees every day. That was it. (Except for discovering that I’ve managed to lower my blood pressure from “dangerously high” to “only slightly higher than normal”, which is good.) He said there wasn’t any medication that could help me.

Being slightly suspicious of a doctor who Googles your symptoms while you’re in the fucking room with him, I managed to acquire some Xanax. (No, I’m not going to tell you where. No, I’m not going to hook you up, either. Don’t even ask me.) I reasoned that Xanax is supposed to help with stress — maybe it would help with this.

And it has, by and large: when I take the Xanax, my heart stops doing dubstep beats in my chest. The tradeoff is that it drops my IQ by 50%. I feel like I’m sleepwalking, or like I’m underwater. This is not a good position for a professional computer programmer to be in.

I think maybe I’ve got it sorted now; I haven’t taken any Xanax today and for the first time in nearly two weeks, I was mentally and physically capable of working.

Which has put me in a bad position, because I’m being paid right now for projects by the hour. So I’m playing catch-up. The problem with that, of course, is that it’s nerve-wracking and stressful…which causes my heart to get floppity again, which makes me want to take Xanax so I don’t feel like I’m dying all day, which makes me retarded, et cetera et cetera.

On the upside, I got the basic framework of Stikki.me’s API built tonight, which means the guys I’m working with on the iOS app can start developing it soon, which means one of the biggest assets of Stikki — the ability to get alerts when you’re near a stikki you’ve set an alarm for — will be available. And that’s game changing.

I’ve also discovered that the prices I’m targeting for advertising on Stikki are less than 10% of what major competitors are charging, which makes me think I’ll be able to drum up ad business relatively easily. Since I have no investors or staff, I don’t need a massive number of advertisers. Put it another way: if I can get 20 advertisers paying my rate monthly — 20 advertisers on a service that works globally – my rent and power bill are paid. 100 and I can devote myself to this full time quite comfortably. 1000 and I’m in that staggering realm of “upper middle class” income.

If you believe in God, seriously, pray for me. I don’t think it’ll actually do anything celestially, but I can use all the good wishes I can handle right now. Because money is tight and I’m kind of freaked out.

Which is making my heart go pitter-pat, and not in a good way. :-)

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Slide, slide, slippety slide

One of the things I love most about using the ipad as a musical instrument is that several of my favorite tools (Bebot, Nanostudio) allow me to treat the screen as a continuous or ribbon controller.

A bit of history here: though the good old fashioned piano keyboard has always been the primary interface for synthesizers, it’s certainly not the only one. The most famous non-piano interface is the theremin, which uses the movement of the performer’s hands through a magnetic field to control pitch and volume.

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That’s Leon Theremin, the inventor of the device, demonstrating it.

One of the more fascinating synthesizers is the ondes Martenot, invented in 1928. The Martenot can be played using either a traditional piano keyboard or using a ring tied to a loop of string below the keyboard. You slide the ring back and forth and the pitch corresponds to the key it’s underneath on the keyboard. Pressing a key or moving the ring produces no sound on its own; rather, the volume is controlled by a sort of rocker switch.

It makes more sense if you see and hear it played. It’s a gorgeous, almost unearthly instrument.

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The Martenot is a favorite instrument of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, who is one of the few modern experts on the device. There aren’t very many of them, and you could probably buy a nice car for what you’d pay for one nowadays.

A similar input, used on a very few obscure synths, is a ribbon controller, which replaces the ring with a reactive ribbon; you place your finger on the ribbon and it breaks the circuit, generating a specific frequency. You can buy these to add on to old analog synths or as MIDI controllers.

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Ribbon controllers tend to be expensive — not as expensive as an ondes Martenot, but I usually see them for a few hundred dollars. Outside my budget for something I’d only use rarely.

Which brings us back to the iPad. The iPad has a touch screen, which means it can very easily be used as a virtual ribbon controller. Beyond that, though, there have been several software instruments designed for the iPad and iPhone which take even better advantage of the device’s interface.

