Quora's topic-level RSS feeds are useless

February 18, 2011

Like many people over the last few months I've become quite fascinated with Quora, the question-and-answer site (though my interest certainly has waned in the last few weeks). When it comes to interfacing with the service, you follow topics and questions (usually within the same topics you follow), and sometimes contribute an answer to a question (something I've heretofore done shamefully little of).

Given this simple configuration and the general purpose of the site, what sort of content would you expect to be pushed to you when you subscribe to a topic's RSS feed? Right, new questions. Nothing more, nothing less. But, that's not what Quora's topic-level RSS feeds send you. Instead, it's a mix of new questions and new answers, including answers to questions you don't care about! This means that if you come across, for example, a question titled "What are some good backup strategies?" (something you just can't stand to hear discussed anymore), you're forced to see the question over and over again, every single time someone offers their two cents.

It's truly maddening, and unfortunately for me, I didn't realize the feeds were broken until after I'd gone through the trouble of subscribing to the feed of every topic I follow. (I haven't yet removed the feeds from my aggregator because I don't want to have to add them back if and when this issue is resolved.)

As far as I can tell, there is no non-manual way of ensuring you've seen every new question posted to a topic (other than a ‘proper' RSS feed, and email), and for an obsessive completionist like myself, that sort of limitation usually is a deal breaker.

Quora, I want to love you. Please fix this.

Pack and Smooch's MacBook sleeves#

For those curious, this is the laptop case I currently use with my 11" MacBook Air (and by "use" I mean that I slid the laptop into the case and never took it out; I've probably used the MBA a total of five hours since I bought it). Macworld just put up a very brief review of this sleeve.

Neurons lose information at one bit per second#

It appears that information is lost in the brain as quickly as it can be "delivered" from the senses.

This has fundamental consequences for our understanding of the neural code of the cerebral cortex. Due to the high deletion rate, information about sensory input signals can only be maintained for a few spikes. These new findings therefore indicate that the dynamics of the cerebral cortex are specifically tailored to the processing of brief snapshots of the outside world.

The United States of GOOD beer#

We asked you: What is the most awesome, best-tasting, sustainably brewed, independently owned, community-oriented craft beer brewed in your state? [This map] shows the brewery in each state that received the most nominations from the GOOD community.

Mind vs. machine#

Brian Christian describes his experiences preparing for and playing a human "confederate" at the annual Loebner Prize competition (whose format is that of a standard Turing Test), where artificial intelligences compete to be the Most Human Computer and confederates the Most Human Human.

The story of the 21st century will be, in part, the story of the drawing and redrawing of these battle lines, the story of Homo sapiens trying to stake a claim on shifting ground, flanked by beast and machine, pinned between meat and math.

After recognizing the rigidity and "insensitiveness" of the computer programs, Brian offers the following:

As computing technology in the 21st century moves increasingly toward mobile devices, we've seen the 1990s' explosive growth in processor speed taper off, and product development become less about raw computing horsepower than about the overall design of the product and its fluidity, reactivity, and ease of use. This fascinating shift in computing emphasis may be the cause, effect, or correlative of a healthier view of human intelligence--an understanding, not so much that it is complex and powerful, per se, as that it is reactive, responsive, sensitive, nimble. Our computers, flawed mirrors that they are, have helped us see that about ourselves.

Why McDonald's fries taste so good#

An incredible article that is less about McDonald's fries and more about the history and inner workings of the flavor industry, and the relationship between sight, smell and taste.

A nose can detect aromas present in quantities of a few parts per trillion — an amount equivalent to about 0.000000000003 percent. […]

The chemical that provides the dominant flavor of bell pepper can be tasted in amounts as low as 0.02 parts per billion; one drop is sufficient to add flavor to five average-size swimming pools.

These observations remind me of something similar I read recently in Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (which is wonderful by the way), namely that 3% of our genome is devoted to genes for detecting different odors (i.e., each gene makes a receptor for an odor molecule). Wow!


NoteSlate is low cost tablet device with true one colour display, real paper look design, long life battery (180h !), together with very handy usage and very simple and helpful interface for pen and paper. This easy, compact and portable gadget is used anywhere you want to make any notes, drafts, sketches, any ideas for future reference.

