An open letter to Cakexploder

I apol­o­gize; this has become very, very long and very, very dis­or­ga­nized. Slop­py brain­dump, but hope­ful­ly some jump­ing-off points here.

First I think there are some impor­tant terms you need to make less vague. This might begin with iden­ti­fy­ing the things you read on the inter­net (or in life in gen­er­al) that you feel *do* give you some “tan­gi­ble ben­e­fit.” Are all Twit­ter mes­sages worth­less? Why do you sub­scribe to that per­son specif­i­cal­ly? Are his tweets some­times poet­ic, pro­saical­ly clever, or oth­er­wise men­tal­ly engag­ing? Does he some­times link to news or prod­ucts or ser­vices that you would­n’t have oth­er­wise heard about, things that then *do* pro­vide “tan­gi­ble ben­e­fit”? Is it your fault for sub­scrib­ing, or is it his fault for pro­vid­ing worth­less con­tent? What about his real-life friends who fol­low him, won’t that tweet be of inter­est to them? As a fig­ure in the pub­lic eye, then, should he be required to have two Twit­ter accounts, a pro­fes­sion­al and a per­son­al one? What will you lose by unsub­scrib­ing from him entire­ly? Can the things of val­ue that he does pro­vide be found any­where else on the inter­net? Red­dit? Metafil­ter? TechCrunch? Deli­cious?

On the oth­er hand, did­n’t that tweet of his in fact pro­vide val­ue, since it is one of the things that prompt­ed you to think about this prob­lem and write a Tum­blr post about the sub­ject?

What qual­i­ties does a media item need to pos­sess in order to pro­vide you with val­ue? Are things not worth doing if they don’t alter the way you think or behave in the future? Do things need to be valu­able for longer than the time you expe­ri­ence them? If so, you might start with a brain­dump of all the things you can remem­ber that did change your life for the bet­ter, to begin to iden­ti­fy the qual­i­ties that make these things unique, as well as what chan­nels you received them from.

Where does humor stand in all this? Do humor­ous things, even the most humor­ous, per­ma­nent­ly or even tem­porar­i­ly change how you think and behave, beyond the time that you are expe­ri­enc­ing them? Is val­ue got­ten from re-telling a joke to a friend? From watch­ing a fun­ny movie or TV show with a friend? If so, is it because this involves relat­ing per­son­al­ly, in real-life? If yes, why is meat­space inter­ac­tion more valu­able than inter­net inter­ac­tion? Is it at all?

Con­sid­er this: In Novem­ber of 2007, I went to Lon­don for a week. By myself. I’d nev­er been out­side of North Amer­i­ca, and I found myself with some mon­ey, and decid­ed it would be worth­while. I delib­er­ate­ly did not con­struct an itin­er­ary so that I did­n’t feel dic­tat­ed or oblig­at­ed to see any­thing spe­cif­ic. I just want­ed to be there, for a week, walk­ing around, relax­ing, read­ing, stop­ping into pubs, and tak­ing pho­tos.

What did that do to me? Any­thing of val­ue? Frankly and truth­ful­ly, I don’t know. I know that I enjoyed it while it hap­pened. But am I dif­fer­ent per­son for it? Should I have spent the mon­ey on some class instead? If so, *why*?

I won­der if the prob­lem is that we *think* there’s a prob­lem. We are now, on the inter­net, haunt­ed by oppor­tu­ni­ty cost, and feel more pressed to be doing some­thing valu­able than I believe we would if we did­n’t have so much infor­ma­tion avail­able to us. Why does this change things? If a per­son enjoys play­ing backgam­mon, and anoth­er per­son enjoys watch­ing YTMND ani­ma­tions, why is one per­son bet­ter off than the oth­er? Backgam­mon does­n’t make you a bet­ter per­son. Yet some­how it feels more whole­some or valu­able, does­n’t it? Is it the meat­space thing again? Or do we need to recon­sid­er that maybe backgam­mon is worth­less? What about kite fly­ing? Kite fly­ing is an enor­mous waste of time!

I sup­pose that kite fly­ing has the prob­a­bil­i­ty of pro­vid­ing you with mem­o­ries of being with a friend or friends, some­thing you can look back on fond­ly, while you will nev­er look back fond­ly on read­ing Twit­ter. Or will you?

