Sunday, June 21, 2015

Loss of Yahoo Pipes is a Major Blow For Those of Us Who Enjoy Combining RSS Feeds

In my opinion, one the best things that the Internet has to offer is the use of RSS feeds to bring us articles and news items that are matched to our personal interests. (Well, that after the Internet providing a repository of instantly accessible knowledge and information for almost anything under the sun to begin with.) A Google News search was once fairly easy to make an RSS feed for, but for some reason Google stopped making it easy. Fortunately, Bing lets the user easily create RSS feeds for news search terms. The news searches are integral to the feeds that I design for my interests.

Bing news search RSS 

Yahoo Pipes has provided an excellent way for the casual Internet user to combine multiple feeds into a single feed.  It is a free service that uses a graphical user interface (GUI), and as such requires no coding skills. Yahoo Pipes provides an easy-to-use means to filter out duplicate items from different feeds, and to fetch items according to specified parameters. It can look more complicated and intimidating than it has to be for the most basic functions that most people need of it. Just by combining a few simple elements it was possible to combine feeds with it, and it is very stable. It works really well.

sample yahoo pipe 

What I would typically do is use the Yahoo Pipes RSS output as the source for a FeedBurner feed that provides a sleeker appearance.

sample feedburner feed 

However, most unfortunately, with Yahoo’s recent layoffs Pipes is being shut down and will come to an end September 30th. There is currently nothing comparable to the service that is a) free, and b) as easy to use.

There are currently some paid alternatives, but until a worthy successor comes along I will elect to make do with free alternatives. (There are IFTTT recipes that, best I can see, require a paid subscription to Feedly. The subscription rules out that option for me…)

The free version of Feedly allows you to combine various feeds into one, and probably has the most engaging GUI that I have seen in search of replacements for Yahoo Pipes. However one feature I find annoying about Feedly is that it continues to feature many of the same articles at the top of the feed order (which as far as I can see is based on most recent publication). These same articles are being republished on a daily basis then? Anyway, with the free version I don’t see a way to tweak this.
The Old Reader (TOR) lets you track up to 100 feeds for free. TOR’s GUI isn’t nearly as nice looking as Feedly’s but it does at least seem to fetch and display items in the order that they are published and avoids item duplications.

In comparing Yahoo Pipes (which, as mentioned, is ending in a couple months), the free version of Feedly, and the free version of TOR, what I’m seeing for some of the busier feeds I have created (e.g., one has 16 feed sources) is the following:
  • Yahoo Pipes (via Feedburner) brings me the most recently published items, basically instantly
  • TOR has some significant lag in how quickly it fetches results, but seems to do a respectable job
  • Feedly is the sleekest looking but least consistent of the three (as mentioned, it keeps putting the same apparently ‘republished daily’ (?) items towards the top of the order).
There are some other simple free services, including  FeedCombine, FeedRinse, and RSSMix. In some cases I have had success with these for very simple needs. But it seems that for the larger feed combinations they fail, likely due to parsing errors. They all seem to not accept Bing News searches, which rules them out for most of my needs.

Kimomo Labs provides a free service that works similar to Yahoo Pipes–and it is actually even more impressive in terms of fine-tuning search parameters and results. It is however over the head of most causal users. Intuitive and instantly user-friendly it is not, in my humble opinion. And for the most complicated feeds that I currently combine it actually failed. Kimono Labs does provide tech support, but that is more trouble than I want to go to for something like this. Especially when I can use something like Feedly or TOR to basically get the job done without the bother.

The other current options require coding skills. Huggin allows you to set up your own local server to do what Yahoo Pipes does. That’s great if you have the coding skills, or have the time, patience, and energy to learn it. Otherwise I should imagine that it’s not something most casual users will feel is worth the trouble.
None of this addresses how to share the feeds with others. Using Feedly and TOR you can only view them via a personal log in. The combined feed is exportable via .opml file, but thus far I’ve been encountering problems in getting them to display properly via various readers. I’m going to continue to work on finding a good way to accomplish that.

Incidentally, this is the sort of post I would normally make in my Whizbang! blog, but I figured I’d change things up and originate the post here first. I haven’t really been able to attend to the Whizbang! project since returning to graduate school, but there I explore ways of finding, organizing, and curating web content of interest to the individual user. Hopefully after I finish school I’ll be able to returned to that hobby and give it more attention.

