Tiny Tiny RSS and Feed Reading

Google Reader, a popular web application for organizing and reading RSS feeds (computer-friendly lists of posts from websites), will go away in July 2013. Scrambling for a replacement, many flock to monolithic, hosted substitutes.

I already had a perfect substitute up and running. A few months back I decided to add some feeds that did not fit my usual reading patterns on Google Reader. I looked around for an alternative and decided upon Tiny Tiny RSS (aka tt-rss), a free software implementation that manages and allows easy reading of feeds.

I only added the feeds that didn’t fit my Google Reader usage at the time. I would check tt-rss once a day, and continued checking Google Reader more regularly as always for the bulk of my reading.

Then the Google Reader announcement came, and while I looked at and tried a few of the alternatives, tt-rss fit my use best. Google Reader did not have feed filtering (to my knowledge) where tt-rss does. The ability to “clean up” some of the noise on some feeds means a more pleasant reading experience. For a mobile solution, the web interface has a mobile version (if Google Reader does, I never tried it; I did use their Android application, though), and an Android application can talk to tt-rss as well (requires enabling the API).

Google Reader served many people well for years, but it never went as far as it could have. With people forced out, a lot of projects like tt-rss will hopefully see increased relevance and improvement. But RSS itself never achieved the recognition it deserves.

RSS would serve us best if it were somewhat automatic. Google never took the obvious step of showing you feed items from recently-viewed sites, for example. Auto-management of feeds would have gone a long way toward improving the usage and importance of RSS. Manually adding and removing feeds, not being able to disable them, no filtering, and needing to understand feeds; these things made it a mess.

When you visit a site, they do everything they can to get you to stay. They try to pull you in with other materials, they beg you to subscribe. But as with just about every other industry, they fail to see their role in that process. They should work with browser builders to add next-generation discovery and subscription models.

For its part, tt-rss now has more feeds than Google Reader ever did. I’ve added more feeds knowing I can filter them easily, though I suspect the worst feeds will soon go away. While it isn’t perfect, it’s at least on par with Google Reader. And once I set it up (admittedly easy for someone at my level of knowledge), it’s no challenge to keep using.

The main thing I wish it had (and something I’m continuing to look into for several services I run for myself) is a single-sign-on solution. The last time I checked, my various services had differing support for different authentication technologies. Having just one that worked for them all would be delightful.

Diversity Rules for Social

With the Facebook stock selling thing going down, thought I’d talk about why Facebook doesn’t do it.

How we got here

We got here because social came late.  Look at other parts of the Internet.  But you have to look carefully, you have to look at social types of activities.  Like email. Like instant messaging.

Other social services

If email hadn’t existed, it could’ve ended up like Facebook.  Instant Messaging did start out that way.  And it still is that way in many respects.  Used to be that the AOL instant messaging platform dominated.  That grew out of the AOL data service of yore.

When the Internet at-large became more important than the data service, people outside of the AOL bubble wanted to talk to AOL users, so AOL expanded to let others use their instant messaging service.  Before, though, AOL was a dominant force.

Used to be that lots of television adverts would give you their AOL keyword, just like lots of adverts now tell you to go look them up on Facebook.  There was also ICQ, and then MSN came out with an instant messaging deal (which came bundled with Microsoft Windows).  And there were some others.

These days, lots of folks use something like Pidgin which lets you throw multiple accounts into one application and use instant messaging on any of them.  But the networks are still fragmented.  Without one of these polyglot applications, you still have to use separate applications to get on different networks, and with one, you’re still talking to multiple services simultaneously.

Email is the gold standard, though.  Everyone can participate simply by knowing the address to send mail to.  But that’s a problem too, with SPAM.

To win, you must hold the most users’ attentions

But Facebook came along at a time when Social was still new, MySpace being dominant, and they won that race, were crowned the winner.  With a social service, without federation, the winner isn’t the technological superior, but the one that gets the most users.  However they do that, and it can include technological superiority, they win.

