When I first started this blog, there were only really two methods by which readers could keep up with new content – by subscribing to the RSS feed or by regularly dropping by the site to see what’s new. Since then readers have steadily been requesting other ways to follow the blog and, for the most part, I have obliged. Here’s a list of current methods:
- Subscribe to the RSS feed – Join around 2500 others and subscribe to the WR RSS feed. This number will probably be severely reduced once Google Reader shuts down.
- Follow me on Twitter – I post every WR article to my twitter feed along with whatever else I find interesting. Twitter is also a great way of contacting me and is the social media platform on which I am most active.
- WalkingRandomly on Google+ – I link to WR articles just after they are posted along with other random musings.
- WalkingRandomly on Facebook – A small following compared to the other channels but useful to some it seems.
- Drop by the site whenever the mood strikes you
Google Reader has been a part of my life for several years now, forming the basis of my news reading habits. Barely a day goes by that I don’t use it via my Android phone, iPad or the web and I have dozens of feeds effortlessly synced across all platforms. It is, along with Dropbox, one of the most useful cloud services I have signed up for…and now its gone.
I guess I shouldn’t complain too much–after all it is a free service just like Twitter, Facebook, Evernote, Dropbox, Gmail, etc and so Google has every right to yank it away from me if that’s what they want to do. What the cloud giveth, the cloud taketh away and all that.
What if your favourite cloud-based service was switched off?
This has led me to face up to something I’ve always had at the back of my mind but, until now, never really worried about too much– I rely far too much on services that are potentially ephemeral and I have no control over. The loss of Google Reader from my life is frustrating but hardly the end of the world. The loss of something like Dropbox, Evernote, Facebook or Gmail would cause me a lot more pain.
The data I upload to these services may be mine but the platforms are not and since I don’t pay a penny for any of them (Dropbox being a major exception) I am not sure what my legal rights may be. If, for example, a company such as Evernote were to suddenly say ‘This free-access stuff isn’t working out for us so we deleted all your stuff and closed your account, thanks for playing.’, would I have any legal recourse? Even more importantly, would I have a local backup?
Longevity and owning your own platform.
Another issue to consider is longevity. Over the years I have invested time and money in dozens of software applications and, apart from a few notable exceptions where the licensing was crazy, I can still run any one of them today. Languishing in the depths of my hard drives are files so old that they can only be read by ancient applications written by long-dead software development companies yet I can still launch the application and access the data. I can do this because I physically own the platform. The only way someone could prevent me from using the software and data on this platform is to physically take it from me.
To prevent me from using a cloud based service, however, it seems that all it takes is for that service to become unpopular.
I like the StackOverflow range of question and answer sites and have hopped on and off them almost since the very beginning. When I logged in recently I was informed that one of my questions had been awarded the ‘Famous Question’ badge..i.e. it had been viewed over 10,000 times. The relevant question was Python blogs that you regularly follow? which was asked by me in the very early days of the site. Not only has it received 63 community up-votes and over 10,000 views but it’s also been closed as ‘Not constructive’ by senior members of the Stack Overflow community.
I find this contrast amusing!
I’ve been getting emails recently from people asking if I can mirror my RSS feed onto a twitter account since they look at Twitter more than Google Reader! Not wanting to disappoint, I have created a Twitter feed just for Walking Randomly called, predictably enough, @walkingrandomly. The new feed will include links to all new Walking Randomly articles as they happen and will also be supplemented by links to other websites that I find interesting.
If you are interested in hooking your RSS feed to a Twitter account in this manner then check out Twitterfeed.com.
Back in August 2008, Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood launched a question and answer site aimed squarely at programmers and it has been a massive hit. Called Stack Overflow, the site currently contains over 330,000 questions and answers covering pretty much every aspect of programming you care to mention from What IDE to use for Python through to smart pointers in C++ and everything in between. With a userbase running into the thousands, you can be sure that someone, somewhere will know the answer to your programming question no matter how obscure. All this and yet, in true internet tradition, it won’t cost you a penny.
Well, time moves on and Stack Overflow spawned other sites based on the same web technology. Server Fault, for example, is aimed at system administrators and finally, to complete the trilogy, we have Super User which is geared towards general computer enthusiasts. Although neither of these have been as popular as the original programming site (Server Fault currently has 17,000 questions and Super User has just over 12,000) they are still very useful resources. More importantly, they demonstrate that you can use the Stack Overflow technology to build any community question and answer site.
