Monthly Archives: March 2003

NetNewsWire as a platform

There’s an opportunity for Ranchero if they act soon. We are still in the early stages of RSS readers and aggregators, both web-based and desktop apps. Over the next year, we are going to see even more tools for managing weblog subscriptions and discovering new blogs.

<a href=”

“>Anil Dash wants to follow many, many weblogs:

“The second idea that I really believe in, despite the fact that nearly everyone who heard it thought I was either being crazy or facetious, was that in 2 or 3 years, many of us will be reading 10,000 weblogs. It’s a hard statement to justify literally unless you factor in how software and platforms are going to evolve.”

At SXSW, he made the comparison to the New York Times. Instead of hundreds of writers and editors at a newspaper, you have thousands of bloggers focused on topics they know something about, and smart software that brings it all together.

Impossible today. At least two things are needed: Better ways to discover new blogs, using blogrolls and FOAF-like formats to connect bloggers that share common interests; and filtering systems that allow unimportant entries to be hidden, or special topics flagged and brought to your attention.

Back to NetNewsWire. It has a good UI, it’s built on a nice database (SQLite), it knows network stuff and RSS, and it will soon integrate a good rendering engine (WebKit). Why not use that infrastructure to build other tools on. Plug-ins could hook into the application at different levels, such as filtering incoming RSS feeds, providing search services, or making changes to the subscription list. NetNewsWire has great AppleScript support, but this would go a step beyond that.

Now would be a great time for Ranchero to start thinking about this, before everyone starts writing their own aggregator. The last thing I want is 10 applications with incomplete features. I’d rather have a couple good ones that are compatible and can be extended.

Spirited Away to get new theatrical release

I was out of the house Sunday night so I set the old VCR timer to record the Oscars. Unfortunately I programmed it with the wrong channel. I guess that’s an argument for Tivo. But it was probably just as well, since I was able to catch up on the winners and speeches in 10 minutes instead of 3 hours.

The big news for me — more than Michael Moore’s rant, or Adrien Brody’s win for The Pianist — was that Spirited Away beat out Lilo & Stitch for Best Animated Feature. Now comes word that Disney will keep its promise to re-release Spirited Away to 800 theaters this week. Hopefully it can find an American audience.

Update: Box Office Mojo shows a 700-theater opening tomorrow. At least two theaters here in Austin.

Google UI

After SXSW I made a point to seek out new blogs. One is Micah Alpern, who writes about Marissa Mayer’s talk, “The How and Why of Google UI”:

“Marissa is involved in UI, Usability, and Project Management at Google so she’s had a big effect on how has evolved. It was an insightful talk with great examples of how a user centered design processes can lead to successful products.”

Also on the Google UI front today, 37signals enhances Google’s default design by exposing similar search terms and their hit counts:

“Our idea for 37BetterGoogle was to go beyond Google’s standard search and offer alternatives based on the words you originally entered. By searching for different forms of the same words and comparing those results to your initial query, Google does the legwork for you, helping you see results you may never have discovered the first time around.

Interestingly, 37signals has placed the entire design into the public domain using a Creative Commons license, essentially giving the idea to Google free of charge. Good for them.

scriptingNews format to RSS

Dave Winer from 1999:

“Compare RSS with scriptingNews format, which is richer, it includes enough information to do an elegant syndication-based search engine (coming later today). Netscape’s and Slashdot’s formats are basically equivalent, neither is as rich as our format.”

At some point Dave stopped evangelizing the scriptingNews format, but Userland tools still support it. Manila’s RSS output is actually often incomplete compared to the scriptingNews version. This annoyed me enough with Hack the Planet that I wrote a little Python script to convert scriptingNews to RSS. (NetNewsWire doesn’t support scriptingNews subscriptions.)

I had never coded in Python before, but I’ve read a little from Learning Python and Dive into Python. Even so, the script is mostly an unenlightened mess. The usual disclaimers apply: do whatever you want with it, don’t blame me, feel free to send improvements back to me, etc.

I’m running it from cron on my Mac OS X laptop with curl -s | python > wmf_rss.xml, and then I point NetNewsWire at the local generated file.

You can download it here:

For those wondering why I didn’t just use XSLT, I did try that first. But doing string replaces didn’t seem to be available in the old version of XT I was testing with.

A final warning: Python’s XML parser on Mac OS X 10.2 is broken. I had to install PyXML, which also had a broken install script that required tweaking. Too bad I threw away my changes.

