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Saturday January 14 2006

This RSS thing,

with which I have toyed over the last year or so, is great in principle. Track web sites, blogs or whatever by receiving just the headings and summaries of new entries or content. Thunderbird copes with the RSS feeds well, as does Opera, to name but two common web applications worth having in their own right. Basically, I see RSS as a means by which you can demote a lot of site-checking-type browsing to the theoretically less time-consuming medium of email. RSS doesn't actually involve email, but the interface is the same. You see new items come up as headers, and you select them to see the summary or whatever, possibly containing images and so forth. So I'm guessing that most of you, like me, feel that using computers is all about the interface (assuming also that the underlying mechanics work correctly), and therefore I refer to RSS in these terms. The RSS, though, is a double-edged sword...

Let's look at it. Let's say that you use Thunderbird, as I do, for your emailing. If you don't, I think you ought to try it by the way. It's pretty much as good as anything out there. So you add your RSS feeds to Thunderbird, which means the RSS-enabled sites that you frequently look at - Slashdot, The Register, The BBC, your friend's blog, whatever - and from then on while Thunderbird checks up on your email it also checks for new additions to the sites. From the interface point of view, you see it all as new items in locations listed down the friendly left-hand side of Thunderbird. I already pretty much said all that didn't I? Never mind. It's the most important thing to realize. This way, the advantages are twofold. You save the bandwidth, both in your mind and over the internet, of downloading the entire site, or at least page, every time you want to see if there's new content. You also get to read summaries without committing to reading the whole page. All this is dependent on the quality of the feed, of course. Some feeds are little more summarised or clear than the sites the sites that provide them. As with the world, the applications are only as good as the underlying data. I would posit that RSS is only useful for certain specific things. Here's why:

I browse mostly for recreation. I take it seriously, and I am discerning, but for me the web is still a great adventure, almost limitless, and to be relished. I have 1 meg broadband, and I simply stay away from the computer when I have other things to do. I like the aesthetic experience of browsing. There are some sites which I check all the time, but of course they are pretty firmly cached by my browser - or at least the graphic components are, and they're th big bit as regards transferring data. I tend to regard email as a distraction, because even using Thunderbird with its effective-as-you'll-likely-get spam filtering, most of the email I get is junk. When not junk, it's not urgent in a way that leaving it a few hours will cause trouble. In this un-pressured environment I simply find I can browse all I want. RSS is just another alert, another tiny bit of stress, another item that can be considered in a little while. Summaries? I'm a fast and practiced skip-reader, so I don't find they help me much. Poor readers may find them much more useful, of course. I'm happier living in my browser, with my sprawling bookmarks to hand.

In a business, or time-critical, environment I think RSS would be a very valuable tool though. No doubt about it. I think if I were to find that I needed to use applications specifically in order to filter my web usage to increase efficiency I would just cut down on the number of things I which I take an interest.

Cracking though Firefox is, I could use a better browser. What I'd like is a bit ambitious, though. I amass loads of bookmarks, and on a wide range of topics. What would be very handy, and I'm well aware that this is not only ridiculously complex to implement and something that is probably the Holy Grail of all internet engineers, would be an interface that viewed the web as a cloud. A cloud, that is, of topics and fields of information, interlinked like three dimensional Venn diagrams (I'm afraid I'm not a mathematician) and able to be explored by zooming around. Two dimensional could work. A Google Earth of the web. The way in which the colour of links which one has followed differs from links that one has not could be extended as a paradigm to this map. At different levels of zoom one could then see all kinds of amazing things: the scale of the web, one's location, how much one has explored, and how much there is out there related to topic x. A layer of abstraction would be removed from using the web, or rather navigating it. Once a link from the cloud is followed, of course, one is reading the content normally, as now. Levels of zoom would give clouds of topics, clouds of servers, clouds of physical server locations, sites represented as clouds of pages, and so on.

Now all this would require little more, as far as I can see, than manipulation and presentation of meta data that largely exists already. There are applications that will track the route over the net from my PC to the site I am browsing and represent this on a map. Traceroute stuff. XP even has a command line tool to do this included with the OS. The internet protocols that we all use all the time give this sort of information, if we choose to examine it. Links between pages are easily followed by software to establish another level of inter-connectedness. Google, and other large search engines, constantly trawls the web and builds a colossal database of words and their frequencies and locations and proximities. It's a matter of how you interpret and present that data.

I'm thrashing this idea out as I go, just in case that isn't obvious enough :) This is not going to be a concise and clear presentation. Sorry.

I need to recap. I need to be clearer, for my own sake at least. What I want is to be able to view the contents of the web in different ways.

I want a view that represents the geography of what I'm doing. Gtrace is an example of how this can be done, the idea's been out there for ages.

I want a view that represents the content I'm reading in specific. This we've always had. It's the browser, and it's a great way to read site pages in general.

I want a history of my exploration. We have the history in the browser, but it makes a dry read.

I want an overall sense of the scope of the net. Zoomable, so that I can refine the view to topics or servers or keywords. This is of course the tricky bit, which is no doubt keeping many good brains at companies like Google working very hard. Of course one could term all this a search, since a very crude idea of scale and relationships can be formed by simply performing a series of searches with the right parameters. Google cats and I get some idea of how many mentions of the word cats there are on the known (at least to Google) web. If I refine this to mangy cats I get a better view of things, at least regarding mange. Use of regular expressions can really help searching too, which is what the whole database paradigm relies upon. This would be a clever view to have. This is the one.

