Ben Chinn

Slightly nerdy ramblings and linkage

Tidy Your Email Inbox with Help from RSS

Whever I get a mass email I try to make a decision about whether I really need to be on the subscription list that sent it to me. If I can I hunt for the unsubscribe link to make sure I don’t receive more emails from that sender.

Sometimes though, I want to continue to see the information provided but don’t want it clogging up my inbox, especially for email subscriptions that have a high frequency. Since these emails are almost never urgent or very time sensitive I want to read them on my schedule, not whenever they hit my inbox.

RSS to the rescue!

I recently discovered that most group emails have a link at the top that says something like “view this email in your browser”. I always assumed this was just to accommodate email clients that couldn’t view the message correctly and so ignored the link, but a few weeks ago I clicked on it. The result wasn’t very surprising: I got to a web page that looked exactly like the email message. There was one difference though. The web page contained an RSS link. Turns out that many email campaign platforms include the ability to create an RSS feed of an emails sent. So I copied the URL from that link into my feed reader and unsubscribed from the emails themselves. Then I did the same for a bunch of other email groups emails I receive.

Now I read subscribed email messages when I want to, all grouped together. Not a huge load off my email inbox, but every little bit counts.

Where Do I Get Books Now?

I had been avoiding purchasing any books – electronic or print – from while their vendetta against Hachette was raging. The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth and seemed unfair to the publisher, its authors and their readers, as well as a display of near monopolistic hubris by Amazon. I do a lot of reading on a Kindle so I had to resort to other ways of getting books on there, mostly by borrowing ebooks from the library.

Now it seems the parties have settled, with Hachette seeming to have secured the better part of the deal.

Am I going to start loading up on reading material from Amazon? Probably not. Even at its best, Amazon may have too much power when it comes to selling books. I’ll be trying to spread my money around a little when I buy books from now on.

Fun with Static Site Generators

I recently listened to a nice podcast whose subject was Jekyll, the static site generator that powers this site. This got me thinking about how I got into Jekyll and why I’ve been using it.

There seems to be a movement afoot to bring blogging back to basics. Although blogging engines with tons of features (like the ubiqitous WordPress) still power most of the online publishing going on many folks (especially the nerdier ones) are opting for simpler designs, fewer features and a focus on site performance and ease of reading over bells and whistles. The growth of static blog generators like Jekyll is part of this trend and many other static site generators have cropped up as well. The advantages of static site generators make up for the bit of extra effort it takes to compile them locally:

  1. Page requests are super fast since they don’t require generation of blog pages on the server.
  2. Static sites can be hosted on any web server with no extra dependencies. This site is hosted as a set of github pages, which gives me free hosting and CDN.
  3. The transparency afforded by a static site generator affords all kinds of opportunities for tinkering. Brett Terpstra, the guest of the aforementioned podcast, has used Jekyll to produce a blog with tons of functionality and features (it takes over 10 minutes to build the thing). Static sites tend to share a certain aesthetic, characterized by simple lists of posts, sometimes even lacking an archive. This aesthetic has its apotheosis in the retro community created by Tilde.Club, a collection of pages running as different home directories on a single Linux box. Many of those sites employ designs reminiscent of the text only interface of the Internet before the World Wide Web.

There does seem to be a realization that more is not always better and that blogs are for reading, rather than commenting on, liking, pinging, etc. Most of all writers are finding that the old way are sometimes the best that the process of putting words together does not require powerful server architecture. I’m very happy with the Jekyll setup and would recommend it to anybody who want to get a site served as quickly and simply as possible.

Do The Reading

This has been widely quoted but only came through my transom recently: when asked how he got so smart David Foster Wallace replied “I did the reading”. The more you read the smarter you are: simple but true, doubly so if your reading challenges your assumptions, takes you where you’ve never been and teaches you something without without feeling like a chore. There’s thousands of those opportunities around, in every bookshop and library, a click away if you’re not into the whole brick and mortar thing.

I’m ashamed to say I don’t read enough, sometimes even going for long stretches of time without cracking a book at all. Then a book will hook me and I’ll start devouring pages again as if literacy were a new experience.

Even a mediocre book can be rewarding or educational. My guess is that writing a book takes an enormous amount of effort and time and so it’s just not worth writing a bad one if you an possibly avoid it. Plus (at least for now) books are mostly distributed by publishers with editors to control quality and even work to make books better than the authors are able to manage by themselves.

With this in mind I present a hierarchy of text media, from least useful to most valuable.

  1. Facebook updates
  2. Tweets
  3. Posts
  4. Blog Posts
  5. Magazine Articles
  6. Newspaper Articles
  7. Books

Even though they are the oldest technology in the list, books still offer the best word for word value.