20 February, 2005

I've been trying to remember how I first heard about RSS Channels or Feeds as I think I first heard the term mentioned, and I cannot remember if the term first came up on whatever random website I just happened to be surfing at the time or if it was from some odd news source or other kind of like how I first heard the term blog mentioned while listening to Terry Gross on Fresh Air interviewing some lady who had written a book about bloggers. (Now, that is a sentence.) I've been scratching my head and thinking, and I've just about reached the conclusion that I first heard about RSS Channels when I started using Mozilla Firefox because, whenever you cruise over to a web page that sports an RSS Channel, Firefox will display a little icon in the very bottom right-hand corner of the window letting you know that it can spy an RSS Feed and will want to know if you would like to sign-up for that feed.

This always left me kind of curious about what exactly was an RSS Feed, and I always figured it was some kind of new fangled way of pushing content like I had always heard about those old push technologies that Netscape and Microsoft were so gung-ho about a few years back. I figured it was some kind of ticker-tape type thing that would scroll across the screen or display banner headlines or some other such thing I could only wonder about. Now, of course, I wasn't even vaguely interested in having content pushed onto my computer in some strange ticker-tape fashion or other, and I never ever clicked the little RSS Feed icon that Firefox displayed to find out exactly what I would get.

But, the term percolated, and I must admit to always having been vaguely curious as to what exactly was an RSS Feed. Okay, I was just a little curious. I certainly wasn't curious enough to actually do anything about it, and this was even after such sites as Megatokyo and Real Life started sporting RSS Feeds. Megatokyo kind of made a big deal about their feed, but I was far more amused by Real Life's announcement to sporting a feed, which was something along the lines of Greg Dean being surprised to learn that he had one. He went on to say something about not having the faintest notion of what was an RSS Feed or what exactly he was going to do with it.

Which all left me kind of vaguely surprised when I became so excited over learning how an RSS Feed works and how easily I was able to set one up on my website. No, really, I don't have any idea why I got so jumpy up and down happy over getting my RSS Feed to work, and I can only guess it was because I was able to understand something that had always sounded so mysterious and arcane before I had actually investigated it. I didn't even set out to investigate it. I just saw that Netflix provided RSS Feeds for their customers, and I, purely out of curiosity, clicked the link to their RSS Feed page.

I quickly discovered a couple of things about RSS Feeds, and I must admit that I'm getting really sick and tired of saying RSS Feed over and over again. One of the websites I later ran across mentioned that you could also call them RSS Channels, and I really rather like the sound of that so I'm going to go with channel from here on out or until I change my mind again.

The first thing I discovered about this whole RSS business is that it really isn't very arcane and mysterious at all. In fact, it is really rather simple, which makes perfect sense since the first two letters in the acronym RSS are Really Simple, and there is absolutely nothing pushy about RSS Channels. In fact, there is no pushing of content onto your computer at all. An RSS Channel is quite simply an XML file that sits on a website. Anybody who wants to subscribe to the channel (i.e. read the file) simply tells their RSS Reader program the URL of the file. How often the file is checked for updates is determined by the person using the RSS Reader program.

I think I picked-up this info about RSS Channels a little more piecemeal than I am letting on here. I started by examining the links provided by Netflix. I saw how Firefox created bookmarks based on the Netflix RSS Channel Headlines, and I think I even took a bit of a look at the raw XML data that the basis of the RSS Channel. When I saw how simple everything was with the Netflix RSS Channels, I skipped over to Wil Wheaton dot Net to take a look at his RSS Channel, and I was really impressed by the straightforwardness of the raw XML data.

So, by looking at Netflix, Wil Wheaton dot Net and SF Gate's RSS Channels, I thought I understood what was going on well enough to try and set-up my very own RSS Channel. I knew that things could still go horribly wrong at this point and that it was still possible that there was something quite arcane that had to happen before an RSS Channel would actually work so I approached the whole operation with no small amount of nervousness.

In fact, my first attempt ended quite disastrously as Firefox told me that my XML file had illegal characters in it, and I found myself trying to figure out what characters didn't belong. This process would have gone faster if I had realized that Firefox was in fact trying to point out exactly what character was being so offensive, but I had to do it the hard way by scanning through the text manually and wondering which character was the guilty party.

My second attempt didn't go much better as I got a 403 Forbidden Access Error. This problem worried me far more than the first problem. The first problem had occurred on my computer while testing out the XML file, and the second problem had occurred after I had uploaded the XML file to my website. This left me worried that maybe there was still something mysterious and arcane that had to be done to my website before an RSS Channel would work, which was sort of the problem.