My current favorite is Bebot. Bebot is a small synth app that displays a cute robot on screen. As you touch the screen in various places, the robot “sings” the note you’re playing. Sounds like a toy, right? But in fact, Bebot is a deceptively powerful little synth. Moving your fingers along the X axis of the screen controls pitch; depending upon which synth voice you’re using, Y axis controls either volume or filter. Here’s a dude messing around with it on the iPad.

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A simple tool, but it’s capable of some fairly beautiful output. The only drawback to Bebot is that you can’t record within the app; you need to output it into something else.

Bebot can “autotune” your playing to discrete Western half-tone notes (or whatever scale you choose; you can make Bebot only play in E-minor, for example, by selecting the notes used in the preferences panel). Or, like an ondes Martenot, you can use it as a continuous controller, gliding from note to note, using the onscreen grid or your own ears as a guide. Combine this with the ability to control the velocity of your note by sliding up and down, and you’ve got something that’s most equivalent to a fretless bowed string instrument like a cello or violin. Bebot sounds nothing like these instruments…but you could play a violin piece fairly convincingly on it.

My current favorite music app, Nanostudio, has an on-screen piano keyboard to control its built-in Eden synth (of which you can have four simultaneous instances playing). But it’s not physical, it’s just pixels on the screen…meaning you can slide back and forth between notes as you would on a ribbon controller. I’ve discovered that if you set the Eden to monophonic (meaning you can only play a single note at a time) with portamento (meaning one note “slides” to the next”), you can get something that, with a little practice, approximates a continuous controller. What I like is that the glide only happens when you hold notes down; you can still get normal instant notes by playing staccato.

Here’s a snippet of my first attempt at this: a cover of Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)”. I’ve gotten a bit better at using the Eden since this, but I think this is a cool first attempt. Listen for the synth solo at about 24 seconds in.

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I’m really excited about MorphWiz, an instrument endorsed by keyboardist Jordan Rudess of prog-metal outfit Dream Theater. (Not a band I listen to, but the guy’s certainly a talented musician.) It looks a lot like Bebot on crack, adding recording and looping capabilities as well as “morphing” from waveform to waveform.

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The interface is a bit Heavy Metal for my taste, but I can deal with that if it works. I’m convinced, deep down, that all synths are meant to be ugly.

If I come up with anything really cool using these tools, I’ll post it up so you can hear my progress.

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of iPad magazines and online publishing

So Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily iPad “newspaper” is in the news, mainly because it’s failed to appear. It seems that publishers are falling all over themselves to come up with their own iPad app-based publications — Wired and Scientific American were early, semi-successful contenders in the field.

I have an iPad, and frankly, I completely fail to see the point of application-based publications, at least from a reader/user’s perspective. I am a Wired subscriber, and I’m not willing to pay for another copy of the magazine on my iPad, particularly when most of the content is also available for free from their website. Video-enhanced ads — one of the big selling points of the Wired app — do not fill me with excitement in the same way they do, I suspect, for the advertisers themselves. While it’s briefly amusing to be able to see a 360º view of an Audi, I’m not in the market for an Audi, and I don’t care to see what the passenger side looks like.

The fact is that 90% of the “functionality” of these apps is just as easily accomplished within a browser using HTML 5, Ajax and Javascript animation. That’s if you want the whiz-bang UI fun that most of these apps offer, which I’m not sure I do. In the ten minutes I played with Wired’s iPad app, I didn’t feel that the navigation system (scroll up and down to read pages of an article, left and right to switch from article to article) was in any way easier to use or more illuminating than clicking an article’s title in a menu. It’s slightly groovy, but I mean, come on: this is the 21st century. This is not the most innovative UI we’ve seen.

A far more interesting interface for news is Flipboard, which is a sort of RSS aggregation reader on psychedelics. Instead of simply presenting you with a list of your Google Reader feeds, it extracts images from the feeds (along with your Twitter and Facebook feeds, optionally) and presents you with something that looks more like a “real” magazine than most of the magazine apps do. While it doesn’t add any efficiency to the task of navigating your news feeds, it does so in an interesting and relatively novel way.

