Google Reader as your homepage

I’ve been on the lookout for a good start page from where I can get all my net-updates at a glance. I’ve tried out a number of the new web 2.0 start pages including Netvibes, Pageflakes and Protopages. Each of them have their own ups and downs. Netvibes integrates my 30Boxes calendar, but it’s feed reader is clunky, requiring you to close it and reopen it when you want to move to another feed. Protopages has better handling of feeds, but no calendar support. And of course all of them are quite heavy and the whole desktop/widget metaphor makes it easy to get distracted and start adding and doing things that you don’t need.

So I started looking around for an alternative. My requirements were simple:

  • Fast loading
  • A sleek look and feel, without clutter or distractions
  • An integrated feed reader that is easy to use
  • Displaying my new emails.
  • Calendar integration with 30boxes

My first thought was to find a way to integrate everything with 30boxes, becuase their calendaring app is great stuff. But that idea didn’t last long, because though they let you pull feeds from other places, there isn’t any real feed reader application. But then I remembered that the reason I was leaving Netvibes because I didn’t like the feed reader. So I decided to go find a good feed reader first and work from there on. And I landed up with Google Reader. I used Google Reader a few months ago, but only for a few days because I wasn’t really online much. Now that I was getting back to blogging and reading blogs, I decided to give it another go. And I was hooked at first sight.

Google Reader sports the same sleek, attractive interface that has wooed Gmail users. It’s simple, but beautiful and it stays out of your way. Adding feeds is simple, just click the “Add Subscription” button, put in the feed URL and hit Add. Google reader also integrates nicely with Firefox meaning that you can use Firefox’s built-in feed recognition system to detect and add feeds from websites you visit, without having to search for the feed URL. You can view all the feeds you are subscribed to in the sidebar and you can group them using tags. For viewing the feed content you can use a list view which is similar to normal email or you can use the Expanded View which shows all the items from that feed together, almost like a normal webpage.

But a good feed reader was only part of my wanted bargain. But as it turned out, the others weren’t far away. 30boxes and Gmail give me feeds of to-do items and new email respectively. That, together with a weather feed from weather.com and one of the latest Arch Linux Packages give me everything I need. My Reader now has three tags: News, Weblogs and Personal, making sure that everything stays uncluttered and perfectly organised and I’m a happier person. Now i’m just waiting for a Scrybe invite so that I can get a better calendaring app.

Combine your Feeds: FeedDigest review

Do you run multiple blogs? But do you want to give your users a single combined feed of everything that you write about?  Do you want to group your photo and bookmarks feeds together into a media feed? If yes, then you should check out FeedDigest, a service that lets you combine multiple feeds. You can then publish them as a single “digest” or you can refine the output by using search strings. Besides choosing the feed name and URI, you can also choose a language, encoding and how to order items. Once that’s done, you can choose from a number of default layout options or even edit the HTML and CSS on your own if you’re feeling adventurous.

Once your done setting up your custom feed, you can publish via standard RSS or Atom, or put it in another webpage using HTML or JavaScript.  You can add or remove feeds from your digest any time you want and you can also download a handy OPML file. The landing page says that startups are down, but it is possible to get in (I’ll leave it to you to find out how). A standard free account lets you have upto 5 digests each of which can use 5 sources; that should be enough for most people. If you need more, there are a number of upgrade options that you can check out, ranging from $12 to $2400.

FeedDigest strikes a good balance between features, customizability and ease of use. It shouldn’t take you more than five minutes from sign up to get your first digest up and running. But if you want something even simpler, without having to sign up, you can head over to Feedblendr. There’s no sign-up required, just put in the feeds you want to combin, hit the big red Blend Your Feed! button and you get RSS and Atom links for your new feed. There are no limits on the number of feeds, but don’t have the customization options of FeedDigest either. It’s up to you to choose which one you want.

If you’re looking for more heavy-duty stuff (like turning normal HTML pages to RSS feeds), check out this list of RSS tools and services. Keep exploring and come back to tell me about your finds.

Can Blogg-Buzz keep buzzing?

Digg has been getting some negative publicity lately because of the way it’s been cracking down on bloggers and self-promotion. So two bloggers, JohnTP and Shivaranjan have decided to start a Digg-like site for bloggers called Blogg-buzz. Here’s what JohnTP had to say about it:

So what can you do in Blogg-Buzz? A lot…you can submit stories in Blogg-Buzz, comment on stories, spy on who is buzzing, find out the Top Buzzers, add friends and even send Private Messages to other Buzzers! So, it can be real fun once you start using it.

Blogg-Buzz can be useful for those who want to find the best content on the Blogosphere as well as for those who want to get extra traffic to their Blogs. And we will also try to improve Blogg-Buzz and make it something more than just a ‘Digg like site’.

Now that’s all good and fine, I personally think that we’ve been needing something like this for quite some time, but the question is, will it work? Firstly, the site design. Besides the fact that it’s orange (which you might love or hate depending on your personal tastes), the site feels a bit cluttered, rather different from the sleek feel one would expect of a news site. However that’s a minor problem, the real challeenges are elsewhere.

