Reading through categories in Google Reader

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I’m a big fan of Google Reader, which is a Web-based application that allows me to subscribe (via RSS) to news and blog sites and read their latest updates in one convenient location, rather than having to traipse around a hundred or more websites.

I used to use a Windows application with the dubious name of FeedDemon. It was in my humble opinion the best RSS reader available for Windows. In fact, I liked it so much that I bought it.

And then there were changes to how feeds were aggregated and stored, and it started synchronizing with Google Reader rather than (if I remember correctly) its own server.

Which was when I realised that I didn’t need to wait a couple of minutes for the synchronization to complete before I read my posts. Instead of pulling them from Google Reader into FeedDemon I could go directly to Google Reader and cut out the middle-demon.

So I exorcised my PC and FeedDemon was gone. That was around 2007 or 2008.

So why has it taken me this long of using Google Reader to realise that I don’t need to have all my sub-folders open to access the posts?

I categorise my feeds into a number of folders (that I have both “Metal music” and “Music” is because Google Reader wasn’t playing properly the other night and after I created “Music” nothing happened until the next day!).

It was only the other day that I realised that I could simply click on the closed folder to see all the posts within, organized by date. And if I like, I can also view only unread items.

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That’s making getting through reading updates much, much quicker and more enjoyable.

Of course, it also helps that I’ve purged a few blogs in the new year. This year I need to focus more. I’ve got a couple of Web projects that I’d like to launch in 2012, as well as a book on the go.

How to make Google search draw a heart

One really useful feature of Google search is its ability to perform calculations, from simple additions and subtractions to conversions and more complex formulae.

Look what happens when you search Google for this formula:

(sqrt(cos(x))*cos(400*x)+sqrt(abs(x))-0.4)*(4-x*x)^0.1

google-heart-formula

Now, why didn’t we get to draw that in Sixth Year Studies Maths?

Is the BBC News website really a porn site?

With the boys getting a bit older and taking more of an interest in the internet I’ve started looking into installing an internet filter to protect them while we’re browsing online.

There have been a couple of times when I’ve clicked on an innocent-looking video title on YouTube, for example, only to discover that’s it’s not as advertised. Like rickrolling, but more sinister.

While researching Google Chrome extensions I discovered this one called Christian Anti-Porn:

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What it lacks in pornography it more than makes up for in gruesome images, this one taken from the Mel Gibson-directed ‘horror movie’ The Passion of the Christ (2004).

I installed it—fully understanding that it’s not a complete internet filter package—and gave it a quick test. What if I were to try to visit the Playboy UK website, for example? Sure enough, it blocked it, showed me a bloody and gruesome photograph of Our Lord on the cross, and a couple of inspirational verses from the Bible:

For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries (Heb 10:26-27).

But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed. (Isa 53:5)

Great! It works, I thought.

By “works”, I mean it prevented me from viewing a pornographic website. I certainly didn’t feel inspired by it. It didn’t make me feel any closer to God. I think it may have had something to do with the horrific photograph of a man being tortured to death on the page.

I know that the cross is central to the message of the Gospel. But actually, I’m with Jürgen Moltmann on this one: you can’t separate the crucifixion from the resurrection. It was the crucifixion of the resurrected Christ; the resurrection of the crucified Christ.

Surely they could have found a more inspirational photograph. Like a sunset, or a butterfly, or a waterfall.

Anway, I didn’t think any more of it and carried on with my evening’s browsing. I was working on my last blog post about browser new tab pages, and testing my new myfav.es bookmarks.

Imagine my surprise when I visited the BBC News website:

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The BBC News website is porn?!

But I’ve got an app for that installed on my mobile phone.

And Facebook was blocked too. Apparently, it’s also a porn site. I didn’t know that. My Mum’s on Facebook!

And Google+ is too, it would appear.

I’ve uninstalled it. I’ll look for something else. But for now at least I know to keep the boys away from watching the news.

What do you want to see when you open a new tab?

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I’ve been thinking about browsers’ new tab pages recently. My default browser is Google Chrome so I’ll largely be focusing on that in this post.

By default, certainly on the version that I have installed (I’m on the Dev channel which allows me to see up-and-coming features—and bugs—before they are available on the stable channel) I get two options:

  • Apps
  • Most visited pages

Most visited pages

The most visited pages feature is the sort of thing that many browsers do now. Opera does it; I’ve a vague notion that they were the first with their speed dial page:

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The Apple Safari one is really attractive, almost cinematic.

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Even Internet Explorer 9 does it.

Most visited doesn’t mean favourite

The thing is, when I open a new tab in my browser, as you would expect, it’s usually because I want to open a new page, visit another web site, or open a new web application. But I am finding that I rarely, if ever, use these most popular/most visited pages for a number of reasons.

First, I don’t find their design particularly helpful.

Chrome, Safari and Opera all show a resized screenshot of the website. But there is too much detail in a screenshot, that when it gets squeezed down to 205 x 128 pixels it loses its immediacy and usefulness.

Usually, it’s not immediately obvious what the site is from a tiny screenshot, so I find that I waste a lot of time trying to determine whether these are the links I need or not. Also, depending on your browser’s theme, the text beneath the screenshot isn’t always obvious either.

Some browsers will also update the screenshot if you’ve not visited the site in a while, or have cleared your browser’s cache so the page may actually look completely different from the last time you visited (remember) it.