As near as I can tell, my web server is set-up to allow index.html, index.htm and index.php to be used as the default web page but not index.xml, which is why I was getting the 403 Error. Well, obvious the simplest thing to do was update the URL of my RSS Channel to include the file name itself rather than stop at the directory, which is what I did. It is probably easy enough to tell my web hosting service that I want to be able to use index.xml as the default page, but I just can't be bothered.

With all of this sorted out, my RSS Channel worked just fine, and I must say that I was quite happy to have it work. I went running to Samantha, jumped up and down and cried out that it worked.

It wasn't until the next day that I actually started to do a little Google style research on this whole RSS business and finally learned details such as the fact that RSS is an acronym for Really Simple Syndication. I also quickly discovered just how anal people can be about specifications. Did you know there are at least four different versions of RSS and they all have the most extraordinarily conflicting names? There is RSS 0.9, RSS 0.91, RSS 1.0 and RSS 2.0, and they all conflict with each other. In some cases, the specifications were developed by competing outfits.

By far the simplest and most straightforward version is RSS 0.91, and this is the one used by Wil Wheaton dot Net. I thought about using this version but finally settled on RSS 2.0 because I like to be able to include all the time and date info. RSS 2.0 has all kinds of other options that I cannot be bothered with, but I've gone ahead and included a few of the things in my channel just to stay a little bit within the specs.

I was also determined to get links to work in my description text just like Wil Wheaton had in his text. This info wasn't covered in any of the RSS definition and tutorial websites I could find, and I finally resorted to looking at the page source of the raw data in Mr. Wheaton's RSS Channel file. The problem as it turns out is that you cannot use greater than and less than symbols to represent XML tags and HTML tags in the same file at the same time. The solution that Mr. Wheaton had used was that you can use the ampersand character codes for greater than and less than, which will be converted by the end user's RSS Reader program into the correct characters for an HTML tag, in an XML file. At least, I hope that this is what the end user's RSS Reader program will do. I couldn't help but notice that Firefox and Thunderbird were perfectly happy with the ampersand character codes for greater than, less than and quotation mark, but the programs hated the character code for an em-dash.

The next thing I discovered about this whole RSS business is that nobody knows what to do with an RSS Channel and that very few programs can actually deal with one when it finds one, or to be more exact, I had to deal with friends and family sending me email that they couldn't get the RSS Channel I was crowing about to work. It turns out that I am quite spoiled by Firefox, which automatically displays its little icon when it runs across an RSS Channel, and I am also spoiled by Thunderbird, which can deal with an RSS Channel subscription as easily as it deals with email and Usenet, so I haven't quite figured out what to tell my assorted friends and family because I don't really want to go around telling everybody to use Firefox and Thunderbird. I happen to know for a fact that not everybody likes Firefox and Thunderbird. I just happen to make use of them because I located them, they work on my computer, and they just so happen to be freeware.

I haven't really done a lot of work into other RSS Readers; however, I was rather impressed by the web page that NPR has set-up for their RSS Channels. The page has quite a nice little list of recommendations and links to RSS Readers.

I also haven't really decided what I am going to do with my RSS Channel. I mean at the moment it is a total novelty thing, and I really do feel like a kid with a new toy. I'm going to keep it. I know that much. I can only hope that it might prove useful as something for the future as more people hopefully take advantage of this whole RSS business. For myself, I figure I'll just use it as another way for people to access my journal. I'll also use it to distribute news and announcements about my website. If anybody has been cruising my forum, they'll know that Greg had asked why I did not have a news and announcements blurb on the main page of my website, and I like to think that an RSS Channel will fulfill that role quite nicely.

So, yeah, there it is. I've got an RSS Channel. I think it is really cool that I figured out how to set-up an RSS Channel all on my lonesome. It is not an extra service provided by some stupid program I use to post content to my website. It is something I have figured out. In fact, I don't use any program to facilitate content on my website outside of Macromedia Dreamweaver, which I really just use as a glorified text editor, web page previewer and FTP client. I don't take advantage of any of Dreamweaver's WYSIWYG capabilities or any of its database stuff. I much prefer to type all of my HTML code by hand and that is also how I am handling my RSS Channel. I just type everything into the XML file myself and then use Dreamweaver's FTP client to upload it to my website.

That's it. I've got an RSS Channel. Wheeeee.

28 February, 2005

So, let's take a look at how I've been wasting my time this week. Oh, yeah, I'm really good at that. I mean there isn't really any reason why I should actually attempt to accomplish anything, right? I'm just spinning around, flopping from one random thing to the next, and yes, I know what a comma splice is.

Oh, man, that is one of the things that cracked me up so much about my last journal entry. I just got into a groove and kept writing really long and involved sentences. I abandoned my normal approach to these things altogether and just kept writing long sentences. I didn't bother with fragments and junk. Those were some monsters, and I actually think that some of them might have even been grammatically correct.