Tell me this product isn't compelling! I so want one, and at $99 I won't be alone. That said, I'll bet the price of one of these that it's total vaporware; all the pics are renders, it calls the JooJoo and Courier competition, the marketing copy is atrocious, etc. I hope I'm wrong.

Future U.S. history students: "It's pretty embarrassing how long you guys took to legalize gay marriage"#

While the future students, roughly one in eight of whom were raised by gay or lesbian parents, are scheduled to write essays debating the different viewpoints on gay marriage in the 2010s, a number of them told reporters it was hard to conceive of arguments against something as clearly justified as gay marriage "as though it were some big controversial issue, like marrying your clone."

The Onion, as prescient as ever.

Sparrow 1.0 released#

I've been using the Sparrow betas for the past few months and love it. It's hard to describe exactly why I like this email client so much, because it's just kind of a feeling I get using it; basically, the interface (with it's minimal, Twitter'esque vibe) makes me feel less guilty about banging out very short email responses. Also, the Gmail shortcuts are great.

A couple of things it desperately still needs though are a "Send and Archive" button/shortcut (a la Gmail) and contact groups.

Nokia CEO issues exceedingly honest internal memo#

The first iPhone shipped in 2007, and we still don't have a product that is close to their experience. Android came on the scene just over 2 years ago, and this week they took our leadership position in smartphone volumes. Unbelievable.

This incredibly candid read comes across more like a Nokia fanboy's open letter to the company than it does an internal memo from the CEO.

I'm far from anti-Nokia, and probably have owned three times as many Nokia phones in the last decade as most people have owned mobile phones period, but the fact is they're just not exciting anymore, and haven't been for years. When's the last time one of your friends asked you about Nokia? 2007? The real problem is that everything Stephen Elop says in this memo is obvious, and was obvious at least as recently as a couple of years ago.

Symbian has been dead for a long time, and in any event can't possibly compete in today's landscape--it's a relative joke. MeeGo might as well be a non-starter (which is sad because by most accounts it's really quite good); it has no ecosystem, and frankly, outside of mobile geeks, no one has even heard of it.

At this late juncture, Nokia has two options: adopt Windows Phone 7 or adopt Android. Android is the obvious choice here; sure, the competition will be much more fierce, but it has all the momentum.

My prediction: I'll never own another Nokia phone, and you likely won't either.

360-degree views of the sun now possible#

Launched in October 2006, STEREO traces the flow of energy and matter from the sun to Earth. It also provides unique and revolutionary views of the sun-Earth system. STEREO has given us the first view of the entire sun on February 6, 2011 and when coupled with SDO, will give us complete views of the sun's entire surface and atmosphere for the next 8 years.

On the new Readability service

February 01, 2011

As you've no doubt heard by now, earlier today Readability expanded from a simple bookmarklet into a paid membership service with the goal of providing financial support to writers and publishers.

70% of all Readability membership fees go directly to writers and publishers. Every time a subscriber uses Readability on your site, a portion of that subscriber's fees are allocated to you.

In a roundabout way, the new service kind of urges--by incentivising--long-form writing over shorter, linked-list-type posts, which can only be a good thing.

Though not entirely novel (a few services have done something similar before), I think this one has a real shot at succeeding given the popularity of the Readability bookmarklet, and Instapaper, which will be coupled to the service. I'm excited(!), if a bit confused about the now-overlapping nature of Instapaper and Readability, but I guess the gist is that Instapaper will soon allow us to "pay" folks via Readability via Instapaper, or something. Marco says that in the near future Instapaper will be able to send reading logs to Readability (so authors can get paid based on your Instapaper activity) and that he's creating "Readability editions of the Instapaper [iOS apps]."

I doubt this new Readability model will truly take off until the Instapaper integration is complete, but it will be interesting to follow once the services are talking to each other. Early on it will be a perfect collaboration, but if Readability starts to get the kind of third-party integration Instapaper now enjoys, then it's not clear to me that both applications/services will be necessary (i.e., why wouldn't I use Readability to the exclusion of Instapaper?).