I’m remind­ed of this Cat and Girl com­ic: http://catandgirl.com/?p=283

I read Cat and Girl every morn­ing. As well as Over­com­pen­sat­ing, Scary Go Round, Achewood, and xkcd. Why? Why do I read them? Are they a waste of time? I was for­tu­nate­ly able to remem­ber this par­tic­u­lar Cat and Girl, as it is rel­e­vant to this dis­cus­sion, but what about all the ones that I don’t remem­ber, or that don’t ever get linked by me in an email? What about xkcd? Is xkcd at least a small por­tion of the rea­son I switched to Ubun­tu? Prob­a­bly. What good is that? I get far less done in Ubun­tu than in Win­dows because it is for­eign to me, but I enjoy the chal­lenge and the open-source phi­los­o­phy. Is that worth­while? Will the things I’m learn­ing about Lin­ux ever pro­vide me with val­ue out­side of using Ubun­tu? Should I care about that? Why can’t I just enjoy it for the sake of enjoy­ing it?

I find myself unable to read long arti­cles on the inter­net any­more. I have so many starred items in Google Read­er that I don’t want to think about it. Not to men­tion my “read­later” tag on Deli­cious. The inter­net has become to me what TV is to so many peo­ple. It’s just the default thing I go to when I don’t know what to do. Or out of habit. 99% of the time I’m at my com­put­er, it’s because I just sat down there, opened Fire­fox, clicked my Gmail and Google Read­er book­marks, and then clicked around until there was noth­ing new to stim­u­late me. Can’t be both­ered to go through my starred Google Read­er items and actu­al­ly sit and read one. Why not?: Because there are too many! Which one should I read, *and why*? Oppor­tu­ni­ty cost.

Maybe here’s the trou­ble: We have too many queues.

Have you ever fan­ta­sized about your hard dri­ve crash­ing? Or your Google Read­er data being lost? I have. In 2003 my lap­top was stolen. It was so refresh­ing! Mean­while I have copies of most Dai­ly Show episodes from the last three years, because I used to tor­rent all of them. Why can’t I delete them? Why do I keep “burn Dai­ly Shows to DVDs” on my men­tal to-do list? Get rid of that shit fer chris­sake!!

Have you ever con­sid­ered how you might go about tak­ing your life offline? How that might look? Writ­ing let­ters and mak­ing phone calls instead of emails and tweets and Face­book sta­tus­es; maybe even a REAL phone at home so that you can’t be both­ered at any minute of any day, and you can speak with friends with the lux­u­ry of a big, com­fort­able hand­set against your ear? No dan­ger of being dis­con­nect­ed? Learn­ing about new music from Mag­net and Fad­er and The Wire, buy­ing the music that sounds inter­est­ing in them, or on their sam­pler CDs? Read­ing arti­cles in Wired and The Econ­o­mist rather than wired.com and Slate? Sub­scrib­ing to The New York Times? Lying on your car­pet lis­ten­ing to records with­out hav­ing to check their Last.fm, Wikipedia, and MySpace pages?

As you think about liv­ing like that, think: What on the inter­net is TRULY irre­place­able? I sent this valen­tine to some­body last week: http://www.presentandcorrect.com/item.php?item_id=195 I only knew about it because I had a sub­scrip­tion to ilike.org.uk in Google Read­er. ilike is a blog that most­ly posts pret­ty pic­tures of retro British archi­tec­ture. What do I get from it most of the time? Noth­ing, oth­er than the oppor­tu­ni­ty to see pret­ty things. But when that valen­tine was linked to on the blog, it affect­ed my “real,” meat­space life, even a real meat­space rela­tion­ship. What would I have sent if I had­n’t learned about it? Does this alone con­clu­sive­ly demon­strate that my sub­scrip­tion to ilike is valu­able? Or does it do more harm than good? How much time do I *real­ly* waste pass­ing over its more bor­ing posts in Read­er’s list view? I sub­scribe to a lot of typog­ra­phy blogs too, just because I like typog­ra­phy. Isn’t it ok to just *like* typog­ra­phy, just because I like it?

I just began read­ing a book from 1978 or so called “Four Argu­ments for the ELIMINATION of Tele­vi­sion,” which argues that the medi­um itself is beyond reform. As I read it, I try to imag­ine that the author is talk­ing about the inter­net, to see whether his case applies here, too. He describes what it feels like to hear a news report of some vio­lence in a dis­tant con­ti­nent, fol­lowed by the sports scores and a com­mer­cial for laun­dry deter­gent. This expe­ri­ence robs the impor­tant sto­ry of any real­i­ty it might have oth­er­wise had. It is com­part­men­tal­ized, con­tained, requir­ing no more thought than it took to hear about it. Isn’t this even *more* true on the inter­net, when every page has dozens and dozens of hyper­links that are clam­or­ing to inter­rupt you?

