Has Feed.Informer Lost Its Mind?

I have a couple of places here at Newsome.Org where I publish breaking news headlines.  One is in the right hand column of The Home Place, my internet start page, and another is on a dedicated Headline News page.  For years, I have used the service that is now called Feed.Informer to combine RSS content into combined RSS feeds, called digests, to display this news content.

image The other day, I noticed that Feed.Informer had inserted a Feed.Informer logo and link at the bottom of each of my digests.  Being very stingy with my web site real estate and deeply ad-averse, I visited the Feed.Informer web page in search of a way to get rid of this logo.  What I found was interesting.

Like most of its generation of web services, Feed.Informer has offered both free and paid accounts.  Because I like the service andimage have found it to be the best option for combining and displaying content, I have had a paid account for a long time.  In fact, I thought I still had a paid account, and my account details at Feed.Informer confusingly indicate that I still have a premium account, though one that expired in April of last year.  This confusion seems to result from Feed.Informer’s decision to eliminate premium accounts, seemingly in favor of paid support and, get this, paid logo removal.

Do what?

A paid support option is just another way to spin a premium account.  I’m cool with that.  What I am definitely not cool with is having to pay $50.00 per digest to get rid of the logo.  I have 6 digests, so if I were insane enough to do it, it would cost me $300 to have logo free content.  And that charge would apparently apply even if I had a premium account.

Which I can’t get, even if I wanted to, because the Buy Premium Account button doesn’t work.  No harm here, though, since I don’t need priority support.  I’d just like to lose the logo/link/ad.

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There seems to be a smattering of complaints in the Feed.Informer support forums.  I don’t know if the lack of a general uprising is indicative of Feed.Informer’s user base (e.g., that it is small) or that most people don’t mind choosing between a logo/link/ad and stack of $50s.

But I think this is one wacky business model.  Sure, I have and would pay for a premium account to avoid the logo/link/ad.  I don’t recall what the premium accounts cost back in the day when you could buy one, but if they keep the service fresh and feature-rich, I’d pay $20 a year or so.  But $50 per digest to get rid of the logo/link/ad?  Not in this lifetime.

I’m not sure what other options are out there, and a logo/link/ad or two is not going to cause me to rip down my Feed.Informer digests in some tea party 2.0 hissy fit.  But it does make me wonder about the decision process that led the Feed.Informer folks to this business model.

Is Pandora One the One?

I’ve been a fairly consistent user of Pandora since I first read about it on December 30, 2005 (ain’t it great the way your blog becomes your personal archive of thoughts, both good and bad?).  I have several Pandora stations, a couple of which are over three years old.  In that time, I have finely tuned my likes and dislikes and, generally speaking, the Pandora algorithm knows what I like.  And given that my music preferences are broad in some ways and narrow in others, that’s no mean feat.

image The thing that allowed Pandora to map my musical genome is the thing that distinguishes Pandora from much of its competition: the music genome.  Pandora figures out what you like, not based on the band or the song, but based on the content and structure of the song.  If you think about it, using a mathematical algorithm is a much more logical approach than trying to link together similar artists.  I like country influenced rock and roll, with acoustic sonority, major key tonality and steel guitar, among other characteristics.  Generally speaking, Pandora knows that I am much more likely to appreciate a similar song by an artist I’ve never heard than a wildly different song by a band I am familiar with.  The difference between the Stones’ Loving Cup and Get Off My Cloud is greater than the difference between Exile on Main Street and some of the Deadstring Brothers records.

Another example:  while writing this post a great song by Hecla & Griper played on my alt. country station.  I know a lot of music, and I’d never heard of Hecla & Griper.  Note to the RIAA: thanks to this great online streaming station, I just bought a copy of Songs: Ohia.  So put that in yer pipe, and all that.  Wow, here’s another great song by Luna, another new name.  If you like music, it’s simply impossible not to dig Pandora.

Recently, Pandora began offering a premium subscription service, called Pandora One.  Among the benefits are no ads of any kind (something I’m definitely willing to pay for), a new desktop application (see the photo to the left), high quality 192Kbps streaming, and an extended interaction timeout (you can listen longer without clicking anything before the app times out).  All of that sounds very worth the $36 annual fee, and I have gladly subscribed.

