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RSS Minimalism

What Google, minimalism and the world’s most celebrated font have in common.

We love Google Reader. We also love minimalism. So we’re all over Helvetireader, a brilliantly minimalist userscript for GR by Oxford-based duo Hicksdesign that takes the “real simple” of RSS to the design front.

Helvetireader screenshot

The interface, inspired by the highly acclaimed Helvetica font, uses Google Reader’s nifty keyboard shortcuts, eliminating on-screen buttons to present feeds in expanded view. It’s available for Firefox, Opera, Google Chrome, and any Webkit browser with Greasekit installed. And if your browser doesn’t support userscripts or you’d like to further customize the interface, you can download just the CSS file.

You can follow Helvetireader on Twitter for updates on tweaks and answers to troubleshooting questions.

Compared to Google’s recent themes for Gmail, which we must say left us underwhelmed, Helvetireader hits the sweet spot.


Geek Wednesdays: The Ephemeral Web

A modern time machine for data and what we can learn about the web from Victorian toys.

Kevin Kelly: The One MachineWith the constant proliferation of data and its spread across the social web, we’re closer than we think to what Kevin Kelly has dubbed the One Machine. The final leap in information systems lies not in accumulating more and more data, but it in making sense of the information that does exist — which, of course, is increasingly hard the more of it there is out there.

That’s why we’re digging Zoetrope, a breakthrough development by four University of Washington students in partnership with Adobe Systems. It’s a revolutionary visualization system that allows interaction with the evolution of data as it changes across the ephemeral web — a set of operations that analyze content stream and extract temporal data.

And when you think about it, that’s pretty damn novel — after all, we’re used to looking at web pages that are nothing but static snapshots that stay a certain way for a given period of time, then update into another static snapshot.

Zoetrope lets you create a “lens” — a dynamic filter that tracks something you’re interested in as it fluctuates over time.

You can set up a lens for a specific topic, bind two lenses together to explore the correlation between two topics, anchor a lens to a specific portion of a web page and track how it changes over time, or even create a lens for the price point of that shiny new gadget you’ve been dying to get your hands on so you can pick the best time to buy it.

Zoetrope is also brilliantly extensible and data extracted by it is usable in many other information services, like the wonderful Swivel (which we’ve featured before) and IBM’s Many Eyes — systems whose forte lies in representing data in slick ways, but not necessarily in tracking the information in the first place, which is where Zoetrope steps in.

Victorian ZoetropeThe system’s name is an allusion to the Victorian zoetrope device — a cylinder that creates the illusion of action by spinning static images in rapid succession.

Ironic, since the web is actually the complete opposite — action taking place faster than we can process, forcing us to artificially create static safe spots so we can keep up.

No word yet on when we’re to expect Zoetrope in public beta, but something tells us this one won’t have trouble on the VC circuits.


2008 in Album Art

The year’s best cover art — from albums that actually didn’t suck.

All too often we see killer album artwork, only to find it covering a total musical let-down — perhaps banking on the trite notion that people will indeed judge a book, or in this case an album, by its cover.

So we sifted through a sea of mediocrity and sheer hideousness, both graphic and musical, to bring you the most innovative album covers of 2008 — from albums that were actually good. Really, really good.


Just like movie sequels, second albums are usually more of a disappoint than an upgrade. Always the non-conformists, electro-pop-hop duo Gnarls Barkley does nothing of the sort. Their second album, The Odd Couple, oozes cinematic beats, powerful vocals and compelling lyrics.

The cover art belies the album’s unique urban sensibility bent through a prism of crisp electronica and vibrant Brit-pop-like undercurrents and an urban sensibility.

Best track: Going On.


From the UK’s smoky underground bar scene straight to the soundtrack of just about every American primetime drama, British sensation Adele is just that: a sensation. Amy Winehouse without the substance-induced self-destruction, her powerful raspy voice and infectious melodies stick to your soul like a housefly on melted licorice.

Adele: 19

And there’s something to be said for using pure portrait photography in cover art — perhaps because it’s so incredibly difficult to do tastefully, it’s a rarity these days. The few contemporary artists who do it mostly go for an overly Photoshoppy textured and filtered photo, or simply bail with an abstract illustration.

19, however, is supreme in its clean, bold simplicity. The rich negative space and minimalist color scheme yield to the meticulous lighting and the natural curves, building a powerful sense of mystery and allure — a perfect visual metaphor for the music within.

Best track: Right As Rain.


Another breath-of-fresh-air British import, Kate Nash burst onto the global scene this year. Made of Bricks vibrates with her perky beats and angst-driven yet profound lyrics, it’s like The Clash was reincarnated in the body of a 23-year-old girl.