Okay, I'll admit that I really don't know how grammatically correct any of them actually were. After all, people love to talk about Faulkner's complicated and convoluted sentence structure. They love to talk about how he could go on for a page at least before finally reaching that period at the end of the sentence, and I always held that in some kind of awe. Well, guess what I discovered when I finally sat down and tried to read one of his books. The grammar sucked ass. Grammar? What am I talking about? What grammar? It was all run on sentences and stream of consciousness crap. So, of course, Faulkner could go on for a page or more without finally hitting a period. He just wasn't bothering to use them.

Anyway, that was a total tangent, and as I was saying, I'll leave any examination as to the accuracy of my sentence structure to the grammar nazis. I think they are distant relations to the soup nazi, but I don't know.

So, maybe as you can tell, I feel like I've just been flopping around and wasting my time on trivialities. Yeah, you can tell just from the coherence of this journal entry.

Anyway, I think I've finally gotten the hang of this whole RSS Channel business, and I've finally gotten to the point where I'm happy with how my RSS Channel looks in Mozilla Thunderbird and Newsfire. Yeah, I know. I just wanted to be able to examine how my channel looked in more than one RSS Reader. Why I'm checking out the channel in Newsfire, which is a Mac OS X reader when I don't even have a Macintosh computer, is something I'm just not going to worry about. I've thought about installing another RSS Reader on my computer here at home, but I just haven't gotten around to it.

So, yeah, I'm happy with how my RSS Channel looks. I finally solved the problem where both Thunderbird and Newsfire were stacking the individual news entries so that you could only read the most recent entry. It turns out that Thunderbird and Newsfire didn't like the fact that I was simply using the same linking URL for all of the news entries, and I guess the programs assumed that they were just updates of the same entry, which they were not. So, I solved this little problem by doing something I really had not wanted to do but knew I might have to do if I wanted the stupid little RSS Readers to work properly. I created a news web page to correspond with the news entries of the RSS Channel.

Well, that did the trick. I set up each news item with its very own link; even though, they were all links to the same page except each one had its very own anchor. Now, the RSS Readers are happy, and if anybody should wonder why they all wind-up at the same web page anyway, well, your answer is that I didn't want to set-up a news page in the first place. This is also why you will not find a single solitary link anywhere on the rest of my website to the news page. The only way to get to it is through the RSS Channel, and that is all there is to say about that.

Okay, I suppose that somebody could figure out the URL of the news page, and they could get there directly by entering the URL into their web browser. But, I don't feel like posting that URL. Now, I bet this won't happen, but I suppose somebody could post the URL in the forum. Don't know why anybody would want to. I'm just supposing they could. Oh, well.

So, that was the first big time waster I've been engaged in over the past two weeks, and yes, creating an RSS Channel really is just a bit of a time waster since nobody is going to be looking at the channel since nobody seems to know what in the blazes an RSS Channel is so why should they bother with it. Yes, I am aware of the fact that that last sentence did not involve anything resembling grammatical structure. I simply ran a whole heaping bunch of words together.

Oh, and if anybody is wondering what exactly is the point of having an RSS Channel as in fact my uncle did ask me, I figure it's a good way for people to know when I have posted a new journal entry without actually needing to visit the website. Of course, they would know if they were following the comic since I post a notice about new entries there, but that would require people to be following the comic. For that matter, I've got no reason to believe that anybody is bothering to read the journal entries much less the comic so I guess an RSS Channel really doesn't matter, but I'm keeping it anyway just because it seems like a really silly thing to have. Maybe, someday in the future, having an RSS Channel will be a good thing, but who cares.

And, I haven't even gotten to the other big time waster of the past two weeks.

I've reversed the order of the journal entries.

Yes, you heard me. Oh, wow, what a useful thing to do. What an impressive thing to do. What a wonderful undertaking to have undertook. Reversing the order of the journal entries. Is that anything like reversing the polarity of the flux enducer so that we can go five instead of seven times faster than the speed of light? Huh? Huh? Is it?

No, of course not. See, back when I did the big redesign of the website and added the journal page, I made this big decision that all the journal entries would kind of dog pile on top of each other so that the most recent entry would be on top and all of the old stuff which be much farther down the stack. This doesn't entirely make sense since the entries were broken down by month, but if you looked at a month, the first thing you saw was the last thing from the month and you had to scroll down to get to the beginning.

So, at some point, this started to bother me. I figured it really wasn't the best situation or aid to reading chronologically if you had to scroll down to the end to read the beginning. So, I ignored it, and I ignored it. And, I really just continued to ignore the situation until finally I just couldn't take it anymore and knew that I was just going to have to go in and straiten out all the chronology.

Well, there was another factor. The news page I just finished rambling on about was going to have the oldest item at the top, and I just didn't want one page to be the opposite of everything else.