So all I want for Christmas - next Christmas, it'll take a while - is for the whole web to be a giant relational database with various graphic viewing options. The necessary searches to be performed transparently while I browse at will, and all the pertinent information available a click away. I'd suggest this be presented as sub-tabs in something like Firefox. For each tab open at a location on the web, there's be a selection of sub-tabs, or views, which would represent the interfaces I've listed above. These views would update concurrently, so that the information would always be up-to-date.

The bandwidth and processing demands would be colossal. But the information's already there. It just needs collating and interpreting and presenting. "Just". That's what I want. And some day it'll exist, I'm sure. I may have had a few good ideas here or I may not. I've certainly done my head in.


Posted at 8:01 pm by Jim Woods

I am playing World Racing

with my infantile steering wheel and pedals, and I am eating melon and grapes. There are probably other things that I should be doing which would be more constructive, but I am mercifully too idle to give them much thought right now. The links from Ruigoord, people. That's where the action is at the moment.


Posted at 7:58 pm by Jim Woods

Wednesday January 11 2006

There's been a lot of internet going on here over the last few days,

when I've fitted it in between efforts to catch up on Christmas TV still parked on the TiVo. Two Futuramas a day on Sky, for example, but I will have seen virtually all of them by the end of this week... Oh, the curse of being an obsessive completist. The fact that my living room is always about five degrees colder than the rest of the house does not help when I'm a-watching either. A forthcoming programme of property improvements should sort that out though. I'm waiting to get back to work on two projects at the moment, but right now my time is pretty much my own. Good.

Anyway, while looking at Amsterdam links on the web - a perennial favourite - I came across Ruigoord. This is an intriguingly hippy-ish artists commune / collective out in the docklands West of the city. My precise understanding of the place is hindered a bit by having to read the site via Babelfish translation, as it is pretty much entirely in Dutch. Amazing post-apocalyptic buildings though. And the best thing is there's a really excellent links page, which is giving me all kinds of ideas for expeditions to come. And of course there's loads of art, which is always good. Only four months-odd to go until Oxfordshire art weeks!

I am well entrenched in my preparations for the year ahead, which involve the recording of a lot of dates and snippets of information and ideas in notebooks. It occurs to me that the principal advantage of the Palm, which I am tinkering with, is that with synchronization I can have the same data available at home and away. The principal disadvantage of the notebooks is that I have all my stuff spread around the place in several of them. On the other hand, I use only really nice notebooks and coloured pens, so the artifacts themselves are lovely. The Palm is not lovely. Perhaps it could be made so though. I'll have to look into it.

This will also be the year of clearing out a certain amount of old stuff, so stay tuned for some ads before too long.

Cold tonight, but I see the forecast is mild for the rest of the week. Walking boots ahoy.


Posted at 6:31 pm by Jim Woods

Sunday January 8 2006

More life and less blogging at the moment.

I have been finding walking around in the cold, foraging for vegetables, attending a very good party and cafes (if there's a way of doing accented characters in this package I can't find it) all rather more attractive than mooching around on the net. In fact, although I am opposed to New Year's resolutions in general, "less, better net" is definitely in my thoughts as a principle.

I am currently gearing up to working on the car for the forthcoming MOT, which is a pain when your mechanic is twenty miles away and you have no off-street space. I have done a clean reinstall of XP on the desktop system, which I see continued the trend of doing five months between such events. I do try out a lot of software, and this does screw things up over time. Anything to do with video seems particularly troublesome. Again I resolve to only install what's absolutely necessary, but in truth I am getting very adept at reformatting my boot drive and going from scratch. I can be back in full operation in about three hours, and I don't mind doing this a couple or three times a year.

This will, with any luck, be the year of a comprehensive blog solution to enable all sorts of stuff, and I think that I have my general electrical fetishism under control now to the point where I will be making fuller use of things rather than going through an endless cavalcade of products trying to find "an answer". A bit of experimentation has proved that I can get adequate Freeview reception at home with my nasty old aerial, which opens up all sorts of neat possibilities involving one of those twin-tuner hard drive recorder jobbies that are beginning to become commonplace and inexpensive. I have Sky (now running five years) and TiVo (now running two years), and I get good results from both. However, I pay £31 per month for the two services combined. I could use saving the money, and cutting back on the direct debit clutter in my life in general. I find that a lot of what I watch is on the channels available via Freeview, which makes me think that when there is an inevitable hardware failure on the satellite rig I will probably give it up and move to a free solution. I have enough obsessive / compulsive tendencies to get stuck in a circular argument with satellite TV in any case. I paid for it, so I must watch more of it, so I watch a fair bit, so I'd miss it, so I keep paying for it. In truth I've done without TV altogether for a large part of my life, and could do so again. So Freeview is looking like freedom being absence of choice. I'm considering just using Sky as free viewing, cancelling my subscription. It is, however, a bit depressing looking at the lineup under those circumstances. I am cheered by the twenty or so decent channels I'd still get, but horrified that there would be about a hundred home shopping and evangelical Christian channels dominating the array. There aren't many things I dislike more than home shopping and religious TV, I can tell you. And it ain't because I'm irreligious or averse to a bargain.

So, another post about being a pink organism sat amidst a web of data and media that threatens to engulf. I really should write something a bit more formal about it all. For now, though, I hope you're all firmly ensconced in a happy new year. Looking forward to warmer weather eventually. Off to tea.


Posted at 3:43 pm by Jim Woods

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