Flash vs. web apps, again

Macromedia is fortunate to have two things going for it: Kevin Lynch, who seems like a smart guy, and Dreamweaver, which won’t let the company forget about HTML.

My expectations were very low for the beta report, but truthfully there is some good stuff in there. Macromedia will not be successful pushing their Rich Internet Application strategy without educating customers when to use Flash, when to stick with HTML and core web technologies, and when to combine both. The report feels honest. Here’s the take-home point:

“Content and applications should coexist. The most successful sites will walk the delicate balance of using Macromedia Flash and HTML together to create engaging, effective experiences.”

Anil Dash said at SXSW, about why audio blogs suck: “They break the web to me in all the ways Flash does.” How does Flash break the web? Used poorly, it’s a glorified JPEG — no links, no URIs, no back/forward button in the browser, no user control. Ironically, Macromedia was held up as a good example in Jesse James Garrett’s user-centered URL design essay, and that URL consistency remains on the new site. Obviously there are people at Macromedia who get it. When the report says “Internally, there was a lot of debate about the home page”, you can read between the lines and imagine the different camps fighting it out in meetings.

I had a great lunch conversation with Trei Brundrett of Handwire last week about Flash vs. traditional web applications. He had experimented with a completely Flash front-end for a previously web-based content management system, with disappointing results (slow load times and decreased usability). Other web developers that go down this path might also find themselves questioning their decision, depending on the project. There are small studios producing entire animated television series using Flash! You have to wonder if the same tool is also appropriate for building software user interfaces.

It’s great to see Macromedia eating their own dog food. I wonder if it will change their rhetoric on Rich Internet Applications a year from now.

Implementing TrackBack

After the panel Tuesday I commented to Mena that TrackBack is still sort of Movable Type-only and maybe needs simplifying if it is to gain acceptance in other tools. Turns out I was wrong, in part. TrackBack is a pretty good specification. As far as how pinging works, it’s about simple as it could be.

I started implementing TrackBacks for my blog tonight. I’m using Radio Userland, which has it’s own centralized comment system that I don’t use. For a couple of reasons I prefer the idea of TrackBack. It adds a little bit of accountability (you need your own weblog), and also allows the poster more control over his or her own comments.

However, not everyone knows how to issue TrackBack pings, which is really the part about the system that needs some usability help. So I also want to eventually add support for detecting in-bound links using referrers, which would be gathered into the same database and co-exist alongside TrackBacks. All the coding will be in PHP, included as necessary from the static HTML files that Radio generates.

Another one of my goals is to have simple TrackBack Ping URLs. My first idea here was to use the permalink itself, but right now I think I’ll use a variation like /trackback/2003/03/15. When I have it working, I’ll add the URL below each post.

Matt Haughey is also doing interesting things with TrackBack: “So Winamp is now sending trackbacks to my blog, and every time a new song comes on, a new ping goes out, and my site changes.”

Earlier this year Timothy Appnel suggested changes for the next generation to TrackBack.

Simple friendly formats

SXSW has wrapped up for me, although many others will still be out partying long after I post this. I’ve had the chance to meet some interesting people. Some of them I have names and URLs for, some just faces and conversations.

The Future of Blogging panel was good. Tantek Çelik asked a question about the complexity of Friend of a Friend (FOAF), and whether a more human-readable/writable format was needed. The question was not well received by the panel, which took the view that tools (like Movable Type) will be able to hide the sometimes messy details from the user.

But remember that if nothing else, the weblog movement has proved that it is the simple formats that will be successful. RSS 1.0 (RDF-based) was interesting, but it’s dead, and it’s dead because it was too complicated. Similar situation with XML-RPC vs. SOAP. To get to the point of having great tools that hide the protocols, you need to go through a period of hand-coding. The easier a spec is to understand and implement, the more people will adopt it, the more momentum it will have, and the more tools that can build on it.

I took a bunch of notes in some of the more interesting sessions. Originally I had planned on posting them to the SXSWblog Notes Exchange, but alone their value is questionable; they are so interspersed with my own thoughts which need more exploration. Over the next few days I’ll unravel them and post my view on the topics that have threaded through the conference.

Justin Hall on <a href=”

“>note taking:

“Now that I’m practicing more professional journalism, I see less value in a straight recitations of events. I want a summary, with key glowing thoughts brought out, hyperlinked and put in context. Notes are good for article building, but they don’t make much of an article in and of themselves.”