It doesn’t pass the Steve Krug Don’t make me think! test.

Internet Explorer 9, on the other hand, takes a different approach. IE shows white boxes containing the site’s favicon and a bar, which indicates how often you’ve visited the site (e.g. “Very active”, “Active”, etc.).

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As you can see from the screenshot above, though, is that 4/10 sites there don’t have icons, or they’ve not been downloaded for some reason.

So the horizontal bar then becomes the most obvious feature of each box; given that we lazy humans will tend to pay attention to pictures and coloured shapes before we attempt to read anything, because that uses energy!

There are blue, green and purple bars. But what do the colours represent? It’s not obvious. It turns out that IE rather cleverly draws the colour from the favicon.

It’s better, but it’s still not perfect. What if the sites listed aren’t actually the sites that I want to visit most frequently?

Second, most visited doesn’t necessarily mean favourite.

IE tells me that these sites are my “most popular sites”, Chrome that they are my “most visited”, Safari that they are simply, and rather neutrally, “top sites”. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are my favourite.

Because I visit a particular location many times doesn’t immediately make it one of my favourite locations.

In St Andrews I generally park on Langlands Road. That makes it one of my most visited streets. But it’s not my favourite location in St Andrews; St Mary’s quad is.

Because I’m involved in Web design I generally find myself flipping between different browsers frequently, in order to test pages. So my “most visited” sites quickly fill up with screenshots of test pages. And different browsers may require more testing than others.

That’s not useful.

Third, I clear my cache a lot, also for testing purposes. And every time I clear my cache it resets my “most visited” sites counter too. So any useful sites that I’ve accrued over the last week or so also get wiped.

Why not use favourites?

The browser that I think has got it closest is Opera.

Opera allows you to choose which sites are displayed on your Speed Dial/new tab page.

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It also doesn’t use the entire screenshot, but a cropped portion, which tends to include the site name. I can quickly, and easily see what these sites are. It passes the “Don’t make me think!” test. I also find that I use this feature a lot in Opera Mobile on my HTC HD2.

This makes much more sense to me: show me the sites that I want to visit most often, or the resources that I find most helpful, even if I don’t visit them every day.

Google Chrome’s apps screen also comes close to what I would find useful:

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Now, this is getting somewhere. The icons are simple and recognisable, even though the text labels aren’t easy to read against the grass background.

The only problem is that I’m now dependent on developers creating a Google Chrome  shortcut app to the site that I want to visit. In my own Web development I use four sites frequently:

  • Heart Internet control panel
  • Pivotal Tracker
  • Assembla SVN
  • Deploy

As you can see from the screenshot above only 2/4 of those sites have shortcut apps. If I want to include them on my apps pages then I’ll need to create them myself. Which is fine for me as a Web developer, but a it of a pain for most other Web users.

My faves

I came across myfav.es today which is designed to easily allow you to choose your favourite sites and then set that page as your browser’s homepage.

This is mine:

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As you can see some of the shortcuts use built-in, default application icons such as Google, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and YouTube.

The more generic icons (heart, notepad, cloud, download, ‘B’) are non-standard links that I’ve entered manually. There are loads of icons to choose from, and you can specify what colour they should be.

It’s very clear, and highly customizable. That’s exactly what I want when I open a new tab. Something like this would be really useful, as a built-in feature, to browsers. Particularly as user-interfaces, like Windows Phone/Windows 8 Metro UI become more popular.

There are a couple of Chrome extensions that replace the default new tab page:

  • myfav.es New Tab page
  • myfav.es Fast New Tab Replacement Page

But both also remove the cursor from the address bar when you open a new tab, which means if you want to start typing a new URL or a search query you have to manually select the address bar (“omnibox”) either with your mouse or a keyboard shortcut (Ctrl+D on Windows).

I’ve now simply set this as my homepage in all my browsers. And so far it’s proving very useful, and consistent.

iGoogle

What page do you use for your Web browser’s homepage? For the last ten years or so (I wrote it in 2001) I’ve been using this custom-made, hand-coded portal page hosted locally on an XAMPP Apache httpd server:

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It’s served me well and required very little maintenance over the years. The horizontal menu at the top connects me with most of my main projects and the logo icons take me to what used to be my most-visited sites.

Two things, however, have prompted me to migrate away from this home-grown portal page:

  1. The page layout breaks in Microsoft Internet Explorer 9, which while not being my primary browser (by any stretch of the imagination) is still annoying when I boot it up to test pages.
  2. I’ve discovered Google Chrome Sync which enables me to synchronise bookmarks, extensions and themes across multiple computers (e.g. home PC, work PC, laptop).
  3. I’ve started using iGoogle as my main portal page:

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If you’ve not come across it before, iGoogle is a customizable, personalized Google homepage to which you can add widgets. It’s especially good if you, like me, use a lot of Google applications such as Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Maps, Google Reader and Google Docs.

I’m using a combination of a Google Bookmarks widget and Google Chrome bookmarks (which are synchronized with other PCs I work with) to store the genuinely useful links that I use on a regular basis.

Like many of my online experiments I decided that I’d give it a go for a week and review it after that. A fortnight passed before I realised that I’d missed my deadline… so I just kept using it.

I’ve tried other, similar portals such as NetVibes but I loved the simplicity and integration that iGoogle offered.