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Saturday, 29 July 2006

Late to the Party

or, what’s the use of an RSS reader?

On the face of it, it seems freakish that as recently as September 2005 NetNewsWire was “the most popular desktop newsreader on any platform” considering that it was (and still is) Mac-only software.1 It also costs 30 bucks which is a significant chunk of the operating system slice-of-pie.

So, I did some research and came across two reviews. The first is actually a site dedicated to reviewing RSS readers. While the Mac OS X section is undercommented (i.e. none) it provides a nice set of summary reviews.

The second useful review I found is on the beloved-by-geeks Ars Technica. There, Brian Warren reviews eight OS X RSS readers, giving the highest marks to Newsgator’s NetNewsWire and Freshly Squeezed Software’s PulpFiction. Check out Warren’s conclusion for the pros and cons of those two pieces of software.2

Some of you, as I did up until today, may be scratching your heads about RSS readers. Always late to the technology party, I couldn’t wrap my head around the why-would-I-want-to-do-that of RSS, despite that this very site publishes several types of RSS feed. But now I’m starting to grok. If you are frustated by a website that has not updated since your last visit, or if you are overwhelmed by the amount of new material because you hadn’t visited recently enough, you might benefit by subscribing to that web site’s RSS feed. A feed reader automatically checks websites for updates. You control which sites should be automatically checked by subscribing to RSS feeds.

A few more words of prelude before I give my own RSS feed reader recommendation.

There is a second kind of software I had to run back to the house for.3 In my defense, even my department’s super-knowledgeable tech guy wasn’t clued in either. When I showed it to him, he started making I’m-being-blown-away noises, remarking he had tried Growl when it first came out but that he had not been impressed because it wasn’t very polished. I also think that back in the day Growl had not yet gotten the support from third-party developers it has since.

If you’re wondering what Growl is, it’s like IM for your computer. With Growl, your computer has a private channel to tell you things like you’ve received new email, your music has changed, the server’s gone down, etc. in summary form. (Hrm, maybe Growl is more like RSS for your computer.)

There is a even a THIRD piece of software that I had tried years ago but which lacked the polish of software I adopt. It has since cleaned up nicely, but still suffers from what I call “preference complexity,” a problem to which Open Source Software seems particularly susceptible. Still, AdiumX is a wonderful heap of compilable-code that produces a shiny binary with features and capabilities so sophisticated that IM starts to seem like something hackers do to train for writing assembly.4 AdiumX is Growl-aware, which I know means nothing to anyone who doesn’t already know this. Still.

With the above plugs for Growl and AdiumX in place, I am brought to an important selling point for Shrook as an RSS reader: Shrook is free as in beer. While the zero capital outlay for Shrook tipped the balance between it and NetNewsWire, what weighed the scale down is that Shrook is Growl-aware,5 which again means nothing to anyone who doesn’t already know.

UPDATE: Growl-support is in my opinion the killer feature of an RSS reader, allowing the reader to behave as a single-announcement ticker. The way NewsFire and Shrook support Growl is different enough that some explanation of their differences is in order.

Shrook allows one to specify which feeds will notify Growl, a first-rate design decision. However, Shrook’s implementation is not as useful as it should be. Here is a Growl notification delivered by Shrook

Shrook Growl notice

which as you can see is not very informative.

NewsFire, on the other hand provides a brief summary of the updated feeds and the titles of the articles, as shown below

Shrook Growl notice

However, NewsFire does not allow a user to specify which updated feeds will post a Growl notification.

There are also a number of differences between the user interfaces of the two programs. NewsFire does not allow for more than a sidebar and a main window to be displayed at any one time. When NewsFire first starts, the sidebar shows the names of feeds and the main window shows the titles and summaries of the selected feed’s articles. Selecting an item in the main window causes NewsFire to redraw that main window and fill it with a detailed article summary (depending on the feed). This is bad design because it makes NewFire aggravating to use for any length of time.

In particular, the mouse must be used to select a single article directly. After selecting an article, the keyboard (CTRL-left arrow) can be used to again reveal the list of items, but selecting a different (or the same) item directly requires a return to the mouse. The alternatives are either to use the arrow keys and blindly scroll through the list of items or to never let go of the mouse. In fact, using the mouse only provides the most consistent experience, but moving back and forth with a pointing device is inefficient and frustrating. What is touted as NewsFire’s simplicity ends up being an interface design fault.

Another weakness masquerading as a feature is that NewsFire does not fully render HTML. Clicking on an article title causes the article to load in Safari. While this behavior is hard to discern in the video below (you can see an article load in the edges of the movie about halfway through), the summary/article toggling is clearly demonstrated.

