SearchFox RSS Reader to Cease Operation

I received an email from the creator of SearchFox a day or so ago stating that SearchFox would be ceasing operations as of January 25, 2006:

SearchFox Users,
Thanks for all your help in making SearchFox what it is. We have enjoyed providing this service, and hope that you have enjoyed using it. Please export all of your links and an OPML file with your RSS sources before the site shuts down. In accordance with our privacy policy, we will delete all personal information on January 25 after we shut down the services.

Esteban Kozak

I am very sorry to hear this as I had been using SearchFox as my sole newsreader for several months now. The user interface was clean and easy to use, but the feature that I liked the best was how it would notice what I read and prioritize subsequent feeds so that (more often than not) what I wanted to read was at the top of my river of news.

I guess now I need to find the second best online news reader available. Google’s offering is just horrible, Bloglines (which I started with) is still pretty feature poor and Rojo really needs to do some work on usability. Interestingly, many of the features being requested by users of Rojo would, if implemented, make it on par with SearchFox. Any suggestions on online feedreaders that you are happy with?

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New Yahoo Go = So What?

I read several announcements today about the new Yahoo Go service. After searching endlessly for an actual URL that linked to the offering, I finally found one. I’m sure I won’t be the first or last to say that the offering should have been called ‘Yahoo No Go’. The computer portion of it is not currently available and will be PC only, the ‘TV’ portion of it is also a PC app (and also not available). Ah, the mobile portion is available for Nokia series 60 phones — I’m in luck, I have a Nokia 6620 that fits the bill.

I download the ~1.7MB app and install in on my 6620 with great interest after having seen the screen shots and read the hyperbole from the CES announcement. The ygo.sis file expands to take nearly 4MB of phone and memory card space, then goes on to download another app for connections. After the initialization, I try out the apps. One by one, I grew less and less impressed. Yahoo Go, it turns out, is just 4MB of bloat that does nothing more than start the WAP browser on the phone (which wants you to login to Yahoo again!) to display the services that are already available to you through the Yahoo mobile site. Accessing the Yahoo mobile site directly using the Opera series 60 browser provides a much better user experience that this. What a total crock. Hell, Cingular’s J2ME IM application kicks the crap out of this thing (even as a single tasker). Google’s J2ME Maps implementation makes Yahoo’s effort look like the brown stuff in the bottom of a college dorm fridge.

I then went about removing this craplet from my phone, but, guess, what? As part of the removal process, it wants to ‘phone home’ to Yahoo and waste more bandwidth before it will remove itself (shades of Microsoft). It’s no wonder that Yahoo recommends that you allow the app to connect whenever it wants to (versus letting you know that it want to make a connection). I finally had to go into the Nokia AppManager and delete the various pieces of it manually.

Based on this experience, Yawnhoo needs to try harder and put out something useful (other than hype).

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Running In the Rain

The BBC have an interesting article titled “Do you get less wet if you run in the rain?“. The article delves into the ‘serious’ mathematics and physics to consider in answering the question. I won’t spoil the conclusion — read the article.

However, I did appreciate one of the post comments which reminded me of my Intelligence and Effectiveness rant from the other day:

Alternatively, ignore the maths and get an umbrella.

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Science and Religion

I recently finished reading a book that got me thinking about the relationship between science and religion.  The book in question is The Universe In A Single Atom.  A reading of this book, coupled with current events should give anyone pause for thought.

First, it was refreshing to read that in Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama encourages all monks (and lay people) to have a knowledge of science.  It is in no way perceived as a threat to religion.  In fact, both are seen as a way of understanding the nature of reality by means of critical investigation. This is not surprising, as one of the fundamental tenants of Buddhism is to ‘believe only what you have found to be true yourself’ — religious dogma is not forced on the follower.  Throughout the book, the position held is that the benefit of science is that it can work to ease suffering at a physical level.  Religion can strive to do the same for mental suffering.  Contrast this with the veritable war on science that is coming from the right in this country and you have to wonder about the nominal aims of such a course of action.  For religious fundamentalist, there is no place for science (or any opposing view point for that matter), only blind faith.