Kate Nash: Made of Bricks

The album art captures the Tim Burtonesque magic of Nash’s music — poppy, almost child-like beats and vocals that turn chilling and heavy in a split second under the burden of an adult mind.

Best track: Pumpkin Soup.


The artist who took SXSW by storm and invaded the hipster scene faster than a new American Apparel V-neck did so in good right. Her eponymous debut album is nothing short of brilliant, with a sound so utterly unique that it may just be the stuff of tomorrow’s music history books.

The album artwork, much like the music inside, is a bold manifestation of minimalism with a punch, from the quiet, grainy black-and-white photograph blasted with an unexpected burst of gold, to the provocative layout and muted yet unusual typography.

Best track: Lights Out.


Yep, we were all over David Byrne and Brian Eno’s latest album, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today — a more-than-worthy compensation for the pair’s 27-year-long absence from the music frontlines.

The cover design itself is both refreshing and nostalgic in that eerie retro-futurism kind of way, complete with slightly-off 3D imagery and an oddly metallic color scheme.

Everything That Happens Will Happen Today

Our favorite track, Strange Overtones, also happens to be a free download on Amazon, so go grab a copy and be your own judge. Yep, it comes with the artwork.


There was buildup. There was anticipation. There was hype. Which means Radiohead’s In Rainbows had a lot to live up to and could easily disappoint. Except it didn’t.

Radiohead: In Rainbows

The artwork itself captures the crisp, high-energy and indulgently vibrant sound of the album in all its organized chaos. Not to mention it inspired arguably even more awesome fan covers and a ton of utterly brilliant motion graphics.

The cover art even inspired an iGoogle spin-off — three artist themes designed by the band and an amazing motion graphics gadget for the House of Cards video.


Speaking of buildup, no one comes anywhere near Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails in that department — we’re talking elaborate secret immersive games, iPhone apps, user-generated music videos, and a very clear message to major labels instructing them to perform anatomically impossible acts.

Their latest “surprise” album, The Slip, was released label-free and without any promotion under a Creative Commons license and despite (or, Trent Reznor may argue, because of) intentionally releasing the album to bit torrents first, it generated tremendous response with over 1.6 million downloads from the official website alone, on top of torrent downloads and CD sales.

Nine Inch Nails: The Slip

And as far as the album artwork goes, the cover image — creepy-cool as it may be — isn’t really the album’s greatest feat. Each song on it actually comes with its own artwork, some alluding to older albums and clearly part of a bigger message for fans to decode.

We have to give it to NIN for extreme originality and innovation across pretty much every facet of the music industry and every fan touch point.

Best track: Discipline.


World AIDS Day 2008: Join the Fight

What 20 years, 112 million bloggers and a simple pledge have in common.

We’re doing something a little different today. Because today is the 20th anniversary of World Aids Day, a powerful opportunity to reflect on the deadly pandemic that started eating away at the world over 27 years ago — and the one time when it’s particularly not okay to roll our eyes at the overexposed and underaddressed problem.

World AIDS Day 20th AnniversaryNo need to drum on about the stats, because we all know how frightening they are, but just consider that by the time you finish reading this, 71 new people will be infected with AIDS, adding to the 33 million worldwide living with the disease.

So what can you do? Generally, “awareness” is a comfortable, failure-free way of pretending to be involved in a cause without really being responsible for its tangible success. (Seriously, has “awareness” cured, say, breast cancer?) But AIDS is extraordinary because in this particular case, awareness is action — in a disease where the only cure is prevention, the more people get tested and know how to “be careful,” the less people get infected.

So learn a thing or two about how not to get infected. And, seriously, get tested — the first step to chipping away at the colossal problem is refusing to think of it as an abstraction, and that begins with personal initiative — if you live in the States, find a testing center near you or just text your zip code to “KNOWIT” (566948) and they’ll text back with a nearby center. And if you live elsewhere in the world, enlist Google and a few friends in finding out about local testing options or check out UNAIDS, the United Nations program against HIV/AIDS.

You can also take the World AIDS Campaign leadership pledge and even follow on Twitter.

If you’re a designer, allot some pro-bono time to doing a compelling piece that raises awareness, moves people and inspires action — talk about using your power for goodBloggers Unite

And if you’re one of the world’s 112 million bloggers, grab the World Aids Day badge and participate in BloggersUnite, an ambitious initiative to leverage the traction of the blogosphere in reaching more people with the simple yet powerful awareness message.

So go ahead, do your part. Because the more the word spreads, the less the disease does. Think about it.


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