One thing to look at is Blogg-buzz’s target audience: bloggers. Being a system made to be used by blogger means that it has no restrictions on self-promotion. While this is a perfectly good, democratic ideal, it’s going to be hard to keep the site from being uttely swamped by self-promotional posts. Blogg-buzz’s modus operandi means that a lot of people will be submitting their own content, a lot of which will be only average. The site managers will have to work overtime to ensure that good content isn’t buried under tons of not so good content.

To do this, there are two things that are necessary: Firstly, a large user base which has the discretion to buzz the right content. This is something that Blogg-buzz lacks at the moment. Of course, it’s still early days and in a few months time, they could get a larger audience. But that’s not enough. Digg doesn’t work just because they have lot’s of users, it works because they have a good algorithm that handles the large amount of traffic that passes through their servers day in day out. Does Blogg-buzz have this? Only partially. Blogg-buzz apparently uses a content management system called Pligg that was heavily influenced by Digg and implements similar features. Now using openly available software and tools is ok by me, but judging by some of the comments on JohnTP’s post, a number of people involved with Pligg are unhappy that Blogg-buzz is not giving due credit to Pligg. That aside, the fact that Blogg-buzz runs off an easily available system means that it might not be long until someone launches a Blogg-buzz clone. And if that someone has corporate backing and manages a revew on Techcrunch by virtue of that corporate backing, Blogg-buzz might not be buzzing for much longer.

The verdict : It’s a really good idea, but the guys behind it still have a lot to do before it becomes a Digg-killer.

Snap Preview: Good or Bad?

WordPress.com recently started offering Snap Preview for all users and you can see it in action right here. In case you don’t know what Snap Preview is, just hover your mouse over one of the links and you’ll find out. Personally, I really like this and it’s something that I’ve been wanting for quite a while. But it looks like not everyone is happy with this. Fellow WordPress.com blogger Lorelle dislikes Snap Preview saying:

I’ve also stumbled across these link previews and find them not just annoying and distracting but incredibly frustrating. My mouse will drift down as I’m reading and suddenly I can’t read what’s underneath the pop-up window. I move my mouse and it goes away, but why should I waste my wrist action on something I don’t want to see?

In fact, she calls it a blight on the Internet. Now though I don’t quite agree with her exact wording I can understand how this can be irritating. And the points that she makes about load times being increased are certainly valid.

After thinking it over, there are a number of things that come to mind. Firstly it is not an essential feature of a blog or website and it never will be. Is it a useful one? That depends on the user. Personally, I like it. I feel that it gives a slightly more “community” feel. After all, links are the heartblood of the internet and I consider Snap Preview to be a healthy improvement on the existing link system. Another thing that Snap has going for it is it’s customizability. You can turn it off for internal links (links on the same site) and more importantly, you can turn off it’s automatic feature and use it only on links you want to. But you need to have the JavaScript for it handy to do that and unfortunately WordPress.com doesn’t provide that.

If you’re running your own website or blog, you might want to give it a try. Sign up and put the JavaScript in your page headers and keep it there for a week. If you don’t like it or if your visitors complain, you can always remove it. As for this blog, Snap Preview is here for the time being, but I’m open to suggestions. If you have a novel way of using Snap Preview, let me know.

Book Review: Beginning Python

Learning a new language (human or computer) isn’t always easy. But it helps if you have a good teacher, who makes things fun as well as interesting to learn. Sometimes a good book can make things a lot easier. I’ve been wanting to learn Python for a good few months now and being the dedicated netizen that I am I turned to the Internet for tutorials and howtos. Though Python documenatation is fairly complete and quite usable if you are trying to teach yourself, it can be rather bland at times. Luckily for me, Beginning Python: From Novice to Professional from Apress came to my rescue.

Beginning Python is written by Magnus Lie Hetland, author of another Apress book, Practical Python and a number of well-written online tutorials which are available at his website. Beginning Python isn’t meant to teach you everything that there is to know about Python or programming. What it tries to do (and succeeds at) is to give you a good head-start from the basics upwards. The book covers a fair amount of matter, starting from the basics of writing simple, small programs to full-fledged GUI applications. Most importantly however, it does so in a pleasing, conversational style. Each chapter is fairly self-contained, dealing with a particular aspect of Python programming, which means that you can learn at your own pace and even skip a few chapters without too much difficulty. But what makes the book stand out from the crowd is that it not only gives a working knowledge of Python, it helps you figure out what to do with that knowledge. The book includes 10 programming projects including things like an XML converter, and internet messaging system, a file transfer program with a graphical frontend and even an interesting little game. Most chapters also come with a set of suggestions at the end about how you can apply what you’ve learned: a great way to keep yourself busy if you’re bored

While the book is called Beginning Python, there is some amount of more advanced information like network programming (including working with CGI and SQL), using GUI toolkits and other practical things like testing, debugging, optimizing and packaging programs. At the same time, it should be noted that the book does not intend to turn you into a complete master: the advanced material is enough to get you up and running, but do not cover the topics in great depth. All things considered, the book will probably be useful to you even after you have a fair mastery of the basics. It’s clean structure and good formatting allows it to be used as a quick reference as well as a textbook.

The book is definitely worth a buy if you’re interested in learning Python but have been keeping it off for want of a good resource. The $45 price tag is a bit steep, but it’s worth it for a book that will take you a long way and will probably still be useful even after a good few months.