To thine own reading habits be true

It’s been about two weeks since the untimely demise of our dearly beloved Google Reader. Since then many replacements have been stepping up to the plate. I’ve been using Feedly, but I hear good things about Digg Reader too. A few days after that Anil Dash wrote a post entitled “The Golden Age of RSS” where, among other things, he provides a very long list of RSS readers across various platforms. He also makes four suggestions about improving the state of the RSS ecosystem and two of those four are about the actual reading experience. While I have immense respect for Mr. Dash (and Dave Winer), I’m not excited by either of his suggestions.

First off, Mr. Dash seems to not be a big fan of the mailbox style of displaying feeds (a la Google Reader) or the magazine style (a la Pinterest and Feedly). He seems to rather favor Winer’s river of news style. Secondly, he says that he wants a blog reader — essentially a single site RSS reader that kicks in when you visit the site and gives you a content-focused, style-independent view of the site. While both of these suggestions seem interesting (and I hope someone picks them up and does cool things with them) neither of them is particularly appealing to me.

Personally, I like the mailbox-style of reading feeds. I like to be able to look through a list of titles, read the ones that sound interesting, and get rid of the rest (currently by mass marking them as “read” — not the best interface, but it gets the job done). I don’t want a river of news — I want a digest of interesting things that I can read at my own leisure, irrespective of when the author posted them. My RSS reading list isn’t a source of news, it’s a selection of authors who write interesting pieces and whose posts I don’t want to miss. Now, an argument could be made that if some post is really good, it will filter through my Twitter or Facebook circles and I’ll hear about it. But I have neither the time nor the energy to sift through those streams to find interesting things my friends are posting. I’d rather just have the good stuff come directly to a single known location. And this brings me to Mr. Dash’s second recommendation (and why I disagree with it). I don’t see much personal value in the sort of site-specific reader he wants. The whole point of having RSS for me is that I don’t have to visit the website. See above arguments for a central location for posts from approved sources.

Does this mean that river-of-news or site specific RSS readers are a bad idea? No, of course not. Anil Dash and Dave Winer are both very intelligent people with proven track records and if they’re advocating something it’s worth looking into. All I’m saying is that they’re not the best idea for me. Reading habits are a very personal thing. We like to read different sorts of things and we like to read them in different ways. Dave Winer likes to be plugged into a river of news, I prefer to have a stack of articles waiting for me at the end of the day.

I truly believe that the web is a democratic medium — it allows us to define both how we publish and consume content (within limits). While we’ve explored the publishing aspect in lots of different ways (sites, blogs, tumblelogs, podcasts, microblogs, photoblogs, vlogs), the consumption side has perhaps seen a little less action. The death of Google Reader seems to have sparked a new burst of RSS-related innovation. Once we’re done picking our favorite clone, moving our lists and syncing our devices, maybe we can think about how to make the consumption experience as democratic as the publishing experience.

Sunday Selection 2013-06-09

Hello everyone. It’s June, we’re almost halfway through the  year and it’s a beautiful sunny day here in Ithaca, New York. The Intertubes are aflame with talk of PRISM and Occupy Gezi. Luckily there are writers and journalists far more capable than I handling those issues, so I’m going to steer clear of that for the time being. Instead, today we shall be talking about education and the how it’s changing (as all things are) in this age of ubiquitous information and communication.

Around the Web

The Anti-Dropout

Dropping out from some form of educational institution seems to becoming increasingly popular among my generation, especially in tech-savvy circles. While I do think that the current price of a formal higher education is ridiculous and taking on massive amounts of debts is rather unwise, you can pry my fancy liberal arts education from my cold dead hands (though, in the interest of full disclosure, I got engineering and science degrees, not liberal arts ones). Anyways, this article is one of the most level-headed takes on the interplay of education, technology, big corporations and technology startups that I’ve seen in a while.

“Perhaps Culture is the Now the Counterculture.” A defense of the humanities.

While I’m an engineer by education, I’ve always held the humanities to be of paramount importance, especially for citizens of a modern democracy. And while I don’t think spending upwards of $200,000 on a humanities degree is worth it, there are these things called libraries which you can use at a much lower price. This piece is the transcription of Brandeis University’s commencement address by the literary editor of the New Republic, a magazine that’s been publishing some really good writing.

Video

How to escape education’s death valley

While I’m skeptical of TED’s ability to create lasting social change, I have a lot of admiration for Sir Ken Robinson. His original talk was one of the first TED talks that I saw. In this talk he talks about 3 elements necessary for the development of the human mind and how current educational systems fail at promoting them.

