1. Hitting That Tablet Sweet Spot: The Atavist

    The idea is a such a simple one that it’s no wonder that everyone who has tried it before has made a hash of it: create a ideal format for mid-length storytelling that recalls the better long form magazine journalism while making use of the possibilities of the multimedia age. Much like it took over a decade for people who actually TALK on their cellphones in public to be treated like the social lepers that they are, with the tablet and mid-length writing (more than an article, less than a book) the technology has preceded its appropriate patterns of usage.

    Enter The Atavist. 15,000 words, give or take. $2 a pop. The writer gets paid a flat fee plus a percentage (likely less than Apple’s 30% cut… ouch!) Stories launch simultaneously for the iPad, iPhone, Kindle, Nook, and soon, Android tablets (“We are working very hard on it, we promise…” says Atavist’s tech page.)

    The writers of the Atavist’s debut offerings–Wired regulars Brendan Koerner and Evan Ratliff–were kind enough to give me a demo on their iPads. “This one’s a loaner,” Koerner admits, dropping a non sequitur about the difference between his and Will Smith’s lifestyle.

    The debut stories are a joy to read. The format definitely encourages linear reading but doesn’t prohibit the sort of skimming and jumping around that internet-trained brains are prone to do. A button offers intuitive chapter selection, another shows or hides footnotes with audio, text, maps and timelines. The timeline features the clever option of hiding any spoilers by shrouding later events when accessed from early pages.

    So what’s the biggest change for the writers in crafting a story for this format? “The notes,” Koerner asserts. “In a book, you assume no one will read them. When they’re in-line, everybody will.” Because of the size, as compared to a full-length book, “I tried to keep things zooming along,” sometimes giving short-shrift to details of the setting–World War II-era India–that the average reader might not have the best acquaintance with. While an in-depth exploration of the Bengal famine or the nitty gritty of U.S. and British troop deployment policies wouldn’t work in something designed as a mid-size read, having inline notes available for background keeps readers on the same page while keeping the main narrative moving along.

    To best exploit this new form, Koerner’s plotting approach also changed. Koerner compares it to his recent experience adapting Now the Hell Will Start, his book about the jungle manhunt for soldier Herman Perry, to a script. Having archival photographs and scans of original sources not only integrated as inline elements but given pages of their own required a more visual approach to plan out the piece’s flow. “Kind of like a storyboard with text.” Because of the format, “I tried to keep it as visual as possible‚ us[ing] photos to create the atmosphere of that era.”

    Having such an expanded set of channels with which to tell a story gives the authors expanded options but also another hazard: reader overload. “You don’t want to overload the reader with links,” Ratliff says. With such intricate stories as a helicopter assisted multimillion-dollar heist in Sweden and the life and times of Asia’s preeminent WWII-era jazzman, there could be novels worth of footnotes luring the reader off into the weeds. It’s a process of managing the reader’s trust in the author, keeping them assured that what makes it into the main text and what makes it into the notes and media sections are specifically selected to create a cohesive story.

    The back end of the Atavist is a content management system built by Creative Director Jefferson Rabb. Ratliff showed off the control panel, emphasizing its versatility and basic writer-friendliness. “[Rabb] built the CMS to make it as easy as writing a blog post,” Ratliff says, adding that the interface would be manageable for anyone who had ever used something like WordPress, but with presets and options fit specifically to a certain Atavist style.

    That’s what’s striking about this debut: a feeling that a lot of thought went into what works and what doesn’t work in mid-length storytelling on a tablet. Where will people be reading these stories? What size chapters best meet a tablet reader’s attention span? What sort of options will build and support the narrative without distracting? From there, the Atavist team crafted a very compelling user experience.

    Case in point: both stories not only come with an audio version, but the reader can switch between audio and reading seamlessly, picking up with either right at the point in the story where they left off. Think of reading on a subway or bus as it fills up or taking your reading from the breakfast table to the car. It’s little details like this that signal that the minds behind this app understand where their user experience fits into the real world.

    The Atavist app and three chapter previews of Koerner and Ratliff’s stories, complete with extras, are available for free on the iTunes App store. Note that getting the full-length of each requires an in-app purchase, a tricky proposition for those of us who jailbreak their iOS devices. The stories are also available, in somewhat more limited form, as Kindle or Nook singles.


    In another sign of the total destruction of the nerd closet, the word’s out that there’s a new series of Red Dwarf in the pipeline for 2012.  I have nearly fond memories of how my local PBS affiliate would end the night’s programming with an episode or two, long after the totebag-buyers had gone to bed.  I was typically stumbling in from some kind of chemical simulation of putting one’s brain in a rock tumbler (extreme Northeast winter temperatures + the finest high gravity malt liquors + early Rammstein) and trying to piece together what was happening with the cat-man in the smoking jacket and the chubby dreaded British guy from the last five minutes of the show as a good way of bringing my brainwaves back to safe levels of bafflement.

    While I always assumed it was a laugh track, apparently these were shot before a live studio audience. Like the Cosby Show! Trying to keep that tradition alive in the 2012 version, however, it hitting some snags.  Martin Anderson at Shadowlocked reports:

    Llewellyn notes, not necessarily without an air of trepidation, that the 2012 Red Dwarf is seriously considering shooting in front of a live studio audience, which hasn’t happened for the show since 1998. And, as the actor points out, does anyone remember 1998? The pre-Twitter years…?

    The fear among the producers now is that it’s impossible to imagine an audience of around 400 people at the recording of a TV show like Red Dwarf, where nobody does a bit of a hint on Twitter, or sneaks a picture on Facebook or posts a bit of badly shot video on YouTube.

    Perhaps the only solution is to do the show live, as the BBC did with David Tennant and The Quatermass Experiment 4 years back…? Otherwise the only reasonable solution is to confiscate the audience members’ phones and execute them straight after the performance, which may put a dent in the show’s comedy stylings.

