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Refugee from Google Reader

It was just under a year ago that I chose a new RSS reader when Safari dropped its syndication support. But at the beginning of this month Google Reader was end-of-lifed. While my reader of choice, NetNewsWire, still works, I’d have to either start syncing my bookmarks myself (such as using rsync via Dropbox), or sign up for a new service for syncing.

(Why is syncing important? Partly so I can subscribe to a new feed in one place and it will appear in other places, but more importantly so I can read articles in one place and they will also no longer be unread in other places. “Places” for me mainly means my Macs at work and at home. I do read feeds on my iPad, but that’s not essential.)

TidBITs had a nice summary of available replacements. And by “replacements” they really meant the services providing syncing, not the desktop- and device-side clients. It seemed like Feedly and NewsBlur were the services which best matched what I was looking for. Feedly is a free service. NewsBlur is ostensibly free, but you don’t get a lot for free – in particular, you get a lot less than I use. But you can subscribe to it for $24/year.

For the time being I’ve decided to go with NewsBlur I was disappointed that Feedly didn’t support exporting your feeds to OPML when I was looking (though I guess they’ve added that), but NewsBlur had a couple of compelling points:

  • Its Web interface allowed me to get a “combined” view like NetNewsWire had – I really hate the master-master-detail interface that many readers have.
  • It supports nested folders, which I find useful.

It also has an iOS client. However, the only supports Mac client seems to be ReadKit. I would describe ReadKit as “bare bones”. It doesn’t have either of the NewsBlur web reader features I mentioned above, and I wasn’t too impressed with the interface overall. Perhaps it will improve, but I think it has some distance to go. Your mileage may vary. (I know people who chose other services because they’re supported by Reeder. I was not impressed with Reeder a year ago; perhaps it’s improved. I don’t think the Mac client has been updated for a while, though, and that’s the one that matters to me.)

So for now I’ll mainly be reading feeds through the web. And while it’s taken me a little while to adjust to the keyboard shortcuts in NewsBlur, and the fact that it’s not a separate app, I’m getting used to it. It’s pretty good, actually. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a syndication reader whose interface I’d characterize as “great”, so there’s an opportunity there for someone to seize.

Here’s what NewsBlur’s web interface looks like, in the configuration I’m using:

Newsblur web interface
(click for larger image)

And yes, I subscribed to Newsblur. I think it will give me value for my money, and I am increasingly skeptical that free services are worth my time investing in: I mistrust companies based around advertising and don’t want to get locked in to them. I would rather pay for the service. And I’m especially doubtful that free services which aren’t supporting themselves with ads and don’t seem to have a clear path to financial stability will be around in a year or two. (I’m not completely consistent about this, but I’m taking stock of the services I’m using over time. I recently bought the premium service for Evernote, for example.)

Marco Arment makes some good points about where syndication support has to go. In particular there will have to be syndication services with available, documented and supported APIs, and there will have to be clients which support multiple services. There’s some money to be made on both sides. It’s still early days, though. Five years from now I bet the landscape will be completely different.

Oh, and NetNewsWire? Arment had a few words about that at the link above, but I tried out the NNW 4 beta, and noticed that the combined view – the killer feature that made me choose it a year ago – is gone. So they’re going to have to really step up to get me back.

So overall I’m pretty happy where I’ve landed. I’d be lost without RSS feeds – how would I ever keep up with all the Webcomics I read? (And don’t say Twitter – I’d have to laugh in your face.)

Choosing an RSS Reader

Ever since the Safari browser for Mac OS X added support for viewing syndication feeds (e.g. RSS and Atom) I’ve been a voracious user of the feature. I follow literally dozens of blogs via feeds, and dozens of webcomics as well.

Sadly, syndication support is going away in Safari 6.0 (which is the version that comes with OS X Mountain Lion), and that means following feeds will require turning to a third-party app. So I’ve been looking into various apps to decide which one works best for me.

(Apparently the Firefox browser also supports syndication, but I didn’t really want to switch to another browser. Also, since syndication support was IMO the killer feature in Safari, I’ll be more open to considering other browsers in the future once it’s gone. I used to use Camino from time to time, but pretty much stopped once Safari gained syndication support. On the other hand, bookmark syncing is also very important to me, so maybe I won’t switch.)