And as long as you can hold on to those users, you keep winning.  It’s a clear enough goal.  So you look at why users stay or how to bring them back.  And Facebook tries hard.

They try building out their platform, so now you can sign in to various sites and services using your Facebook login, which appeals because then you don’t have to sign up separately.  They add games, social games, where you can try to beat your friends and family.

They let their platform leak, so that people say the wrong things to the wrong people at the wrong times.  Drama is a great motivator for behavior.  It keeps people coming back to the old Globe Theater.

But the main hook is that’s where the people are.  Back in old times, people went at night to the place of lights.  Usually that was the local tavern or inn.  Sometimes it was the church.  They tend to follow the voices, especially the familiar voices.

Alternatives require incentives

If you walk the same route to and from work everyday, you’re probably not going to deviate much.  If suddenly there’s a detour for construction, it might make you late.  Or maybe you like walking past the bakery, being hit with that breeze of warm, moist bread air.

It’s difficult to establish an alternative, unless you first have a draw for some folks.  Maybe it’s because they’re college kids who want to do their own college thing.  Or it’s based on some existing college tradition, and you’re making it digital.

Maybe they want to go there because they can get laid, or because of who isn’t there.

The question is, what can a diverse social system deliver?

Specialization

One of the big things Facebook can’t do is specialize.  If there’s a great feature that will help teachers interact, but won’t help everyone, Facebook won’t add it.  It would be dead weight to them.

Moreover, while Facebook can scale a lot, specialized providers can scale better.  The cache mechanisms involved with having a niche userbase versus a general userbase means that the IT side of the equation gets easier.  Facebook has to plan for all of its users all the time, but if there’s an annual event for a specific group, the specialized provider can ramp up for that and pull back the rest of the year.

School kids have usage drop off during the summer.  Facebook probably doesn’t lose a bunch of servers during the summer, but they probably could stand to.  A specialized provider or specialized providers could handle that better.

Competition

Even where the features are general purpose, the implementations can have varying success.  Monoliths try to inject competition via what’s called Split Testing.  It’s just a regular experiment, though.  You give one group nothing, the other group something, and see if something does anything.

But a federated system is better at stoking evolution of a service.  When one provider finds a new, great feature, others have to match or exceed it.  Sometimes the latecomers do it better, or find some more essential reality of that feature.  They are fresh eyeballs to the problem, which monoliths like Facebook don’t have.

Diversity is best

There are a lot of reasons why diversity is a great thing.  It reduces the potential for provider abuse, including the scenario where you’re excluded from the only game in town.  It means that if the social game changes suddenly, you don’t have a mammoth Facebook trying to turn on a dime, flinging millions of pokes overboard, wiping out all the packetfish swimming nearby.

It also means that the social game can change suddenly.  With Facebook, there’s little chance they will introduce disruptive changes that threaten their model, where a smaller provider might.  Hell, even when Facebook changes something mostly innocuous they already get a lot of backlash from their users.

And if the social web starts to wither, small providers can change to other services a lot more easily than Facebook can change become a different service.

If Facebook is going to thrive for more than a decade, it will need to branch out sooner than later.  It will need to prepare for an inevitable change where social becomes federated.  If they are really smart, they’ll see it coming and help it happen, so as to maximize customer loyalty.

Their alternative is likely to end up like Yahoo!.  Actually, worse than Yahoo!.

Yahoo!’s only real problem has been a chronic inability to reinvent itself.  It’s still got a lot of good people doing good things.  It’s just not had that true resurgence it’s needed for years now.

Facebook is in a position that Yahoo! was in back some ten or fifteen years ago.  They’re doing great, but it’s not clear what their future will look like given the ability for a Google to come along.  For that matter, Facebook itself already did to MySpace what will happen to Facebook if they don’t find a better model in the meantime.