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies

I saw The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies last Saturday. I wasn't disappointed by any means, although my personal reaction was somewhat bittersweet. In my opinion Jackson's The Battle of the Five Armies tells a more compelling and better crafted story for the conclusion of The Hobbit than the book does, with all due respect to Tolkien. I wasn't bothered by the addition of Tauriel and what happens emotionally between her and Kili--I liked it, in fact. It was forgivable at least, and think that it ultimately made for a more interesting tale. Also, the fuller development of Bard's character, again for me, made for a better film--and also in my view a better story overall. Otherwise, the action was well paced. The choreography and CGI of the combat scenes and battles were topflight. The sets and monsters were well realized. The light bit of comedic fluff added via Alfrid's character did no real harm; to add counterpoint to the heaviness of story was okay. All the performances were rock solid. In the book the lengthy standoff between the assembled armies is actually a weird and anticlimactic mess. So I think Jackson did a fine job of reworking and revitalizing it.

But for my own reasons the film made me rather sad. The experience of watching it carried a sense of loss. An enchanted thirteen year period of seeing such a great saga brought to life, filled with such magic and the stuff of dreams, is now concluded.

I think I noticed that feeling of loss most prominently while witnessing the final scene between Tauriel and Kili (I won't spoil by posting it but you can probably find it on YouTube by now). Again, although I may be in the minority of Tolkien fans on this issue, I greatly enjoyed what Jackson did with Tauriel and Kili. I could not help but notice that the Tauriel and Kili romance echoes back onto the relationship between Aragorn and Arwen in the LotR films. Both those relationships involve a love that seems utterly doomed from the start. The two relationships are also similar in being experienced as dream-like to the characters themselves (it is so referenced by them in both cases), and in various ways their romances involve the loss of a world. I guess the associations I'm making may be a bit loose: but the filming of Tolkien's Hobbit/LotR saga before Jackson took it on seemed highly improbable, and until CGI impossible (something I once assumed I would likely never see successfully accomplished); and it is of course a romantic, enchanted world that Tolkien created for us. In any event, those romantic themes must have resonated with the sense of loss I'm talking about for the series of films and what it meant to me as a fan.

Ah well. But who knows. Perhaps the Tolkien estate will one day grant the rights for The Silmarillion to be filmed. I just don't want for the experience to end. :-)

I'll add in closing that as I write this I'm reminded of just how much I enjoyed Arwen in addition to Tauriel in these films. Both are healer and protector spirits, in addition to Tauriel being a great warrior. Arwen's and Tauriel's use of healing and protective magics in the films was so stirring; and the sheer music of the elven language is just beautiful. Here are my favorite scenes with those two characters (the final scene between Tauriel and Kili would be included but at this writing there is not a good quality link for it):

An addendum:

To continue with the theme of the Five Armies evoking a sense of loss about both trilogies coming to an end--and then reflecting upon the body of films as a whole--there are so many wonderful things to point out about the entire film saga that it's hard to know where to begin.

One of the greatest pleasures of the entire film experience was the excellent casting and performances. The standouts for me: Andy Serkis as Gollum, Sean Astin as Sam, Ian Mckellen as Gandalf, Martin Freeman as Bilbo, Orlando Bloom as Legolas, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug. (As mentioned, Liv Tyler as Arwen and Evangeline Lily as Tauriel are for me also in this tier.). In the next tier for me Elijah Wood as Frodo, Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, Christopher Lee as Saruman, Billy Boyd as Pippin, Dominic Monaghan as Merry,  Richard Armitage as Thorin, Adain Tuner as Kili, Ken Scott as Balin, and Luke Evans as Bard were all wonderful. The other main character castings all felt slightly amiss for how I pictured the characters internally, even if the actors did a fine job. Although I would add that in the case of Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, although he was very different from how I pictured the character from the books his performance did eventually win me over. Also, I would have preferred Tobey Maguire as Frodo; but Elijah Woods did a superb job. None of the dwarves in The Hobbit, including Thorin, are well defined as literary characters, so this was pretty much up to Jackson to realize according to his own artistic vision. He did it well enough.

There is so much to reflect upon for all six films as a body of work, that I could go on and on. I'll guess I'll just note that as a director and storyteller Peter Jackson succeeded brilliantly in this adaptation of the saga to film. The books are their own medium--and if I want to experience the story in that pristine form I will read them! The medium of film requires that adjustments be made in terms of selecting which story elements are the most important to depict (within the medium), and how to pace the action. Jackson did this about as well as anyone could hope, I think. Realistically, working within the structure of how films are marketed today there was no way that the saga was going to be filmed other than as an epic blockbuster. And working within that framework Jackson did a magnificent job.