    While executions might rile the fanbase, confiscating the camera-bearing devices sounds prudent enough. Might I suggest things be taken a step further? Why not strip the audience down to producer-provided Red Dwarf briefs and pasties? Any uncomfortability can be overcome with free liquor and the skimpy undergarments can later be sold on eBay to those fanboys who couldn’t get tickets and terrible perverts alike. Actors reap an added bonus of a reduction of stage fright through that time-tested method of picturing the audience in their underwear, no imagination required.

    Here’s hoping being the one who came up with this spoiler crushing innovation secures me VIP passes to all tapings and a nice tight pair of Red Dwarf briefs.  Make mine with gold trim.

  3. Our Oceans, Ourselves

    While I’m sure Africa is a little tired of being everyone else’s metaphor for the Grim Meathook Future, it’s a big place so there’s plenty of little vignettes like this to go around.  Just multiply by a few million or so, transpose to the oceans, and you’ve got your future where your grandchildren ask you what a tuna looked like and all you can think of is a little flat can.

    For all my brethren bailing water on the Titanic, here’s some lists of scaly beasts that it’s more OK to make into sushi: Seafood Watch.

    video via Pie Heaven and the BBC

  4. The Palestine Papers

    I know, it’s not exactly a slow news day.  Jack LeLanne died after all.  You’d think, though, that they could fit in word of the leak of 1,600 documents relating to Israel-Palestinian Authority negotiations somewhere in between the State of the Union address (Haven’t read the transcript yet but I imagine that he used to words ‘America’ ‘prosper’ and ‘create jobs’ a few times somewhere in there. Just guessing.) and Egypt starting to rip at the seams (Though many news minutes might be needed to explain to viewers that despite having pyramids and mummies, Egypt is realer than both Narnia and Middle Earth).

    Take a look.  Al Jazeera’s West Bank office has already been smashed up a bit by protesters angry at the black eye this is giving the P.A.  Of course, some of those protesters just might have been policemen working overtime.

    While I’ve only taken the quickest of looks through thus far, the story these leaked documents seem to tell is the Palestinian Authority offering unprecedented concessions of territory and being met with even greater demands by Israel. There’s also further evidence of coordination between P.A.  and Israeli militaries in conducting operations against other Palestinian factions, something previously suggested in leaked U.S. diplomatic cables.

    So what are these “Palestinian Papers”?  From al Jazeera’s FAQ:

    What are the Palestine Papers?

    The Palestine Papers are the largest leak of confidential files in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a cache of more than 1,600 documents encompassing the most recent decade of negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority.  They are an unprecedented window into Israeli, PA, US, European, and Arab relations and reveal a wealth of information about how the parties negotiate behind closed doors.

    Taken in total, the Palestine Papers instigate a broader conversation on such issues as whether a two state endgame is achievable and desirable and whether international and US-led processes to reach that goal have only deepened Israeli occupation.

    There are 1,684 total documents, including

    • 275 sets of meeting minutes;
    • 690 internal e-mails;
    • 153 reports and studies;
    • 134 sets of talking points and prep notes for meetings;
    • 64 draft agreements;
    • 54 maps, charts and graphs;
    • and 51 “non-papers.”

    Taking a look around at the rest of the world’s media, it becomes readily apparent how much bigger of an issue this is for everywhere but the U.S.  We now return you to your regularly scheduled techno-idealism and H.P. Lovecraft gossip

  5. First UFO related Wikileaks?

    Skip the introduction and go straight to Afterposten’s alleged cable leak

    In a December 3 article of The Guardian, Julian Assange answered readers questions. To one question on UFOs he answered:

    Many weirdos email us about UFOs or how they discovered that they were the anti-christ whilst talking with their ex-wife at a garden party over a pot-plant. However, as yet they have not satisfied two of our publishing rules.
    1) that the documents not be self-authored;
    2) that they be original.
    However, it is worth noting that in yet-to-be-published parts of the cablegate archive there are indeed references to UFOs.

    So realistically speaking some cables may mention UFOs, but its unlikely any claim direct contact with extraterrestrials, disclosure, or anything beyond UFOs simply being Unidentified Flying Objects.

    There some interesting gems in the Wikileaks cables such as Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi parties hard like Andrew WK, Saudi King urged chips for GitMo inmates, and an elderly dentists escape from Iran on horseback. This is all the equivalent of international high school rumors, nothing damning or unexpected.

    So what of the UFO cables? Alan Boyle of MSNBC writes:

    And what about the pending WikiLeaks disclosure? Well, several countries — including Britain,CanadaFrance and New Zealand — have been releasing their UFO files over the past few years, so it wouldn’t be surprising if U.S. diplomats cabled back some of the inside scoop about those files as they were coming to light.

    Hell, we even know one UFO sighting caused Winston Churchill to issue a coverup.

    Afterposten claims to have the first UFO related Wikileaks.

    In an alleged cable from December 21 2007:

    BKGB Chairman Yuriy Zhadobin on why his organization no longer
    investigates paranormal phenomena:
    Unlike during the USSR, the department is not engaged in studying paranormal phenomena. [Back then,] we had greater means and opportunities which we could spend on anything and everything. Today the situation is different. Then, when society was excited by something, it entered our sphere of interest. But when it comes to healers, UFOs and such, we just can´t deal with them any more.


    This cable isn’t in Wikileak’s list of December 2007 cables, so its authenticity is questioned. Its banality is not. We’ve known for sometime that both the US and USSR dabbled in free wheeling experiments of the psychic and paranormal. We also know with the end of the Cold War there isn’t the money or interest in this stuff.

    Even if this cable is legitimate, its nothing new. Move along, nothing to see.