In any event, for the authors-getting-paid aspect to be economically viable, it probably is going to have to break into the mainstream (and yeah, it's hard to say when "free money" isn't economically viable, but you get the idea). My $5.00/month spread amongst the thousands of articles I read each month isn't going to amount to much for an individual author, even in the aggregate. If the service's popularity remains only with the web/information geeks, who tend to read more articles a month than the average person (by at least an order of magnitude), and from a greater number of sources, it's hard to see how the resulting sum can be significant. But, like I said, "free money."

(For those authors holding out hope that most other authors won't sign up to take their respective pieces of the pie (and thus leave more of the pie for everyone else), it doesn't quite work like that; the ability for publishers to get paid is retroactive. From the FAQ: "Readability keeps track of pages visited even before a publisher registers with us to view their statistics. If your site has garnered traffic to Readability, we're already earmarking money for you." I think that's great.)

Relatedly, if the service gets really popular, it's not hard to imagine authors/publishers making their sites slightly more difficult to read in an effort to compel readers to route their articles through Readability (thereby generating a micropayment).

That said, for the last couple of years I've routed everything through Readability, no matter how visually pleasing I find the site, or how easy it is to read its text. (I stuck with Readability even after Instapaper offered a similar bookmarklet.) I really don't care how good your site looks, etc.—I want a consistent reading experience no matter what I'm reading (mainly because, over time, it makes my reading more efficient).

I hope Readability eventually supports sending articles to Kindles. (These days if an article is longer than ~three paragraphs, I send it to my Kindle.) I've the perfect solution right now, but it gives no kickbacks to the authors. (Oddly, Readability was an integral part of one of the two solutions I used before the Chrome extension I just linked to, and which I may write up at some point because the solution is foolproof, beyond reliable and can't disappear at the whim of the developer.)

As for actually putting the Readability "button" here on this site, I'm not sure yet. I've long resisted an Instapaper button/link, mainly because, well, if a reader wants to Instapaper one of my articles he can just use his bookmarklet (believe me, he's not using Instapaper without the bookmarklet). I think the same will be true for Readability—I currently see no value in adding my own button/link.

(See also Anil Dash's thoughts; he, like Marco, is an advisor to the company.)

Make that "clackity noise"

January 27, 2011

Merlin is so damn right with this piece that I just don't even know where to begin. The gist:

Please use that keyboard to talk about your life sometimes.

Your real life. Not just the canned version of life on which we slap adhesive labels like happy or sad, poor or rich, employed or unemployed, "eating lunch" or "hatin' life", "it's complicated" or "serial entrepreneur," "meh" or "whatever." […]

Tell me something that happened.

It's rare that I get too personal on this site, and probably could count on two hands the number of posts where I've deviated far from my (public) comfort zone. This likely comes across as calculated, and to some extent that's true, but the desire to open up a bit more has been there ever since I started publishing my thoughts here in 2002.

The feedback I got a couple of years ago from A tendency to lose perspective was remarkable—equal parts strangers telling me it made them cry, and real-life friends imploring me to share more of that part of myself with the world. I've received similar feedback over the years from comparable posts, and each time I tell myself I need to do more of that. But I don't. I quickly fall back into explaining how to get X working with Y, or how to make Z faster, or describing why this gadget is better than that gadget, etc.

Obviously those are things I enjoy writing about, but that doesn't mean I don't also like writing about the human stuff. Going forward I'm going to make a sincere effort to bring more of that here, for better or worse.

I like to think that what I write about matters to everyone, but of course it can't. No matter how much some readers (and meatspace friends especially) try to keep up with what I'm interested in, most will never in a million years make it to the end of Use LaunchBar to execute, in the "background," commands via a shell or Select certain tabs in Safari (or WebKit) using keyboard shortcuts. It's just not going to happen. I accepted that a long time ago.

But, that's kind of the point isn't it? I write first for me, and second for that small niche of people whose interests sometimes overlap with mine.

I think the core of what Merlin is saying is that stories generally are much more engaging than explanations or even opinions sometimes, and that while explanations and opinions are needed, they should complement our anecdotes, not smother them.

Relatedly, I think that in some small way our desire for this sort of thing is why Twitter became so popular with the digerati long before it went mainstream. The service filled a void—by allowing us to take a peek at the idiosyncratic sides of some of the people whom we've so long respected on a technical or intellectual level, it was possible to respect them on a personal level as well.