What does this app do?

Yesterday, after a productive afternoon of hackery I came across this interesting exclamation on Twitter:

While I sympathized with Mr. Balkan’s general point, I couldn’t help but see (and partially agree with) the article author’s point of view. Here’s the gist of the matter: popular blogger John Gruber has teamed up with developer Brent Simmons, and designer Dave Wiskus to launch a note-taking app called Vesper.

What does Vesper do? Apparently not much. It lets you take text or photo notes, tag them and share them via email or iMessage. The Verge, Macworld and GigaOm all have their own articles about it if you’re more interested. Macstories even has an interview with the creators. Its biggest selling points seem to be good design and John Gruber’s involvement.

I have no qualms with paying for software – I use OmniFocus as a task manager, I bought the Android and iOS versions of Instapaper and I paid for the Pinboard bookmarking service. All of them do useful things for me and do them well (better than most other apps and services in the same category). So what exactly would I be paying for if I bought Vesper? According to Marco Arment (of Tumblr and Instapaper fame) I’m paying for balls. Apparently the apps creators are extremely brave for releasing a feature-light app that’s about the same as a bunch of other apps while being comparatively more expensive (and having a mildly interesting Credits section).

Perhaps they are. But here’s the thing: I don’t care.

I don’t care how heroic Gruber and Co. are. I don’t really care that the app is $4.99. I do appreciate that the app looks well-designed and the interactions are well thought out. But I care more that the app doesn’t do very much and for some reason, I’m supposed to celebrate that. Apparently being “skillfully crafted” means that things I’m starting to take for granted (like oh.. I don’t know… simple export) are suddenly “power user features”. Somehow we’ve gotten to the point where the developer’s balls are more important than the app’s functionality and data loss is just as much of a problem as typos in the credits.

How did we get to this point and does it matter? I’m not sure. Perhaps it has something to do with the rise of The Cult of Design Dictatorship. I care about good design as much as the next guy and I’m glad that a small group of people can create and distribute widely used products. But when it comes to technology, I refuse to put form above function and I definitely won’t allow the developer’s pedigree to be a stand-in for functionality.

A week with the Nexus 4

I bought my first smartphone about a year and a half ago. It was the straight-from-Google version of the Samsung Nexus S, meaning that it came without any carrier-installed crapware and no contract. However, it was already over a year old and a generation behind the times when I got it. That meant that it was already slower than the current state of art and came with the older Android 2.2 (which I upgraded a few months later to Ice Cream Sandwich). Overall it was a good phone, but has been gradually showing it’s age. It was having trouble using newer apps and the upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich had been awkward enough that I didn’t even try to update it to Jelly Bean. I had been using T-mobile as my carrier and though I had one of their contract-free prepaid Monthly4G plans, I had carelessly bought the version of the phone with the wrong radio chipset, meaning I only got EDGE service most of the time.

The thought to upgrade to a new phone had been at the back of my mind for a few months. But the announcement of the Galaxy S4 as Google’s next flagship device made me take a look at the available options. While the S4 looks great, I wasn’t about to shell out $650 for a new phone. However, it turned out that the current flagship phone — the Nexus 4 — is available for $350 and it’s only a few months old. It was available unlocked and a quick search of the Intertubes suggested that it worked well on T-mobile’s network.

Google Nexus 4
The Google Nexus 4

The Nexus 4 is a good, solid device and is definitely a big step up from the Nexus S. The 1280 x 768,  4.7-inch display looks great, it’s slimmer and the 8MP camera is a much better than what the Nexus S. It also comes with Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean) and is fast enough to run heavy duty modern apps without skipping a beat. It doesn’t have LTE, but on T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network the speeds I do get are more than sufficient for my needs. The battery life is better than what I’m used to — I can generally end a busy day with about 15-20% to spare. Admittedly, I don’t stream a lot of video or upload lots of photos, so your mileage will probably vary.

On my Nexus S I rarely installed apps and never really explored the Android ecosystem (or rather, the Google Play store). But with a newer phone with an up-to-date version of Android, it was time to go exploring. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Android apps seem to be developing a UI style that is quite different from the iOS counterparts (though not quite as different as Windows Phone). Apps from both large companies (such as Twitter) and smaller operations (like Astrid) sport a sharp, clean and mostly gradient-free design that I personally feel pretty refreshing. I also really like the Google+ app, though I can’t say I use it all that much and I’m looking forward to the new Gmail app. If you need more evidence that Android apps can be just as good looking as their counterparts on other platforms, check out Android Niceties. Sharing between applications and services is also so much nicer and painless than on iOS, though there are some bad apples (I’m looking at you, Feedly).

