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Alex Kessinger
I hack, I write, I eat.
I hack, I write, I eat.


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I just published my first ebook. Its about the future of feed reading check it out:

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These guys would have fit right in at sightglass.

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RSS needs better PR

RSS is in a bad state and it’s possibly in danger. The rate of adoption seems to be slowing down. There are blogs, but new forms of information are being created, and they aren’t using RSS. Even the people who love it are resigned to its demise. It’s really hard to even make a business case for why your service should have RSS. Best argument we have right now is that its a greater good argument. Even though it seems like RSS is having a tough time, I think there is a way to save it.

First we need to fix the verbiage problem. When we talk about RSS, it could be interchangeable with Atom, but even that isn’t the root issue. When we talk about RSS we are really talking about an aggregated stream of information 1. Usually this stream is an aggregate of RSS, and ATOM feeds, but that doesn’t mean we should talk about this issue in terms of its format. The medium behind the format is what we really should be talking about. So, feed reading is probably okay, or aggregated stream of information whatever, but we should stop thinking about this purely in terms of formats. For our purposes Twitter is actually an aggregated stream of information, and so is Facebook, but I am sure that what most feed readers want is something a little more custom, a little more whitebox then what Twitter, and Facebook provide.

Which isn’t as important as the idea. Lets leave the technical part of this aside for a moment. It’s important, and the next generation of feed reading will require some new fundamental tech, but it shouldn’t drive the conversation. It’s dry. I could spend all day talking about the tech, but this is where RSS and friends went wrong. They failed to inspire people. I mean the idea of an aggregated stream of information doesn’t sell itself it needs something, probably at least two things.

We need some new people. “Nattering nabobs of negativism” 2 comes to Mind when I think about the level of discussion around RSS. We all, my self included, can get hamstrung by the details. We have also accepted some form of the idea that RSS is dying, or dead. This continues right down to the core. Dave Winer has probably pissed so many people off that he can’t really be the standard bearer for RSS any longer. So, new people okay, or at lest lets try and energize the current crop.

Also we need to get a crystal clear idea of whats going on here. We are talking about the creation of a brand new medium, not just RSS feeds. Let’s put it up on a pedestal so high that we might fail, but it would also be freaking awesome if we made it. We are talking about the next TV, Radio, or Newspaper. Let’s take this idea, and rebrand the aggregated stream of information as the next big medium.

Why a medium?

Here are two pieces of media that came down through my stream in the last week or so.

The first is a video of at talk given by Wilson Miner, ‘When We Build’ 3. It’s for a bunch of designers, but its not about design. It’s about how our rituals, our activities around consuming media can change the world. His thesis is ‘We shape our tools and our tools shape us’. He uses some ideas from Marshall Mcluhan4 to make his point 5. Watch the video, its good, but here are the highlights that I saw. The medium through which you access information is a strong force. It can re-shape the way we live our lives. We will meld our world around that medium. His most dramatic example is that of a light bulb. By creating light at night, there are a whole host of activities we can now do at night. Activities we weren’t able todo before. It utterly changed our world.

The second piece was a blog post Getting the News By Zach Seward. Seward has a quote, which highlighted by Daniel Bachhuber On his blog 6.

Chiefly, though, I make sure I don’t rely on other people to find stuff for me to read. I mean, I do, of course; everything I’ve described so far is powered by other people. But I feel strongly about also hunting for material on my own, which is why RSS remains a huge part of my life.

Seward likes to use feed readers because he likes to find news. I think many people look at it in the reverse. I want news, so I am going to use a feed reader. It doesn’t seem backwards, but it is. News is always available, really to anyone who wants it. CNN, NYTimes. All these places have websites where you can get the news, but why stop at websites. Walk down to the cafe and talk to someone. They will probably have some news for you as well. The TV, the Newspaper, the back of the cereal box; all these things have news.

The news isn’t changing, the medium is changing. When the medium changes, so do we. Here is a journalist who’s ideas of receiving news has changed to gathering news. I understand that because he is a journalist it’s more likely this would happen to him, but all big change needs to start somewhere. Newspapers are something that changed our world, but they have always been written by a proportionally smaller group of people then those who use them.