The only real question is whether the next champion will be another monolith, or if the distributed social system will finally kick in.

Badges and the Social Fabric

Mozilla started a project called Open Badges; they propose to develop of something of a cross between a human-readable Geek Code and traditional Scout badges.  They recognize learning on the internet, so that if you put forth the time and effort to learn about a topic, you earn a badge that displays that ability to others.

Screenshot of Google News, Politics Section showing a story about Conan the Barbarian
Screenshot of Google News, Politics Section showing a story about Conan the Barbarian

Google News has initiated its own Google News Badges, where by reading stories about a given topic you can show off your subject prowess through a badge.

Today’s post delves into the social fabric of the internet, and looks at the pitfalls that these badges try to bridge and how to improve the efforts.

Google works hard to make their news more relevant, so please do not take this as a criticism of their efforts.  The problem they look to solve holds its ground, and the Google News site still beats the other, non-user-driven news aggregation sites I’ve seen.

Media quality varies wildly, so reading a lot of articles does not necessarily make one informed.  Also, for a lot of stories the headline tells the tale, but users receive no credit for a story they understood at a glance.  But, possibly worst, taxonomical issues devalue the results.

For the last example, the current Google News results suffice.  The second headline under Politics for me is about the movie Conan the Barbarian.

Bad enough in itself, there are two other problems, namely the Murdoch Empire bookending the Conan story.  This, despite my best efforts to rid my Google News sections of those sources which I consider too biased to bother with.

Subjectivity abounds in badges for news and similar pursuits, and Google News’ categorization attempts have not been dependable to date.  I would not want a badge based on reading those stories, and would not trust someone’s badge based on them either.

This symptom simply represents the larger problem with crafting badges, namely taxonomy.

Someone possessing a given skill, in name versus practice, might meet, exceed, or fall short of expectations.  The fact that I read a book or watched a film does not mean I understood it, and the fact that I did not, I could know it implicitly from cultural references (eg, Citizen Kane).

The delicate art of communication riddles us to decipher who knows what in an efficient manner.  Our ability to solve large problems depends on such things, and yet we often fail to uncover the knowledge pool.

Studies reveal that groups with more women tend to have higher group intelligence.  For example, quoting “Collective intelligence: number of women in group linked to effectiveness in solving difficult problems,” from Science Daily:

When it comes to intelligence, the whole can indeed be greater than the sum of its parts. A new study co-authored by MIT, Carnegie Mellon University, and Union College researchers documents the existence of collective intelligence among groups of people who cooperate well, showing that such intelligence extends beyond the cognitive abilities of the groups’ individual members, and that the tendency to cooperate effectively is linked to the number of women in a group.

While the studies tend to cite sensitivity to the emotions of the group members, it seems plausible that the type of communication, beyond simple sensitivity, holds a key.  More social groups construct better social taxonomies (ie, recognition of the role capabilities for the members) and do so more efficiently.  A study purely about discovery of the social taxonomy would probably reveal as much.

Badges may improve discovering the group ability.  Chiefly, badges should assist in motivating learning and crediting it.  But to truly uncover the promise of the internet, both pieces are needed.

One of the ways to improve badges might be to grant special statuses, like teacher, atop the regular badges.  Teaching refines existing knowledge, as it challenges you to present information in different ways and to approach the subject differently than as a learner or user.

Most specifically, teaching relies on formalizing the models of a subject, taking them from primordial form to crisp edges and smooth, consistent surfaces.

The other major challenge and improvement involves ascertaining the existing skills.  Some websites already work toward that end.  For example, the Reddit community, AskScience currently marks members with scientific training so that readers may measure the reliability of their answers on a given topic.  If new-web initiatives like badges take hold, those acknowledgments may be transformed into true badges.

The internet’s potential remains untapped, but with all of the experimentation going on, results will come.

