Jun 112008
 

I’ve recently been monkeying around with bike maps, and trying to import them into Google Maps.

Here in Madison, bicycling is very popular. The local cities and Dane County have been very helpful in creating some maps for bicyclists. But their maps are standalone, and can be cumbersome when trying to figure out a bike-friendly route across town.

On the other hand, Google Maps is useful, flexible, and extensible. It would be great to combine the two.

Luckily, there is an intersection. The bike maps are also available in KML format, which is what Google Earth (and Google Maps) can read and import. (You can import them into Google Maps by going to “My Maps“, clicking “Create New Map”, then clicking “Import”, and selecting the KML file from your computer or with a web URL.)

Not so luckily, the Madison bike maps are available in a few HUGE KML files with everything and the kitchen sink all in those files. When I tried to import an entire KML file into Google Maps, it kind of worked, but became unusably sluggish. So, what to do?

Well, KML files are a type of XML file, which means that they’re text files, and as such are hand-editable. You can change the wording, delete parts that you don’t care about, and slice the good stuff into manageable chunks (like, say, one bike path per file, or a handful of small bike paths per file).

It turns out that the chunks are quite digestible by Google Maps. And once you’ve imported them, you can do all the usual tricks to them (annotate them with descriptions, pictures, and waypoints; change the line color and size; add more segments by hand; etc.).

Plus, having all the individual bike paths as separate maps is kind of handy, in that you can turn them on and off individually when you’re figuring out your biking routes.

Here are some results of importing Madison bike maps into Google Maps.

There are a few problems, though. First, there’s no way in Google Maps to make a “group” of maps. So, if you want to add the Capital City Trail and the Southwest Commuter Trail to “My Maps”, you need to add each of them individually. It would be really nice to be able to create a group of all the bike maps for Dane County, for instance, and to be able to view all of them at once without needing to add and then click on each one individually.

Second, there’s currently no way in Google Maps to do much of anything with the bike maps besides look at them. You can’t use them to “build” a route–to tell Google Maps to follow them when computing the best way between two addresses.

Third, at least for Madison, Google Maps currently has a serious misregistration between the map data (streets, highways, and any maps you create from correct lat/long data) and the satellite view–the maps and the satellite views don’t line up. So, the imported KML bike trails don’t line up with the satellite view either, which makes viewing them a little frustrating. It also brings up the question: If you want to add to or edit the maps by hand, do you use the satellite view or the map view? There isn’t an obvious answer to this question. The satellite view will indeed show the physical traces of bike paths, and thus makes it very easy to trace them. But the map view has the correct lat/long information, so using it is in a sense more correct. Hopefully Google will fix the misregistration one of these days and make this issue go away.

Finally, if you do create a single map with lots of bike trails in it, they won’t all display at one time if there are more than 50 or so trails (or segments of trails) in your map; only the first 50 will show up–the first “page” of trails / segments in the “list”. You’ll need to go to the “next page” to have the trails that make up the next part of the “list” displayed.

Still and all, it is pretty remarkable that you can do stuff like this at all. And, knowing Google, the maps that we import today will quietly and suddenly become much more useful tomorrow.

 Posted by at 8:30 AM
May 252008
 

RSS icons

I love RSS. I am a self-confessed, dyed-in-the-wool RSS junkie. I can’t imagine surfing the web without it.

You may be thinking: Well, that’s really nice. Good for you. It’s important to have something that you believe in.

And you may also be thinking: What the heck is RSS? And why should I care?

I’ll answer the second question first, since it is the more important one. There’s also a lot of RSS-related jargon to wade through, but I’ll leave that for last.

What RSS Is

RSS is a convenient way of getting lists of fresh, up-to-the-minute things from the web. These things might, for example, be:

  • The current sales and new items at your favorite on-line stores.
  • Bands, concerts, nature walks, you name it–events that are happening around town in the next few days.
  • Today’s comic strips and political cartoons–just the ones you want, without needing to wade through the stupid ones.
  • The latest news, from your favorite on-line papers.
  • The most recent rant or how-to or funny picture by your favorite bloggers.
  • New podcasts or videos from the artistes that you give your patronage to.
  • Current weather reports–very useful for travellers.
  • Job postings, customized for what you’re looking for.

All of these things are pulled from the web automatically for you, daily, or multiple times a day, without you having to lift a finger. They’re presented to you as lists of links with descriptions. Click on one of the links in the list, and the web page that it refers to is opened in your browser.

