My Top 10 Mac RSS reader picks

I recently decided to take a look at the RSS aggregator/reader market for the Mac and see if I could come up with a better reader than the one I’ve been using for the past couple of years. I started reading some things, downloaded a bunch of them, and started to sort through them one at a time. This post sort of details how I did that and what my results were.

First of all, I narrowed down my choices to a list of 10 RSS readers. I did this mainly be reading reviews and asking around about preferences people had. I tried to get a sense of them and what sort of experience they offered, so I wrote very abbreviated ’strength blurb’ for each of them. This is what I came up with as a starting point, in no particular order:

vienna 1.Vienna
Very intuitive interface, functional and simple RSS viewing.
newsfire 2.NewsFire
Pretty interface, good search functions, great with just a keyboard.
shrook 3.Shrook
Intuitive customizable interface with a wide view, learning folders, synchronization.
netnewswire 4.NetNewsWire
Clippings, good search, good flags and folders, smart lists.
rssowl 5.RSSOwl
Open Source, cross platform, highly customizable.
attensa 6.Attensa
Convenient publishing, email and tag buttons, synchronization with del.icio.us tags.
pixelnews 7.PixelNews
Looks nice, creates a sort of continuous news stream.
times 8.Times
Newspaper design, multiple pages, easy on the eyes, shelf for storing articles.
cyndicate 9.Cyndicate
Great tagging, label and visual customization support.
newslife 10.NewsLife
News bin for saving articles for later, very simple and easy to understand.

Ok, so at this point I already had some idea of which RSS readers weren’t going to work for me, but I wanted to pin down features I wanted and didn’t really need. I should also mention at this point that my original reader of choice was Vienna and that at this point it was still in with a chance of winning, maybe because the interface was very familiar to me and works perfectly well. I made this list:

Things which are not important to me:

1. Growl notification - I don’t want growl notifications distracting me from something else I’m doing. If I want to read my news feeds, I’ll read my news feeds when I get to it, not when Growl annoys me enough. I’ve made the mistake in the past of enabling growl notifications for too many things and ended up really hating it and ignoring Growl altogether, which doesn’t really make it a useful tool.
2. Cross platform support - I usually read my RSS feeds on my Macbook. Since I take my Macbook with me when I go away, I don’t really need an RSS reader that works on other platforms at the moment. There may be a point in the future (if I get a netbook or something and run Linux) where I may want cross platform support but at the moment it really doesn’t matter to me.

Things which are important to me:

1. Cost - I don’t have a lot of money to spend on something like this, and I’d prefer a free product.
2. Blogging/social network support - I’d like to be able to easily blog on topics I find in my reader or post them to social bookmarking sites, social networks, or microblogging services.
3. Email forwarding support - I’d prefer to use an RSS reader which allows me to easily forward article contents or links to friends or family quickly so I can’t have to do it manually.
4. Synchronization - This isn’t a huge deal to me at the moment, but if I ever decide to get another home computer, chances are it will be an iMac and I’ll want to be able to sync my newsreader between my home machine and the Macbook I have with me when I’m out and about.
5. Keyboard Navigation - I hate clicking on things unless I have to, and I’d always rather have an RSS reader which I can navigate easily with the keyboard, whether this be through the arrow keys and spacebar or hotkeys.

At this point, I made a spreadsheet in Google Docs so that I could easily keep track of which reader had which features. I’ll stick it below here with Google Elements so you can see:


As you can see, PixelNews was really not what I was looking for here and the two which really seemed to shine were Shrook and NetNewsWire, followed by Vienna, NewsFire and Attensa which were only missing out on sufficient synchronization features which I wouldn’t be using right now anyway. I really enjoyed Shrook’s interface but I did see a potential problem in that it is obviously best viewed on a quite wide screen and may not be great when I don’t have another monitor and am just walking around with my little Macbook. I tested it out and I actually found my Macbook screen quite capable of pulling it off and I think I’ll be giving Shrook a chance. I’ll probably still use Vienna here and there, though - until I actually have something to sync.