But there is one significant drag.  Fast forwards.  Previously, you were allowed to fast forward (e.g., skip) only 12 songs a day.  With Pandora One, the daily limit is gone, but you are still limited to 6 skips an hour, per station.  Sure, you can “thumb down” a song and it won’t play again, but I take my thumbing seriously, and I hate to taint it by using it as a de facto skip button.  Sometimes I’m just in the mood for another song, and I’d like to have unlimited (or at least a lot more) skips.

As I noted the other day, I have recently started using Slacker Radio, in addition to Pandora.  It has a lot to offer, and the interface, while not particularly Firefox friendly, is really good.  I like the way you can tinker with the new/old, hits/deep cuts, etc. settings.  Mostly, I like the fact that with the premium account ($48 a year) you can fast forward as much as you like.  If Slacker Radio allows unlimited skips, why doesn’t Pandora?  Surely it’s not about the $12 cost difference?  I’d pay at least twice that to add unlimited skipping to my Pandora stations.

At the end of the day, both services have a lot to offer.  I find myself listening to Pandora more, because I have been there longer and my Pandora stations are more mature.  While I continue to believe that Pandora’s mathematical approach works better, unlimited skipping is clearly an advantage for Slacker Radio.

If I had to choose, it would be Pandora by a nose.  But fortunately I don’t have to choose.

A two (or more) horse race is good for consumers, and these are both strong horses.

Can Tumblr Be My New Blip.fm?

Assuming the ominous signs are correct, and Blip.fm is about to go from cool music sharing and discovery service to an RIAA-ravaged skeleton of its former self, I need a new music site to take its place.  There aren’t any obvious candidates, so I have been looking far afield in search of a new music hangout.  While I post regular music-related content here at Newsome.Org, it’s not the best place for frequent video posts and short links to good public MP3s.

While it’s not perfect, I think I may have found my new thing.  Tumblr.  Sure, I’ve known about Tumblr for a while, but until this past weekend I hadn’t used it.  I signed up on Saturday and spent a little time creating my Tumblr page.

Let’s take a closer look.

Registration is easy.  Afterwards, you can choose from a ready-made Theme or write (or hack) your own, via a small but functional custom HTML box.

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It’s a pretty simple exercise to customize your Tumblr page, and add whatever links and other information you want to display.  After you get your layout the way you want it, it’s time to add some content.  This is where Tumblr really shines.

Via the Tumblr Dashboard, from which you manage your Tumblr page layout and content, there are forms to upload or embed text, photos, quotes, links, chat transcripts, audio and video.  The cornucopia of sharing options reminds me of all the reasons Pownce was a vastly superior content sharing platform compared to the more popular and celebrity-infested, but feature-challenged, Twitter.

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The audio and video forms allow you to either upload an audio or video file or to embed a file hosted elsewhere.  Particularly helpful is the ability to embed a YouTube video merely by pasting the URL into the form.  The process is as simple as it could be.

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An even better way to add YouTube videos to your Tumblr page is via the Tumblr bookmarklet.  When you share content with the bookmarklet from a YouTube page, the video is automatically embedded in your Tumblr page, along with a descriptive caption.  This is a really cool feature.  If Tumblr could add the ability to do the same thing with audio links, perhaps via a right click, Tumblr could take media sharing to a whole new level.

There’s a very neat iPhone app, a Mac Dashboard Widget (which I haven’t tried) and the ability to add audio posts via your phone, which might be cool to do from a live performance.  You can also add posts via email, or IM.  And there are a ton of third party apps to explore and experiment with.

One of those third party apps adds one very important feature– the ability to play all of your audio posts in a playlist equivalent.

Once you add some content, you can also edit or delete posts via the Dashboard.

At the end of the process, you get a really cool page with mixed media in one handy place.  There is an optional Twitter integration, that will post links to your posts to your Twitter account, and there is the ability to add up to five RSS feeds to your Tumblr page.  One thing I do not like, is the layout of the archive page.  It’s ugly and, well just ugly.  And I don’t see any way to customize it.