One longish quote from the book expands on a more enlightened view of the interplay of science and religion (in this case Buddhism):

In one sense the methods of science and Buddhism are different: scientific investigation proceeds by experiment, using instruments that analyze external phenomena, whereas contemplative investigation proceeds by development of refined attention, which is then used in the introspective examination of inner experience.  But both share a strong empirical basis: if science shows something to exist or to be non-existent (which is not the same as not finding it), then we must acknowledge that as a fact.  If a hypothesis is tested and found to be true, we must accept it.  Likewise, Buddhism must accept the facts — whether found by science or found by contemplative insights.  If, when we investigate something, we find that there is reason and proof for it, we must acknowledge that as reality — even if it is in contradiction with a literal scriptural explanation that has held sway for many centuries or with deeply held opinion or view.  So one fundamental attitude shared by Buddhism and science is the commitment to keep searching for reality by empirical means and to be willing to discard accepted or long-held positions if our search finds that the truth is different.” (emphasis mine)

The book develops with the Dalai Lama exploring various scientific topics such as quantum physics and neuroscience and how they compare and contrast with Buddhist scripture and cosmology.  He even states openly, where, in light of current science, some of the cosmological explanations for the origin of life seem quaint at best and in many cases are regarded as a point in time view of the world rather than an enduring truth.  Other areas examined at the intersection of religion and science are human values and ethics.

Overall, a very thought provoking read.

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Intelligence and Effectiveness

Seeing this article about Google and their recruiting and hiring practices reminds me of an observation that has been backed up by experience over the years.  That observation is that intelligence does not lead to effectiveness.  In fact, it can lead to some of the more misguided actions and conclusions that I have ever seen.

The seed of this observation came when I was working at a small consulting firm that had an external consultant as it’s chief technology person.  This guy was incredibly bright, but had created a system for merging and reporting on data using flat files that was very nearly unmaintainable.  Since the task of maintaining this train wreck was passed onto me when I was hired, I immediately started looking at ways to make the process more automated.  It seemed a natural fit for importing the data into a database and driving the transformations and reporting from there.  Here is where the fun started, I mentioned my plan to bright-guy and he launches into this red faced tirade about how it will never scale and database b-tree algorithms were too inefficient, he knew because he had written his own b-tree algorithms, etc.  This rant went on for at least ten minutes.  While he was ranting away (and in between mildly disagreeing with him) I was typing away in r:base (of all things) and knocked together a prototype that basically proved, well, he was demonstrably, dead wrong.  He poked and prodded on the prototype for about a half hour, then finally conceded that ‘things had changed with data algorithms in the last few years’.  Indeed.

Intelligence is great, but it needs to be pragmatic and relevant.  When I discuss this with others, I usually take it to a non-technical domain, just to remove any of the techno-zealotry that surrounds most of software and technology.  For the pragmatic developer, if you ask them to make mashed potatoes, they will either know how to do it or consult a cookbook for some reasonable guidance on how to achieve the desired outcome.  The bright-guy, will likely produce some studies around the required crushing force of a potato, white papers on starch combinations, argue that beans are more appropriate for mashing and possibly even conclude that mashing potatoes is not possible.  I’ll take the pragmatic guy and his results any day.  He will achieve a quality result in the amount time the bright guy spends on arrogant tirades and irrelevant research whose aim is to refute your request rather than respond to it.

Another great example, is then I was hired into a financial services company that up until my arrival were utilizing high priced consultants from Microsoft.  Nine months before, there were given a somewhat simple task — to take a set of financial formulas and create a DLL that would allow a suite of financial planning tools to use a common implementation of these formulas.  Three guys (1 PhD and 2 MS degreed bright guys) worked on this for nine months.  Nine months. What they came back with was the proclamation that it was impossible to implement all of the calculations in a single function call.  Not only was this not what they were asked to do, how they could have ever reasonably conceived that implementing calculations in that manner was a good idea was beyond me.  When I gently pointed out the problem with their approach, the response was an unapologetic  ‘you think you can do a better job, fine…but just look at our stock price!’  No mashed potatoes for that company.  The good news was that after a few more months of my mopping up their crap and making much more progress than they had in nearly a year, they were (finally) shown the door.  They were even ethically challenged enough to try to recruit me before they left.  No thanks.

