The best Web review of the year ... well, maybe not

January 5, 2009

As I grow older, I'm becoming increasingly introand retrospective. But I have conflicting feelings about all of this looking back.

I'm reminded of this at the end of each year when publications are full of "best of" lists and annual retrospectives. If you stopped me on the street and asked what I think about "The Most Memorable Moments of 2008," I'd likely respond that I'm not interested. But I see these lists and can't help but read them, and I often find them compelling.

So with little fanfare and not much forethought, I humbly offer a list of my own. We'll call it "Some Random But Really Great Things From 2008."

Where to start?

Since I create Web sites for a living and write for this publication about those developed by others, the Web seems a great place to begin. I've seen a lot of sites and written about several this year, but only a few have truly entered into my daily routine. These two stand the test of time:

1. Pandora (www.pandora.com) is Internet radio at its very, very best. Simply create a radio station, add an artist or a song, and Pandora does the rest. The "rest" is continuous streaming of music based on the common elements found in the music you like. The musical geniuses at Pandora dissect each of the thousands of songs in their database and rate them on hundreds of criteria. Then the system finds songs with similar attributes and plays them for you. (Yes, just you.) Each time you give a song a thumbs up or down, Pandora fine tunes the results. It's streaming radio, with a unique playlist built around your preferences. Truly remarkable. The site recently added desktop and iPhone applications.

2. The other top site of the year is Mint (www.mint.com). Mint is a little difficult to describe and, like the original iPod, hard to imagine why you need it. But once you start using it, you won't know how you lived without it. You can't pay bills with Mint, you can't trade stocks, you can't really do much at all. But what Mint does is compiles all of your financial information in one place, with beautiful graphs and charts, comprehensive categorization, and a simplicity of design and usability that allows you to see everything at a glance. What are you spending on groceries, entertainment, dry cleaning? What are the balances—of all of your accounts—right now? And it, too, has recently added an iPhone application that makes getting this information nearly instant, anywhere.

3. Looking to get away? Click over to Great Wolf Lodge (www.greatwolf.com) in Mason, Ohio (right next to King's Island). Best known for its indoor water park, which boasts enough rides and activities to keep kids of all ages busy all day (or two), the facility and the people are great, too. The rooms are unique and the building spotless. When we paid for our room (a couple months in advance) we were told that we had locked in that rate and would get a lower one if it changed between the day of booking and arrival. It did, and we did, and I didn't even have to ask. Insider tip: Stay at the lodge one night and use the water park the day you arrive and the day you check out.

4. Thinking ahead to outdoor travel destinations. Visit www.holland.org, the site for Holland, Mich. While many of the surrounding areas get most of the attention (think Saugatuck and South Haven), Holland might be one of the best family destinations within four hours in any direction. The town is quaint and friendly, there are a variety of great beaches, a pleasant downtown shopping area, and enough restaurant choices to keep picky eaters happy. Insider tips: Try Tunnel Beach, ice cream at Captain Sundae, and on the way home, make a quick side trip for pies at Crane's Pie Pantry in Fennville. You'll thank me later.

5. With the New Year here, you might be thinking about a little self-improvement. Why not start with your brain? I'll revisit the topic again this year, but for quick starters, head over to Smart Brief (www.smartbrief.com/signup/), find your industry, and sign up for one of their free e-mail newsletters. Most are delivered daily and contain a compilation of related news and articles from around the Internet. It's like having a reader service at your fingertips that helps you find everything you should know about.

Lists like this are never complete, so stop by our Web site (www.rarebirdinc.com) for the rest. And if you think I've missed something that should be a part of the "Random But Great" list, send your suggestions to jim@rarebirdinc.comand tell me what it is and what you love about it.

Looking forward to seeing you again in 2009.


Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at jim@rarebirdinc.com.

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