I started out with a fairly specific set of requirements. For example, I wanted not to use Google Reader, mainly because I limit my use of Google products since I don’t really trust them to use data they collect from me responsibly. (I am pretty suspicious of any large company which is mainly supported by advertising, actually.) But my requirements morphed as I looked around, and what I ended up with doesn’t entirely resemble what I started out looking for. For instance, the synchronization ability of Google Reader (to keep my feeds synchronized on multiple machines) was just too good to pass up, so I ended up going with that, as it has become a de facto standard.

(I had originally hoped I could find an app which would sync via Dropbox, e.g. by keeping its data file in Dropbox, but I couldn’t find an app that would support that. So Google Reader it is.)

My ultimate requirements were as follows:

  1. I wanted an OS X client, as I consume most of my web content on that platform. An iOS client would be nice, but was not required. Indeed, I haven’t even looked at iOS clients so far.
  2. I wanted to be able to organize my feeds hierarchically in the manner that I prefer.
  3. I wanted a reasonably robust UI experience, and of course an app that would work and not crash frequently.

This last one was the trick, because it seems like most of the syndication readers for OS X basically suck. Many of them have pretty dire reviews in the Mac App Store regarding stability and features. I didn’t want to spend $5 here and $7 there trying out various readers which didn’t seem reasonably promising to start with.

I ended up trying three: NetNewsWire, Reeder, and Cappuccino.

And the winner was… NetNewsWire.

Without going into detail, the big reason for choosing that app was that its UI was just much more robust and configurable than the others. Both Reeder and Cappuccino were limited in allowing me to organize my feeds, to configure their UI, and even just to make fonts smaller. Their workflows (where to click, how to mark articles as already-read, etc.) also didn’t quite work for me. Now, Reeder in particular seems to be quite popular, so perhaps I’m in the minority there, but overall I liked NetNewsWire the best. (Some folks have told me that Reeder seems better suited for use on iOS, so if I ever decide to start consuming feeds there I’ll give it a try.)

NetNewsWire was originally developed by Brent Simmons, whose blog by coincidence I’ve been reading for a while anyway, though it’s now owned by Black Pixel (which also has an interesting blog,).

Some things I like about NetNewsWire:

  1. It uses a clever hack to support hierarchical folders. I wish it didn’t have to use a clever hack, but I infer (from my experience with other readers) that Google Reader doesn’t natively support hierarchical folders.
  2. I can sort the items in the folders chronologically, so I can read them from oldest-to-newest. (I don’t think Safari supported this, actually. Or maybe I never discovered it.)
  3. It supports several configurations of the main window: Three-column master-detail (“Widescreen View”, common in other readers), master-detail with the article list above the main reading view (“Traditional View”, but since vertical real estate is more valuable than horizontal real estate, not my choice), and a simple master-detail with feeds on the left, and when you select a folder all the articles for all feeds appear on the right (“Combined View”).

    The Combined View was actually the killer feature that made me choose NNW. The other two readers didn’t seem to support it.


Traditional View

Widescreen View

Combined View


Choosing the Combined View

The thing I miss the most moving from Safari so far is that NetNewsWire (unsurprisingly) doesn’t support the Safari AdBlock extension, which means that feeds that contain ads show those ads when I’m viewing them. That’s a bummer, but not a backbreaker. I did set NetNewsWire to “Open Links in Default Web Browser” so I don’t have to view the ads when going to pages from a feed.

The other thing I miss is that in Safari I was able to mix feed bookmarks with web page bookmarks, which was useful for reading webcomics since some of them don’t have feeds (such as Blip, whose feed has always been broken, and newspaper comics from Comics Kingdom). This isn’t a failing of NNW specifically, but rather is the nature of syndication reader generally – they don’t replace web browsers.

I also find that NNW is a little light on shortcut keys (for example, renaming an item in my feed list requires choosing a menu item, which is annoying cumbersome). I could probably wire up additional shortcuts in System Preferences, but haven’t looked at doing so yet.

Overall I think NetNewsWire will be a pretty good solution. NetNewsWire is free-but-ad-supported, but I’ll probably purchase it (it costs $14.95) in order to support the developers (and because I really hate ads).

By the way, if you don’t want to use Google Reader, then NNW doesn’t force you to do so (many other readers seem to require a Google Reader account). How you sync your feed lists among your devices in that case is an exercise left to the reader, however (I haven’t looked at how it might be done, but I imagine it involved some import/export magic to something like Dropbox).

