RSS and iTunes

This is just so cool, thanks for mentioning it Teal Sunglasses. This is the kind of purpose I’ve been hoping to see RSS used for; an iTunes Music Store RSS feed that lists the “New Additions” added to Apple’s iTunes music store every Tuesday. But what’s even cooler is the exceedingly clever and user-friendly way you can select the kind of music, and the feed, that you’re interested in. You can list all the new additions, the top songs, top albums, and even select specific genres for each. Very nicely done.

I’ve been trying to talk the campus libraries and books stores into broadcasting the “new titles” they acquire, and the various campus calendar systems to export to a web service users could subscribe to, ideally, one that would allow us to easily add items to our calendars. This is a good example for me to show people who don’t quite “get” web services.

.RSS

The thing that I’ve not seen any one, on either side of the .RSS/Echo issue mention is that whatever flaws .RSS may (or may not) have, it’s understandable by ordinary mortals, even Medievalists. Looking at the specs, especially the sample files, and a few people’s feeds, was enough for me to kind of figure out how it worked, and even create a feed by hand. SOAP as far as I’m concerned, is not humanly parseable. Looking at a SOAP file doesn’t really tell me anything.

NewsIsFree

NewsIsFree may be freely used for personal and non-profit purposes, as their terms of service statement explains. The site allows you to customize your pages on their server much as you would pages on Yahoo or some other portal. After logging in, you choose the sources you wish to “subscribe” to using the built in links to the “News Center” on the right side, opting to browse the sources either by Category or by Name, or you can Search for specific topics or sites.

Select the sources you want to subscribe to by clicking the check boxes. At the top of the list is an “Add” button and a drop down menu which lets you choose an extant page (by default you have two, “New Sources” and “Random News”) or create a new page (you’ll probably want a new one).You can then name your page, and decide on the layout you want for the news items you’ve subscribed to. You can also customize the order and layout in which your pages are presented though preference settings via the My Account link at the top of the page, if you change your mind.

One of the really nifty options at Newsisfree is the support for sources in 26 languages, including languages like Danish, Persian, Arabic, Russian, and Estonian, as well as the usual Western European and Japanese you’d expect. You should opt out of any languages you don’t want to be included. My Mail lets you choose any of your customized pages to be emailed to you automatically. There’s even a My Blogs page that lets you post from NewIsFree to your own blogs, using the Blogger API; this works with Radio, Moveable Type and Blogger, among others.

News Aggregators

In his piece on news aggregators, Dave Winer defines them as:

software that periodically reads a set of news sources, in one of several XML-based formats, finds the new bits, and displays them in reverse-chronological order on a single page.

News aggregators, like Yahoo and other web portals, use RSS or other similar web services that “wrap” HTML data in a way that allows content providers like web sites and blogs to publish their html data in a “feed.”

UserLand’s Radio includes an aggregator in the application’s tool suite. Radio’s aggregator is very easy to use, and it’s geared to easily finding, reading, linking and posting commentary about the news items to your Radio-driven web log. The way the aggregator fits seamlessly with the blogging tools makes Radio extremely powerful, for all failures in terms of ease of use.

There are other news aggregators out there. I’ve looked at some of the ones available on the Mac, or that are browser based, rather than using a browser in tandem with an external application. There are some Windows aggregators reviewed here.

AmphetaDesk written in Perl by Morbus Iff, is a free open source cross-platform (Mac OS 9 and earlier, Mac OS X, Windows, Linux) customizable aggregator that fetches the news you’ve indicated you want and presents the individual items in a web page. It’s very simple to set up on Mac OS X, and the number of sources or “channels” you can subscribe to is enormous. There’s a nifty Cocoa-based outline “skin” for AmphetaDesk from l. m. orchard.

Brent Simmons has written a nifty Cocoa application, MacNewsWire, that aggregates the Mac news sources from his Macintosh News aggregator web page. I don’t think he could make it any simpler to use than it is. It’s got one of the most OS-Xish, intelligent, logical interfaces I’ve ever seen. It “just works.”