NewsFire Demo

Clicking downloads a 1.3 MB file.
Please be patient while the file loads
Ctrl/Right-click here to “Save File As . . .”

In this regard Shrook has much more desirable behavior, maintaining in its window groups, feeds, and summaries as one navigates deeper into the hierarchy. Only the user can initiate a window redraw that removes the top part of the feed hierarchy. Shrook also uses WebKit to advantage providing a browser-quality view of the article within the program.

Shrook Demo

Clicking downloads a 13.9 MB file.
Please be patient while the file loads
Ctrl/Right-click here to “Save File As . . .”

It works out well for me that Shrook can be used with all its features less one (Web browser-accessible RSS feed subscriptions) for no cost.6 That way, I can take advantage of NewsFire’s informative Growl notices while using Shrook in its capacity to single out specific feeds for special notifications (e.g. persistent notices for the blogs of close friends).

In the end, I paid for a NewsFire license and emailed the developers of Shrook that the lack of a more informative Growl notice was my primary reason for splitting my attentions between Shrook and NewsFire. I also told the developers of NewsFire that the ability to select Growl notifcation on a per-feed basis would be kickin’.

However both Shrook and NewsFire could benefit from a feature I have not seen in any RSS reader I have tested. It would be great if a user could select a non-continguous set of articles and open them up in a single tabbed web browser window. Shrook feasibly could provide this capability, but it is difficult to imagine Newsfire adding such a useful feature given its bizzare and frustrating toggling between headline/summary and article. end of article


1 The quote is from Warren’s review and can be found on the fourth page. Regarding RSS readers for Windows, Waldo Landers provides some pointers in his article “RSS for total newbies,” though he does not mention what seems to be a fairly well-regarded Windows RSS reader, BottomFeeder.

2 I’m confused by Warren’s conclusion where he gives 7s to Shrook and NewsFire (which I evaluate later in this entry) and awards an 8 to PulpFiction which sucks like a cheap hooker.

3 This is actually a slight bit of distortion as this “kind of software” is actually a single piece of software, unique among all others for the time being.

4 Kudos to Mandy O. for reintroducing me to AdiumX.

5 In case you didn’t catch it, Shrook is my recommendation. Given the balance between Growl-support and interface polish, I might say NewsFire edges out Shrook but as I explain, above, I really don’t have to.

6 For Warren, this is Shrook’s killer feature. I haven’t tried it (because it costs money for upkeep), but I can see how synchronization across several computers RSS subscription sets would be extremely useful if they could be accessed anywhere one can access a web browser.

Tuesday, 18 July 2006

Fresh as harvest day.”0

While notable for its pioneering visual effects, Michael Anderson's 1976 Logan’s Run has been relatively neglected as a result of its defiantly clumsy scriptwriting and remarkably bad plotting. After the film’s release, several attempts were made to build a franchise from William F. Nolan’s and George Clayton Johnston’s co-authored 1967 novel, but none of these projects was very long-lived. Given the release of George Lucas’s Star Wars and the subsequent mainstreaming of science fiction film not quite a year later, Logan’s Run has not well weathered the test of time. Watching Logan's Run today reveals the strong influence the film has had on cinematic dystopias such as those depicted in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Alex Proya’s Dark City as well as how much it draws upon classics of the genre such as George Lucas’s THX 1138 and Franklin J. Schaffer’s Planet of the Apes. Logan's Run also provides several excellent snapshots of American hedonism during the late 1970s.

For example, the ritual of Carrousel not only recalls the Roman Colosseum as well as modern-day sports events, but it also visually alludes to 1970s discotheques such as La Discothéque (Paris), Studio 54 (New York), and, notably, The Sanctuary (New York), a gay disco whose cinematic namesake is a mythical haven where people may live past the age of 30.

The scene excerpted below marks the film’s halfway point. It is an important moment of transition, as it precedes Logan 5’s and Jessica 6’s first exposure to the world outside the domed city and moves Logan 5 and Jessica 6 toward their eventual roles as truth sayers who liberate the gullible citizens of the domed city.

Clicking downloads a 12.9 MB file.
Please be patient while the file loads
Ctrl/Right-click here to “Save File As . . .”