Oh, if it looks good to you, then you will need to download it from the web site as it isn’t available in the Mac App Store (at time of writing, anyway). It appears to have an auto-update facility, though, which is nice because I have a terrible track record at updating apps that don’t tell me when a new version is available!

Other Endings

Seems like a number of other projects are coming to an end around the Web as we transition to the new year, much as I decided to end my weekly comics review column. A few I’ve noticed:

  • Dirk Deppey’s daily comics blog roundup came to an end as the author was let go by Fantagraphics.
  • J.C. Bradbury is ending his Sabernomics baseball blog, to spend his time on other projects. Bradbury was an unusual voice in the sabermetric community, often presenting opinions at odds with common sabermetric approaches, such as his dislike of the idea of replacement-level players.
  • The terrific webcomic Plan B came to an end last month, as its story reached its conclusion. I thought the ending was too ambiguous and kind of devoid of meaning – it needed a stronger denouement – but it was still a great ride, and I look forward to the creator’s next project.
  • Not quite as sadly, Chad Nevitt’s Dreadstar December closes with a look at the next-to-last all-Jim-Starlin-created issue, and a summary of the series as a whole. Dreadstar was one of my favorite comic books when Starlin was producing it (it quickly lost that position when Peter David – whose style clashed badly with the feel of the book – took over as writer), and I don’t think it’s ever gotten its due. Nevitt did a great job looking at each issue and considering it as a serious work, warts and all. It’s certainly the high point of Starlin’s long career in comics.

No doubt there will be plenty of beginnings of Web projects that I’ll want to follow in the first month of 2011. The difference is that I may not find out about them until months afterwards.

Monsters of Webcomics

Saturday we went up to the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, mainly because I wanted to see their Monsters of Webcomics exhibition before it departs later this month.

If you’ve never been to the Cartoon Art Museum, it’s definitely worth a trip. Admission is reasonable (currently $6 for adults), and you get a lot for your money: The museum consists of 5 rooms, each with a different exhibit. If you’re afraid that it’s full of superhero comics art, nothing could be further from the truth: I features all sorts of sequential art, and usually there are only a few pages of superhero comics. For example, we saw a collection of concept art, color test art, and animation cels from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, many from the collection of one of the artists, Ron Dias. Another is an exhibition of an underground cartoonist from San Francisco, Spain Rodriguez. While underground comics aren’t my thing, there’s something for everyone (well, most people) here. The museum also has a bookstore in front with an eclectic selection.

The webcomics exhibit was pretty good, featuring ten webcomics, most of which I’d heard of, but only one of which (Girl Genius) I read. Though I probably should be reading Dicebox and Templar, Arizona (I’d never heard of the former, I’d come across the latter but not gotten into it). The other seven arguably have more in common with the underground comics I’m not fond of than with traditional cartoons or comic art, so I’m not sure any of them will be my thing (the art styles aren’t generally to my taste, and surrealistic stories and jokes aren’t for me). Still, it’s always good to see what’s out there.

The museum’s exhibits always feature copious notes, and this exhibit contained descriptions by the strip creators of how they got into webcomics, and how they produce their comics. The Dicebox exhibit contained a step-by-step illustration of how the creator produces a page, using both paper and digital techniques.

It’s been several years since I’d last visited the museum. I should wander by their web page more often and try to go once a year or so, because I always enjoy it. Plus, it’s an excuse to get up to the city, which us South Bay dwellers can be reluctant to do.

The 5 Stages of Internet Friendship

  1. You quietly follow their blog and/or Twitter feed (also known as lurking).
  2. You comment on their blog or respond to their tweets.
  3. You exchange e-mail with them.
  4. You friend them on Facebook.
  5. You add them to your instant messaging buddy list.

Things were a little different back in 1990, when I was new to the net:

  1. You read their posts on USENET.
  2. You send them e-mail about their posts.
  3. You publicly respond to their posts.
  4. You chat with them using talk, BITnet Relay, or perhaps IRC.
  5. You talk with them on the phone or meet them in person.

Thank goodness today we have enough social networking technology to avoid that last step! Hooray for progress, eh?

Social Media

So I joined Facebook yesterday. Giving in to subtle social pressure, I guess. But I don’t yet (or, if you prefer, still don’t) see what the big attraction is.

