RSS and Bloglines De-geeked

April 22, 2007

I received a request from our friend Ted (a.k.a. Knitterguy) for a de-geeked explanation of RSS and Bloglines; seems he’s been tapped to do a presentation to a local group about blogging technology and he’s interested in my perspective on it.

This is because he knows that I’ve learned a fair bit about RSS and other blogging/podcasting publication technologies in the process of getting K‘s podcasts (her knitting podcast Purl Diving and her movie podcast Cinéfolle) up and running, and also because I’m pretty good at translating technical topics into something understandable by a person who doesn’t have tape on the bridge of their glasses, which may be helpful to him in presenting it to a non-technical audience.

The simple answer is that RSS is a bit like the “crawlers” at the bottom of the screen on TV news channels like CBC Newsworld.  Except, with RSS you get to pick and choose what kind of items show up in your crawler.

And Bloglines is an example of one of the ways you do the choosing.  It’s an on-line service (free, no less…) where you can set up a personal page of all the “content” that you want to scan regularly for new items.  I put content in quotes to indicate that there is a wide range of things in addition to blogs that you can subscribe to using Bloglines, or more generally any of the tools that work with RSS — typically called aggregators or feed-readers (again, leaning on newsroom jargon as in: getting a feed from a wire-service).

Content can include news feeds from, yes, those same TV news networks — which makes the crawler analogy very apt.  It can also be used in the automatic distribution of digital media — audio or video — in the form of podcasts or videocasts.  And of course, it works with regular plain old text based blogs too.

As for what “is” RSS, well, the acronym itself is disputed — the most common interpretation is that it stands for Really Simple Syndication.  If you want the history, check out the Wikipedia entry on RSS.  Note that RSS is really just a standard (or more correctly, several versions of a standard — see the Wikipedia entry for the gory details) that allows content providers and content consumers to get together more easily.

In addition to RSS, there’s another widely supported feed standard (joke: the nice thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from) that also enables this bringing together of producer and consumer — it’s called Atom, and is often provided in parallel with an RSS feed on a provider’s site.  Kind of like being able to get a particular news channel via either cable or satellite…

So the RSS (or equally, Atom) standard is a way for a content producer/provider to announce, in a “machine readable” fashion, that they have some new content available.  Now for the non-geek, machine readable just means that as long as the provider adheres to the standard and puts the right things (as defined in the standard) about the content in the feed, then a program (run on a machine, i.e. a computer) can read the feed and decode the information according to the standard.  In fact, the technology behind the feed standards is something called XML (eXtensible Markup Language), which is designed to be easily machine readable but is also fairly readable to humans too — provided you have lots of patience.

Computers are generally much better at boring, repetitive tasks than humans, so that’s how they get stuck with the job of keeping you up to date on what’s new, rather than you having to either pore over the XML in the feed or having to browse to all of your favourite destinations on the ‘net just to see if there’s anything new there to read (which there often isn’t…).

On the side of creating the XML for the feed, that can also either be done by a human or by a computer.  There are some sites that do still “hand code” the XML for their feed (often just as a geeky point of honour, but sometimes because they want to “fine tune” the details), but the majority either use stand-alone feed creation software or the content management platform (er, that’s just a fancy term for a blogging service…  Blogger, TypePad, WordPress — that sort of thing; although it can also apply to other types of web site management systems) provides a feed “automagically” (i.e. the computer hosting the blog, or other content source, does it automatically — as if by magic — whenever the content is updated).

Now, let say you’ve found a site (blog, news service, whatever…) that you want to keep tabs on for new content.  And it’s got some sort of a link for a feed — RSS or Atom or both — that will let you know when there’s something new.  This is where Bloglines, and other feed-readers or aggregators come in.  You subscribe to the feed using the chosen program or on-line service by entering into it the URL for the feed, or in some cases just by clicking on, or “dragging and dropping”, the link to the feed.