Once you’ve looked at an item on the list, your computer will keep track of it and won’t show that item to you again. It’ll only show you new, unread items on the list. (Unless you explicitly tell it to show you everything on the list, even the old stuff that you’ve already looked at.)

I personally find that the most valuable lists are for those websites that I really enjoy but that aren’t updated very often, and that my pea-brain forgets to check without a little RSS help. For example, I really like Tim Eagan’s comics, but he generally only puts out one a week, so I usually forget to go to a website that carries his stuff and look for the latest one. With RSS, I don’t need to remember. Tim’s comics are in my lists, and whenever he publishes a new one, it’ll show up for me.

The other type of RSS list that I find useful is one that replaces a lot of hassle. For example, I love Chad Vader videos. (If you haven’t checked out Darth’s younger and less successful brother, he’s a hoot.) Chad’s videos are posted on YouTube, but it is kind of a hassle to go to YouTube, search for “Chad Vader”, sort through the thousands of videos that have been posted by Chad’s actual creators and legions of fans, try to guess from the sometimes misleading titles if each video is one I’ve seen or not, and so on. Or, to try to remember the name of the people that make the Chad Vader videos (Blame Society Films, which is a funny name but I still can’t remember it), and search for “blame society”, wade through the videos, etc. It’s a hassle.

But YouTube lets me create a custom RSS list just for Blame Society Films. I create it once, and done. Now whenever there are new Chad antics to watch, they show up in my list, and I watch them. So simple. Ahhhh. Yeah, thanks, RSS, and YouTube, and thanks especially, Blame Society Films.

RSS lists still aren’t available for every website, but more and more sites are adding RSS support all the time. And many sites allow you to really customize your list just the way you want it. Sadly, some websites that do provide RSS lists don’t seem to really get the idea, and provide lists that are kind of…useless. (NetFlix, I’m looking at you.)

How To “Do” RSS

So, it sounds pretty good, huh? Setting yourself up with RSS is fairly easy. The basic idea is that you get yourself an RSS reader. If you use the Mac Safari web browser, or Firefox, or the very latest version of Internet Explorer on Windows, you’ve already got an RSS reader built right into your browser. There are exactly twelve zillion other RSS readers that you can install on your PC or Mac; most are free, but some you have to pay for. Personally, though, I like to use Google Reader, which is web-based. It’s fairly easy to set up, I can use it from any computer, and it’s free. If you have a Google Mail account, you’re already set up to use Google Reader. Another popular free RSS reader is My Yahoo!, which you’re already signed up for if you have an e-mail or IM account through Yahoo!. There are roughly thirteen quintillion zillion other web-based RSS readers out there.

OK! Sounds good! Let’s go get us some lists!

The jargon, the lingo, the RSS insiders’ secret codewords

Hold up, there, pardner. We’re at the point where we need to jump in and deal with some jargon. Being a relatively new computer technology, RSS has a pretty good heap of jargon already. Some of it is pretty misleading, and can really trip you up. Let’s go through a few of the more common terms:

  • RSS – Short for Really Simple Syndication. RSS is the computer file format of the lists of things we want to look at. RSS lists are designed to be easily passed around and comprehended by computers, but they’re also just text files that you can read yourself if you really want to. Not surprisingly, an RSS list stored in a file will probably have a filename like “AmazonSales.RSS”. Note that there are multiple versions of RSS, since RSS is still relatively new and is still changing. The latest version of any good RSS reader can handle all of them.
  • Feed – Websites that provide RSS lists usually call them Feeds. They’re not really feeds of any sort. Nothing is being fed to your computer; the feeds aren’t forced down your computer’s throat. They’re just lists of things on the web, and your computer needs to go get them just like it does with normal web pages.
  • Subscription – Another misleading term. When you use an RSS list, you’re not really subscribing to anything. You don’t need to provide any personal info to anyone, or pay anyone anything to use the RSS list. When you subscribe to an RSS feed, you’re simply adding the RSS list to your existing lists. That’s all.
  • Newsfeed – A list or feed of…news stories. Since news bloggers and newspapers were some of the earliest publishers of RSS lists, the term newsfeed and feed became somewhat synonymous.
  • Aggregator – A nerdy name for your RSS reader. Since the reader aggregates–or collects–the lists of stuff, it is called an aggregator.
  • OPML – Short for Outline Processor Markup Language. A list of lists; a computer format for passing around multiple RSS lists in a single file. The OPML list doesn’t contain the items in the RSS lists, but just refers to the lists themselves.
  • XML – Short for eXtensible Markup Language. XML is just the “mama” of RSS; it is an (intentionally vague) computer file format that RSS is derived from. Many websites that provide RSS lists will call them XML instead, but they’re still RSS, or one of it’s siblings, like…
  • Atom – A sibling of RSS, and another way for computers to pass lists around. Atom has a different internal format from RSS, but works pretty much the same way. Any decent RSS reader can handle Atom too.