On another occasion, I was the tech lead at a consumer electronics manufacturer.  I successfully migrated them from a load of mini computers to a client server based environment, got them connected to the Internet and built a web site for them back in the days when Mosaic was THE browser and Mozilla (soon to be the Netscape browser) was a rumor being discussed on Usenet.  I digress.  When I left, the CEO of the company proclaimed that he was going to get a real bright guy ‘to take them to the next level’.  So he went to Carnegie-Mellon and hired a MSc grad. What an unmitigated disaster.   I kept hearing from people who where still there that this guy would do things like reboot production servers, power off network hubs and other clueless activity.  After less than six months, they let this bright guy go (apparently with a lavish severance package to keep him quiet and avoid embarrassing the company and the CEO any further).

I have also had occasion over the years to interview Computer Science PhD grads for various tech positions in business.  Inevitably, I’ll ask what their thesis topic was and then ask how that it could be applied in business or industry.  It is frightening the number of blank stares that simple question receives.  It is always a bit telling when the answer is that it has no application in business.  It is even more telling when I suggest a few applications that make them sit up in their chair and an sheepishly admit that they never thought of applying their work in that manner.

Lack of relevance is also the problem with asking cute little problem solving questions in what are supposed to be technical interviews.  This seems to be a cliquish thing that really has no bearing on software engineering-type problem solving.  I don’t solve word puzzles for fun, because frankly, at the end there is no result (the term ‘mental masturbation’ comes to mind here).  However, solving a technical or business problem is enormously satisfying because in the end there is a tangible, relevant achievement.

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Old School Tech Skills

Something that I have noticed working in IT for the last 20 or so years is that the critical thinking and problem solving skills appear to have diminished with the most recent crop of CS grads.  Perhaps this is an unfair characterization, maybe there is less emphasis on ‘the fundamentals’ in the current CS curriculum.  As an example, if you give a set of requirements to a recent grad, their first instinct is to go try to download something from the Internet and start customizing it.  While I applaud the apparent desire to re-use existing code bases, Im not sure that this practice makes them prudent or dependent on the work of others for productivity.  A similar issue exists when a problem or issue comes up — zoom, straight to Google.  If someone else hasn’t solved the problem, well, then it must not be workable — better download someone elses work and ‘fix’ the problem that way.  The other symptom is that inevitably, when asked to do something new, the newbies will insist on having a training class on it.  Suggest picking up a book and building a prototype to learn and you will be rewarded with a grimace as if you had asked them to drink their own vomit.

I contrast this with my education and career where I felt that I had a good grounding in fundamentals (how operating systems, programming languages, databases, networks and other building blocks work).  Having these in place, I have successfully been able to apply and extend by knowledge base without being dependent on someone else providing me with an answer.  I remember one of my first jobs, I showed up and was told, ‘we just bought this minicomputer and we need you to set it up’.  Ok, hadn’t done that before, but love a good challenge.  I took the manuals home, came in the next day, setup the mini, did development on it and it was solid for years.  This has been repeated over the years as, at various times, I was a database administrator, network engineer, computer operations manager, software developer, development manager and so on.  In each of these roles, building on the fundamentals and previous experience seemed natural to me — I wasn’t dependent on someone else solving the problem for me.

There also seems to be the glamor effect at play here as well.  Because there is so much access to so much ‘stuff’ via the Internet, new developers feel the need (if not the RIGHT) to only use the tools and practices that are cool at the moment.  The whinging that accompanies constraining the technology set can be deafening.  In retrospect, somehow I have managed to use the tools at hand to solve the problem at hand without needing to do it with the ‘tool of the moment’ or wasting time on ‘if only…’ .  Oh well, this presents the opportunity to mentor and lead by example.  Maybe an old dog can teach some (not so) new tricks.