Tumblr also lacks to built-in audience and sharing features (props, listeners, re-blips, responses, etc.) of Blip.fm.  This is a big drawback, but if the empty bag holding RIAA is determined to kill the cool services like Blip.fm and all the music sales they promote, it may be that non-centralized locations may be the only way to go if you want to remain relatively unshackled.

While Tumblr has more than enough features to serve as the sharing equivalent of Blip.fm, it does not yet provide the same discovery function.  I’m not sure how to address that problem.  One idea would be to collaborate on and post a shared Tumblr blog roll of similar music pages (the Tumblr directory doesn’t seem to serve a close enough function).  A better idea might be to share a Tumblr page with a group of like-minded music fans.  That’s something I will probably explore if I can find some other folks who like a good mix of alt. country, country rock, classic rock and blues.

In the meantime, check out my Tumblr page for some good music.  And if you’re an artist doing that sort of music, send me an MP3 file or link and I’ll see about adding it to the playlist.

Snowmen in the Sun: the End of Blip.fm?

blipfmI have written favorably about Blip.fm, the web site and application that lets you share music with others in a Twitter-like fashion.  I’ve been a regular user for several months, and until now have been putting together an awesome A-Z new wave playlist.  As with any fun online music service, however, there’s always been a concern in the back of my mind that, like Frosty the Snowman, Blip.fm was too good to last.  And it looks like the melting has begun.

Jeff Yasuda, the head of the Blip.fm development team, has announced that some changes are coming.  And none of them are good.

First of all, the music available at Blip.fm will soon be coming almost exclusively from Imeem, another music discovery service.  I’ve never used Imeem, but a quick look tells me we are talking about a severely reduced universe of songs.  A search at Imeem returned exactly one Star Room Boys song, compared to the twenty or so you used to find at Blip.fm.  And not a single Steve Pride song.  How can you consider yourself a music service and not have a single copy of, say, Welcome to the Big Time?  If you want to hear the best alternative country record ever made or ever to be made, go buy Pride on Pride.

While you may not have to visit Imeem to stream the songs via Blip.fm, the interface at Imeem is about as fun as a root canal.  Compared to the simple elegance of the Blip.fm site, it is a chaotic mashup of train wrecks.  In sum, I have zero interest in Imeem as a service, and the resulting reduction in available songs will materially diminish the fun factor at Blip.fm, especially for users like me who look for old or obscure music.

Adding to the pain is a new limitation on adding songs from public locations.  Currently, if you know the URL for an mp3, you can easily add that song to your Blip.fm playlist.  Under the new plan, public mp3s will be limited to “legitimate bands and labels approved in our systems.”  There’s a sign-up form at Blip.fm where I suppose labels and perhaps independent artists can sign up to get their music included in the new database.

There are other changes.  The Blip.fm widget, which was crappy already, will only list the song but will not generally play it.

And, as the biggest bummer of all, current songs on your playlist will be replaced, where possible, by content from the Imeem catalog, and any song not in that catalog will “temporarily” cease to play.  I don’t know what that means for songs that aren’t and won’t be in the Imeem catalog, but it doesn’t sound good for my new wave playlist.

There are promises about forthcoming new partnerships that may allow additional content, and I hope that happens.

But until the music industry as we have known it dies and is reborn as a direct artist to consumer market, the Blip.fm’s of the world are like snowmen in the sun.  You better enjoy them while you can, because it’s only a matter of time before they melt.

Getting the Picture with TweetPhoto

I’ve used TwitPic to link photos to my Twitter posts almost as long as I have been a semi-active Twitter user.  I like applications that do one thing, simply and well.  Sort of like Foxmarks before they ruined it, but that’s another story.  TwitPic works perfectly for my purposes.  It’s embedded within Tweetie, my preferred and only iPhone Twitter application.  I also like the TwitPicGrid in small doses.

Today, I read about TweetPhoto, a new Twitter photo sharing application (isn’t it great when multiple developers fight to see who can give away stuff to more people?).  At first blush it looks like TweetPhoto suffers from the internet stats obsession (who saw my photo, god-awful trending tags, etc.) that I most affirmatively do not share, but let’s take a closer look.