Here, Logan 5 and Jessica 6 meet Box, resident and keeper of what Logan 5 and Jessica 6 believe is a “link to Sanctuary.” Box greets his guests with “Welcome, humans! I am ready for you,” a greeting whose conventionality is undercut by the threat that he is “ready for [them]”. Box continues with an apparent non sequitur—“Fish, plankton, seagreens, and protein from the sea, fresh as harvest day!”—that dispels the threat of his greeting because it suggests that the cybernetic Box is either badly malfunctioning or cognitively impaired. It is no accident that Box’s hypnotic recital of pelagic foodstuffs resembles 1970s New Agey ideas regarding ecologically sustainable aquaculture. Indeed, Box’s Ice Cave—with its frozen walrus, penguins, and terns—combines then contemporary fears about the onset of a new ice age with popular mythology regarding the lost city of Atlantis which the world of Logan’s Run, with its domes, partly resembles. Box rounds out his nonsensical patter with psuedo-poetry: “Wait for the winds, then my birds sing! And the deep grottoes whisper my name, ‘Box . . . Box . . Box . . .’.”

Pressed regarding the whereabouts of previous runners seeking Sanctuary, Box reveals his unintentionally diabolical cybernetic genius. This is the crisis point of the scene and the turning point of the movie because it reveals that the machines which serve humans are deranged and dangerous, even when they are not malicious. Box freezes transient humans not out of ill will but because he is following “[r]egular storage procedure, the same as [for] the other food.”

Another way of looking at it is that Box uses reductive machine logic when he equates humans with other organisms such as seaweed, fish, and seabirds. It is fitting that a machine considers all organic entities as “food,” which is excactly what he does when explaining that “[t]he other food stopped coming, and they [the humans] started.” The results of Box's logic are (wait for it) chilling and drive him to freeze the humans who encounter him. The quest to escape the domed city where no one is allowed to live past the age of thirty leads humans to a fish freezer.

With his jerky mechanical gestures writ large on the silver screen, Box might call to mind iconic stop-motion animated mascots of the prepared food industry such as Poppin’ Fresh and Speedy Alka-Seltzer. In particular, Box’s stout form and near-silent gliding across the ice cave’s floor suggest an eerie combination of Mrs. Butterworth and the Gorton Fisherman, especially at the moment he heartily booms, “It's all here. Ready! Fresh as harvest day.” This processed food theme is emphasized by the wall of frozen humans that Logan 5 and Jessica 6 pass.1 The wall of translucent cells visually anticipates not only the “endless fields” in The Matrix “where humans are no longer born; [they] are grown”; it also thematically recalls the moment Detective Robert Thorn learns that “Soylent Green is people!”

In this scene from Michael Anderson’s 1976 Logan’s Run, an equivalence is made between the processed food industry, religions that purport a blessed afterlife, theories of environmental sustainability, human reliance upon machines, and cannibalism. The statement is as incoherent as it is disturbing. On another level, the bloodlessness of Box’s “regular storage procedure” in some ways resembles the mindless execution of Jews by Nazi bureaucrats, an idea Box himself makes explicit when he rhetorically ejaculates, “It’s my job!” end of article


0 A big shout out to Mandy O. who tested this entry while it was still in beta.

1 The wall also recalls somewhat dimly Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial, the suggestion being that the Vietnam War processed tens of thousands of people like so much food.


Brazil. Dir. Terry Gilliam. Universal, 1985.

Dark City. Dir. Alex Proyas. New Line, 1998.

Logan’s Run. Dir. Michael Anderson. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1976.

The Matrix. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. Warner, 1999.

Planet of the Apes. Dir. Franklin J. Schaffner. Twentieth Century Fox, 1999.

Soylent Green. Dir. Richard Fleischer. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1973.

Star Wars. Dir. George Lucas. Twentieth Century Fox, 1977.

THX 1138. Dir. George Lucas. Warner, 1971.

Thursday, 13 July 2006

A Series of Tubes

Some might say I'm slacking by posting only the following video from YouTube. The gory truth is that my Internets is clogged. end of article

Bonus MP3*: “It’s a Series of Tubes!
CTRL-click to “Save File As . . .”


*The file has been moved from blog.mistersquid.com to my new website: Clogged Internets.

Tuesday, 04 July 2006

Every day is Independence Day

When the phone rang, she was in the shower. I picked up and said hello to her mother, who knew neither my voice nor our affection, the secrets we shared while kept in close spaces. Her mother asked after her, waited while I took the phone over. She was standing on the tub's ledge, partly wrapped in the curtain. I thought maybe modesty had arranged her so, but the scene slowly resolved into her bare shoulders and the curve of her breast, the veil's bluegreen folds echoing and concealing the posture she had assumed.

She unwrapped herself and, with the tip of one thumb, muffled the phone's mouthpiece as she would a runny spout, telling me not to tell. I remember the summer moon folded us together. I remember she kept slipping off the couch. end of article

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