Alasdair North

A random mix of professional web development and amateur theology

I'm a director and web developer at Runway, one of the organisers of Good for Nothing Cambridge and an active member of St. Barnabas Church. Everything I do is based around trying to help those who do good do more.

Daily digest email RSS reader

Several times over the last few years I’ve tried to build an RSS reader into my daily habits. I’ve wondered if it can do a better job than Twitter of helping me follow the writing of people I like and admire. My Twitter feed is at the point where it’s easy to miss articles that people post - especially if they’re not confident enough to repost them several times.

For some reason I’ve never built that habit though. Maybe it’s because I was missing out on BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits rules (I’m following it this week and it’s proving effective). Maybe it’s because most RSS readers are designed to make you feel guilty about the amount you haven’t read - with big bold ever increasing numbers pushed in your face all the time.

I realised something at the weekend though. I do have a pretty effective way of getting articles into my life already: email digests. I’m currently signed up to:

Wow! I’m pretty proactive about unsubscribing from things, so it’s obvious that this is a delivery method that works for me. I like the way it forces its way into my routine, but that it’s quick to dismiss and archive the email. Any articles I miss are gone, they don’t stick around to make me feel guilty. Maybe I should use this method for following the posts of people I care about too, not just whatever filters to the top of the communities mentioned above.

I’d like an RSS reader based around a daily digest of the new posts people have posted. Every morning it would send me one email containing a list of all the posts that had been published the previous day. I could use some sort of digest email from an existing service, but I think a service based around the email could do much better:

  • I want links to the articles as they were posted, not shown within some reader that messes up formatting, code samples, etc.
  • I want the system to detect which sites I always read and put them at the top of the list.
  • I want sites that I never read to be deprioritised, perhaps going dormant after a few months so they’re not included in the email.
  • I really don’t want there to be anything in the system that aims to make me feel guilty for not reading things.

I haven’t found anything like this so I think I’m going to build my own little system - starting off with a command line script and working up to a subscription web service. Is that something you’d be interested in helping me beta test? If so please leave a comment below.

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The most fun I've had making software

Back in 2011 Ryan North (no relation) the writer of the excellent Dinosaur Comics webcomic, tweeted about a new site he’d found: Listening Room. The idea behind it was that someone starts a room and people could join them and listen to music together. Everyone uploads MP3s and then you would listen to the same music simultaneously while chatting to each other.

It was a simple concept, and I know Ryan didn’t expect the listening party to last more than an hour or two. It was still going months later. The room he created was called qwantz after the domain name on which Dinosaur Comics is hosted. Those of us who’d joined the room kept coming back and we kept the music playing constantly for days and days. While the site gave us all random names we all started using our Twitter handles instead and we started getting to know each other, sharing jokes, tracks we enjoyed, and chatting about our lives. It was a spontaneous community that formed around music.

Part of the fun of it was that the Listening Room site, built by Abe Fettig, was a prototype that was being improved all the time. New features and tweaks were added constantly, but we also added our own community features. For example, every Wednesday we’d have Hump Day Jams, a day when every track uploaded had to fit in with one of three themes that the community had voted on. Categories could be incredibly random like “80’s action movie theme tunes” and, of course, the whole day when most tracks are uploaded were Sleng Teng Riddim - essentially lots of different people singing over the same demo from a Casio keyboard.

Aside from the community events we also started writing Greasemonkey-style scripts that enhanced the functionality of the website, things like adding links that searched for track details on Last.fm, a volume control, and displaying the length of all the tracks in the queue.

Eventually I brought the scripts together into a Chrome extension, then over time started adding more features like logging all the tracks played so you could browse charts and scrobbling to Last.fm. By the time I got round to blogging about it there were already more than 50 people using it, and at its height it was used by about 500 people - virtually everyone on the beta version of Listening Room. Those numbers are a fraction of the user counts of other pieces of software I’ve worked on - but even with this low number of users this was one of the most satisfying projects that I’ve ever worked on.