Wait a moment.

Scratch that.

The news page is the opposite of everything else. No, really, I just checked. The most recent news item is at the top of the page while the oldest item is at the bottom of the page. So, I guess my whole argument doesn't hold up unless my plan really was to have the news page be different. I knew I wanted to place the most recent news item at the top, which meant I had to go through the whole journal archive changing everything around just so the news page could be different.

Yeah, there's logic in there. I'm sure of it.

Okay, so maybe just thinking about how I wanted to set up the news page reminded me that I had been thinking about the organizational structure of the journal archive, and I just decided that it was time to make the big unholy switch.

It was also a great way to avoid doing anything useful.

Now, I really shouldn't go on like that since I really have gotten some useful stuff done. I have continued to work on String Finger Theatre, and since a new comic has continued to appear without fail for quite a very long time now, the general viewing public has absolutely no reason to believe that I've just been sitting around wasting my time. So, maybe, I haven't been wasting my time. Wow, what a shock.

So, yeah, String Finger Theatre has been cruising along. We are most definitely into the new storyline. Everything is cool. Not a time wasted.

Oh, but what about music? Have you been doing anything with music?

Well, nothing tangible. Nothing I can put on display or upload for your listening pleasure. But, I really should admit to myself that stuff has been progressing here. I've had some really cool progress with my sonatina experiment, which was weeks ago, but it is still cool progress. In fact, things actually progressed to the point where I actually entered my chicken scratches into the computer so I could have a better sense of the rhythm and dynamics of the pieces, and I discovered something quite surprising. It rocks. With the only problem that it sounds like two bits from two totally different pieces.

Well, really, that isn't much of a problem. See, the transition from theme one to theme two is a little on the jarring side, and theme two is so unlike theme one that it basically just overwhelms it. So, what I have been doing on the music front for the past two weeks give-or-take is think. I've been trying to decide the best way to handle the dissimilar parts.

My first thought was to pepper theme one up a tad. It really does drag just a bit. Well, it drags in comparison to theme two and definitely does not set-up theme two adequately at all. So, I was thinking to change theme one. I just had to find a way to introduce a little more liveliness into the equation except for the little detail of not having the faintest idea of how to go about it. See, I really like theme one as it is, and I really can't feel how I could make it work more into theme two without completely destroying the essence of theme one.

Which has lead me to theory number two. Which is that I should just ditch theme one. No, really, I could do this. Theme two comes on so strong that it really could hold up the whole front end of the piece. In fact, as it stands, theme one almost sounds like a warm up to theme two so maybe all I need to do is tack on a bit of a slow intro and smash right into theme two except it would now be theme one which would require me to think up a whole new theme two.

So, all of this has just been pounding around in my skull, and I know there really isn't much point in actually trying to scribble any actual notes down until I have decided how to approach this. It's just that I'm still torn about the whole point of the exercise. Remember, it is an exercise. Should I stick with it as it stands just to get through it or should I let it take the shape it needs? Which will actually take a lot longer than just beating it upside the head and reminding it that it is a lowly theme two.

Or, should I go ahead and go with it? Should I forget the fact that it is an exercise and really try to follow theme two wherever it may choose to lead? And, I must say that I'm really starting to lean toward this option.

The important thing to remember is that musical ideas are never really abandoned. They are just set aside until they have found their rightful place in the cosmos.

So, yeah, I have been doing useful stuff. It is just none of the useful stuff actually involves anything tangible that you can shake a stick at. The only things that can be examined to show that anything has actually progressed are the stupid little things like the RSS Channel that don't actually mean anything.

I just have to keep reminding myself. The music doesn't have to be done today. The music does not have to be finished today. You are not Mozart. He was an abomination. He was a freak. Nobody composed like Mozart. In fact, I've got my own theory about Mozart, which I don't know if I should bothering trying to explain here, and no, I'm really not trying to rag on Mozart. It is in fact quite cool what he could do. It just isn't as mystical and mysterious as people would lead you to believe.

It is just like anything else. When you have great familiarity with something you can become quite good at it. You start to process parts of it without even knowing that you are processing. Just like being able to speak or read or write or edit like a grammar nazi. The thing to remember is that Mozart's fucking freakshow of a dad was one of the worst stage parents to ever walk the face of the Earth. I mean he really put his son on display like a flying monkey, but my point is that Leopold Mozart force-fed his son music from the time he was a very little baby. So, of course, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a freaking music genius. He couldn't escape from it.

So, yeah, Mozart was an aberration. Don't compare yourself to Mozart. You don't need to have perfect music today. Work on it. Just remember that Beethoven was one of the slowest motherfucking composers to every walk the face of the Earth, and his shit just rocks.

copyright © 2005 by keith d. jones – all rights reserved
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