Once you sign in with your Twitter credentials, you get a nice looking upload screen.

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That seems like a lot of work compared to the Tweetie/TwitPic integration or the integrated Trunc.it photo sharing via TwitterGadget, my Twitter app of choice.  When you upload the photo, a box pops up asking if you want to push the photo to Facebook too.  Nope, I don’t.  The app then adds a Twitter post with a photo link to your Twitter stream.

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OK, that’s fine and dandy.  But it’s no different than TwitPic.  Let’s see what else TweetPhoto has to offer.  It shows me how many times my photo has been viewed, but (1) I don’t really care and (2) so does TwitPic.  You can enlarge the photo, as you can on TwitPic.  You can retweet it, which is a feature that’s not important to me, but one that TwitPic doesn’t have.  And you can mark favorites.

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Test Photo: 1970 in the Astrodome

It geo-tags photos posted via a mobile phone.  I emailed a photo to test out the geo-tagging, but it hasn’t shown up on my TweetPhoto page 20 minutes after I emailed it.  Hopefully that’s a glitch.  If not, that’s not good.  Time is everything online, just like offline.

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The My Friends Photos tab leads to a page where you can see other TweetPhoto users’ photos and invite your friends to join (I don’t like my chances).  You can supposedly show photos posted by your Twitter friends, but the app said I didn’t have any Twitter friends.  It may be that this option only shows photos posted by your Twitter friends who also use TweetPhoto- which would be of limited value.  The Public Stream looks like it shows other photos posted via TweetPhoto.  Again, that’s not as interesting as TwitPicGrid.  You can upload photos via email, which is nice, but, once again, not as easy as the Tweetie/TwitPic combination.

Navigation between those tabs was very Twitter-like (e.g., slow).

TweetPhoto is well-designed, and it has some neat features.  But it’s not evolutionary enough to supplant the incumbents.  Maybe like the rest of the online world, it is betting that the general population continues to flock to Twitter, so it can make its bones with new Twitter users.  Maybe, maybe not.  Only time will tell.

Why Slacker Radio May Become My Music App of Choice

After seeing and ignoring references to Slacker Radio for a long time, I recently came across a pretty positive review and decided to take a look.  While I am a long-time and loyal Pandora user, I’m a big believer in multiple consumer choices.  I’m glad I decided to take the Slacker Radio plunge.  I don’t know if it will supplant Pandora as my favorite online music source, but it might.  What was once a Pandora landslide is now too close to call.

Here’s Kent’s Vinyl, my classic rock station for you to sample while you enjoy this exciting post.  Or if you prefer, my alternative country station.

Here’s what I like about Slacker Radio.  First and foremost, I like the way you create and customize a station.  You start with a single song or artist.  Like any sane person, I started my classic rock station with the Allman Brothers.  Then I added the Grateful Dead.  I really like the list of allegedly similar artists (I say allegedly because you can’t get much father from the Dead than the Eagles (see image below)) that appears on the right hand side, where you can quickly select additional artists to seed your station.

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I also like the lack of ads and the ability to skip as many songs as you want, which features are available with the paid “Plus” subscription ($4.00 a month, paid annually).  With that plan, you’re supposed to be able to access detailed artist information and song lyrics, but I couldn’t get the lyrics feature to work in Firefox.  It worked in Internet Explorer.

The thing that keeps me running back to Pandora is the music genome thing- where the application selects songs based on the tempo, tonality, arrangement, etc. of the songs you indicate you like.  There are a lot of songs I would like out there by bands I don’t know.  Pandora does a great job of exposing me to songs I really like by bands I know little or nothing about.  I don’t know if the Slacker Radio algorithm will do as well, but so far I have been pleased by the selection.  For example, the third song that played on my classic rock station was Sea of Joy by Blind Faith- a song I love.

I also like the ability to “fine tune” your station.  By selecting the appropriate level, you can tell the app how much you’re interested in songs from other artists, how many deep cuts you want to hear and, most importantly, if you want old songs, new songs or a combination.  Since 95% of my favorite classic rock songs were recorded prior to 1978, I chose older.  Some of my favorite bands have kept on truckin’ beyond my loyalty.