Or is *all of this* just back­wards, nos­tal­gic, tech­no-apoc­a­lyp­tic think­ing? Peo­ple once argued cen­turies ago that the PRINTING PRESS, *the god damn PRINTING PRESS*, would dumb peo­ple down. And, lat­er, that *type­writ­ers* would turn peo­ple into bad writ­ers. Is this the same thing? Or is the inter­net so pro­found­ly dif­fer­ent in the way that it manip­u­lates our atten­tion that we do need to wor­ry about it?

Also impor­tant to con­sid­er: Is the con­tent itself the prob­lem, or is it the way we relate to the con­tent that is the prob­lem? And how are these two things relat­ed? Is dick­ing around in Google Read­er ok if I set aside an hour to do it in each night, with a beer or a cup of tea and some music play­ing? Rather than just click­ing book­marks like a rat with his paw on the cocaine but­ton?

An arti­cle I read some time ago that I think of occa­sion­al­ly. It’s osten­si­bly about “email addic­tion,” but real­ly relates to a lot of the ways we inter­act with the ’net.
http://www.mindhacks.com/blog/2006/09/why_email_is_addicti.html

Template Feed/Archive URL Structures for Various Blogging Platforms (Updating)

Being still very inter­est­ed in web feeds, both prac­ti­cal­ly and philo­soph­i­cal­ly, I sub­scribe to them often. Occa­sion­al­ly I’ll find a site that seems as though it should have a feed, but con­tains no link to one with­in a meta dec­la­ra­tion or with­in the body of the site. Still, most con­tent gen­er­a­tors gen­er­ate feeds, regard­less of whether their users make the feed URLs pub­lic. In cas­es like this, it’s fun to poke around and see if I can’t guess the cor­rect URL.

The same goes for archives; cer­tain Blog­ger users, for exam­ple, appar­ent­ly turn archive links off, so all that’s eas­i­ly vis­i­ble are the last ten posts or so on the front page. But, of course, as is espe­cial­ly the case with some­thing as pre­fab as Blog­ger, the archives are acces­si­ble through a very pre­dictable URL schema.

And what about com­ment feeds? These are even more scarce­ly linked to, but in many cas­es do exist.

Here are the ones I know so far. I plan to update this post as I dis­cov­er more. This is as much for my ref­er­ence as it is for yours. So, book­mark it, and, y’know, sub­scribe to the com­ments. If you know of any oth­er schema­ta, please com­ment. And if you’d like to cre­ate your own feeds from any site, give Feed43 a shot. It’s a bit tough to learn, but I’ve suc­cess­ful­ly made sev­er­al use­ful feeds with it.

MySpace

  • All blog posts: http://blog.myspace.com/blog/rss.cfm?friendID=[frien­dID]

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Elusive YouTube Feeds

Despite being one of the poster-chil­dren for the 2.0nd and most recent wave of hyper­bolized inter­net enthu­si­asm, YouTube does a shit­ty job of mak­ing feeds avail­able. “We offer a bunch of dif­fer­ent RSS feeds,” they say, “cov­er­ing tags, users, pop­u­lar videos, and even the YouTube Blog.” No shit! That list of feeds is, believe it or not, total­ly com­pre­hen­sive of all that they pro­vide easy access to. This is prob­a­bly an arti­fact of their pre-Google days, when they were los­ing mil­lions of dol­lars and could­n’t afford too many feed requests.

But I did some dig­ging and found that you can eas­i­ly get a devel­op­er key, which gives you access to YouTube’s API. This sounds a lot trick­i­er than it is. Just go to your devel­op­er pro­file page, tell them why you want a key, and you’ve got it. With this key, you can access a num­ber of dif­fer­ent XML feeds. Vis­it the devel­op­er intro­duc­tion and doc­u­men­ta­tion to gen­er­ate the url for the feed you’re after. For instance, I want a feed of the videos I’ve marked as favorites, so I use this:

http://www.youtube.com/api2_rest?method=youtube.users.list_favorite_videos&dev_id=MyY0utu8eD3v1D&user=echosmyron

That’s not my real Dev ID — YouTube is obvi­ous­ly pro­tec­tive of these things so I don’t want to piss them off. But what you get is an XML file that is struc­tured like this:

