Syndication vs design

What happened to RSS? Why has it ceded so much turf to centralized apps and to email newsletters? One reason is that syndication ceded design.

Feeds are text without art. Naked writing. Words. Letters. Punctuation.

A provider can’t style their posts using CSS or Javascript. As a reader, this is sometimes charming, but it can also be a loss. The presentation can be a part of the message.

Compare the version of Daring Fireball on with the one in the Feedly feed reader.

Daring Fireball as it looks on its own web host
Daring Fireball as it looks in Feedly

The version on has more readable typography. The gray background is more attractive than the black. The visual design on-site reinforces the Apple-centric theme of the site because the use of Helvetica reflects Apple’s house style.

Compare these layouts edge-to-edge. The version on uses white space luxuriously to create a feeling of calm and focus.

The version in Feedly is cramped and frenetic.

Publications are not just words. Paper matters. The new book smell is heady. Covers enhance the pleasure of reading.

Blog syndication obliterates the new book smell. Readers must go elsewhere for that pleasure.

The inability to style blogs in RSS or Atom isn’t just a problem for readers, it’s also a problem for writers. Bloggers need to differentiate themselves. They need to stand out with a unique perspective. But in syndication, every blog looks the same.

Daring Fireball’s visual esthetic isn’t an accident. It looks like a Mac.

Does this design at look familiar? Daring Fireball’s typography and palette calls back to Apple’s.

One way to approach this differently would be to embed blogs as a whole, in an iframe, and allow them to bring along their own styling.

Space shouldn’t be a critical problem – responsive design takes care of that already. Daring Fireball for iPhone, as hosted on its own site, fits roughly in the same narrow space that the syndicated text gets in Feedly.

Daring Fireball in responsive design mode, laid out for iPhone 6/7/8
The same block of text we’ve looked at in a desktop browser and in the Feedly desktop version, but in responsive design mode for iPhone 6/7/8

Embedding isn’t the only way to do this. There are other ways to approach the issue of design in syndication. Feed formats and the client software which displays them could do a better job with CSS and HTML.

Email doesn’t have that problem, though. It already supports HTML and CSS. HTML and CSS in an email are nowhere near as full-featured as in a browser, but they are light-years beyond RSS.

In fact, Mailchimp is a major sponsor of Daring Fireball, which goes to the question of why Daring Fireball is not already an email newsletter.

Home again, from RSS to Jocko Homo

It’s not uncommon for blogs nowadays to have no RSS feed.

You can still subscribe, but via email.

Email is a superior technology in some ways:

  • It is simple. RSS has a lot of specialized features like fields for atom:category, managingEditor or skipHours.
  • Every user already has an email client. RSS readers are a niche category.
  • Email is an effective marketing platform, so effective that email marketing is a career track. RSS readership is a black box to the blogger.

The vastness of the Internet is a simplification engine. Anything unnecessary is stripped away. Not to get all poetic, but beach glass is like this in that frippery is worn away and only crucial features remain.

Picture via sponge-headedscienceman

Back in the days when blogs were new and RSS was the new hotness, there was euphoria around blogging. It was going to sweep the world. It was going to be Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, Weibo, LinkedIn, and more. RSS is overequipped to handle all this.

The Internet is pitiless towards excess.

Jocko Homo

We are not men, we are DEVO

Email came before RSS by a large margin, twenty years or so. RSS evolved out of email. A return to email is de-evolution. To quote DEVO:

They tell us that
We lost our tails
Evolving up
From little snails

I say it’s all
Just wind in sails

Are we not men?
We are Devo!
Are we not men?

The Wikipedia entry on Jocko Homo the song says it came from an anti-Darwinist Bertram Henry Shadduck.

Le titre « Jocko Homo » vient d’un pamphlet religieux contre le concept d’évolution écrit par Bertram Henry Shadduck1. La chanson présente le concept de « dé-évolution » qui donne son nom au groupe, et en est devenue l’hymne officieux2

As a Methodist pastor, Shadduck served churches largely in West Virginia and Ohio. His influence would perhaps have been confined to this territory had not two particular incidents sparked a prolonged response from him. The first was the unveiling of The Chrysalis, a sculpture of a man emerging from an ape ‘cocoon’, in West Side Unitarian, a liberal New York City church, in 1924.  Dr. Shadduck was so revulsed at the thought of evolution supplanting Biblical creation even within church walls that he responded with the publication of Jocko-Homo Heavenbound which featured a disparaging pen-and-ink rendition of The Chrysalis on its cover with an added, angelic apparition emerging from the man-ape

Shadduck was the Nostradamus of Creationism and feed formats. Bloggers who only support email subscriptions, and not RSS, are in league with the anti-evolution league.

A return to email suggests that RSS was vanity. It was over-engineered. Email was always the answer. We were home all along.

You’ve always had the power, my dear.


Animation with found objects

Kottke has a neat post about dancing twigs.