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On the downside, Slacker Radio’s web design is not particularly intuitive, in a Photobucket sort of way.  I also noticed a lot of hangs when navigating between options in Firefox.  In fact, I found the navigation to be profoundly difficult, mostly due to page freezes, accompanied by the never-ending little spinning circle (you’ll know it when you see it).  Again, I didn’t have these problems in Internet Explorer, but I’m not going to change browsers for one music app.

The iPhone app is excellent.  I was able to listen to my stations over wi-fi and 3G with little lag.  In fact, I connected my iPhone to the auxiliary input on the audio system in my truck and listened to my station on the way home from work.

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If they (or I) get this Firefox thing figured out, and if the algorithm works, Slacker Radio has a chance to supplant my beloved Pandora as my music app of choice.

Content Master Page (2.0)

After using Version 1.0 of my Content and Twitter Juggernaut Page for a couple of weeks, I decided it was time to knock it down and see if I could come up with something simpler and better.  Among the areas I wanted to improve were:

1. A more unified interface, on a single page.
2. One instance of Google Reader and one instance of TwitterGadget.
3. An easier way to add items to my Google shared items.
4. Avoidance of the flashing/font reset problem I was experiencing when posting via TwitterGadget.

After trying several iGoogle hacks and scripts, some hand-written, I decided to trash iGoogle completely and do something I never thought I’d do again.  I decided to use. . . a frameset.  Why?  Because by using frames, I could solve all four of the above issues, and enhance navigation too.  By creating a frameset with a menu frame across the top, a 40% width TwitterGadget frame on the right and a 60% full Google Reader (not the gadget) frame on the left, I can do several things that improve my content reading, blogging and Twitter posting.

I can keep a TwitterGadget box open and always visible on the screen on the right hand side.  This is critical for dragging links into the message box for commentary and posting.

By taking all of my content that was previously in the Google News gadget and the Feeds Tab Reader gadget and adding them to organized folders in Google Reader, I can access all of my content in one, unified window.  If I am reasonably current in my feed reading, there is little need for scrolling, but if not I find scrolling to be preferable to stacked windows.  All of this is done in a single instance of Google Reader and one instance of Twitter Gadget.

Because I now have the full Google Reader open in the left column, I can add items to my Google Reader shared items directly, instead of having to use the bookmarklet.  Plus, I can access my starred items more easily.

And by having the Twitter Gadget in its own window, I avoid the annoying flashing/font reset problem.

In other words, I went through old school to get to new school.

The drawback to Version 2.0 is that it requires some work to organize your feeds within Google Reader.  I don’t always want my traditional news feeds to be in alphabetical order.  For example, I want Google News “Top” items to be at the top, not the “Business” items.  To solve this I added a numbering convention at the front of the renamed feeds (the ability to rename a feed being one of Google Reader’s best features).

I was also able to add a navigation bar at the top of the page to allow me to return to another of my most common destinations.

At the end of the day, I have a content reading and Twitter pushing page that is smaller, faster and easier to use (click the image below for a bigger view).

If you’re interested in experimenting with this setup, here is the frameset.  You don’t have to have server space- you can open the file from your hard drive.  If you don’t want to do that, you can use the Newsome.Org Content Master (Update: now depreciated) page.  If you are logged into Twitter and Google, your information will appear in the appropriate windows.  All I ask is that if you use that page, please Tweet about this post and subscribe to the Newsome.Org RSS feed.

There is still room for improvement.  I would like to get rid of some of the screen waste on the Google Reader Home page, such as the entire right hand column, but all that unnecessary stuff is hidden once you start clicking on folders and individual feeds, so it’s not a huge problem.  Additionally, Google needs to implement native column resizing in Google Reader.

What I really want is for TwitterGadget to add a feature to copy the headline, followed by a shortened URL (and not just the URL) when you drag a headline into the message box.  That one feature would reduce Twittering time by over 50%.

Otherwise, I’m pretty pleased with this setup.

For now.