Categories
tech

MPs’ Web Sites

When I set up Planet Westminster in 2006 I thought it would be a relatively simple project to maintain. Over the years, more and more MPs would start blogs. Every couple of months I’d add the new ones and everything would be great.

It hasn’t worked out like that at all. MPs’ web sites have proved to be really difficult to keep track of.

The problem is, of course, that the vast majority of MPs have absolutely no idea how web sites, blogs or web feeds work. That’s to be expected. What’s less expected is that many of them seem to get round that problem by delegating the work to people who also have no idea how web sites, blogs or web feeds work.

I’ve just done a clean-up of the feeds I’m currently monitoring. Here are some of the problems I’ve dealt with.

A few MPs (including Douglas Carswell and Caroline Lucas) changed the address of their web feed. Just changed it. No notification as fas as I can see. No attempt to redirect the old address to the new one. Just an old address returning a 404 error. Anyone who was subscribed to the old address would have just stopped getting updates. It’s almost like they don’t want people to follow what they have to say.

Ed Miliband’s web site has just ceased to exist. It now redirects you to the main Labour Party web site. Because the leader of the party obviously has no constituency responsibilities. Or something like that.

John McDonnell seems very confused. In 2007 he had a web site at john4leader.org.uk. In 2010, he was at john-­mcdonnell.­net. Both of these sites are now dead and he’s at john-mcdonnell.net. It’s like no-one has told him that you can reuse web site addresses. I wonder what he’ll do once he’s run out of variations of his name on different top-level domains.

Eric Joyce has just lost control of his domain. His ericjoyce.co.uk address currently goes to an unfinished web site campaigning for “John Smith for State Senator”. It doesn’t look as though Joyce realises this as he’s still promoting the web site on his Twitter profile.

Then there’s Rory Stewart. His web feed was returning data that my RSS parser couldn’t parse. Taking a closer look, it turned out that it was an HTML page rather than RSS or Atom. And it was an HTML page that advertised an online Canadian pharmacy pushing Cialis. Not really what an MP should be promoting.

Stuff like this happens all the time. MPs need to take more notice of this. And they need help from people who know what they are talking about. My theory (and it’s one that I’ve written about before) is that MPs’ web sites and blogs are often overcomplicated because they are developed by companies who come from a corporate IT background and who dismiss the possibility of using something free like WordPress and over-engineer something using tools that they are comfortable with. It can’t be a coincidence that many of the worst MP web sites I’ve seen serve pages with a .aspx extension (sorry – only geeks will understand that).

I’m going to repeat an offer I’ve made before. If any MP wants a blog set up for them,then I’m happy to help them or to put them in touch with someone who can help them. It needn’t be expensive. It needn’t be complex. But it can be very effective. And it will work.

Update: Eric Joyce replied to me on Twitter. He said:

Thanks. It’s being worked on and they seem to have pointed it at an obvious specimen page.

Categories
tech

RSS Failure

Oops. Busted.

Earlier this year, I wrote a mild rant about web sites who change their RSS feeds without redirecting them and thereby losing a number of readers.

Last night mou commented on that entry pointing out that I’d done something very much like that myself. For the last two months, I haven’t been publishing a new index.rdf feed.

I strongly suspect that the date of the last new version of that file coincides with the date that I installed a new version of Movable Type and reset all of the templates to the defaults. By default, current versions of MT don’t seem to publish RSS feeds. They just publish an Atom version (atom.xml).

That’s no excuse though. I knew about that problem. Previously I’d worked around it by installing an RSS template from an older version of MT. I might do that again when I have some spare time to think about it. But in the meantime I’ve taken the easiest option and created a symbolic link from atom.xml to index.rdf. Hopefully that’ll work in the short term.

Apologies to anyone who was subscribed to the RSS feed and who, no doubt, thinks that I’ve dropped off the face of the world. I’m sorry that you’ll suddenly have two months worth of my nonsense to plough through this morning.

It might be a good time to mention the other feeds that I set up recently.  There’s one contains all of my long-form writing from this and other blogs, one that has shorter items from various microblogging platforms and then there’s the feed from planet davorg which contains everything.