Subscribe to those fine RSS Feeds

OK, so, now we’re down to it. You’ve got yourself an RSS reader, you’re up on the jargon, and you’re ready to start makin’ some lists, baby. If you use Safari, or Firefox, or fresh fresh Internet Explorer, you just keep your eyeballs peeled for a little link that looks like this, or one that says “RSS” or “XML” or “Feeds” and click on it. It’ll either cause your browser to get excited and ask if you want to aggregate the feed to your bookmarks, or will lead you to a web page full of RSS lists. And you click on the list that you’re interested in, and then your browser adds it to your bookmarks. That’s it. Done. Here are some examples of the icons used for RSS lists:

A galaxy of RSS icons

If you’re using an on-line reader like Google Reader or My Yahoo!, there are three ways to get the RSS list into your reader:

  • Go to the reader’s web page, and search for what you’re interested in. The easiest way to do this in Google Reader is to click on the “Add Subscription” item at the left of the the window, then when the text box pops up, just type in the name of whatever it is you’re interested in, for example, “chad vader”. Reader will then show a list of feeds that are related to your search terms. Click on the feed that sounds closest, and that’s it.
  • Many websites provide links that are already set up for your RSS reader. These are nice, since you just click on the name of your RSS reader, and the feed will be added for you automatically.
  • Most websites still only provide basic links to their RSS lists. To get these ones into your web-based reader, you need to right-click on them, then select “Copy Link Location” from the pop-up list, then go to your reader’s web page, and paste in the link in the correct place. For Google Reader, click on the “Add Subscription” item, then paste the link into the pop-up text box.

RSS: Admitting There’s A Problem is the first step

All right, now you’re an RSS junkie too! And since you’ve had a taste of the good life and are hooked, it is time to reveal the dark side of RSS. Yeah, you just knew that something this good had to be pretty bad too, and you’re absolutely right.

Here are, in no particular order, the biggest problems that I see with RSS feeds:

  • Firehose. It’s very easy to subscribe to a lot of feeds, especially fun feeds. And many of the websites that publish those feeds put out several updates per day, which means several RSS items per day per site. That can add up to hundreds of new RSS items per day. Breaking the feeds up by category helps, but ultimately, it’s just a lot of information flowing at you. It can be overwhelming, yet you still want to keep up with your favorites. This can be stressful. Not stressful like being in a car accident, but just a little stressful. And we’re all already stressed out as it is.
  • Blandness. Each RSS reader has its own look, and RSS feeds have no real “look” to them at all. The result is that every item from every feed looks just like every other item. It is really easy to lose focus and just breeze past an item that you might be very interested in. Looking at individual feeds rather than all of them at once helps, but some feeds have dozens or hundreds of new items each day all by themselves, so it is still easy to zone out while reading through a list of hundreds of look-alike items from a single feed.
  • Ads. RSS feeds don’t have many ads in them so far, but there are a few, and there will be more. Some day soon, we’ll probably need to install special features in our RSS readers that block some or all ads. This might be tricky, since ads are no different from other RSS items, except that they talk about stuff that someone wants you to buy, rather than stuff you’re interested in.
  • Bloat. Some websites provide RSS items that are essentially the entire content of the web pages that they refer to, rather than just a link and a summary. The items will include thousands of words of text, dozens of large pictures, and even videos. Besides being an annoyance to scroll past, these items can really slow down or even crash some RSS readers.

The first taste is always free

And now, a few example RSS feeds:

The latest “Deep Cover” comics from Tim Eagan.

The latest “Chad Vader” videos on YouTube (and other comic creations from Blame Society Films)

Dave Barry’s Blog. (Not as good as his column used to be, but there is still a lot of funny stuff.)

The latest news and financial analysis from The Economist magazine.

Today’s Gold Box deals from Amazon.com

Well, that’s it, pardner. See you out at the feedlot.

 Posted by at 11:00 AM