Tagged: Blogging

RSS Ignominy

For almost as long as this blog has been running, I have been providing an RSS feed. I’ve complained before about the shitty support for RSS, and now I’m complaining again because things actually seem to be getting worse.

For whatever reason, it now appears that the two major Webkit browsers, Safari and Chrome, have dropped native support for RSS, instead respectively offering the following when you click on a feed link.

Wow that really helps, guys. What user not already familiar with RSS is ever going to go install support for feeds into their browser when they already have little to no idea how feeds are used?

Firefox has not broken their support yet, for what it’s worth. When you click on a feed link you get a preview of the posts as well as the option to subscribe directly using a few preset methods. This at least gives some idea why you might want to use a feed (to subscribe FFS).

Another nail in the RSS coffin is Twitter’s announcement that they won’t be supporting it in the future, in keeping with their new ‘fuck you’ policy on how twitter data is used by 3rd party applications.

So basically it appears the only way to make sure users will get a consistent experience when they click on your little orange feed link is to set up a FeedBurner account and send them there instead.

This is a totally bullshit solution in my opinion; FeedBurner looks like it hasn’t been updated in years, and since Google now owns it it’s one of those half-assed services that feels like it could be shuttered at any time. And yet it appears to be the only practical option right now.

Happy Birthday This

This blog is 10 years old!

When I last visited my eye surgeon he asked me if I had a blog, because he had read something funny that someone had forwarded to him and he wondered if it was written by me. That was pretty neat. When I was working at Right Hemisphere in New Zealand a co-worker called me in to show me an article he was using as reference for something. In searching for information about a problem he had stumbled upon something I had written which helped answer his question. That was pretty neat too. I wish I could remember which post that was. I get a kick out of little things like these.

So far I have written 1,100 posts (including this one); an average of 2 per week. These comprise more than 292,000 words; about equivalent to a 660 page paperback. There are 3,434 comments to date; an average of 8 per week since comments were enabled in 2004 when I migrated to WordPress and moved to the intepid.com domain. Prior to that the blog was handled using my own custom solution which involved HTML templates and a shitload of FTP uploading any time I changed anything.

The first entry is time-stamped August 28, 2002, 11:48PM, and is about hexagonal pixels, among other things. I still get a kick out of that idea, and wrote a follow up with a downloadable demo in 2005.

The single most visited entry, inexplicably and by a wide margin, is this one from January 2008, about a horse stabbing that wasn’t. Coming a distant second is A Symbol for Atheism.

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NB Most new visitors arrive in a steady trickle as a result of web-searching. Here’s a 2 week sampling– note how insignificant Bing is to my traffic right now.

Reader: Just because it’s free …

… doesn’t mean Google aren’t being assholes by breaking it. Especially when they try to spin the changes as “improvements” they’ve made due to popular demand (I’d love to see them publish a before-and-after feature list and still claim that the new version is in any way better).

5 years ago I ditched Bloglines because the relatively new Google Reader was better. Heaps of other people did similar things, and before long there was virtually no serious competition for reading RSS feeds online.

If you make a useful product, get everyone used to it, many dependant on it, then break that product in a ham-fisted attempt to further your ambitions in the social networking space, you are are being a giant dick. Google is being a giant dick.

As depressing as their new flat-n-grey theme is (just like intepid at the time of writing, but I’m just one guy and I’m color-blind), it’s the removal of a key feature that has me still fuming even days after the deed was done–  the demise of the “share” function.

Before, when I shared a post on Reader it would be available as a special feed to anyone who was interested. Effectively it was an incredibly convenient way to create a curated feed. In fact that’s how I’ve been generating my “Things I’m reading” links in the sidebar here. Anyone could visit an URL to see this feed, regardless of whether they had a google profile or not. I could even share new articles into this feed using a nifty bookmarklet! I also subscribed to the shared feeds of friends, because I am interested in reading the things that my friends deem interesting.  If I commented on a post in reader, it would be visible to any of my friends who read the same post.

