I Want An RSS Reader/Writer

For some time now, I’ve wanted a new kind of RSS client: one that reads and writes. Today’s RSS apps artificially separate us from the content we read. If we want to reply — if we want to participate in the conversation — we’ve got to use an entirely unrelated set of tools. This division feels increasingly needless.

Since “RSS reader/writer” is a mouthful, I’ll call these apps microbloggers instead1. I’m not convinced that they need to be limited to micro content but it seems like a reasonable place to start.

A great microblogger must first and foremost provide a great user experience. Twitter apps are a fruitful design playground that can point the way. We’ve become familiar and comfortable with endless streams of content2. We’ve designed many clever ways to manage new posts and replies, and to explore ongoing conversations. Our microbloggers can adopt the best experiences for themselves.

A great microblogger must also be built on well-established technologies. We’ve got feed formats (RSS, Atom), publishing APIs (everything from MetaWeblog to AtomPub), and a Cambrian explosion of link-back techniques to choose from. Our microbloggers can adopt the most useful technological subset for themselves.

What might the microblogger experience be?

On first run, I’d expect to create a profile or attach to an existing profile. If I create one, some back-end service will provision space for my content; I will always have the keys to this kingdom. If I attach, I’ll specify a pre-existing blog to connect to.

After creating my own profile I’d start following others, which is to say I’d start following feeds. Discovery is a tricky issue that can be punted in the early days: today’s readers don’t do discovery and yet I’ve never had trouble finding great new content.

After these first steps, I’d expect early microbloggers to provide an experience similar to today’s Twitter clients. Over time, however, I’d expect them to become fertile new playgrounds for design, discovering new interactions that could never take root in today’s closed ecosystems.

[1] Whatever these tools are eventually called, RSS should always be considered an implementation detail, hidden from the typical user’s view. As a class of apps, microbloggers will only succeed if they provide a fantastic user experience.

[2] Today, most RSS readers provide the equivalent of an inbox with unread count. This has always struck me as odd, since email inboxes are designed to capture content that requires personal attention. Try as we might, we can’t possibly capture all the world’s content for ourselves.

Without a Doubt

My post about doubt seems to have struck a nerve; I don’t usually get this much feedback from my posts. Let me try to sum it up:

> I'm sorry you feel that way. You can get help.

Please don’t misunderstand: this isn’t depression of any kind. Depression is a much more serious matter. If you are feeling depressed, please reach out and ask for help.

I do have doubts, but they don’t overwhelm. The majority of my time is spent doing; another much smaller component of my productive time is spent thinking. The merest fraction of my time gives way to doubt. I suspect this is true for others, too.

> Don't waste your time on doubt.

There are indeed doubts that serve no constructive purpose: these must be identified and quickly banished.

Then there are doubts that illuminate blind spots: these must be cultivated to arrive at constructive self-criticism.

Doubts tend to accumulate when things go poorly, but I think self-criticism has a place even and especially when things go well, too.

> Doubt isn't specific to indie software developers.

That’s definitely true: doubt is a natural part of any creative process. I specifically mentioned indie software because I know it well and because I think it has qualities, like long days in quiet at a computer, that tend to isolate its practitioners beyond many related creative endeavors.

> Is it wise to publicly admit one's doubts?

This surprised me.

At a young age, we learn to project certainty in public and to manage our doubts in private. There are times when this is tactically required. Then again, there are times when it just doesn’t matter.

Moreover, I think our cultural inclination towards hiding doubt does us a great disservice. Everyone has doubts; knowing this is power.

Indie Impostor Syndrome

It’s probably irrational to start an indie1 software company. The hours are long, the customers are fleeting, the competition is clever and better-funded, the pay is meager and may always be so. It’s only out of sheer joy and excitement for our work that we do it anyway.

With time, doubts grow. A friend of mine once told me that he wondered if something was wrong with him, wondered if he had some undetected fatal flaw that would prevent him from turning his vision into reality.

I said I could see no such flaw, but I knew his doubts well.

When I first started my company, I doubted whether anyone would care. When my first customers arrived and gave harsh feedback, I doubted whether I could make a product anyone truly wanted. When I first broke my service, I doubted my own skill-set and training. When I first turned a profit, I doubted whether I could make it meaningfully grow. When I first realized my competitors knew me and were gunning for me, I doubted whether I could hold my own.

Many of those doubts are gone now; settled. Now I have a daughter on the way. Now I doubt whether I can keep my family sheltered, and happy, and fed.

I’m lucky, though. I started my company with two stalwart comrades. On the days I doubt, they don’t. Somehow we keep the gears turning.

My friend, however? He’s a solo indie developer. It’s hard for him to spread his doubt around.

Sam Altman recently mentioned that all of Y Combinator’s outsize successes started with more than one founder. I’m sure there are many factors at play, and of course Altman is concerned with fast-growing venture-backed startups. But can there be any doubt that, for the solo startups, as for the indies, doubt itself is a great and crushing enemy?

[1] I’m not too worried about how we define “indie”. To crib from The Matrix, being indie is just like being in love: no one needs to tell you you’re in love. You just know it, through and through.

Coffee Walks

When we’re abroad, Amy and I tend to explore new cities by walking… and then walking some more, until our feet are sore.

The trick is to figure out where to walk. We want to visit tourist highlights, of course, but we also like to get off the beaten path. One of our favorite ways to do this is by stringing together visits to the city’s best coffee shops. We’ve noticed that better caffeine tends to be located in less-touristed, more-intriguing neighborhoods.

We just got back from a short visit to Europe. Here are some of our favorite Parisian discoveries:

And in Barcelona:

If you’re nearby, give these great venues a shot!

Cyclides of Dupin

My undergraduate math professor, Tom Banchoff, always loved using Dupin’s cyclides as geometric examples. When I was a student, we used a software package called Fnord to visualize the cyclides, amongst many other complex curves and surfaces.

Tom is retiring this year, so I thought it would be fun to revisit one of the “classic” Fnord demos. Below, you’ll see a simple striped cyclide rendered in much the same fashion as the original cyclide.fnorse. Like that demo, there’s a slider to manage rotation in the fourth dimension, around the XW-plane.

I’m always amazed by the march of technology. Work on Fnord began in 1990, before the web even existed. If Fnord were rebuilt today, the web would certainly be a natural (even phenomenal) fit.

Cyclide
XW: 0 π/2
Divisions: 21 61
View
view x: -π/2 π/2
view y: -π/2 π/2
view z: -π/2 π/2
zoom: