Zero unread RSS feeds (plus novel update)

Over a period of some months I’ve been working to clean up the set of feeds I try to follow. Today I got the unread count down to zero, perhaps for the first time since I started using a feed reader. Certainly for the first time in years.

I did it two ways. First, I did it the legit way, by unsubscribing from feeds that I didn’t actually read. Second, in just a few cases, I did it the cheating way, by just selecting a feed and clicking “mark as read.”

The first permanently reduces the burden of stuff I imagine that I ought to do.

The second just briefly hides the fact that there are some feeds I imagine I want to follow, but that I don’t actually keep up with. Still, I figure this is a test of sorts. Some of those feeds were pretty quiet. Maybe, if they’re not mixed in with all the stuff I’m not keeping up with, they’ll be easy to follow. And, if they’re not, I can always unsubscribe later.

This flurry of feed-pruning activity brought to you by procrastinating on the novel.

I’m in the midst of some tough slogging as I push through the final third. Even after my previous pass through this bit, it is still written a lot like a short story. The scenes are highly compressed, with lots of bits merely referred to. As I reach those scenes, it takes me a while to uncompress them—to see the two or three or four scenes represented by the existing text, and then to compose those scenes, placing them in the right sequence in the story.

I’m actually really enjoying that work, once I get into it, but each new scene is hard to start on—largely because I’m quite proud of the old, compressed versions. The uncompression work feels like taking a finely crafted miniature that I spent days painting, cutting it up into pieces, sticking each piece in the middle of a big canvas, and then trying to paint a new picture that incorporates that bit of the miniature. (It would probably be better to just do the necessary new scene “inspired” by the old scene, and I’ve done some of that, but that turns out to have problems as well.)

In any event, progress continues. It’s just hard.

As I go to click the “publish” button on this post, my unread feed count stands at zero.

Using tt-rss

I’ve experimented with various alternatives to Google Reader for quite a while now. I used The Old Reader for a while, and then Hive Reader for a while. Both had limitations. (Hive is still in beta, and isn’t quite ready for prime time. TOR is closer, but had various issues, probably the biggest being that it doesn’t get feeds updated promptly enough.)

I had earlier tried using tt-rss, which also isn’t quite there yet, but has a different set of issues.

It requires a server. Steve had tried to cobble together an instance that ran on the server where we host our websites. It had just almost worked, but kept bumping up into the limits of running as a cron job, rather than a daemon. It eventually had several bad days in a row (which we later traced to an unrelated heavy load on the server), and we gave up.

Now Steve has installed an actual server machine in his house, and is running a tt-rss instance there, and has made me an account on it.

Running on an (essentially) dedicated server with a (reasonably) high-speed connection to the internet, it’s now doing a fine job of keeping all my feeds up to date. I’m having some minor user interface issues, but nothing that would keep me from using it as my rss reader for the foreseeable future.

So, I have officially switched over. You can follow the interesting stuff I share via a feed from that site, and have updated the “interesting stuff” item in my sidebar to draw from that feed.

Great writers versus great posts

I do most of my on-line reading via a feed reader. For years I used Google Reader, without even really worrying about the risks. After Google ruined it, I experimented with several alternatives. I’m happy enough with a couple of the options, so I’m not so unhappy with how things have turned out (with Google having announced that it is canceling Reader). But the surge in interest has prompted me to think about how reading feeds is different from reading things via social media. Social media helps you find great posts. Feed readers are for when you’ve found a great writer.

I notice this whenever someone shares one of my pages (either here or on Wise Bread). I’ll get a surge of traffic to one post. Some of those people will read another post, or even a few. Only a few seem to become regular readers of my work—and fewer now than before.

Back in the old days—let’s say, five or six years ago—there was more of the latter, and I think it was because more people used feed readers. It was wonderful to find a great post, but it was much better to find a great writer. Then you could add their feed to your feed reader and read everything they wrote.

I still do that. Every time I find a great post via Facebook or Twitter (or whatever), I look at other stuff the guy has written, with an eye toward adding the feed to my feed reader.

I’m puzzled that more people don’t seem to do the same. Finding a great writer is way better than finding a great post.

The Google-free option

Zen Habits has a fresh post up on becoming Google-free. It’s a pretty good look at the key resources that Google provides—Gmail, Google Docs, Google Reader, Google Calendar, Picasa, etc.—and for each one provides Leo’s choice for a replacement, along with mentioning a few other alternatives.

On the one hand, this is just the sort of thing I’m a bit too prone to worry about. For me, security, privacy, and reliability are right up there with functionality. On the other hand, it had scarcely crossed my mind that I’m so reliant on Google that becoming Google-free was an important issue. So, seeing Leo’s article prompted me to give it some thought.

To me, the more fundamental issue is choosing to keep your data on your own hardware or to keep it in the cloud.

It used to be that the cloud was a loser on all four issues (security, privacy, reliability, functionality). In just the past few years, the cloud has made great strides in the latter two. I haven’t seen a careful analysis, but my sense now is that the cloud is about as reliable as your own hardware, albeit with different failure modes (less chance of a bad disk drive losing a bunch of data, more chance of the provider deprecating the tool or simply going bust). Functionality is a different kind of question—all you care about is whether the tool provides the functionality you need—but my sense again is that tools like Google Docs do fine at providing the most important functionality.

On issues of security and privacy, though, it seems to me that the cloud can never win. Well, maybe in one narrow sense: Servers in the cloud can be professionally managed with security in mind, so there’s a better chance that security patches will be applied promptly and less chance that they’ll be configured in an insecure way out of carelessness or ignorance. Except for that, though, all the cloud can offer is an unenforceable promise of security and privacy—and it rarely offers even that.

Because of that, I’ve always ended up choosing to keep mission-critical work on my own hardware. I use various cloud services, but they’re all in some way either publishing or else secondary.

Where what I’m doing is publishing (such as this blog, my account on Flickrmy account on Twitter, and so on), the privacy issues are moot—I’m explicitly making the stuff public. I still care about security, but my security interests are closely aligned with the provider’s security interests, so I feel reasonably comfortable relying on the provider to get security right.

All my uses of cloud-provided tools are non-critical. I have a Gmail account, but it’s a backup account for use when my main email account is unavailable for some reason. I have a Google Docs account, but I only use it occasionally to view a Word document or make a graph with the spreadsheet facility. I don’t use Google Calendar (I use iCal). The one Google tool that I’d really miss if it disappeared is Google Reader which I use every day, but even losing that wouldn’t be a catastrophe. I could go back to reading blogs on the websites themselves (!) until I picked out a new RSS feed reader. My latest backup of my subscriptions was really old (I just now grabbed a current one), but I’d be able to recreate the important ones easily enough.

The upshot is that going Google-free seems to be a non-issue to me. I could do it in five minutes and scarcely feel the loss. I’m glad to have been prompted to think about it, though.