Just a note before I go - in terms of the best keyboard navigation, I’d say that NewsFire was pretty great. On the other hand, in terms of the best overall design and idea, the best choice is Times. If I had money to blow and didn’t mind clicking occasionally, Times would be my choice hands down. It looks fantastic, is incredibly easy on the eyes, has good social network/bookmarking features and has a quite cool ’shelf’ to store articles for later. Also according to the site, “Times shows you the entire story regardless of source” which “should work with most (but not all) major news sites.” Check out the demo if you get a chance.

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Wordpress feed redirection and hotlink protection

If you’re running Wordpress on your site and would like to track your RSS feed subscription numbers, I’m sure there are quite a few ways to go about it. You can even do things like adding an html page in between your feed link and your feed and linking them with a meta refresh and then tracking those clicks in Google Analytics. More on that can be found here but in my case, I decided I’d be content decided to use Feedburner to do my RSS tracking, so I decided to read up on the best ways to redirect my built-in Wordpress feeds to Feedburner. If you go by what Feedburner Help says, they would have you install a Wordpress plugin to do the job for you. While this may work fine for most people and maybe some people would rather not deal with anything technical, I wasn’t really content with this. After all, why install another plugin when you don’t really need it? The best way to redirect your main site feed and your content feed would be to add something like this in your .htaccess file, making sure to edit it to reflect the appropriate values.


#BEGIN Feed redirect

RewriteEngine on
RewriteCond %{REQUEST_URI} ^/?(feed.*|rss.*|comments.*) [NC]
RewriteCond %{HTTP_USER_AGENT} !^.*(FeedBurner|FeedValidator) [NC]
RewriteRule ^feed/?.*$ http://feeds.feedburner.com/sitefeedpath [L,NC,R=302]
RewriteRule ^comments/?.*$ http://feeds.feedburner.com/commentsfeedpath [L,NC,R=302]

#END Feed redirect

If you’d like to read more about how things work and see some more examples for practical use of this sort of redirect, you can go to Jeff Star’s excellent post over at Perishable Press.

Another issue to worry about when running a site is the issue of hotlinking. Essentially what this means is that someone cal steal your bandwidth by linking to your files directly instead of hosting them on their own server space. There are people out there who do this intentionally and will strip images from RSS feeds or browse the internet looking to steal images links from sites. In order to prevent this sort of thing, there are more things we can do in our .htaccess file. As written in detail at altlab, to prevent hotlinking and replace the intended linked image with a different image, you could do something like this:


RewriteEngine On
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} !^http://(.+\.)?yoursite\.com/ [NC]
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} !^$
RewriteRule .*\.(jpe?g|gif|bmp|png)$ /images/nohotlink.jpe [L]

If you want to block specific sites from requesting the images, then something like this can be used:


RewriteEngine On
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} ^http://(.+\.)?myspace\.com/ [NC,OR]
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} ^http://(.+\.)?blogspot\.com/ [NC,OR]
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} ^http://(.+\.)?livejournal\.com/ [NC]
RewriteRule .*\.(jpe?g|gif|bmp|png)$ /images/nohotlink.jpe [L]

You’d need to create an image in your /images directory called nohotlink.jpe (or edit the code to use a different file name) and any time one of the coded file types is requested for your domain from an external source, your custom image would display instead. You could create a simple warning image here, or get creative. An alternative to this would be just to simply return a 403 error instead of an image:


RewriteRule .*\.(jpe?g|gif|bmp|png)$ - [F]

If you’d like to check whether your site is vulnerable to hotlinking, you can check over at altlab.

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A more productive Python learning experience

I’ve recently decided that I’ve wasted a large portion of my working life not teaching myself things and learning new skills. This is all too evident when faced with a difficult job market like we’re facing at the moment. As someone with primarily Microsoft experience and having worked mainly in that area and with the software and hardware systems which are common to the US military, I find that I’m often facing a skills gap when trying to apply for jobs in the open market. I left the US Air Force in December of 2007 and worked as a web developer and Linux/BSD server admin for a while and during that time I realized more than anything else that I didn’t know enough and needed to learn more. My goal overall is not to be a developer, though I am interested in doing work of that nature to some extent. Since I enjoy writing but can’t immediately make the jump from IT, my short term goal would be to understand current technology and development enough to be able to write about it with authority in something like technical writing, which is more my style. I’ve dealt with technical writing and documentation some in the past, and I enjoy it.