Google Policy Blog: Myth v. Myth

Google’s public policy blog has posted a response to criticisms of their joint proposal with Verizon on Network Neutrality: Facts about our network neutrality policy proposal.  It takes a heavy view of criticisms, constructing Myth strawmen (or at least glossing over the fine distinctions made by critics).

Here are their “facts:”

  1. Something is better than nothing.  (The second fact is a repeat of this.)
  2. Wireless is different than wired connectivity.
  3. Distinguished services are sufficiently defined to preclude network bias scenarios.
  4. (This and the next are kind of silly to include, but for completeness:) A proposal for legislative action is not a business deal between Verizon and Google.
  5. A proposal for legislative action is not binding on Congress, they are still free to make it worse.

I’m going to skip those last two, for the reasons I parenthesized.  As to the rest:

Something does not mean something good

It’s straightforward to recognize that inadequate protections that merely provide coverage for providers to do as they wish will be a horrible failure.  And that’s what’s being proposed by Verizon and Google.  It’s legless and mealymouthed, and it could actually be more harmful than that if it turns out as other flawed systems such as the US immigration policy.

Their proposal, if implemented, simply would not have teeth.  Codified, it would act as an ipecac, allowing a brief sojourn from network bias only to vomit the bias back out, soiling the internet.  They note that the non-discrimination provision might just evaporate, and without that, any such legislation would be a fraud.

Why I say IPN

Wireless or wired, Internet Protocol is Internet Protocol.  Google will continue to fail to admit to that, and as such they want to pretend that the open-access rules they were able to get bundled with wireless spectrum auctions count for something.  Those rules have yet to bear any results for consumers who, despite the “more than just two providers to choose from,” the wireless industry remains an oligopoly where consumers lack real choice or differentiation of service.

You can expect the de facto price fixing and market inefficiencies to stand firm so long as a chunk of plastic (ie, the hardware, which is more of a status symbol than anything) remains their main selling point.  Until wireless becomes a dumb service where they must compete on price and performance in a brightly lit market, we will continue to suffer from another rotted industry.

And if wireless carriers can mix network bias on top of their offensive wares, that will only cement the industry to remain corrupt for the long haul (at least until wireless mesh is feasible).

Secure banking by (insert ticker symbol)

Among the differentiated services Google envisions is “a more secure banking service.”  Yes.  Let’s have your service provider collude with your bank, and charge you a special fee for the privilege of security. Let’s see you change your bank and ISP at the same time.  Double the bureaucracy, and imagine all of the termination fees!  Someone’s wet dream, to be certain.

Banking on the internet does need to become more mature and more secure.  But it still needs to remain on the internet because commerce is an essential function of peoples’ liberty.  Engaging in open, fair trade is absolutely necessary.  This is among the ideas in any well-constructed argument for the right to internet access.

The commercial forces that have persisted for over a century have an interest in keeping us tied to them, but the internet allows those chains to be torn off, melted down, and sold to the highest bidder.  And yet here comes Google proclaiming we should entrench them further.  Sigh.

So that’s out, but what about their other suggestions?  The other suggestions suffer the same flaw: any service that could be provided with a biased agreement with an ISP could be equally provided by another company with neutrality.  That’s what regulation in a free market is: the removal of barriers to market entry that prevent competition.  That’s why we have anti-trust laws, and it’s why no one should take the Verizon/Google proposal seriously, as they fail to recognize that fact repeatedly in that public document.

Okay, enough of that muck.  The bottom line is this: no institution shall rule the internet.

If the internet remains useful at all, it remains open.  If they want to destroy it, they can, but they cannot rule it.  Ruling it would destroy it, and it would take all of their gold with it.

IP Neutrality

Let’s stop calling it Network Neutrality, and let’s start calling it what it really is: Internet Protocol Neutrality.  If you are sending data via Internet Protocol (IP), then it should conform to the rules that have existed since the Internet began.  What are those rules?  Let’s quote from RFC791, shall we?