PostalCode offers Pineapple. Pineapple, currently at version 0.3.1, is a shareware ($14.95 now, $20.00 upon release) beta application for Mac OS X. Pineapple fetches the headlines from web sites that syndicate their content using rss, sorts out the articles you haven’t read and presents them to you in an easy-to-browse format in your web browser. It’s a little tedious to set up, relying as it does on dragging-and-dropping included XML files for the sites you wish to “subscribe” to onto a window in Pineapple, but it’s not difficult, and it allows you to have multiple “sets” of subscriptions. It includes clever features like “feed packs” and a scratch pad that make it very useful for people who read and then write about what they’ve read. Granted, Pineapple is a “work in progress,” but it strikes me as both useful and worth following closely.

NewsIsFree is web-based, so all you need is a browser. If you’re not a commercial user or site, you can create a free account that will let you browse headlines from thousands of sources in many different languages, search for the latest news, create custom pages with your own choice of news sources, arrange them in boxes or scroll lists, send headlines to others by email, or post headlines to your weblog or read them in your news aggregator (Radio and AmphetaDesk are both supported, as is Blogger) via syndication. Similar commercial services are offered by NewsKnowledge. Unfortunately, there isn’t much built in help, though the FAQ is a helpful start. At the same time, I suspect that this is largely a labor of love, and it’s worth keeping in mind that it is a free service. There’s a lot of potential for NewsIsFree, so I want to devote a later entry and more time to it.

Moreover.com is another web-based aggregator, also free for non-profit, personal, higher educational institutional use, as their terms of service stipulate. If you belong in their not-for-profit category, you can create a free “feed” here. Moreover works slightly differently in that you use their on-site “wizard” to select your sources either via a keyword search or by using their categories, then you select a template for display (the template is customizable), then Moreover sends you code you add to your site. When you incorporate the code then send you (you can also copy it from a web page) a script runs that fetches data from Moreover’s database, and sticks it in your web page using the template you selected. You’ll have to go through the Wizard again if you lose the email, so be sure to keep it. There’s a web developer’s help page for Moreover here,that explains how to customize the code they send, and how to incorporate more than one “Category” into your “feed.” Another Help page offers assistance for those using WYSIWYG editors. You can see the Moreover page I created using Archaeology as the keyword for my category and the plainest template here.

More Open Source for Education

Yes, I’m still looking. I’ve found a couple more sites that are collecting information about open source projects of interest to education. There’s an article in NewsForge about SchoolForge, but the stuff that looks viable to me is mostly at the more traditional sites like Fresh Meat, or CPAN, the mother lode of Perl modules. Which reminds me, there’s now a well organized site at perl.org, for learners.

Software doesn’t have to be New to be Good

Lately I’ve been talking to others in IT who are, like me, interested in solid products with good interfaces,and are taking advantage of stable but geeky standard protocols and unix tools and applications but putting a web front end on them.

I’ve been thinking about doing this with an NNTP server. Network News Transport Protocol is what makes UseNet newsgroups work, from a server perspective. Most of the discussion board products are monolingual; UseNet News is not, and readers are designed to support pretty much any language someone would post to UseNet in. News is threaded, and there are a number of ways to integrate HTML front ends. Why not use News as a discussion bard?

There are scads of News servers, but I keep hearing about DNews News Server, which runs on Macs, among other platforms. It’s particularly interesting since user authorization controls allow read and/or post access to be restricted for particular users or newsgroups; NetWin, the developer, also offers dBabble, chat server and webNews, a .cgi for a web front end to a news server. NewsRunner is a neat Mac application you can point to your News Server, and it will convert posts to HTML, text, digest form, email, or database and archive them. We were early adopters of Web Crossing, which supports UseNet news groups via the web or a client, email, private discussion boards with customizable templates, chat, and ssl connections.