Depending on the reader, you’ll have some options that control how frequently it checks for updates on the feed — for Bloglines, the check for updates occurs once an hour; for an aggregator program running on your PC, you should normally be able to specify the interval or even set it to check only on demand.  In either case, at the appointed time the service/program will check the feeds you’re subscribed to to see if there are any items that are “new” — and new is generally defined as “since the last time the feed was checked”, although there can be hiccups in the process resulting in old items appearing again or new items not appearing at all.  Still, it generally works pretty well.

The way that a particular program or service will present the items to you varies — you may need to evaluate several to find one that suits your needs or preferences.  In any case, what they all do, fundamentally, is show you when there is something new at each of the sites you’re subscribed to.  Most provide a lot more info than that, but the main function is to relieve you of having to check sites manually for new content.

You can even subscribe to feeds in many browsers now — Firefox supports them through “Live Bookmarks”, and Internet Explorer has recently added support for subscribing to feeds in Version 7.

Apart from dedicated feed-reader or aggregator programs that run on your computer (and there are lots, both for PCs and Macs, and presumably Linux too — a quick search on the web will turn them up if you want to find one for your computer), I believe there are other programs such as e-mail clients that support subscribing to feeds but I have no experience with these (so you’re on your own if you want to know more about subscribing in your e-mail program).

There you have it — RSS and Bloglines de-geeked… I hope.


Coal-fired, Steam-powered Social Networking

April 22, 2007

If you read my earlier post Unconventional Nexus, you’ll have seen me mention the old-style BBS run by my friend Don, which I described as “coal-fired, steam-powered social networking” (think of it as “Web 0.0001”).

In that post, I held off revealing the “secret handshake” needed to gain entrance to Sibyl, as the BBS is named (after the oracle Sibyl — as in the prophetess/soothsayer, not the RDBMS software).  Don read the post and left a comment, in which he gave out the “decoder ring” to access Sibyl: telnet:// (you’ll find a link under the Friends & Family rubric in the sidebar).

Now, for those of you accustomed to GUI interfaces, be warned: the link above will probably attempt to start up whatever “terminal” program your browser is configured to use by default (on a Windows PC, likely the Hyperterm program; on a Mac, it should run the aptly named Terminal program; Linux and similar OSes, um, well if you’re using these you probably know what I’m talking about…).  As an alternative to clicking the link in a browser, you can just fire up (there’s the coal-fired, steam-powered analogy again) your favourite terminal program and connect to on port 51641.

Once connected, you’ll be asked for your name (User ID); this will be where you can register as a user.  Follow the prompts and you should be good to go.

Just don’t expect any fancy graphics, or other amenities — this is a purely character-based system, running on an old but adequate-for-the-task PC from the days when you could actually run things on 640K of memory.

There are lots of old posts in the various sections (each labelled with the name from the Pantheon of Greek gods/goddesses) that you can read; sort of a time capsule from the end of the last millennium.  There are some recent posts too, but truthfully there hasn’t been a lot of traffic since Don resurrected Sibyl; perhaps this post will change that as new members flood in…

So, if you’re interested in seeing How Real Men And Women Computed on one of the few remaining coal-fired, steam-powered social networks still in captivity, just drop by Sibyl and consult with the oracles.

Paraphrasing William Shakespeare

April 20, 2007

To paraphrase Dick the Butcher in William Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2 Act 4 Scene 2:

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the MBAs

OK that may be a bit harsh. What’s prompted it is a bit convoluted; bear with me.

The story starts in the Shetland Islands, north-east of Scotland. A particular style of knitting has evolved there, called Fair Isle, which involves creating intricate patterns of colourwork — here’s a few examples:

That’s the body of a Fair Isle sweater in the process of being knit — the pattern is, I believe, called Henry VIII.

This is a detail of Henry.

This one’s a Fair Isle vest; the pattern is called Reef, I think.

In case you’re wondering, these were knit by my wife, K, and she’s the one who passed on a bit of information that led to me writing this.