There are a few quibbles I have about the Nexus 4, but they’re not major and definitely not show-stoppers. For starters, the back of the phone is glass, not plastic or metal. I don’t have a history of breaking screens, but I will sometimes put down my phone pretty roughly on a table and I’m afraid I’ll end up cracking the back soon. Secondly, the headphone jack is on top of the phone. This is probably a good idea if you’re charging and listening to music at the same time, but makes it’s a bit awkward for listening on earphones with the phone in your pocket. With the Nexus S (which had the jack at the bottom) it was quite natural to put the phone in your pocket bottom-up and then turn your hand as you pulled it out to see the screen upright. The corresponding motion with the jack on the bottom seems rather more convoluted, but it might just be muscle memory that will get reprogrammed with time. Finally, (and this isn’t unique to the Nexus 4) I’m yet to find a Android to-do or task management app that is flexible enough as OmniFocus on OS X and Android.

All that being said, I am very happy with the Nexus 4. I really liked the Nexus S when I first got it and I’ve always liked Android. The Nexus 4 is a significant upgrade and I pretty impressed by the current state of the Android ecosystem. Barring unforeseen problems (or a very cheap upgrade option) I fully expect to hold on to this as my primary mobile device for the next few years. I don’t have any experiences with other Android devices (or other smartphones for that matter) so I can’t really compare, but I’m willing to take a chance and say you can’t get much better than a clean stock Android (especially if you use Google services as much as I do). As a final happy ending, I managed to hand off my Nexus S to a friend who decided to move up from a dumb phone. That makes one less unused device for me to keep around.

Spam and user responsibility

Twitter, like any communication medium (physical or electronic) has a spam problem. They’ve been able to mostly keep it under control, but it surfaces every now and then. I was talking to a friend about this recently and he noted that certain kinds of spam are easier to detect than others. For example, a tweet full of suspicious URLs may very well be spam. But is an account that never tweets but follows lots of people a spam account? Part of this is an perception issue. I personally don’t care about being followed by (possibly) spam accounts. I get more annoyed if I get a tweet from one of them. However, I do know people who are really careful about who follows them. For Twitter, the question is how to tell spam tweets and spammers apart from legitimate traffic and users.

Getting users to report spammers is perhaps the first line of defense. If a large enough group of people report an account as a spammer, there’s a high probability that it actually is a spammer. But on the users side, what is my incentive to report an account as spam? Unfortunately, I feel that Twitter’s nature plays against it in this regard. In particular, a spam tweet is much less annoying than a spam email. Tweets and the Twitter stream are, by design, ephemeral and temporary. You see something and a few hours later it’s gone. You’re not expected to read each and every tweet and you’re certainly not expected to reply to everything and everyone (unless you’re  a self-styled social media guru, but that’s another matter altogether). Reporting a spammer is a pretty high overhead activity, especially with the current web interface. As far as I can tell, you can’t directly report a tweet, you have to click on the user image, click on the profile button and only then do you see the option to report spam. If I see a spam tweet, the easiest thing for me to do is shrug my shoulders and move on — it’ll be out of sight and out of mind in a while anyway.

Contrast this with email: I don’t reply to each and every email, but I do read most of it and I reply to a lot. Reading and answering emails (especially if they’re technical in nature) are fairly high load activities and my inbox definitely isn’t as ephemeral as my Twitter stream. Consequently, getting spam in my email inbox is correspondingly more annoying, especially if it’s more sophisticated spam (like a phishing attempt). It’s in my own best interests to report spam so that I have less to deal with in the future. Furthermore Gmail (and I would hope, most email interfaces) make it easy to report spam — generally just one click (two if you need to open a menu first, sometimes there’s a confirmation request).

(Aside: Note that Twitter associates “spam-ness” with the user, while email conventions associate it with the email itself. Objectively the two are isomorphic: the sender of spam message is very likely a spammer and a spammer account very likely sends out mostly spam. I find the difference is interface and convention interesting from an HCI point of view.)