Flipboard didn’t really become interesting to me, though, until it added the ability to add your own Google Reader feeds, rather than a pre-selected list of “partner” feeds, which is how it launched. One of the things that media companies need to understand is that these much-touted partnerships are rarely of interest to anybody but themselves and the companies they’re partnering with, the same way wifty ad technology is rarely interesting to anybody but advertisers and the people who depend upon advertising income. Even so, Flipboard is cute, the kind of thing I’d read on the john in the morning, but I use it far less than I use Reeder and River of News, my two favorite RSS aggregator apps for the iPad. (I like River of News’s feed organization 100% better than Reeder’s, but it has some small UI quirks that keep me using Reeder for now; I hope that changes soon.)

You would think that the success of tools like Instapaper might be a flagpost for online media publishers trying to figure out how to succeed: people don’t want flashy UIs in their text-based publications. They usually just want to read the goddamn articles and look at the pictures therein. Multimedia is fine, I suppose, but as a parallel alternative method for retrieving information. I don’t know about you, but when I see a link to an interview and follow it only to discover that the interview is a video or audio file, not text, I’m often irritated. Multimedia content is usually less dense than text; oftentimes a touted multimedia “interview” is a 30 second clip of some toadying goofball asking a celebrity two banal questions.

You’d think we’d gotten past that idiotic idea, oft-espoused in the late 1990s and early 2000s, that nobody will read more than 500 words of text online. Instapaper’s success alone would seem to prove otherwise. I don’t mind reading 2000-3000 word articles or more on my iPad. I just mind reading them broken up into twelve pages that I have to load — along with all the ads and chrome that online publications are pathologically incapable of not adding to every page. I often click on the “printable version” button just to read the article in some sort of mental peace.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make a successful online newspaper/magazine, and I’ll get into that soon. Meanwhile, I offer this suggestion to publishers: stop this whole multimedia app dick measuring contest and focus on building a web-based magazine that people actually want to read. It’s cheaper in the long run.

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Current Listening 1-13-2011

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This is why NASA is important

This brought a tear to my eye.

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Rhapsody Blind

Just a shout-out here on something my friend John has created: Rhapsody Blind, a set of scripts that allow visually-impaired Windows users to navigate Rhapsody, the streaming music service.

From what I can tell, there aren’t really a whole lot of good tools for blind computer users; we rarely think about how the traditional GUI interface is much harder to translate for a visually-impaired person than old text interfaces (which work, as I understand it, relatively well with Braille mechanical display devices that “pop up” the characters as Braille underneath the user’s fingers). So it’s really great to see tools like this out there.

So if you’re visually-impaired or know somebody who could use this, please check it out. The scripts are free, though they require the JAWS screen reading app.

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Essential iPad Tools

So I’ve had an iPad for a few weeks now; I’m beginning to learn iOS development and it seemed like a useful thing to have, as I no longer have an iPhone. (I lost it.) Also, I needed something portable to carry other than my aging MacBook Pro, which is definitely showing signs of wear and tear. Most of what I do with computers can be done on an iPad, barring graphic design work; and I’ve managed to get around a lot of the iPad’s limitations.

So I thought I’d share with you the tools and apps I’ve found coolest and most useful so far.

1) A keyboard Several years ago, I described in my Las Vegas CityLife column what I thought was the ideal form-factor for a portable computing device: a touch-enabled tablet that could be carried separately from its keyboard. The iPad gets this half-right, and honestly for most casual use the onscreen keyboard is fine. I can average about fifty WPM on it, which is decent for web browsing, tweeting, writing notes, etc.

However, I want to use my iPad to write long documents (like fiction) and PHP/HTML/CSS/Javascript code. And for that, you need a physical keyboard. It’s not just the tactility of it, though that’s a big part of things; it’s also the fact that the iPad’s virtual keyboard takes up 50% of the screen, and when you’re trying to do serious coding or writing that doesn’t work.