You see, in order to knit Fair Isle, you need a huge palette of colours, in subtle gradations. What’s more, you may only need a small amount of some of the accent colours — possibly less than a full skein or ball for one pattern. You might use the leftovers of the colour for another pattern, perhaps not.

The results, I think, speak for themselves… the garments can be simply stunning.

What, you ask, does that have to do with paraphrasing Old Will and wishing harm to MBAs?

Well, there are principally two manufacturers of real Shetland yarn for Fair Isle knitting: Jamiesons of Shetland and Jamieson and Smith Shetland Wool Brokers. And it seems that the latter, known as J & S in the knitting community, has announced that they will be discontinuing about half of the their colour palette.

Apparently, the company has been bought by an English firm from the mainland. And they’ve decided that because the minimum economic production run for a colour is something like 1780 skeins, that the business can’t be run profitably with such a large range of colours — particularly when some of the accent colours do not sell in high volume (for the reason noted above).

Now, I’m all for running a business at a profit; that’s not what’s got me going here. It’s the stunningly shortsighted inability of some off-shore management group (likely composed at least in good measure of young MBAs hungry to make a name for themselves) to understand the fundamental nature of the business.

Dropping half the colours from the palette is not going to achieve the desired result, which I expect they believe will be increased inventory turns on the remaining colours. But it doesn’t work that way — you can’t knit Fair Isle properly without the subtle gradations of colour; removing half the palette will just destroy the beauty of the pattern. In fact it will make it un-knittable, as you can’t just say “Right, can’t get that accent colour anymore, I’ll just use a bit more of this other colour they still make”.

An analogy would be if Crayola were to decide that it’s really not cost effective to put 64 different colours in a jumbo box of crayons, and then eliminate a whole whack of them — maybe you’d get 4 crayons of each of just 16 colours instead.  I mean, really, who needs that many colours — MBAs seem to get along fine with just black and red ink, and the less of the red the better.  Surely kids will be just as happy to draw a less colourful, more homogenized world — won’t they?

So it’s quite likely, at least in my opinion, that in the end they’ll sell less yarn overall. Not a good way to increase your inventory turns and profits.  And, more’s the pity, there will be fewer Fair Isle garments knit; perhaps eventually the style will die out — what a loss that would be.

But I suppose they’ve run a case study, built an economic model based on some assumptions learned at MBA school and ran the numbers to determine that this, the conventional (business) wisdom, is The Answer To The Problem.

I suppose the point of all this, the Unconventional Wisdom on the matter, is that a business is more than a case study: it’s knowing how the product is really used, the history, the culture and — most of all — knowing your customers.  From what K has said, from reading between the lines it appears that the people working at the J & S mill in the Shetlands have been quietly encouraging knitters to bring this small fact to the attention of the new owners, before it’s too late — because they, not the MBAs, know what Fair Isle knitters want.

Oh, and once we’re done with the MBAs, we can resume Dick the Butcher‘s original plan and go after the lawyers… 😉

PS feel free to submit all your favourite MBA or lawyer jokes in the comments; here’s one to start:

Q: What’s brown and black and looks good on a lawyer?

A: A pack of Dobermans.  😀

Unconventional Nexus

April 19, 2007

I had a “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” sort of moment tonight.

It started with K and I looking at the Canadian Podcast Buffet website, where we saw a couple of new posts: “We’ve been served” and “Cease and desist letter published“.

Now Mark Blevis and Bob Goyetche, the hosts of the Canadian Podcast Buffet podcast, are a couple of pretty decent guys and it would be hard to imagine them doing anything — intentionally, at least — to attract someone’s legal wrath.

So you could have scraped us off the floor, we were so shocked… then, we clicked through the link to Tod Maffin’s “cease and desist letter” that was given in the second post above.

And that’s when I started rolling on the floor laughing my… well, you get the picture, right? As soon as I saw that the “letter” was from the law firm of “Dewey Cheatem and Howe“, well, I knew that it was all a gag — just a little late for April Fool’s Day.