Categories
web

Redesigning

It’s nine years since I registered the domain dave.org.uk and set up a web site there. And I’ve never really known what to do with it. Since I started blogging, it’s seemed even less useful. The blog front page was where all the interesting stuff happened. The main page just contained links to a few bad jokes and a couple of useful sub-sites. For years I just tinkered with the design a bit, but I was never really happy with it. Sometime early in 2005 I rewrote it so that it took a lot of its content from various RSS feeds that I published. But the code to do that was a really nasty hack which I’ve wanted to rewrite since the day I first wrote it.

A few weeks ago, I wrote Perlanet which is a simple program for aggregating web feeds and republishing the results. As I had some spare time yesterday, I rewrote the dave.org.uk front page using Perlanet to do most of the heavy lifting. It now contains the full text of the most recent entries from my various blogs, together with examples of my latest flickr uploads and list of recent twitters and delicious links. It’ll be simple to add other feeds to the mix in the future.

I realise that this isn’t exactly new. People have had sites like this for years. But I’m happy at how quickly I managed to build this and happier that it shows that Perlanet is as flexible as I wanted it to me. I’m also pretty happy with the way that it looks (although that is, I suspect, more to do with the Boilerplate CSS framework than my design skills).

I’ve also started to publish a number of Atom feeds. As you’ll see from the top right of the new page, there is one feed containing the blog entries, one containing the shorter stuff, one for photos (that’s just the original flickr feed but it might be expanded in the future) and one that contains everything (that’s the planet davorg feed). That allows readers a bit more flexibility over what content they subscribe to.

Oh, and I’ve also taken the opportunity to remove the links to all the old jokes. The pages are still there if you know where to look, but Google Analytics tells me that they won’t be missed.

Categories
tech

More Planets

Over the weekend I found time to rebuild the rest of my missing planets. I’ve resurrected Planet Balham (Atom), Planet Westminster (Atom) and Planet Doctor Who (Atom). They all have Atom feeds available as well.

This has been an interesting test of Perlanet (my simple planet-building program). When building planet davorg, I was only using feeds that I had some kind of control over. It was therefore pretty simple to ensure that the web page created was valid HTML (though, due to some bugs in the Perl modules I’m using, the same can’t be said of the Atom feed). But with these new planets, I’m aggregating feeds from all sorts of places and am seeing problems that I hadn’t seen before. In particular I’ve changed Perlanet to deal with the cases where the feed can’t be downloaded for some reason (I think that some of the MPs on my list have stopped blogging) and where the feed isn’t valid.

There are also plenty of examples of feeds that have some pretty mad HTML in them which are breaking the layout of the output pages. On Planet Balham there seems to be some broken HTML that is badly effecting the <div>s on the page, moving the Google Adsense block halfway down the page. Also, the second half of the page is currently in italics due, I suspect, to an unclosed <i> tag. On Planet Westminster there’s also some kind of problem which means that the names of the feeds change size halfway down the page.

So it’s clear that I need to add something to clean up the feeds. I’ll probably look at using HTML::Tidy or HTML::Scrubber (perhaps both). Expect some better looking pages in the next few days.

Categories
tech

Breaking (And Then Fixing) Planets

I’ll write more about Hack Day over the next few days. But I should point out that most of yesterday was spent updating the version of Plagger on this web server. This had the unfortunate side-effect of breaking all of the Plagger-run planets on this server. So today was largely spent fixing them again.

Everything should just about be how it was. In fact, in many cases, the newer version seems to be a vast improvement over the older version that I was running previously.

There have, however, been a few small changes in the names of some of the files that are generated. The RSS and Atom feeds have been renamed, as have the OPML files. And each planet also has now has an associated FOAF file.

So here are the new URLs.

If you’re using any of those links, then you should probably update them. I’ll put some redirections in place tomorrow but, for now, I’m tired and I’m going to bed.

Categories
tech

Public Unaware of RSS

It’s good to see something like this every once in a while. It’s easy to sit there in a little geek cocoon and assume that everyone out there on the interweb is using all the same time-saving tools as you are. But as this article from The Register shows, that’s often not the case.