I guess it was inevitable that someone would eventually build such a site for mathematics. Math Overflow is currently in the beta stage of development and only contains just under 400 questions at the time of writing but it has potential. It just needs a bigger audience, so head over there and get questioning.
I guess you could think of it as a people-powered version of Wolfram Alpha!
When I first came across Twitter, the micro-blogging site that allows people to follow your interests (and your life if you like) by answering the question ‘What are you doing?” I thought it was completely and utterly pointless. Most of my friends agreed.
I move in very geeky circles though and while at BarCamp Sheffield last year, someone convinced me to sign up and give it a try. To start with, all it did was confirm my initial suspicions – it seemed to be pointless. I knew when my geek friends were in the office, I knew what they were having for lunch, when they were having problems with Java and when they were being bit on the toe by their pet ferrets, Ruby and Perl. Pointless and yet strangely compelling.
In a week I was hooked.
Since then, not only have I found it to be compelling but I have also found it to be immensely useful. Just last week, for example, I was stranded in Manchester and needed a cheap hotel room. Although my phone has Internet, it’s very slow, so I didn’t want to have to spend ages googling for the best deal so I tweeted to my small band of followers that I was stuck and I needed help. They came through for me with first class form and I was soon in a nice, comfortable room that included breakfast for under 50 quid.
I have used it to help solve technical problems, arrange impromptu gatherings, follow the world’s reactions to Wolfram Alpha’s launch in real time,get more readers for this blog, get advice on learning German and, of course, to tell the world what I am having for lunch.
Some people find it significantly more useful though – Dell used it to boost sales of their computers by $3million apparently!
More recently, I have noticed that the makers of various mathematical software packages have started getting in on the tweeting act and the results can be interesting. Following the tweets of organisations such as Mathworks and OriginLab can be a great way to keep abreast of blog posts, interesting technical tidbits and new releases among other things. Some of the better Twitter feeds (Labview’s for example) encourage a public two-way dialog between the application vendor and its users – a trend that I hope will continue.
Here are a few I have found so far, some better than others.
- labview – An official feed from National Instruments
- Maplesoft – The official feed of the makers of maple
- MATLAB_Webinars – Seems to be an ‘official’ Mathworks feed.
- matlabDoug – The feed of Mathwork’s employee, Doug Hull.
- OriginLab – Official feed from OriginLabs – The makers of plotting software, Origin. Feed only just started.
- sagemath – Not sure if this is official. Could do with being updated more often.
- Wolfram_Alpha – Official feed of Wolfram Alpha. Includes lots of interesting Wolfram Alpha inputs.
Let me know if you find any more and I’ll add them to the list.
One of my informants told me to expect something big from Wolfram Research in the near future but didn’t tell me what it was. No matter how hard I tried, she wouldn’t give me any details apart from ‘Stephen is very excited about it‘ and ‘A surprise announcement will be coming soon.‘ She sure knows how to get me intrigued.
Well, now the secret is out…sort of. Stephen Wolfram has just made a blog post about a project he has been working on for a few years called Wolfram Alpha.
I’ll be honest with you – I’ve read the blog post and I’m still not sure what this is all about but with phrases like:
…Fifty years ago, when computers were young, people assumed that they’d quickly be able to handle all these kinds of things. And that one would be able to ask a computer any factual question, and have it compute the answer.
It’s going to be a website: www.wolframalpha.com. With one simple input field that gives access to a huge system, with trillions of pieces of curated data and millions of lines of algorithms.
I am even more intrigued. Nothing is live yet – this is just an appetizer announcement but I am really looking forward to finding out more about what this is all about.
Update (18th March 2009): Doug Lenat has also seen a demo of the system and has discussed it in depth at Semantic Universe including the sort of questions that Wolfram Alpha won’t be able to answer.
John Hawks wonders if Wolfram Alpha will make bioinformatics obsolete? I don’t know enough about bioinformatics to comment but it’s an interesting article.
Update (9th March 2009): Someone with better connections than me has seen it in action. Check out this report for more details.