Now, the only sharing option visible is to hit the +1 button, and then hit it again to Share to your G+ stream. The same stream that has every other bit of ephemeral crap I might fart out on G+. And you can’t easily get a feed of that stream, not that you’d really want to. That’s why I was starting to use Reader more and more and Twitter less and less. I really don’t give a shit about people’s status updates 99% of the time. If I comment on a post, my friends don’t even see it in G+ unless they are reading the exact same post, which is unlikely because they are probably seeing a version shared in G+ so it has a whole different set of comments attached– unlike in pre-lobotomised Reader, where when you shared a post it would still be the same, canonical post.

I don’t have a problem with them adding the +1 sharing option, I just don’t see why they had to tear out one of the best features of the product to make room for it.

As of this writing, it seems the shared items feed is still active on the back-end, and can even be added to via 3rd party apps like Flipboard, so I have some small hope they will bring it back. But considering that they’ve already killed the “Share to Reader” bookmarklet I’m not holding my breath.

Update: Flipboard just removed the ability to share to Google Reader, so I’m guessing it’s not coming back. Thanks a bunch, Google.

Tumblr is pretty

WordPress is my current blogging platform, and although I’ve had my gripes about it it’s something I’ve grown accustomed to and don’t plan to change it any time soon. I was going to write my own system for a while, but then realized what a giant waste of my time that would be, just for the satisfaction of doing it myself.

One thing I don’t like about WP is that I never seem to be able to find a theme I like, and there’s something very boring about WP sites in general. Lately I’ve been noticing that every time I find myself on a blog thinking “wow, how stylish!” it turns out to be a tumblr blog.

The down side of tumblr for me is actually one of its key features; that infinite re-post regression that can make it really hard to work out whose text you’re actually reading. That said, I appreciate the concept.

So I have installed the tumblrize plugin for wordpress, which cross posts my entries to intepid.tumblr.com. I haven’t really got a good reason to do this except that it’s free, and it slightly increases my web footprint into a demographic for whom WordPress might feel a bit old-world-y.

 

Yes, Facebook is killing the goddamn internet

If you give a shit about the internet not being a homogenous corporate-controlled walled garden, read this article and get angry.

You can turn your back on the social networks that matter in your field and be free and independent running your own site on your own domain. But increasingly that freedom is just the freedom to be ignored, the freedom to starve. We need to use social networks to get heard and this forces us into digital serfdom. We give more power to Big Web companies with every tweet and page we post to their networks while hoping to get a bit of traffic and attention back for ourselves. The open web of free and independent websites has never looked so weak.

So many people say “I hate Facebook” but they’re on it anyway, because everyone else is, and because third party sites are even starting to casually require that users have a Facebook login because it’s easier. This, beyond all the insane privacy invading bullshit, makes me want to scream: The idea that it won’t be long before you won’t even be able to use the internet without a Facebook login. OMFG I hate this.

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Update: at 14:40 when I requested from Facebook an archive of all my activity, in preparation for removal of my account. Almost three hours later and the archive is still not ready, even though it will be of relatively trivial size (I was never very active on FB). This is their only nod towards any kind of data portability, and they have clearly not designed the system to be particularly effective. If they simply let me download it instantaneously there is of course the horrible possibility that I might let some competitor import this data… this data, which is mine.

Update-2: I did end up getting my archive, it was available when I went back to check for it. So I have no actual idea how long it took to become available since they never sent the notification email I expected.

Here’s what the archive looks like.

What shits me about the state of the Internet(s)

This blog has just turned 9 years old, and for the majority of those years it has, like virtually every other blog in the world, provided an RSS feed for people who wish to subscribe so they don’t have to manually check the site for updates.

A feed is a machine readable version of a blog (or any other kind of regularly updated site) which allows the content to be reproduced in other contexts; eg you can see my posts in Google Reader here. This would be fairly pointless if you only read my blog, but if you read 10, 100 or 1000 blogs, you can read new content as it appears, from all of them, all in one place.

Unfortunately, even though blogs have offered these feeds for more than a decade, hardly anyone uses them. A minority of my personal acquaintances have the faintest clue what an RSS or Atom feed even is, let alone how to use it.

And so for this reason, whenever I create a new post I go and post a link to it on Facebook, Twitter, and now Google+. Do you know the main reason why anyone over the age of 15 uses any of these services? I’m pretty sure it is simply so they can keep abreast of what their friends are thinking/doing. That’s why I use them anyway.