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RSS based Package Tracking

This holiday season, I created my own little mashup by combining this web service (created by Ben Hammersley) to track a FedEx package via RSS and the Yahoo Alerts service to notify my mobile phone when the FedEx status was updated.

The combination worked pretty well (Yahoo Alerts sent several false/duplicate updates). It would be nice if all of the major shipping carriers provided this as a service. Tracking multiple packages via RSS is much simpler via RSS than having to go ping individual websites. The option to couple this with SMS notification is a big plus for critical, can’t miss shipments.

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Innovation Happens Elsewhere

There is now an online version of the book Innovation Happens Elsewhere, which discusses using open source software as a business strategy. Even if you are developing your own ‘proprietary’ software, leveraging the sheer amount (and in most cases, quality) of open source software can provide for speedier startup and time to market.

If you are interested, the dead tree version was published in April 2005 and is available from amazon.

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Video Killed The Photojournalist ?

A very insightful post from David Leeson on how the emergence of High Definition Video (HDV)cameras may become a ‘threat’ to some photojournalist. David’s stance is that frame grabs from HDV are of a quality that is perfectly acceptable for print use. An obvious advantage that video has is that you have a frame rate approaching 30 frames per minute, so if you are shooting action you stand a better chance of getting just the right moment.

He also delves into the attitude of some fellow photojournalists, that using frame grabs is ‘cheating’. These sorts of comments can be traced back to any sea change in photography and concludes that HDV frame grabs are probably just the next step in the evolution of how images are captured and communicated.

Hat tip to Doug Alcorn for the link.

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OpinMind is an interesting take on blog search engines in that it attempts to categorize the blog content as either positive or negative. I would guess that it somehow uses the surrounding text to make the determination.

You can also do comparison searches by putting a ‘vs’ between two terms. Just for fun, I tried a few, with mixed results: Peace (91%) beat out War (42%), but then again Life (50%) lost out to Death (65%). It probably has all the statistical relevance of Magic Eight Ball, but can be kind of fun to see the results (like the perennial favorite ‘Ginger vs MaryAnn’).

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Amazon mturk Still Broken

I thought that I should follow up and have another look at mturk to see if Amazon has addressed the performance and functionality quirks and issues. Nope.

Granted, the home page loads quickly, but when you actually get into the meat of the app and try to do something with it, it is still crap. For example, viewing the list of ‘HITs’ available shows one with 350 available. Ok, request a HIT for that one. Buzz. Returns a screen that states:

There are no more available HITs in this group.

Great. Honest mistake. Wrong again. The same HIT group shows up on the screen again, stating that it has 350 HITs available. In fact, clicking on any HIT group other than the one that lists 30000+ HITS available (and also has the lowest per HIT payoff) gets you the same message.

It’s amazing to me that this thing has been around for weeks now and still operates like some CS101 I-just-learned-how-to-code-sort-of web app; especially with all of the resources of Amazon behind it.

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Yahoo and TiVo

Not sure what the big hubbub is over the the Tivo/Yahoo announcement. Apparently, you can now schedule TiVo recording from the site. When TiVo introduced the Home Media Option a few years back, online scheduling was always something you could do directly from the web site. Having to traverse the flash advert laden Yahoo gauntlet for anything is torturous at best (and for me, simply to be avoided).

I was curious to see if there was more to this, so I followed the registration link. I stopped cold at the prompt that wanted me to enter my TiVo credentials into a field that read:

This one-time step links your TiVo® box(es) to your Yahoo! ID, so you can schedule recordings from Yahoo! TV any time.

So, if I proceed, then it would appear that Yahoo would now have access to my Tivo viewing habits (and giving nothing of value in return). Of course, I am making an assumption here about what the nature of this ‘linking’ is.

Additionally, Yahoo continues to show it’s disdain for Mac users by creating a registration page that causes Safari to crash unnecessarily.

No thanks, Yahoo.

Effective Information Management

steptwo has an excellent article enumerating the 10 Principles of Effective Information Management.

I have to agree with lifehack that principle five ‘take a journey of a thousand steps’ is one of the real keys here. Too often I have seen important strategic changes not put into place because they would never be implemented as their own project. However, they could be just as easily broken down into manageable chunks and implemented along with other projects.