It seems that two thirds of blog readers haven’t heard of RSS. This will change over the next year as Microsoft are integrating RSS support into the next version of Windows (although they’ve renamed it as “web feeds”) but in the meantime if you want to get a look at what all the cool boys and girls are playing with, take a look at my introduction to RSS article.

To summarise, RSS is a technology that allows you to suck down information from many web sites in one go. If you spend too much time visiting a set list of web sites every day in order to keep up with the new content, then RSS will almost certainly save you time.

Categories
web

Dave’s First Law of Information

I’m proposing a new law which I’m calling “Dave’s First Law of Information”. It goes like this:

Information expands to more than fill the amount of time allocated to deal with it

A few years ago I had a small number of web sites that I’d visit regularly in order to keep up to date with what was going on. This would take up a small proportion of my day.

Then I found more and more web sites about subjects I was interested in and keeping up to date with them all started to take up more and more of my time. Then friends of mine started blogging and that added another couple of dozen sites to the list. It was becoming a serious drain on my time.

Enter RSS. Most of the web sites the I was interested in had RSS feeds (and the few that didn’t soon fell off the list) so I found an RSS reader that I liked and set up my list of feeds. When I started, I probably had thirty or forty feeds on my list, but because I was reading everything in one place, it suddenly took a lot less time to read them all and I regained a lot of time.

And what did I do with that time. Well, of course, I added more feeds to my list. And that soaked up more and more time again. Currently I’m approaching 200 entries on my Bloglines list and not many days go by when I don’t add another. I’m probably spending more time keeping up t odate than I was before I switched to RSS. Oh, I’m incredibly well informed, but I’ve lost all my spare time again.

So it’s probably time to prune my subscription list. There are probably a few feeds that were about events that have finished (the General Election being a good example). Then maybe there are a few feeds that haven’t proved to be as interesting as I thought they might be.

But the biggest impact will almost certainly be removing all the feeds that don’t include the full text of the entries. Reading RSS is supposed to be saving me time. I don’t have time to read a little bit of teaser text and then open up the original site to read the whole article. It’s about absorbing as much information as possible in as short a time as possible. And that means having all the information on one page.

So there may well be a bit of a cull of feeds from my subscriptions list over the weekend. Of course, that’ll just free up more time for me to add more new feeds.

Categories
tech

RSS Feeds Update

So I decided to go ahead and make the changes that I mentioned yesterday. To summarise:

  • full.rdf is now a permanent HTTP redirect to index.rdf
  • full.xml is now a permanent HTTP redirect to index.xml
  • index.xml is now a permanent HTTP redirect to atom.xml
  • Only index.rdf and atom.xml are now advertised in the metadata for this site

If you notice anything strange with these feeds over the next couple of weeks then please let me know.

Additionally, if you’re one of the twenty-five people who reads my blog through the Live Journal davorg_full account, then now might be a good time to update your subscription so it points to davorg_blog or the misnamed daveorg_burn instead.

Categories
tech

RSS Feeds

Anyone who was subscribed to the full.rdf or full.xml feeds from this site would have stopped getting updates for a couple of weeks. Sorry about that – I’ve fixed it all now and you should have just recieved many days worth of bloggy goodness.

It’s worth pointing out that full.rdf and full.xml are both deprecated and I’ll probably be killing them off in the next few weeks. Don’t worry tho’ I’ll be doing some sort of HTTP magic to ensure that your RSS reader gets redirected to the appropriate place.

And while we’re talking about deprecating feeds, I see that Atom 1.0 is about ready to go, which means that I can’t for the life of me the point in RSS 2.0 any more. If you want a simple syndication format then use Atom 1.0 and if you want the full power of RDF go with RSS 1.0.

With that in mind, I’m also considering removingf the RSS 2.0 feeds from this site. Again, I’ll redirect anyone trying to access it to the Atom feed instead.

So, to summarise, I’ll be providing a few less feeds of this site over the next few weeks. There will be an RSS 1.0 feed and an Atom 1.0 feed. In addition, there will also be the Feedburner version which combines my blog feed, my del.icio.us feed and my Flickr feed in one (RSS 1.0) feed.

Does that all make sense?