I’m not claiming that Facebook et al don’t offer functionality beyond that covered by blogs with RSS feeds, but it pains me that there are hundreds of millions of web sites out there with built in facility to subscribe directly, and yet so few people use this feature. Instead every entity that wants to be followed must create a stupid page on FB so people can friend or follow them there. And Facebook is a horribly overgrown privately owned walled garden which is designed to suck people in and then discourage them from going out again.

So what if I decide I hate Facebook (which I do) and don’t want to have an account with them? Can people on Facebook follow me anyway, seeing my updates on their wall just as they would those of their friends? Long answer: possibly, with the help of some jiggery pokery and maybe an app to facilitate it, but short answer: NO. Anyone who doesn’t know what RSS feeds are and what Google Reader does is not going to know how to achieve this. Same goes for Twitter and Google+; if either of these services has a means to subscribe to a third party feed, they sure hide it well.

Worse still of course is that even people on Facebook can’t easily follow people on Twitter or Google+, and the same goes for the other way around.

Is this not almost as stupid as email in the 90s when everyone’s mailbox was tied to their ISP, and they couldn’t easily move somewhere else when they realized that this was incredibly restrictive? When I see someone still using a @bigpond.com.au address, I just feel kind of sad for them. I had a few of those addresses, and of course they are long gone now, along with the messages I received.

My hope is that Google+ entering the Social space will put pressure on all players to allow for some level of interoperability (and transferability) for people who don’t want to be locked in to any particular provider or platform, nor to have to maintain accounts on several in order to remain visible to people they want to stay in touch with. In reality there is no sign yet that this will actually happen, and so far Google+ has simply caused Facebook to fart itself awake, steal a few ideas (tit for tat), then roll over and go back to sleep, secure in its obscene level of control over how people interact with each other online.

People I blame for the stagnation and lack of awareness about feeds:

  • Google. They own Blogger. Their online feed reader is the biggest and possibly only serious contender for online consumption. And yet when you download Chrome, Google’s own browser, it actually has no built in ability to detect or subscribe to feeds. Even if you click on a feed-link using Chrome, nothing useful happens.
  • Dave Winer and the rest of the grumpy old men (aka the “blogfathers”) who spent a lot of time pissing in the wind about whose contribution was the greatest and what the letters RSS actually stand for, and whether they should play nice with the competing Atom standard, without seeming to notice what an unbelievably terrible job they were doing at making people aware of it. Like classic old-school nerds, they ranted about it being the greatest thing since sliced bread while still revelling in the hard-core aspect of it being only for those in the know. If you really want everyone to use something, write a decent spec and then set it free (and don’t make it sound more complicated than it is, you stupid nerds).
  • Moveable Type. For being the most hideously bloated and brittle blogging platform imaginable and confusing the shit out of everything with trackbacks and pingbacks when they should have been focusing on really obvious problems like how does one easily subscribe to the replies that might be made to a comment you leave.
  • The human brain‘s inability to take on even the simplest of technical concepts without having it jammed in your face. I freely admit it probably would have taken me a long time to “get” RSS/Atom if I hadn’t decided to be a content provider, thus making it imperative that I work out what all this feed business was about.

Some really useful bookmarklets

A bookmarklet is a cute function you can add to your browser as easily as if you were bookmarking a page. It’s stored just like a bookmark, only instead of a web address it contains a snippet of code designed to perform a function. Each one of the links below can be simply dragged to your bookmark bar to add the described functionality to your browser for use whenever you need them (or you can try simply clicking on them here to see what they do).

  • CSS - Toggles stylesheets on and off for any page, letting you see the content without the style (it’s a real eye opener if you’re interested in how style is split from content with HTML and CSS)
  • Make Editable - This is a super fun one, making a page totally editable so you can delete bits, replace text, drag stuff around etc. Doesn’t do any harm, as a page reload will restore the original page, but might be useful for mockups where you want to just make some changes and do a screen grab.
  • Subscribe - attempts to subscribe to whatever page you’re on in Google reader (so should work on most blogs and news sites). I can’t believe Chrome hasn’t got this feature built in.
  • Save to Instapaper - saves the current URL to an online bookmark list at Instapaper, which can be accessed from anywhere (so it’s handy for work if you want to save an article to read later).