<ut_response status="ok">
 <video_list>
  <video>
   <author>limpty</author>
   <id>npvSMfhjt4A</id>
   <title>Joanna Newsom "sadie" live</title>
   <length_seconds>356</length_seconds>
   <rating_avg>2.65</rating_avg>
   <rating_count>79</rating_count>
   <description>
    at easy street seattle. i filmed it brah. i have photos of joanna at smokyshots.com
   </description>
   <view_count>15869</view_count>
   <upload_time>1149446513</upload_time>
   <comment_count>21</comment_count>
   <tags>joanna newsom folk harp drag city</tags>
   <url>http://www.youtube.com/?v=npvSMfhjt4A</url>
   <thumbnail_url>
    http://sjl-static13.sjl.youtube.com/vi/npvSMfhjt4A/2.jpg
   </thumbnail_url>
  </video>

Pret­ty awe­some! The <id> val­ue of npvSMfhjt4A can just be thrown into the watch url (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npvSMfhjt4A), and there it is! Now it’s just a mat­ter of re-writ­ing las­tRSS a bit to strip out the <id> field and toss­ing that into YouTube’s embed code. Which I then intend to imple­ment as a sin­gle dynam­ic video in the side­bar.I fuck­ing nailed it.

Weekly Top Album Art

Wow, I can’t believe I was able to do this.

http://www.kilobitspersecond.com/topalbumart.php?user=

Just tack your last.fm user­name onto the end of that url to gen­er­ate the cov­er art for your most lis­tened-to album of last week. Pret­ty cool.

Bands and albums with amper­sands don’t work at the moment. urlen­code() does­n’t seem to do the trick. Any the­o­ries?

last.fm Weekly Album Chart Feeds

For a long time, last.fm has linked to a pur­port­ed week­ly album chart feed on their web ser­vices page. Because I find this much more inter­est­ing than the week­ly artist and track charts, I was hap­py to find today that these feeds have final­ly become active. Just replace “top­down­jim­my” with your user­name in this url:

http://ws.audioscrobbler.com/1.0/user/topdownjimmy/weeklyalbumchart.xml

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, this won’t reflect your lis­ten­ing accu­rate­ly if you’re in the habit of lis­ten­ing to leaked albums. For what are cer­tain­ly legal issues, last.fm plays dumb that these albums even exist, fail­ing to report them in charts even though the track and artist counts are updat­ed accord­ing­ly.

My next step is to use the url embed­ded in the feed to scrape the Ama­zon­ian cov­er art from each album’s last.fm page. This would be cool to do even for the recent track feed, come to think of it.

last.fm friends ticker

infoRSS

last.fm is great, and it gets bet­ter every sin­gle day. Part of its appeal is voyeurism. I love being able to see what my friends are lis­ten­ing to, but that usu­al­ly requires going to the “What are my friends lis­ten­ing to?” page, which is still too much effort; I’m not that curi­ous. But still, if some­body I know starts lis­ten­ing to some­thing, I’d like to be alert­ed with a total­ly pas­sive sys­tem.

There are, of course, RSS feeds for all kinds of things from last.fm. But there is no feed con­sist­ing of all your friends’ recent tracks, which is sur­pris­ing because it’s such an intu­itive idea. So imple­ment­ing the ones that are avail­able is osten­si­bly pos­si­ble, but nev­er­the­less tricky. I mean, log­ging into Blog­lines or Google’s new read­er still requires an active request for this infor­ma­tion. And while there are some web ser­vices that will merge mul­ti­ple feeds into a sin­gle one for you, I don’t like rely­ing on a third par­ty like that, one that may go down any day and that might insert adver­tise­ments into my feed.

It seems to me that there should be a very, very small pro­gram that sits in your sys­tem tray, check­ing mul­ti­ple feeds reg­u­lar­ly, then pop­ping up a native Win­dows bal­loon with a link to the “arti­cle” every time there’s an update. This would be ide­al for watch­ing your last.fm friends. There are pro­grams that do this, but they’re all full appli­ca­tions that only have this as an aux­il­iary fea­ture. I can’t afford the mem­o­ry.

So, final­ly, I found infoRSS. It’s a Fire­fox exten­sion that adds a lit­tle tick­er to the sta­tus­bar. Ini­tial­ly I was­n’t hope­ful, as its default pre­sen­ta­tion is ugly and there­fore indica­tive of poor pro­gram­ming:

infoRSS

The writer of this exten­sion isn’t a native speak­er of Eng­lish, and there’s very lit­tle help avail­able any­way. I spent a long time study­ing its many con­fus­ing fea­tures, con­fi­dent that it could be made to do what I want. The result (shown at the top of this post) isn’t per­fect, but is bet­ter than I had expect­ed or hoped. There’s a nice lit­tle Audio­scrob­bler logo on the left; each entry is marked with the user’s avatar, which is far more effi­cient than if their name were dis­played; and the lis­ten­ing sta­tus of every­one is con­stant­ly on dis­play for me. Here’s how to do this:

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