That being said, I’m not exactly sure how to go about this process. I suppose the best way to write about topics is to understand them and in order to understand them you have to gain some practical real world knowledge of their working. This is where I come up against some problems. I want to be able to understand some of what modern programming is about. I’ve got some experience with HTML/CSS/PHP but I want to delve into something like Python. I hear a lot of good things about it so I decided recently that I was going to take it up. My problem is that I often find it difficult to learn programming languages and have failed several times to learn one or another in the past, due to not sticking with it in the long run. This time, I’d like to avoid that. Here is how I intend to do it:

Initially, I started reading some guides and tutorials on the internet, which is a great way to start learning without having to spend a whole lot of money on a big book. The problem with tutorials is that in order to do the stuff written in them, you’ve got to change windows. This means that you end up switching back and forth between your browser, PDF or text file and your terminal window, IDE, etc. I hate this. Yeah, it’s easy enough to switch on a Mac and I can do it pretty quickly, but I don’t want to have to do it at all, and I don’t always have my other monitor available for the task. Enter Learn Python.

Learn Python is a program which was imagined and implemented by Daniel Jalkut of Red Sweater Software. Essentially it is a shell window and a browser window smashed together. You can have your shell and browser panes top to bottom or left to right according to your preference, and when you close the program, it saves the URL so that when you open the program again you can continue your tutorial where you left off. It brings a level of productivity to the learning process which I didn’t have before and I think it’s great. If you’re thinking of learning a programming language or just want to gain better understanding of the shell, etc. it is a great way to view tutorials on any subject and input commands to replicate the results. I personally wanted to use Python 3.0 instead of the default version which comes with OSX so I installed it and changed the Localizable.strings file (Show Package Contents > Contents > Resources > English.lproj) to read:

"/usr/bin/python" = "/Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/3.0/bin/python3.0";

Another great resource I’ve found for learning Python is the site ShowMeDo.com, which has learning paths and screencasts from very beginner levels to more intermediate and advances lessons later on. If you follow the learning paths, the lessons come with prerequisite lessons you should view before you do others and it really starts you off with a fresh (or refreshed) base of knowledge. This includes various linux command line knowledge and using tools such as subversion for source code version control. This method of learning is great for visual and auditory learners, and you can follow along or pause the video if you need a bit more time. It’s definitely worth checking out if you’re trying to learn. They also have paths for Java, Ruby, C and web frameworks like Django.

Lastly, I’ll just list some of the better beginner guides out there for Python. I’m by no means an expert on the subject and I do have a long IT background but I’ve approached this learning process as if I knew nothing at all, so if you follow what I’m following you should be able to pick it up in time, probably faster than I can. As I said, I don’t really aim to be a developer. I want to write about this stuff. I think I’m fairly good at explaining things in writing, but you tell me. If anyone out there has any advice on pursuing the noble path of technical writing, let me know. Anyway, here are the guides.

A Byte of Python
Dive Into Python
The Python Tutorial
Non-Programmer’s Tutorial for Python
Introduction to Programming using Python

Learning to Program
One Day of IDLE toying

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10 Mac software apps for increasing productivity

As the opening post in this blog, I’ve decided to write about something that may actually be useful to people instead of just rambling on about my intentions or grand plans. I hope you find it useful and I’d love to see some comments about the software you use to get things done.

writeroom1
1.WriteRoom - Demo
As soon as I heard about this program, I had to try it out. For me, working on a computer is both a blessing and a curse. Being connected to the internet means that I’ve always got access to unlimited information and it is tempting to stop what I’m writing and wander aimlessly across the web landscape, soaking in the atmosphere. WriteRoom is an app that has enabled me to get past some of this and get some writing done. WriteRoom blocks out all other content on your screen and creates a minimalist writing environment - a sort of virtual room for your writing. I use a black background with green text for an old school feel but if you’re doing a long session you may think about doing something a little kinder on your eyes. Luckily, you can customize all of that. If writing is important to you (it is to me) or your work and you’re easily distracted, give this or the free alternative JDarkRoom a try.

