Tag Archives: D’Arcy Norman

Doom and gloom upon the offing of Google Reader

This week, Google announced that it’s shutting down Reader. This is the first of Google’s “sunsets” that hits me personally – Reader has been a crucial part of my internet use for the better part of a decade. I happen to think, like Marco Arment, that in the long run the loss of Google Reader will probably be good for innovation in RSS readers and for RSS in general. Google’s hamstrung app has been just good enough for people like me, but non-approachable for non-geeks. A year from now, I’m hoping that there’ll be many more quality players. So, in the long run, I’m reasonably optimistic.

More immediately, though, a couple of causes for concern:

  1. Finding an alternative to Reader. My RSS reading habits are too ingrained for me to abandon them, even for a short time. More than that: following RSS feeds is beyond mere habit, but is check on my intellectual honesty. I follow many blogs whose authors I frequently disagree with, or even dislike. (Contrast this with Twitter, where I’m pretty fickle about whom I follow, and how many tweets/links I pay attention to.) So RSS is, for me, a partial antidote to the echo chamber tendency. That means that I’ve got to find a new app, and migrate over, and I’ve got to do it quickly.

    There have been a number of posts over the last couple days listing Reader alternatives. A number of them are cloud/service based, and for practical reasons (such as, um, Google Reader) as well as philosophical reasons (see below), I’m only considering alternative tools that I can run either locally or on my own server. A couple that spring to mind:

    • Fever. I’m interested in this one because (a) the screenshots make it look nice, and (b) it comes highly recommended by people I respect, like D’Arcy Norman. I like that it’s self-hosted. I don’t like the fact that its sustainability model is to charge for downloads. It’s not that I don’t think the author shouldn’t be paid – I would be happy to pay $30 or $300 for a great RSS reader app. It’s that the success of the single-developer model is contingent on the willingness of that developer to keep working on the project (paid or otherwise). I’m far more comfortable with software that is community developed under a free license, ideally using a set of technologies that would allow me to modify or even adopt the project if the main devs were to abandon it.
    • Tiny Tiny RSS. tt-rss also comes recommended by someone I respect (Mika Epstein, in this case). And it’s community-developed, which I like. It doesn’t look as pretty as Fever, but aesthetics are about fourth or fifth on my list of requirements.
    • PressForward. As Aram describes, the PF team (of which I’m pleased to be a member) is working on a WordPress-based tool that, among other things, does RSS aggregation and provides some feed-reading capabilities. PressForward is really designed for a different kind of use case – where groups of editors work together to pare down large amounts of feed data into smaller publications – but it could be finagled to be a simple feed reader. Mobile support is a particular pain point, as 50% or more of my RSS intake is done on my phone, and PF has nothing in place to make this possible at the present time. So, PressForward may not be quite ready for primetime, but I do think that it has promise.
  2. Get the hell off of Google. We all know that Google is a company with shareholders and profit goals to meet. Yet we often act like Google is some sort of ambient benevolent force on the web. Since I started Project Reclaim, I’ve been working on extricating myself and my data from the clutches of Google (among other corporate entities). Reader’s demise is a wake-up call that the time for dilly-dallying is over.

    For my own part, I still use a few Google services besides Reader:

    • Gmail. I don’t use Gmail primarily anymore, though many people do still email me at my gmail.com address, so obviously I have it open and I check it frequently.
    • Picasa. I use the Picasa desktop app on OSX to export photos from my cameras and organize/tag them. I also use Picasa Web Albums as one of my many photo backup services. (Seriously – I back up my photos to no fewer than six different local and cloud services. Nothing is more important or irreplaceable than my family photos.)
    • Drive/Docs. Aside from the occasional one-off collaborations, I use Drive to maintain a number of spreadsheets and other documents that I share with members of my family, etc.
    • Calendar. I’m not a heavy calendar user, but when I do use a calendar, I like Google because of its integration with my Android phone.
    • Chromium. Not Chrome, but still largely Google-reliant, Chromium is not my main browser, but I use it daily for doing various sorts of development testing.
    • Android. This is maybe the one that steams me the most, because at the moment there are no truly free alternatives. (Firefox OS, please hurry up.)

    In some of these cases, there are easy ways to get off of the Google services. In others, it’ll be a challenge to find alternatives that provide the same functionality. In any case, the Reader slaughter is a harsh reminder that Project Reclaim has stagnated too long with respect to Google services.

    More than myself, I’m worried about others – those who aren’t as technically inclined as I am, or those who simply don’t care as much as I do. Google’s made it pretty clear (as is their right, I guess) that they’re not an ambient benevolence. Those who rely on Google then, especially for critical services like email, should take this warning very seriously. Please consider carefully what you’re doing when you make yourself wholly dependent on the whim’s of Google’s product managers, and consider options that are either free-as-in-speech, or services that you pay for in a traditional way.