Still at SXSW, 2 links

Mike Clark is thinking about blogging:

“My weblog is still relatively new, and yet once in a while I find myself reading through some old entries just to see where I was at mentally (and physically). Indeed, I use this form of reflection, and others, as a learning tool. Over time I’ll continue to study the history embodied in this weblog as a yardstick for measuring personal and professional improvement.” might be outgrowing SXSW:

“it’s safe to assume that everyone’s got some understanding of the more basic issues around these micromedia. could we instead talk about the deeper whys, the implications, the social issues? could we look outward a few years and try to envision the world we’re going to be in, as it pertains to us and the aims of this conference?”

At SXSW thinking about weblogs

I turned this web site into a blog one year ago today. More on that in a few paragraphs.

This afternoon I was sitting in the hall at SXSW trying to organize some notes, and charge up my PowerBook battery. A convention center employee told me and others that we can’t use the wall outlets. He forwarded us to Regina at the utility services booth in the trade show hall, who confirmed that she “owns all the power outlets” in the convention center. Apparently she’d loose money if a few laptop batteries were charged on her watch. She kindly told me about the iMacs in the corner where I could check email. (No thanks.)

I’ve been taking notes and writing up a few thoughts to post later. It’s been a good show so far. David Weinberger gave a great talk yesterday afternoon — well-timed after his and Doc Searls’ “World of Ends” essay. It started the conference on the right foot, and I found myself making connections between his view of the web and other sessions.

In the “Doing Good Online” panel, Chris Mandra from NPR Online said: “If you do the best thing you can do, and satisfy yourself, you will satisfy other people.” The web allows communities to form across existing boundaries (nothing new here, but worth repeating). Being on the web is fine, but by itself has little meaning; it’s about adding to the value of the web. Something as simple as posting about your washing machine in a site’s discussion forum, or writing a weblog on wireless networking, or politics, or whatever — all these things add value, if they can be linked (and indexed) into the whole. Do something as well as you can and put it out there.

Maybe the most valuable weblogs, then, are the ones that can focus on a set of topics. Where individual posts or groups of posts can stand by their own when read a year from now. In response to a question from the audience, Weinberger said he didn’t believe that most bloggers include personal information in their writing, as they would in a private journal. A few trips to LiveJournal or a random Blog*Spot site might lead to a different conclusion. But somewhere in all that rambling there will be some great stories, and they have the potential to connect on some level with someone, somewhere.

I wrote most of the above paragraphs during the conference today. When I got home I went to re-read Meg’s “What We’re Doing When We Blog”, only to find out that I had never actually read it. Probably just skimmed. There’s good stuff in it, and the best parts of the “Journalism: Old vs. New” panel today echoed some of it: about weblogs enabling conversations, involving the reader. Dan Gillmor: “My readers know more than I do, and that’s not a threat, it’s an opportunity.”

One year ago I wrote: “Seems an appropriate time to start a weblog, as if there weren’t enough in the world already.” Since then, thousands more have surely been added to the web, and there are still not enough blogs. The challenge for the next year will be finding readers for those new voices — building software to help discover new sites and connect people.

Almost ready for SXSW Interactive

SXSW Interactive kicks off tonight. Wes, against his better judgement, is going to the Linux Top Gun contest. I decided to skip out on the opening night for a variety of reasons, mostly to stay home with family, and because driving downtown just for an hour seemed a little silly.

SXSW is a weird mix of sessions. Here are some of the ones I plan to hit during the conference (my comments in parenthesis):

  • David Weinberger, Small Pieces Loosely Joined (I haven’t read the book)
  • The Future: User-Centered Design Goes Mainstream (the future design process, with Jesse James Garrett)
  • Doing Good Online: Innovative Ideas From Non-Profits on the Internet (moderated by Adaptive Path’s Lane Becker, with Cory Doctorow)
  • Journalism: Old vs. New (weblogs weblogs weblogs)
  • Lawrence Lessig, Building a Layer of Sanity Into the World of IP (superhero)
  • Conceptual Firewalls (inequalities and blogging)
  • Computers vs. Blackboards: Net Learning or Not Learning? (almost too related to my work)
  • Organizing the World’s Information (Google employee)
  • Deconstructing the Rich Interactive Experience (Flash MX blah)
  • Beyond the Blog: The Future of Personal Publishing (Trott and more)
  • Bruce Sterling, Tomorrow Now (haven’t read this book either, but a fun way to close out the conference)