Oh, and the unconventional nexus? That’s what happened when I clicked on the comments for the first post above and discovered one had been left by a certain Sonia Brock.

And I said “Holy crap!”(or something vaguely like that… 😉 ) and continued on to say to K, “I wonder if that’s the same Sonia Brock that I know from Don’s Sibyl BBS and EMCC ‘New Years’ get-togethers (the explanation of which I will defer to ynoT, er, I mean Tony B.)?”

Sure enough, it’s her. And she’s podcasting. And she’s listed on the podcast directory, where K has her Purl Diving podcast listed too. Cue up the spooky theme music from The Twilight Zone

Now, I haven’t seen Sonia in quite some time — I haven’t attended any of the EMCC get-togethers for a while, due to a variety of circumstances. I wonder, though, if she might decide to attend Podcasters Across Borders in June, which K and I will be attending.

PAB 2007 Logo

Anyway, it was definitely an unconventional nexus.

BTW the Sibyl BBS is again operating (having been recently resurrected by Don, my old friend and classmate from our days at U of T in Engineering Science), although I won’t divulge the details of how to find it unless Don is interested in opening it up to new members… let’s just say that it’s the coal-fired, steam-powered version of Social Networking circa late last millennium.


April 17, 2007

I’ve added a few new links to the sidebar, one under the Friends & Family rubric and the other under a new one The Thoughtful Grotto.

The first is the Knitterguy blog of Ted, who I know through K (the spousal unit 😉 — you can see her blogging/podcasting efforts under the Wabi Sabi Universe rubric in the sidebar) — they know each other through their shared interest in the fibre arts.

Ted’s currently working in the employment counselling arena and has provided me some useful tips and suggestions for my job search — thanks, Ted! Even if you’re not particularly “fibre-ey”, his writing is still interesting and worth a look.

The second is the Solent Dreams blog of Alex, who has left a couple of comments here at Unconventional Wisdom. He’s also conducting a job search, although in his case it’s as a result of a personal choice (read about it here) rather than forced by Circumstances Beyond Control (i.e. a company re-org in my case — or as I like to call it “the executive-management musical chairs game”; when the music stopped, my chair was no longer there…).

His posts and comments are thoughtful, which has led me to create a new category in the sidebar for links to places on the web that are havens for quiet reflection: The Thoughtful Grotto.

And then there’s the Angry 365 Days a Year blog by “Mr. Angry” from Down Under (as in Oz, mate…). About this blog: I turned it up while searching for some information on the relationship between contract rates vs “permanent employee” (is that an oxymoron these days?) rates — I had an inquiry from a recruiting firm about a 6-month contract position and they wanted to know what hourly rate I expected; not having done contract work for some time, I wasn’t sure what would be appropriate so I did a little research before answering.

So, Mr. Angry’s blog turned up in the search; he posts fairly often about work. He’s in the IT field and works as a contractor, which is how he ended up in the search results. His information about contracting was interesting and useful in helping me come up with a response to the recruiter’s question (BTW the opportunity did not materialize into a contract, unfortunately).

Beyond that, I have found him to be an intelligent and thoughtful blogger — but be advised that true to his stated persona, his posts often do reflect a degree of anger, not to mention “explicit language”. For me, that’s no big deal — though I don’t generally use that sort of language in a public forum, those who know me can attest that I have no problem using it in conversation.

For the moment, I’ll put his blog in The Thoughtful Grotto — I’m thinking of adding another category for links that might suit this and others, but haven’t quite made up my mind about it yet.

BTW if you’ve left a comment to any of my posts, but haven’t seen it appear — I’m not ignoring you; it’s possible that it was eaten by the Akismet comment anti-spam filter that uses, as related in their support blog.

