Friday, February 28, 2014

Six sites worth your time

I'll admit that I've struggled as much as anyone to balance the all-pervasive influence of the Internet in my life. The proverbial cat videos and catchphrase GIFs can really eat up your day. For that reason, I love it when I find a site where the content is curated a little more carefully. Someone else has already gone through the selection process of what is praiseworthy. Of course there is Wikipedia, which can lead to nearly endless chains of articles that take you from fish to space dust to Finland before you know it. If you like revealing reads, fascinating facts or trusty tools, you'll like the sites on this list, some of my favorite places on the internet. When I'm not giggling at Cracked, that is.


Brain Pickings is blog by Maria Popova. The site is a self-proclaimed "human-powered discovery engine for interestingness, a subjective lens on what matters in the world and why, bringing you things you didn’t know you were interested in — until you are." For me, this site is a wonderful model of how content curation works. I'm never sure what to expect, except that generally the blog shares wonderful insights from creative people on the creative process. 

The most significant contribution to my life that the blog has given is its 'LEGO approach' to creativity: 
The core ethos behind Brain Pickings is that creativity is a combinatorial force: It’s our ability to tap into the mental pool of resources — ideas, insights, knowledge, inspiration — that we’ve accumulated over the years just by being present and alive and awake to the world, and to combine them in extraordinary new ways. In order for us to truly create and contribute to culture, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these ideas and build new ideas — like LEGOs. The more of these building blocks we have, and the more diverse their shapes and colors, the more interesting our creations will be. 
As a boy who spent most of his childhood up late at night playing quietly with LEGOs, I can really relate to the idea that creating is using the building blocks of the mind. It also gives a justification for spending time on sites like Brain Pickings: its like adding blocks to your collection. All it costs is time... Read more about Brain Pickings' content curation philosophy here and start adding to the LEGO chest of your mind today!

Favorite entry: Tchaikovsky saying not to sit your hands when you don't feel creative.


Like Brain Pickings, Atlas Obscura will bring you random things you didn't know you were interested in, except here it is exclusively fascinating places you never knew existed. The site is full of hidden, unknown niches that remind you how big and strange and wonderful the world still is.
In an age where everything seems to have been explored and there is nothing new to be found, we celebrate a different way of looking at the world. If you're searching for MINIATURE CITIES,GLASS FLOWERS, BOOKS BOUND IN HUMAN SKIN, GIGANTIC FLAMING HOLES IN THE GROUND, BONE CHURCHES, BALANCING PAGODAS, or HOMES BUILT ENTIRELY OUT OF PAPER, the Atlas Obscura is where you'll find them.
I've always been fascinated by little-known corners of the world, and this site is like catnip for wanderlust.

Favorite entry: The island of La Gomera's whistling language.


I hesitate to share TV Tropes - I've never successfully gotten somebody into it, although when I meet someone else who frequents it there is great rejoicing. Essentially, it is a site about patterns (tropes) that recur in various creative works across multiple genres. But to just explain it like that doesn't begin to give you a picture of how this site will open your eyes in a whole new way with every book you read, every movie or show you watch, every song you hear. You'll get a strange new vocabulary whenever you talk about movies or shows or books. You'll start to feel like a genius wrapped inside a riddler with a sweet, quirky core. Things get meta, is all I'm trying to say. Just search for your favorite show/book/movie and start reading the tropes pages that pop up. You'll get a feel for it, and who knows, maybe next time we talk we'll discuss how the new Disney Star Wars lampshades the applied phlebotinum of the original movies.

Favorite entry: (impossible to pick, but..) The concept of the Five-Man Band explains the main characters of almost anything you've ever seen or read.


I've never been a huge fan of comics or graphic novels (Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim series excepted), but I do follow a few online comics. The best is Winston Rowntree's Subnormality. It's is a little bit like if Brain Pickings and TV Tropes had a graphic novel for a baby. This is not your childhood Sunday comic, is what I'm trying to say. Mostly the 500+ stories are stand-alone for each page, like this one about a man time traveling back to learn more about a revered figure from the past, only to end up becoming that man (it's not specifically about Christ, if you're worried about that. It's a beautiful musing on the way that people and cultures are changed by the stories they tell). There are some recurring characters, such as a cranky, carnivorous sphinx who inexplicably lives in the modern age, or this girl (who, in that page, has a visit to the "museum of the theoretical"). As the subtitle of the comic says, there is 'too much reading,' but that is sort of what makes the comic meaningful and really transcend the genre. Occasionally there are wonderful 'eye spy' type pages like this 'floor plan of the mind' or this runner-up for my favorite entry: "The creative process." If you just go to the main site he's got some other interesting projects (particularly the long-form graphic novel Sector 41, set in an abandoned post-Soviet city).

Favorite entry: Zanadu (misspelling intentional). Hands down my favorite stand-alone story on the site, Zanadu is a poignant but comedic story about being okay with not having all the answers. It makes me wish it was a short film that I could do the music for. Read it for the brilliant, made-up, oddly-specific word definitions if nothing else.


"Make Lists. Not War." In contrast to the other sites on this list, WorkFlowy is just an elegant and free way to organize your to-do list. As the name suggests, it flows really well from upper to lower levels of the hierarchy. I'm sure there are other more muscular resources out there, but I've found that this works really well for me. To give you an example of how I use it, my main page has:
  • To-Do
  • Composition
  • Class Notes
  • Website/Networking
  • Journal
  • Interesting
My To-Do list is the most active one, with things being added and crossed off ('completed') daily. Under composition I keep tabs on my various ideas for composing, including an increasingly long list of dream projects. Class Notes helps me keep track of everything from school in one place. Website/Networking has all my goals and ideas for expanding my brand as composer. Journal is a digital place for me to write in my journal when I don't feel up to writing it out by hand. 'Interesting' is where I keep links and other topics of things that I want to look up sometime, but probably shouldn't right now because I've got so much on my to-do list! If you'd like to sign up, please do so through this link, as it will give me some more free space (not that I've ever had a problem since I first got a couple friends to sign up).

Favorite entry: I've got two lists of all the hymn ideas that I'd like to do, one for musical ideas and one for theme/text ideas. I'm not sure why I'm so obsessed with writing hymns as there is little chance of any of them achieving any sort of widespread use by the LDS church membership. The hymns used in Sunday meetings are almost exclusively from the 1985 ("we've-translated-this-into-too-many-languages-to-change-course-now") hymnal and hymns are sadly underused outside of Sunday meetings. But it is the primary liturgical genre of the church, as much as such a thing exists, and when I feel like composing a sacred song, this is what has come out so far. You can download free scores for all my hymns here.


Ah! Finally something Russian on this list, sort of! The original theremin was invented by Leon Theremin, a Russian inventor. As a device it is manipulated by waving your hands in the air and pretty much feeling like you are in a science fiction movie as sounds morph to your motions. Well, the good folks at Femur Design have created a digital, online version of the theremin that you can now go and spend countless hours playing, no training, musical skill, or expensive gear required. Don't forget to change up the various parameters of waveform/delay time/feedback/scuzz!

Favorite trick: At least on my laptop, if you click and move the mouse off of the playing area, when you return it will stay clicked without you keeping it down. Also, its super fun to move the mouse very slowly in tiny increments and listen to the way the sound changes.

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