World Usability Day

Visit the World Usability Day site and take in the world-wide activities that are happening today. This one sounded entertaining (in Auckland, New Zealand)

A hiliarious remote control shootout! Eight attendees vied for the title of “Owner of the most unusable remote control”.

The winner wasn’t actually the most number of buttons, or the least amount of buttons actually used – but the one that managed to switch off all the electrical equipment in the room through the accidental push of a random button!

Another good resource is Jakob Nielson’s site useit that focuses primarily on web usability. The remarkable thing about this site is that inspite of the fact that web development has been going on for around 10 years, the same mistakes keep getting made over and over again.

If today’s activities inspire you, you might consider joining the Usability Professionals Association.

The State of Public Web Services

A Snapshot of Public Web Services” (warning PDF) appeared in the March 2005 issue of the SIGMOD Record. It discusses how many of the publicly available ‘web services’ are really just data retrieval services or search services. Available services also tend to be fairly poorly documented (fewer than 10 words) and in more cases than not, contain malformed WSDL. In fact, many of the services reported on tend to be more at the ‘Hello, World’ end of the spectrum — their existence in the directory more out of experimentation than utility.

It should be noted that the services in question were trawled out of and the like, so they don’t represent the services or APIs that sites like Flickr, Google, Amazon or others expose.

I believe that it would be very valuable to have an inventory/registry of proper/richer services that are available on the Internet. This would certainly facilitate the growing trend of people wiring up one sites functionality with another sites services to create something altogether different. Such a site could enforce some level of validation and even provide semantic web capabilities such as OWL-S description and composition facitlities to aid the systematic discovery and usage of said services.

Facilitating Innovation

The FastCompany review of the new book The Ten Faces of Innovation sounds like an interesting read. I personally find dealing with people who are always trying to find a reason to say ‘no’ rather than understanding the strengths and weaknesses of a thought, idea or approach somewhat tedious and backward. They don’t seem to understand that doing the same old thing is not what positions you or your customers for a better future. Perhaps this book will give some additional insight into guiding people to thinking ‘not “no”, but “how”‘.

Innovation is all about people. It is about the roles people can play, the hats they can put on, the personas they can adopt. It is not just about the luminaries of innovation like Thomas Edison, or celebrity CEOs like Steve Jobs and Jeff Immelt. It is about the unsung heroes who work on the front lines of entrepreneurship in action, the countless people and teams who make innovation happen day in and day out.

And by adopting some of these innovation personas, you’ll have a chance to put the devil’s advocate in his place. So when someone says, “Let me play devil’s advocate for a minute” and starts to smother a fragile new idea, someone else in the room may be emboldened to speak up and say, “Let me be an anthropologist for a moment, because I personally have watched our customers suffering silently with this issue for months, and this new idea just might help them.” And if that one voice gives courage to others, maybe someone else will add, “Let’s think like an experimenter for a moment. We could prototype this idea in a week and get a sense of whether we’re onto something good.” The devil’s advocate may never go away, but on a good day, the 10 personas can keep him in his place. Or tell him to go to hell.

Sorting through the hype 2.0

The hype-laden rollout of Flock has got me thinking about all of the stuff that is being rolled up and paraded about under the umbrella of the what’s-cool-now ‘Web 2.0’ moniker. Having lived (and worked) through this the first Internet gold rush, it’s a bit puzzling as to what is at the heart of this and if it is really paying attention to other dynamics in the web-space.

There certainly have been some improvements in the end user experience through the evolution of CSS and the ramp up of AJAX interfaces, but this, in and of itself, hardly seems a revolution (sort of reminds me of when web design evolved from frames, to tables, to CSS with a brief detour through detestable flash-only site interfaces).

In addition to more dynamic interfaces, another attribute that most of these new apps share is some sort of an API which allows them to be extended, mixed and aggregated in ways that the original developers never intended or imagined (think google maps). This appears to be another expression of the growing traction of web services and it’s underlying emphasis on interoperability. Besides, once I have my information on the wire, I want to be able to selectively share it at other venues as well. Not that I make use of APIs explicitly to do so, but one of the driving reasons for creating this site was to have a place to link in all of the ‘stuff’ that I have on the web (aka my InfoCloud).