An argument could be made that reporting spam is the users’ best interest, irrespective of quality of interface and immediate overhead. But I wonder if even this argument doesn’t quite work in Twitter’s case. Twitter is, and has always been, a largely public medium. Private accounts exist and you can block followers, but by and large you use Twitter to share everything with everyone. Email by contrast has always been more personal and private. But this means that reporting spam on Twitter is a lot like picking up litter off the street — it is bothersome, and you know that at some level you should do it, but is it really your problem? What’s really in it for you, and if you don’t do it someone else surely will, right? By contrast, spam email is pretty much exactly  like getting junk mail delivered right to your home.

While Twitter’s image as a public space has probably been key to its success, I do believe that it’s hard to get people interested in taking care of something they don’t have any ownership over (as far as I can tell the only way to pay for Twitter is to buy ads and it’s becoming increasingly harder to hook up non-official clients). To its credit, I haven’t found spam to be much of a problem — most days I don’t see (or at least don’t notice) any spam at all. Whatever they’re doing, it seems to be working. I don’t have any suggestions, just the above ruminations. But if you’re in the process of creating (or interacting with) any sort of user platform, it’s worth spending some time thinking about how to deal with spam.

Sunday Selection 2013-05-05

Happy Cinco de Mayo and Orthodox Easter everyone. Last week has been a bit quiet as far as reading is concerned. I have a hefty backlog in my RSS that probably won’t get cleared till next week. But here’s the pick of what I did read and discover:

Around the Web

10 Rules of  a Zen Programmer I’ve been doing meditation on a regular basis over the past few weeks and it’s been an interesting experience. I definitely feel calmer throughout the day and it’s getting easier to sit down and focus on tasks I would normally procrastinate on. This article agrees closely with both what I’ve been experiencing while meditating and as a programmer. I’m not a Zen practitioner, but you don’t have to be one to use the information this article provides.

I’m still here: back online after a year without the Internet This is the last (I think) in a series of articles by a journalist who spent a year offline. It’s an interesting read, though it ends on a very weak note. The author’s experience seems to agree with my own views on the matter: the Internet (and technology in general) is a tool and it’s up to us to use it best. Using it, or not using, is not suddenly going to make us a better or worse person. It’s up to us to use these tools according to our desires and help realize our potential.

Star Wars: Online review culture is dotted with black holes of bad taste This articles looks at the rise of popular review sites (focusing on Yelp and Amazon) and discusses how the reviews on these sites are often less then helpful to the point of negating the importance and usefulness of a review. There’s research going on at Cornell on better analyzing online reviews and review systems so this article was particularly interesting to me. While there’s something to be said for the usefulness of multiple opinions from different viewpoints, sometimes you just want an authoritative answer from an expert about the quality of a service and product, and that’s increasingly difficult to come by.

Software

Tomato.es As the end of the semester approaches and the amount of stuff I have to get done explodes, I’ve been starting to use the Pomodoro technique to keep on top of things. Tomato.es is a simple timer that counts off 25-minutes intervals. If you sign in using Twitter or Github, you can keep a record of what you’ve been doing in those intervals.

Sunday Selection 2012-04-28

Around the Web

Minecraft, Scrolls, 0x10c: The past, present and future of Mojang as seen through Notch’s eyes. I’m not much of a gamer, but I do like making cool stuff and I love reading about people who are making amazing, beautiful things. Notch is the creator of Minecraft and the anticipated 0x10c and this interview is full of interesting tidbits.

The Terrifying Reality of Long-term Employment As a recent college graduate who has chosen the temporary sanctuary of the ivory tower, the job market is something I can afford to avoid, but it’s still something at the back of my mind. The state of the current market makes me wonder if we need to rethink jobs and value structures in an age where long-term stability is increasingly rare.

The Boston Marathon Bombing: Keep Calm and Carry On. I usually don’t write about current events, partially because I’m never quite sure what to say, and partially because I’d rather not add to the noise if I don’t have something useful to say. That being said, I’m all too happy to point in the direction of people who I think are actually making level-headed and rational comments about the current state of affairs. Bruce Schneier is certainly one of those people and I can’t help but wonder how different the world would be if people like him were in charge of our security.

Software

Capsule: The Developer’s Code Journal. I find that keeping a record of things I’ve done through the day is very useful. It’s a good estimator of where my time went through the day, and an empty log is a sign that things didn’t go quite right.  I normally have a text file on my phone that I just dump everything into. Capsule looks like an interesting solution for programmers (both teams and individuals) to keep a quick and dirty log of what they’ve been up to. I’m probably going to put it on my Linode for a week and give it a try.