Artist Chris Kenny uses bits of twig from tree branches to make these interesting found art pieces that exploit the human tendency for pareidolia, including the one above of twigs in motion.

It strikes me you could generalize this into a method for generating animation using any type of found object.

  1. Generate an animation using standard methodology. For example, you might use a stick figure animator to create a sequence of dancing image.
  2. Search within a body of found images to find the one most similar to the generated image.
  3. Replace the generated image with the found image.
  4. Assemble the found images into a movie.

I’ll (lazily) skip steps 1 and 2, because they are hard and you can easily visualize the output, but step 3 might lead to this sequence of twigs:

And step 4 would lead to this movie:

As an extension which allows for filling in gaps where there was no suitable found image, you could train a GAN on the pairs. The GAN would be rewarded for generating the found image from the source image.

Then, when no found image is close enough to a source image, a GAN-generated image can be used instead.

Stiff-Arming TikTok

TikTok is having a big impact, or so I hear. As curious as I am, I can’t live with its privacy and security tradeoffs.

We collect information about the device you use to access the Platform, including your IP address, unique device identifiers, model of your device, your mobile carrier, time zone setting, screen resolution, operating system, app and file names and types, keystroke patterns or rhythms, and platform.We collect information about your location, including location information based on your SIM card and/or IP address. With your permission, we may also collect Global Positioning System (GPS) data.

No, really, *keystroke patterns or rhythms*. Biometrics.

This isn’t the only way that it feels invasive and unwise. I would only install it in a virtualized sandbox, like for example a concrete bunker on a remote island.

Acousticity is green

I’m inspired by Bas’ MUSIC x GREEN project.

Greta Thunberg would not approve of your vinyl fetish.

How to be a more environmentally-friendly vinyl collector?

Well, the very first thing to do would be to cut back on vinyl purchases.

Not that streaming will make everything green again.

The vinyl vs. streaming comparison isn’t easy, as the infrastructure required for each is quite different, and information is scarce. However, our calculations suggest that the key factors are how many times vinyl gets played and the equipment it’s played on. As energy continues to decarbonise, streaming’s environmental performance will improve. But for now it seems that vinyl and streaming are pretty much neck and neck.

But wait, you don’t have to give up. Do not abandon hope. There is a way to have your music and not heat it too. (?)

Acoustic instruments and voice. No amps. No plugs or batteries.

Seriously. No electricity at all. A completely acoustic show is the greenest you can get.

Hikes Without Mics was doing this back in the day.

These have to be for small crowds, but so what? A living room or back yard concert can be pretty great.

I predict some band will make this happen in a reasonably big way because the politics are so compelling. The genre doesn’t have to be campfire songs. It doesn’t have to be retro. It can be original music with great players in a space full of happy listeners.

The economics are tough, but that’s a secondary problem. Bands can play more shows. Venues can have better natural acoustics. Players can gravitate towards louder instruments. Instead of one inaudible acoustic guitarist, there can be ten making a loud sound together. All of this can be solved more easily than global warming.

Psych Jazz 1969

I was poking around in the tattered Real Book I got from my first guitar teacher and happened to notice an oddly trivial snippet just below a classic Coltrane tune.

“Memphis Underground”? Wha? So I pulled it up in Spotify. And my mind exploded. I had stumbled across a peculiar and wonderous artifact from the peak (or depths, depending on how you feel) of the psychedelic era: Herbie Mann’s 1969 “Memphis Underground” album.

It’s jazz, in a sense:

  1. Instrumental
  2. Long vibraphone and flute solos
  3. The flute is funky

But then again, it’s chamber jazz noodling packed into the psychedelic rock framework, or vice versa, like a two-person horse costume where the front and back legs are different heights.

The jams are one chord, mainly, which gives them a primal urgency, and the harmonies are designed to accommodate the five-note scale every rock guitarist learns first.

That scale is critical for enabling electric rock guitar. It’s that fuzztone blues rock you’d ordinarily find in garage punk freakouts like Os Mutantes or Psychotic Reaction. In places, it’s out-there noise worthy of Confusion is Sex or White Light/White Heat.

This was 18 months or so *before* Bitches Brew. And regardless of the date, BB was upmarket compared to Herbie Mann. Miles is subtle. He can’t help being high art. He used rock but he was bigger than it.

Memphis Underground had a hint of outsider art. It was raw, awkward and unforgivable. It was not the better album, but it was more punk.

So what the hell was it doing in The Real Book, nominally on par with a John Coltrane piece? The JC thing is unusually short for him, just 12 lightly filled bars. Even so, the Herbie Mann tune – which has a one-bar bass line, a four-bar melody, and one unchanging chord – makes Coltrane’s look baroque.

I think the Herbie Mann thing just happened to fit the page. And maybe also it was a little tiny bit genius.

P.S I couldn’t not add this tune to my Shot and a Beer 1971 playlist in Spotify, which is about butt jazz, not head jazz.