Being able to share and replicate ‘my stuff’ is one of the things that was initially attractive about Apple’s .Mac offering. I could keep bookmarks, calendars, etc in synch between various systems and have them available via the web. To do so, I also need to have my data bottled up in and dependent upon .Mac (and pay an annual fee). Now that reasonable substitutes are appearing, I can see making more use of them and becoming less reliant on the .Mac offerings.

Many of these ‘2.0’ apps seem to be simple-minded extensions of the web-based email systems that have been around for years — except now with a focus on news feeds. How many newsreader applications do we need? It seems that every week a new one is being announced. Thus far, the only newsreader that I have seen that makes a difference is searchfox. Searchfox pays attention to what I pay attention to and presents my feeds based upon what I really want to read. With close to 200 feeds, that is a big value add for me. The relevance seems to be a bit more intelligent than the recommendations wherein you buy one CD by, say, David Sylvian and it recommends you all of his CDs rather than artists that are similar to or related to him (as if you couldn’t find all of his CDs by searching by name for them). The creator of searchfox, Esteban Kozak is also genuinely interested in feedback (and very responsive in implementing the best suggestions). I like this app enough that I am in the process of going ‘cold turkey’ with NetNewsWire lite on my Mac at home and Sharpreader at work by converging all of my feeds into searchfox.

Following in the parade after news readers are calendar, events and to-do apps. The best one of these that I have come across is rememberthemilk (which I have commented on previously). I find this app to be truly useful and elegant in its design and execution. The ability to share the lists via the web is of great value. One of the things that the site needs is an API to make it easy to integrate its functionality with other apps (as mentioned above).

Unfortunately, what most ‘web 2.0’ developers seem to miss is the ever growing mobile population in the world. Just try accessing one of the sites on a mobile phone. Prepare yourself for a ugly and frustrating experience. It seems obvious to me that one of the reasons for web-based tools is that I can have access to my information just about anywhere via a browser. The next (obvious) step is to make it available to me anywhere I have my mobile phone/device. Having the functionality of a site available through an API creates an opportunity to create a mobile version (or mashup) of the site.

Another apparent mis-step is around ignoring the aging of the population. I wonder what effect this new style of development will have on accessibility, particularly those who are blind or have low sight that might need a machine reader to be able to take advantage of the Internet at all. Is this, perhaps, where microformats and other tagging technologies take a role in providing a richer experience for those with sight impairment?

In a cynical moment, I could believe that this is just the same greed and me-to attitude ten years on, with developers trying to create something/anything and flip it for a profit. For the time being, I plan on seeing how it evolves and figure out how to apply the best of it.

Patent on XML?

Cnet has a story about how a small company is claiming via US patents 5,842,213 and 6,393,426 filed in 1997 that they own the rights to XML and intend to ‘monetize’ it.

How did this ever get approved? Did no one in the US Patent Office know of SGML? When I was working at the Environmental Protection Agency in the late 80’s there was a fair amount of EPS-generated documentation that existed in SGML. This definately can’t stand up to the ‘prior art’ challenge.

The Art Of Camera Tossing

Join in the fun: Take your (somewhat expendable) digital camera, turn off the flash, lock the shutter open, take it out at night near some light sources and toss it up in the air, hopefully catch it and marvel at the results.

Some results can be seen in the camera toss Flickr group and in other Flickr photosets here, here, and here.

About Camera Toss
This is a “technique” group, and the technique here is regarded by some as insanity. For we are the reckless folks on flickr that enjoy the abstract, chance, generative, physical photography that results from throwing our cameras into the air (most often at night in front of varied light sources).

It is about trading risk for reward in the pursuit of art. It is not about being a photographer, it is about enabling the photography that happens naturally when you let go of the process, give up control, and add a hell of alot more variables. It is about physics, gravity, angular momentum, acceleration, direction, chaos, and timing… most of which you have tenuous control of at best!

via HipTop Nation