The Listening Room website shut down at the end of 2011 and the Qwantz Listens community went their separate ways, but many of us still follow each other on Twitter and interact from time to time. We all have happy memories of that time and the spontaneous community that sprang up overnight and then grew and evolved.

With a reunion planned for next week I’ve been remembering the experience of creating the Chrome Extension and trying to think through what made working on it so enjoyable. After all, if I can work out the magic formula then I can bring that to what we’re doing at Runway.

The key thing was building a piece of software that was widely used and appreciated by people in a community that I was part of. Every time that I released some update or another I got an instant hit of gratitude and I knew people were excited about it and spread word of it without any prompting from me. The encouragement and satisfaction that came from that can’t be underestimated. It meant that even after a long day of coding at work I was still excited about going home and working on the Chrome extension for a couple of hours. I looked forward to giving my time away for free.

Looking back I’m sure some of that came from the contrast it had with my day job, where I had very little customer contact, being sheltered from the noise of that interaction in order to enhance my productivity. Perhaps the isolation works for some people - I think it had a negative effect on my motivation in the long term.

Another contrast was in the release cycles. In my day job at the time we’d get a release out once a month if we were lucky. For the Chrome extension I was deploying updates at least twice a week, getting new features and fixes out there into peoples hands. The feeling of momentum and progress was great - small and nimble changes with a quick feedback loop.

Overall though it was the fact that it felt like the extension belonged to the community rather than me. Everyone suggested new features and improvements. Rather than it being me on my own it was a cooperation between everyone. It fitted in with the other community stuff like Hump Day Jams and contributed to building the community and making it a better and more enjoyable place for everyone. That’s probably the hardest thing to replicate, but it’s definitely what made it fun - doing it for something bigger than myself.

What about you? What piece of software has been the most fun to build? Why? Was it the team? Was it the audience? The process?

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Dear recruiters, here's how to tempt me

LinkedIn brings a flood of recruiters’ messages to my inbox, only some of them have a chance.

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Less Arseholes Please

A little rant about grammar pedantry.

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Digital Sizzle 9 Art Hack

This post originally appeared on the Fluent website.

The idea was simple: stick a bunch of software developers, artists and musicians in a five-star hotel for a weekend, provide plenty of food and drink, and see what they build.

The event was the 3 Beard's second Digital Sizzle Art Hack event – a hackathon with a difference. The challenge was straightforward: "take any data and turn it into something creative". We had 48 hours to form teams, sketch out a creative vision, and actually build something. If at all possible, we also had to fit eating and sleeping into that tight timescale (although some people didn't bother with the sleeping part).

At times it felt like working in the laboratory of some mad scientist. We ended up with a quilt containing encrypted data, a real-time visualisation of someone's brainwaves, a model city flooded by hand gesture controlled pumps and so much more. The sheer breadth of what people created was staggering.

And all of this took place in the incredibly swanky South Place Hotel. It was possibly the nicest surroundings I'll ever work in.

The project I worked on was called Mashifesto. We were inspired by the thought: what would all our tweets look like to digital archaeologists in a thousand years? Will they recognise all the jokes, sarcasm and triviality, or will they misinterpret everything as factual and serious statements? The resulting idea was to take portions of tweets and recontextualise them as a manifesto.

We built a website to do this. All you have to do is mention @mashifesto in a tweet. It will then process your Twitter history and create a mashifesto for you. One of the benefits of having creatives on our team, is that the mashifestos look pretty good too. Apparently they're inspired by Russian Constructivism and Italian Futurism.

We were pretty pleased with the result. The judges seemed impressed too, because they awarded us 3rd prize. We were flattered to have won against such strong competition.

If you'd like to see all the different projects in person, they'll be exhibited at the South Place Hotel from 16th-18th August. Some of the work will then be shown at the Barbican for the following two weeks.

Photo used with kind permission by Paul Clarke Photography.

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