We’re here on the precipice of monumental change. Facebook, Twitter, Google Reader were all just baby steps. I don’t really know where we go from here, but the aggregated feed isn’t dead. To give it a kick in the pants we just need to refresh our idea a little of what they are, and we need some new people to carry on the idea.

1 More on What we talk about when we talk about RSS

2 from Spiro Agnew

3 Was a talk at build conf vimeo.

4 more info about the man wikipedia.

5 media-crit-nerd-fistbump to Miner for using Mcluhan in the first place.

6 blog How Zach Seward gets his news

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Best function in the new Facebook code dump Phabricator.

If you come from a big co that writes PHP you will be used to seeing code like this.

function phabricator_detect_insane_memory_limit() {
$memory_limit = ini_get('memory_limit');
$char_limit = 12;
if (strlen($memory_limit) <= $char_limit) {

// colmdoyle ran into an issue on an Ubuntu box with Suhosin where his
// 'memory_limit' was set to:
// 3232323232323232323232323232323232323232323232323232323232323232M
// Not a typo. A wizard did it.
// Anyway, with this 'memory_limit', the machine would immediately fatal
// when executing the ini_set() later. I wasn't able to reproduce this on my
// EC2 Ubuntu + Suhosin box, but verified that it caused the problem on his
// machine and that setting it to a more sensible value fixed it. Since I
// have no idea how to actually trigger the issue, we look for a coarse
// approximation of it (a memory_limit setting more than 12 characters in
// length).

"Your PHP 'memory_limit' is set to something ridiculous ".
"(\"{$memory_limit}\"). Set it to a more reasonable value (it must be no ".
"more than {$char_limit} characters long).");

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This missing critical blogs

There are so many content areas that don’t have a strong blog/online critique community. The fact that there are so many rich stories left to be told reminds me that blogging is a long play, and will continue to be a long play. Take my wife’s profession as an example. She’s a playwright/theatre person. She can’t seem to find anyone on the web writing about what makes plays, scripts, or theatre acting good1. There is no ScriptShadow for her industry. For some reason there is a dearth of blogging playwrights. Which made me realize there is probably a dearth for other niche creative venues. I mean there is probably a lack in areas we wouldn’t even call creative.

I know this isn’t new, critique in general has been around forever, but blogs that are critique bring a whole new form of critique. I think that it really is different that what could be found even like 20 years ago. The people today who day in and day out breakdown some creative process and explain why it’s good, is a new breed information sharing. What’s great is that It almost doesn’t matter who you are. As long as you are good at it.

ScriptShadow is an amazing example of this in process. It breaks down some of the hottest scripts in the industry. Every script they break down is a mini-lesson it what makes a script good, or bad. As well they will do sidebar posts that are about writing scripts. The person who runs Scriptshadow does all of this while being anonymous. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know what qualifications this person has, they can still impact the industry. They even help give amateur script writers a break.

These sites are like the course readers I had to buy in college, but elevated. It’s fresh. This guy is in his industry right now; reviewing scripts that are being sold right now. I didn’t go to film school, but I did go to TV/broadcast school. You often get stuck reading about the scripts from Cheers, or Roseanne. Classic stories are classic, but there is something to be said about knowing what’s good about the current crop of TV shows. Another reason sites like this are so awesome is realtime feedback. Scriptshadow responds to criticism from time to time by defending or explaining there thinking. Finally, follow up. Some of my favorite posts are when they will follow up on a post some how. Like the movie/script Drive, or this guys amateur script.

So, this kind of writing is awesome. It can extend past the boundaries of it’s own niche, because in-between the niche specific criticism, are bits anyone can use. Also these blogs can be well written. That all by it’s self is something to enjoy. So, why aren’t there more of them?

I think it just takes times for technically minded people to seep into industries. A blog doesn’t take an incredible amount technical know-how these days, but you do need to understand the medium. That requires being a reader of blogs I imagine. Mostly I think it’s just time. These things need to be communicated like a virus. I have encouraged my wife to be the Scriptshadow of theatre(she blogs here).

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