Other minimalist writing apps: JDarkRoom - Free

evernote
2. Evernote - Free
Evernote is something which is fairly new to me, but I’ve been seeing a lot of these apps springing up. I like the idea of being able to access my data even if I’m not at my computer. The cloud computing thing is a very good thing (I’m a big fan of the various Google apps) in my eyes, and I like that Evernote allows you to take a photo which includes some text and it will somehow mysteriously recognize this text and make it searchable. If you have problems remembering things, you’re tired of carrying around scraps of paper, always leave important info on your computer at home or you want a gigantic scrapbook for your life, Evernote is probably your thing. Have a look at the video on the site for a good idea of how things work.

Other human memory replacement apps: DEVONthink - Demo, SOHO Notes - Demo, Yojimbo - Demo, Notebook - Demo, Journler - Demo

eventbox1
3. Eventbox - Demo
Eventbox is a great application. Essentially, it combines all of my RSS feed reading needs with all of my social networking needs. Eventbox supports RSS, Twitter, Digg, Reddit, Flickr, Facebook and Google Reader. With the upcoming release, it will also support Identi.ca. This means that when I want to get up to date with all of my news and social networks, I can go to one place and concentrate on plowing through it. I can see recently uploaded photos from my Flickr contacts, read news, update statuses, search, etc. Another great thing about Eventbox is that the developers are actively listening to the desires of the web community. A handful of us started out asking for Identi.ca support and 6 months later, they’ve put it in.

Other all-in-one feed and social media apps: skimmer - Free (Beta)

think
4. Think - Free
The concept behind Think is very similar to that of Writeroom. The whole purpose of the application is to get the user to focus on one window at a time instead of being distracted by things going on in the background. Think dims everything except for the current application and in order to switch to separate applications, you have to use the built-in application switcher. It would be nice if you could use the OSX switcher or something, but overall I find that Think helps me to concentrate on doing one thing at a time. It’s worth giving a try, at least. It is free, after all.

Other concentration by deprivation apps: Isolator - Free, Backdrop - Free

1password1
5. 1Password - Demo
I’ve been using 1Password for a while and I really like that I no longer have to waste my time and brain power remembering passwords. The problem with having a strong internet presence is that often we end up having many accounts on many different services and while it would be nice to have one universal login for everything, I can see how that would be a real bummer if it got hacked. The alternative is something like 1Password. It’s a pretty slick system with plugins for Safari and Firefox and it allows you to save all of your accounts, passwords and web forms in one central repository which is protected with encryption and a central password. It also included a feature which allows you to create extremely strong and complex passwords. Since you no longer have to remember them, it means that you can increase the security viability of each of your accounts. The only problem I’ve encountered is that if I forget to bring along a USB stick or a device with my exported password file, I end up not being able to get into my accounts from a public terminal.

Other password management apps: Wallet - Demo, Password Repository - Free

quicksilver
6. Quicksilver - Free
I’m sure most people have heard of or used Quicksilver if they own a Mac. It’s on so many of the “software you must have on a Mac” lists floating around on the internet that I’d be surprised to hear if someone hadn’t heard of it. Quicksilver is in its most basic form an application launcher. With a keyboard shortcut, you can bring up the menu and start typing whatever app you’re looking for. It finds the app, you hit Enter/Return, and you’re done. It pretty much does away with the need to keep lots of apps in your dock and it can also do a lot more than find apps. It will do a whole range of actions quickly and more productivity can be added with plugins. It really a must have if you want to do things quickly and you aren’t content with Spotlight.

Other quick launching apps: LaunchBar - Demo, Switchblade - Demo

omnifocus1
7. OmniFocus - Demo
OmniFocus is a one stop shot for all things task and project related. The best way to get an idea of how it works is to watch the video on the site, but it’s basically a way of organizing your life as a series of projects, actions and contexts. You can drag, drop and quickly add new entries and organize tasks in extreme detail. If you’re having problems organizing your life this app seems like it could sort anything out. I’ve tried it out a little but I’m looking forward to seeing if anyone has had any luck with any free options that may be floating around. Comment and let me know if you have.