Button Cruft & Google+

I’ve provisionally enabled sharing buttons on posts here, to see if it has any effect on my traffic from social sites. Pictured here is the complete list supported by the plugin I’m using. Who knew there were quite so many ways to share links?

Most of my new traffic still comes from good ol’ search, with this post currently being the Google favorite for some reason, and I figured it couldn’t hurt to try to encourage a little more sharing. Although I still resent the idea that these buttons need to be plastered all over the web on every article when browser makers could just yank their thumbs out of their asses and recognize the need for these basic defaults in the browser itself, so content providers don’t have to clutter their layouts with this cruft.

You’ll notice (for now anyway) that I’ve put the Google +1 button first– this is because I really would like to encourage people to use the only serious Facebook competition I’ve yet seen… not that I think Google+ is a “Facebook Killer”, but more that I hope that as other major players start to occupy this space there will be pressure to allow true interoperability and open data exchange. Such that an individual could maintain a single “social” profile at Google+ but still friend or follow others on Facebook, Twitter or any other platform, and vice versa. Facebook has been happy to scrape other people’s data and address books, but won’t expose their graph to other major platforms (individuals have access, as do approved apps, but competition is a no-no).

Google is really big now, and some people probably think that’s scary, but I’ve been using their primary services long enough to feel comfortable with them integrating everything together with their browser (Chrome) and their mobile OS (Android). Facebook has no OS, no browser, doesn’t own Youtube, and is only just entering the email sphere, and this seems to be where Google’s advantage lies. Also, Facebook is a dick (as much as a social network can be) and they know it, but they couldn’t give a shit because they are so far ahead right now. Google is no dick, but it can be a dumbass, eg even though their RSS/Atom reader is the most used on the planet their browser has no built in ability to subscribe to a blog or feed, which is just sad. No wonder most people still don’t know what RSS even is.

That said, Google does most things very nicely, and is already providing most of my personal “cloud” with email, docs, calendar and contacts all handled by them. If you use a smart-phone and don’t sync with Google as an Exchange server you don’t know what you’re missing!

BTW My Google+ profile is here. I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of linking to my Facebook profile, but there’s no such thing as a friend request on G+ and that fact alone makes it waaaaaay better than Facebook.

Some recent blog stats

Since that reader survey was a bit of a washout numbers-wise, I added a stats plugin to see what people are reading here, and get a better idea of visitor count.

What I find particularly surprising is that for the last 6 weeks (the period covered by the table below) the number one article has been a very old one making fun of terrible horse death/murder coverage, due largely to Google ranking me surprisingly high for thoroughbred horse queries.

Home page (views of front page) 2,300
Journalism, Sydney Morning Herald style 194
Lando: Day One 83
Lando goes live 76
Fairly unsurprising survey results… 67
An HTML countdown timer with no bullshit 62
Reader Survey 58
6 days [without nicotine] 51
A Symbol for Atheism 45
Guess what day it is! 42
About the author… 41
Upbeat 36
Grace 36
X-Rays, before and after 34
Walls 34
Little Atoms – David Eagleman on our stupid brains… 34
I was born at Tsrrtrsqsqqqrqrtsst 33
Another Day 29
Lando accepted for review (finally) 26
The reason I paid to see The Social Network 25
Easter Grinch 25

Fairly unsurprising survey results…

You know that survey I posted a couple of months back that hardly any of you bothered to fill out? Well it is now closed, so you no longer get to contribute to the results.

Also, not enough of you are definitely women.

Reader Survey

I’m a bit clueless these days as to how many people read this blog (apart from commenters of course, who are the only visible indicator since I junked all my analytics a while back).

So I would reaaaally appreciate it if you, yes YOU, would do me a kindness and complete this short, anonymous survey to let me know who I’ve been talking at lately.

UPDATE: Survey, and in the future the results, can now be found here.

Now trying WordPress 3.0.4

… just to see how it goes.

Known issues:

  • Old style permalinks won’t work, which is bad but not the end of the world. I’m looking for a plugin to get around this problem
  • unicode characters are getting messed up… there is some setting somewhere I am missing (seems to be specifically emdash – causing lots of probs)