I wanted the Apple bluetooth wireless keyboard, but I didn’t want to spend $70 for it. So I got Apple’s Camera Connection Kit, which includes a USB-iDevice 30 pin adapter. It’s made to stick USB drives into the iPad so you can transfer images onto it, but an undocumented feature is that you can hook other sorts of USB devices in as well…including both QWERTY keyboards and MIDI controllers.

I got a $14 mini-keyboard at Fry’s to go with it, one of the cheap little ones that sysadmins often buy to hook into servers they rarely need to directly access. It’s not bad — it has a steel frame and it’s barely wider than the iPad itself. Keyboard goes into the camera kit, camera kit goes into the iPad. The OS will popup and tell you the device isn’t supported, but it works perfectly well. Supposedly you can control the iPad’s hardware like volume and the Home button with keyboard combinations, but I haven’t figured them out yet.

I’m using it now to type this, and it’s just as responsive as my desktop, typing within the Safari browser. Selecting with the keyboard works perfectly — hold down the Shift key and use the arrows, just like a desktop — though often tabbing around interface stuff doesn’t work the way one would expect. But it’s a marked improvement.

2) Docs-To-Go This was my office suite of choice for the iPad, because it supports uploading docs to Google Docs and to Dropbox, which I use extensively. So far it’s pretty decent — almost fullscreen editing of Word documents. I can’t figure out if there are keyboard shortcuts for text formatting, but I haven’t tried much other than Ctrl-I for italics. I’m thinking of trying out WriteRoom as well, as I have it and love it on the desktop.

3) FTP On The Go / Textastic For code editing, this is my one-two combo. FTP On The Go is a really full-featured FTP client for iOS that also allows text editing of documents directly from the server. The only reason I use Textastic with it is that FTPOTG doesn’t support the only two code editing functions I really need: line numbering and syntax highlighting. Textastic does, though it doesn’t have its own FTP client built in. I’m hoping one of these two apps adopts the other one’s features so I can just use one, but for right now these are a nice set of tools. I also have iSSH for telnetting or SSHing into servers.

4) Reeder I’m a Google Reader junkie. Unfortunately, the default UI for it doesn’t work properly in Mobile Safari and the mobile version is retarded. So I’ve been using the popular Reeder app, which syncs with Google Reader, to read my RSS feeds.

It has its limitations — the most irritating being that it navigates via folders, not individual feeds. I organize my feeds with folders, but there are a lot of feeds I don’t check regularly or want to basically ignore most of the time. For example, my News folder has Google News, Yahoo News, and the Guardian UK’s Culture feed. I can’t look at just one of these with Reeder — they all show up, either organized by the feed itself or by time. I’d rather just be able to only look at one feed at a time.

I just got the River of News app, which seems to be much closer to what I really want in a RSS reader UI, but it seems a bit slow, interface-wise — it loads each item slowly and sometimes cuts off images. But we’ll see.

5) Instapaper Instapaper on the iPad is an incredibly useful tool. You can save entire web pages to it for later viewing. It also reformats the page and strips out everything but the main text and images, displaying it in minimalist black and white. The iOS app downloads the page and stores it locally, so you can read pages even when you’re not online. And you can send things to it from Twitter or Reeder, which rocks — if I find an interesting article in Reeder or somebody posts a link to something, I just send it to Instapaper and check it out later.

6) iBooks I haven’t bothered with the Kindle or Nook readers for iPad, because iBooks does what I want it to do and does it well. The only problem I have with it is that it won’t display PDFs in a two-page spread — the PDF page only shows up one page at a time. But it’s not a deal breaker. It’s also awesome for reading comics.

7) Nanostudio My current favorite app. Nanostudio is a portable electronic music studio, similar to Propellerheads’ Rebirth or Beatstudio. But Nanostudio is more flexible, featuring four dual-oscillator synths and an MPC-style sampler. You can mix down your loops directly into the sampler, export each part of the song individually, record samples from the mic or input, and output your mixes directly into SoundCloud. The onscreen keyboard is actually usable, and I’ve managed to make it work like a ribbon controller. (If you don’t know what this means, don’t worry. It’s music nerd speak.)

I’m sure I’ll come up with more, but this is the basic list.

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