Project Reclaim update

Back in March 2011, I kicked off the Project Reclaim project. Since then, others have picked up where I’ve left off – most notably, Doug Belshaw and D’Arcy Norman (who have surpassed me both in the reclaiming and in the blogging about the reclaiming). Behind my radio silence, though, has been a flurry of recent reclaiming activity:

  • I’m mostly de-Mac-ified. I recently bought a Samsung Series 9, which is serving as a stopgap full-time machine until I have the time to set up a desktop Linux rig. On day one, I wiped the Windows 7 installation and installed Arch Linux. It took some time to get set up, and I’m still using my Mac for a couple of things (Picasa, Skype, the old Adobe AIR Tweetdeck), but I’m almost totally moved over. I may write a post or two in the upcoming weeks about specific parts of the transition – there were some pain points, to be sure, especially in the initial setup. But, in general, it’s been smoother, easier, and more pleasurable than I would have guessed. Using Linux full time makes me feel like I’m back in the driver’s seat of my computing life, and it feels extra good to know that 95% of the software on my full-time machine is non-proprietary.
  • At the same time that I moved to Linux, I also switched to Vim. I’d been a user of BBEdit, which is a really great piece of software, but moving away from the Mac meant I had to choose something else. So I figured I’d go for the powerhouse of all text editors. Vim has a certain allure. When I was younger, I studied jazz piano. I remember watching my instructor play and being driven nearly to tears: I understood, in broad strokes, what he was doing and why it sounded the way it did, but it crushed me that I couldn’t translate that knowledge into the same kind of performance magic that he could. I feel much the same way about Vim masters. I’m far from a master, but I’m getting much much more fluent. Also, of course, Vim is non-proprietary, and it gives me major geek cred. So, big win all around. I should note that the Vim transition has actually been far more difficult than the Linux transition, and it was only after about four or five weeks of full-time use that I started to feel like I was back to my pre-switch level of productivity. (In this sense, it was a lot like switching from QWERTY to Dvorak.)

The big proprietary services and software products left in my life are Dropbox and Twitter. Moving away from Dropbox is fairly simple – see D’Arcy’s great posts on his experiments with Owncloud – I’ve just been lazy about it. Twitter is far more complicated, both technically and socially, as well as far more pressing, given Twitter’s recent NBCishness. So that’s the next mountain to climb.

How many others have been Reclaiming over the last year or two? Would love to see more projects along the lines of D’Arcy’s and Doug’s.

What’s wrong with TEDxNYED?



TEDxNYED was an interesting event in a couple of ways. A few blog posts have hit my reader already from people I respect (eg Will Richardson, who was in attendance, and Jim Groom, who was not there but posted on a topic directly related to the TED and TEDxNYED phenomena). I enjoyed many of the talks but walked away feeling more defeated than energized.

I’ve always had extremely mixed feelings about TED talks. I’ve watched a few dozen of the freely available videos over the years, and most seem, in my unstudied view, to be little more than glorified project pimps or book promos. I’m sure that the folks who organize TED try hard to keep explicit self-promotion off of the stage, but in the end it’s a symptom of the format: if you invite someone to give a very brief, non-specialist-level teaser on some piece of great work they’ve done, what can it really be except for a bragfest?



Sitting through TEDxNYED, I was in a sense relieved that all of the talks were limited to 18 minutes (a cornerstone of the TED philosophy) – the energy level in the room stayed pretty consistently high, which can largely be attributed to the brevity of the talks. But I also found myself frustrated, in much the same way that I do with TED talks in general, with the lack of focus on just what the 18-minute talk is supposed to do. Few of the talks present anything resembling a thesis; in eightteen minutes, just what kind of thesis worth defending could be laid out, considered, justified? It’s not as if argumentative presentations are the only ones worth giving – far from it – but in the absence of an argument to give structure to the talk, there has to be some other purpose. Some of the talks fall into the “rallying cry” category, which is to say that they present an issue in a way to get people emotionally involved enough to want to get out there and participate. This is a more realistic goal for 18 minutes, but few speakers have the humility, grace, eloquence, and project to pull it off. TED states its mission as “spreading ideas”, which in its vagueness is an indicator of how the individual talks themselves can vary so much in their focus, or lack focus altogether.

Then there is what D’Arcy Norman has called the “elitism” of TED. I will say happily that the TEDxNYED application did not ask for lifetime achievements, but only for a few sentences explaining why I wanted to attend the event. I don’t know how many people were turned away from the event, and what role these few sentences played in choosing who got in and who didn’t, so I’m afraid I can’t corroborate whether this was an awesomeness-filter. Related to D’Arcy’s concern, though, is the more worrisome hero worship that Jim gestures toward in his post. You invite a bunch of famous-on-the-edtech-internet folks to speak, fill the room with education dorks (which I mean in the sweetest way possible, including myself in the ‘dork’ camp), and then watch the echo chamber effect get out of control. As I heard a few people lament throughout the day, the people who really should be hearing some of the talks – and in particular the “rallying cry” kind of talk – were not the kinds of people who come to an event like this. Will’s post points out nicely the tendency to feel giddy after a day of chumming with like-minded folks, and the difficulty of connecting back with the work you do in your everyday life.



I saw a tweet in the middle of the day – wish I could find it now – that remarked on the irony of a day full of lectures delivered to a roomful of people who love to decry the utility of lectures as a learning tool. Another part of the TED philosophy is that “all of knowledge is connected” (which, understood in the right way, can be an interesting hypothesis) but I walk away from the day feeling that connections between the presentations are still largely hidden or at least implicit. This disjointedness is in part a product of the unidirectional nature of the TED format: the speakers have a chance to connect by making references to earlier events in the day, but there’s no organized way for the audience to do the kind of hands-on synthesis that would ground the connections in their own experiences and goals. Some of these connections are made informally over lunch and at the after-party, but at those events I found myself talking to people I already knew about things we already agreed upon. Largely my own fault, I suppose, but it’s also a function of the way that the TED conference is not set up to encourage cross-pollenization of ideas between .

The above sounds like a lot of complaining. It’s not meant to be. I’m very glad I had the chance to hear several of the speakers through the day, and I made some nice personal contacts with people I had only heard of or only knew on the internet. The day was a net positive for me. But I can’t help but think that the TED format, while perhaps being well-suited to some purposes (explaining why neuroscience is important for non-neuroscientists, maybe), it’s more difficult to reconcile it with the needs of a community, like the NY educational community, that already shares certain practices and beliefs.