Thanks go to Solent Dreams for noting this on his blog, which alerted me to the problem — I did notice that Akisment claimed to have dealt with 6 spam comments, although I hadn’t seen anything quarantined so it’s possible that some comments were eaten as false-positives. I had one real spam caught, but now I’m concerned that some bona fide comments may have disappeared into the void…


April 15, 2007

So, K, my wife says she doesn’t understand how these on-line social networking sites, like MySpace or FaceBook, could possibly build communities via the web.  She thinks that they’re too large for that to happen effectively; that you can’t get to know anyone well enough because there are too many members.

Now, this all arose because she’s experienced community building on the ‘net through things like discussion groups, forums and mailing lists (the ones she’s been most involved in have been knitting related, but there have been other interest groups where she’s experienced it as well).

Next, she tells me that I know more about all the on-line social networking sites that are a) so popular with a certain set (generally young and middle-to-upper-class suburban types, at least that’s the impression I get); b) talked about seemingly incessantly by the mainstream media and much of the blogging community; and c) vilified by many.

And she says “you should post about it — I would but you know more about these things than I do” (or something to that effect).

Maybe. I’ve posted before about LinkedIn, which is a form of networking but targeted at a different audience — those seeking mainly business or career connections, as opposed to primarily social connections. It does share with places like MySpace a number of characteristics, from what I can see — at least from a purely functional point of view.

From a purely abstract point of view, these are pretty much classical networks or graphs in the mathematical sense: Bunches of nodes with rules about the connections between them. Once you create your own node (profile) in one of these networks, you create a personal network by inviting other nodes to allow you to access their profile and create a two way connection.

This allows you to expand your network by adding their personal network to your graph — and vice versa, as your connections expand their network.

They also allow you to search the whole network for other nodes (profiles) that match specified criteria — perhaps a business opportunity in the case of LinkedIn, or those with the same musical or entertainment interests, for example, in MySpace.

There are inter-node communications methods that preserve the privacy of members, while still allowing you to contact someone that you don’t know personally.

Come to think of it, these share a lot in common with Object Oriented Programming (OOP) principles… not that I’m an expert on OOP, but I’ve been trying to learn Java lately so OOP concepts are very much in the centre of my attention. Maybe I’ll write a Java-based social networking program 😀

I suppose that most of the controversy about these networks comes from the one thing that enabling-technologies can’t do much about: human nature.

If history is any indication, there have always been and likely always will be people who are manipulative and predatory — for financial or psychological gain. Before on-line networking, social or otherwise, their sphere of influence would be relatively limited; now, technology allows them to prey on a vastly larger network of people.

OK, I’ve digressed a little bit from the original thought…  which was how can you get to know people well enough to really form a community when the network grows to the size of something like MySpace?

And I suspect the answer is: you don’t.  What you get isn’t really community, but that’s a reflection on the overall loss of community in society.  Well, at least in much of North American society.

For example, sound-bites and pre-digested thoughts seem to have become the preferred way of taking in the news, rather than having to take the time to absorb information and reflect on it before forming your own opinion.

Which makes it easy to talk about the latest events, or the new hit TV show, or sporting event, over the watercooler at work.  It’s safe: opinions become homogenized and no one needs to get very involved in discussion.  The community equivalent of fast-food, I guess.

So what do I make of all this? She’s probably right.  On-line social networking doesn’t lend itself to building real community; but it does produce what passes for community these days, and that’s perhaps the bigger issue.

The nut doesn’t fall far from the tree

April 10, 2007

In my last post, I mentioned sending out a bunch of invitations to people to join my network on LinkedIn.  One of them is the elder of my two sons, “C” (if there’s one piece of conventional wisdom that I don’t question, it’s the unfortunate one about the ‘net having a dark, nasty side, so it’s best to keep personal details to a minimum unless there’s an overriding reason to do otherwise; and I certainly wouldn’t give his name without him giving me the OK).

When I got an e-mail notifying me that he’d accepted the invitation, I went and checked out his profile on LinkedIn and discovered he’s got a blog.  Which, oddly enough, he seems to have started about the same time I started my blog.

And in reading his posts, I can definitely say that the nut doesn’t fall far from the tree… 😉

Which, for C, is probably a pretty scary thought.