The internet protocol treats each internet datagram as an independent entity unrelated to any other internet datagram. There are no connections or logical circuits (virtual or otherwise).

What does that mean?  It means that if I send you a file, it filters down to the low levels of your Internet connection and is broken up into datagrams, chunks of data.  When these are sent out over the Internet, they are to be treated as wholly independent messages and routed as such.

That is the essence of network neutrality: a datagram is a datagram.

Now, let’s analyze the Google/Verizon proposal.  I do not have the stomach to ramble endlessly on each point, so I am taking pains to be brief on each of their “key elements.”

Consumer Protections

There is this word that crops up repeatedly in the document: lawful.  The word is problematic for a number of reasons, but primarily it is because the suggestion is that all data be inspected as deeply as needed to determine its legality.  Not only is this impossible (as data can always be disguised in a novel or unexpected fashion), but it flies in the face of the above-mentioned RFC.  It’s treating each datagram as a potential bad egg (if: blacklist) in the best case, and in the worst case it would only allow data it deemed innocuous to be routed (if: whitelist).

Non-Discrimination

This is probably the funniest of the “key elements.”  It states that data should be treated fairly, unless “the presumption [is] rebutted.”  No, really: the whole element relies on something that the element itself says may not hold!  So we might as well just chuck this one out (except it makes it seem like they care at all).

Transparency

Another proposal that an industry tell their customers what the deal actually is.  I’ve never, not once, in my entire life, seen a company actually do that.  If you want to change your phone, cable, internet, travel, bank, credit card, electricity, water, gas, insurance, or any other service (including government, depending on the department), good luck.  Their phone systems, their policies, their websites (including supposed industry leaders like Google) simply fail to meet their customers’ needs.  And it’s on purpose.

Your only real hope is that you get a real person that hasn’t been promoted or fired that is a good soul.  They are like angels from heaven when you find them, because you actually get what you need and you don’t have to kill anyone to get it.  But their legislative proposal isn’t going to deliver any angels.

Network Management

Boiler plate that basically indemnifies providers if they decide to violate any of the protective elements.  Some of the items here are valid (protecting against DoS and DDoS, for example), but that’s not its purpose.  It’s simply there to grant them permission to ignore the whole idea of Network Neutrality.

Additional Online Services

Here’s where my claim it should be renamed to IP Neutrality comes into play.  They aren’t talking about a separate, Non-IP realm where new services could be developed.  Their only distinction is based on whimsy: if the provider wants to charge you separately, or charge the provider of the service separately, then they can deem it to be an “Additional Online Service.”  More grinding away of any sort of teeth the Verizon/Google Network Neutrality could possibly have.

Wireless Broadband

They basically gave up at this point.  They flat out state that wireless is Laissez-faire.  Apparently Wireless never needs to stoop to the level of IP, eh?  No, it does… they just gave up trying.

Case-by-Case Enforcement

Here you can smell the arbitration clauses breeding like rabbits.  The FCC would have no rulemaking ability, regardless of ongoing harm that might be happening.  Consumers and providers would be “encouraged” (through binding arbitration agreements, no doubt at all) to forget the Seventh Amendment.  The FCC would have limited enforcement capabilities, and a maximum penalty of a measly $2 million (hardly deterrence if the service they are biased toward garners them an excess of the penalty, which it likely will).

Regulatory Authority and Broadband Access for Americans

Fully restricting regulation to Internet access itself and some palaver about “[spurring] deployment in unserved areas.”  We’ve given massive gifts to the telecommunications industry in the past, and they failed to roll out a single nanometer of the fiber or services they claimed they would.  Google is likely positioning itself to become an ISP in the long-term, and this is just one of the tools they hope will allow them to do just that.  Verizon, for its part, is watering at the mouth over the wireless portion, but also sees vast profits in its land-based broadband if this happens.

No amnesia for me, though.  The New York Times was conceptually right the first time and Google’s response was simply a misleading truth.