Other project/task management apps: Things - Demo

sidenote
8. Sidenote - Free
I use Sidenote a lot of the time when I don’t want or need to save noted in Evernote or in a full fledged task manager. If I’m looking to just store something for a few minutes or a few hours, I’ll stick it in Sidenote. It’s handy and it works well and it doesn’t clutter my screen like stickies do, which is important for my mindset. I don’t know about you, but I hate having a cluttered workspace. It just makes me feel that the tasks are insurmountable and I’ll never get through all of them. Sidenote gets out of my way when I want it to and it’s there for me to dump and grab information when I need it.

Other minimal/lightweight note/task taking apps: SlidePad - Demo, Sketchbox - Free

calaboration
9. iCal (comes with the OS) with Calaboration - Free
There are probably a lot of ways to keep track of events and appointments, but I like iCal. That being said, I don’t find it perfect. Sometimes I’m not at my Mac at home and I want someplace to store my events and appointments. That’s where Calaboration comes in. It lets me synchronize my iCal with my Google Calendar. That way if I made a change on my Google Calendar it will appear on my Mac later or if I make a change on my Mac then I’ll see them later on my Google Calendar when I’m at another computer. It works great and it keeps me organized.

Other desktop calendar apps: Lightning or Sunbird - Free

taskmate
10. TaskMate - Free
TaskMate is pretty simple. It does tasks. That’s pretty much it. Sometimes you don’t want to have to use something big like OmniFocus just to make a quick To Do list. Sometimes you just want to make a quick list of things and check them off quickly when you’re done, without lots of fuss. TaskMate does this perfectly. It’s small, quick and does tasks perfectly.

Other lightweight outline/task management apps: DoIt - Free, Omni Outliner - Demo, TaskPaper - Demo

Other stuff you may like:

Nocturne - Free - Switches your color scheme around for a nicer night viewing environment
PTHPasteboard - Free - Buffs up your clipboard for when you wish you could copy multiple items
Text Expander - Demo - Creates custom keystroke sequences to automate your frequently used text and images
Flow - Demo - FTP client with awesome interface, QuickLook integration and much more. Supports a wide array of protocols.
Witch - Demo - Allows you to switch easily between specific windows which aren’t in the same application.
iMindMap - Demo - Mind mapping software. Very useful for studying and learning information for visual learners.
Synergy - Free - Allows you to share a single mouse and keyboard between multiple computers with different operating systems, each with its own display.

Extra stuff or developers:

coda
Coda - Demo
I’ve got a license to this product. As I said before, it’s not common for me to buy software but in this case I got hooked. Using Coda is like web development as it should be. First of all, everything is cleanly presented in one window. A wide variety of programming languages are supported, there is a built-in tab system and reference books, shell and ssh access, and FTP/SFTP/WebDAV connectivity.

Other web development apps: Espresso - Demo, cssedit - Demo, textmate - Demo, BBEdit - Demo, TextWrangler - Free

paparazzi
Paparazzi - Free
Paparazzi is a small utility which makes screenshots of entire webpages, regardless of visible content. You can type in a url of any website, specify the resolution of the screenshot you’d like, etc. By default Paparazzi includes some resolutions but you can add your own if you’d like. This app is small and quick and does what it claims, which is why I like it. It also helps that it is free and that you can capture the content which runs off the page, like one of those huge blogs.

cyberduck
Cyberduck - Free
Cyberduck is an FTP, SFTP, WebDAV, Cloud Files & Amazon S3 Browser with seamless integration with external editors. I use this as my SFTP client 100% of the time and I have no complaints. Updates come quite often and you can easily enable or disable features to customize your experience. There are some other paid clients out there which some people may like better (Transmit is fairly popular) but for me there is no real reason to switch to anything else. I love that it has QuickLook integration and the ability to expand TAR and ZIP files remotely over SSH. Check out the site for more features and information.

That’s it for now, but if you have something to add, just add a comment. Thanks for taking a look at my first post and let me know if you have any suggestions for posts.

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