At least Facebook actually let me join. When I tried to join MySpace a couple of years ago they, well, technically they let me join, too, but something went wrong with the account set-up and I was never able to edit my account: Any changes I made were immediately lost. I couldn’t even delete the account and start over! And MySpace has (or had, at the time) nonexistent user support: I wrote them twice asking for help, and all they did was send me back entries from their FAQ that I’d already read. Useless.

What do I expect to get out of Facebook? Honestly, I have no idea. I mainly use the so-called “social media” for two purposes:

  1. To keep in touch with friends.
  2. To follow writers I find interesting or who are writing about subjects I enjoy.

For the most part, I get all of this through the blogs I follow (and I follow dozens of them), including LiveJournal, which has pretty much shown itself to be the best one-stop-shopping site for keeping up with friends and acquaintances.

I can count the number of times I’ve gone to sites like Digg on my fingers. I have a Twitter account which I use sporadically, but Twitter just doesn’t provide much depth or a decent signal-to-noise ratio. (Debbi sometimes teases me about Twittering when we’re out-and-about, but really I’m not very active there. Not compared to many people.)

So anyway, Facebook: I imagine I might encounter a few old acquaintances there, but honestly I’m already in touch with most of my old friends through e-mail and the Web. The mere existence of the Internet turned out to be the 90% solution for that. But maybe I’ll be surprised.

So Facebook might just end up being another account I created that ends up laying fallow. But hey, at least it’s free.

Not So Cuil

I decided to search for my name on the new search engine, Cuil (pronounced “cool”). The results were disappointing: The top hit was to my old web page, and the rest of the first page were either blogs I had commented on, or who had me in their blogroll. But this blog? Doesn’t show up.

Fail.

Twittering Away

A few weeks ago I gave in to peer pressure and joined Twitter. You can find me there under mrawdon. Okay, I wasn’t really being pressured, but I’d several of my cow-orkers were hanging out there making pithy remarks, so I decided to sign up.

I’ve joked that Twitter is “like blogging only without the pesky content”. I’ve also seen it called “microblogging”, which I take to mean, “There is content, but there isn’t very much of it.” Which seems about right: I see little tidbits of real content here and there, but most of Twitter consists of tiny, generic snippets of thought which are either devoid of depth, or devoid of meaning due to a lack of context.

It’s the lack of context that really makes Twitter a suboptimal experience compared to blogging: If I didn’t know the people I’m following personally, there’d be essentially nothing there for me. So it’s no surprise that the few times I’ve tried to go out and find new Twitterers to follow, I’ve come up empty because it’s all just random nattering without any context to give it meaning, or any depth to give it value in the absence of that context. (By contrast, I’ve found many fine journals and blogs over the years simply by poking around in one place or another on the Web, even if I didn’t know the author beforehand.)

If I were to use a single word to sum up Twitter, I think it would be “disposable”. It’s hard enough to build anything of lasting value in a blog format, and it looks to be nearly impossible on Twitter. I don’t expect to become educated or informed through Twitter, and I strongly doubt there’s anything of interest in “the archives”. Will I ever go back to look at my old tweets to recall what was, like I do with my journal? Probably not. I wonder whether anyone else does so with their tweets?

Clearly a lot of people are having fun on Twitter, though. A tool like Twitteriffic turns Twitter into something like a push-notification system, which means less effort on your part to keep up with what your friends are doing. (This isn’t very different from following a blog via an RSS feed, though.) But it seems like most of the fun is in following the snarky remarks and exchanges and the occasional raw outbursts that pepper the site.

So there’s some value in that; people have fun and get a few laughs. But there’s a lot of fun and plenty of laughs elsewhere in the world, and a lot of it is more rewarding when it’s not restricted to 140 characters.

O HAI GOOGLZ

I CAN HAS PRIVACY? (LOLCATS linketty goodness.)

Web Trickery

So I took a few minutes to learn how to use Dreamhost‘s built-in stats package to see who’s hitting my Web site where. (I’ve also been using StatCounter for this, but naturally my hosting service can provide a much more complete picture.)

Having done that, I noticed that several of my images are being hotlinked from other sites. While I’m not really anywhere close to using my bandwidth allocation (not within an order of magnitude – maybe two), hotlinking is just obnoxious on principle. So I took a few more minutes to learn how to block hotlinks.

Useful Web trickery, all learned in just a few minutes. (Dreamhost has a really useful Wiki for learning these things.)

I wonder what else I ought to learn in this space?

(I should probably see about blocking hotlinks to my old site, too.)