Dumb Pipes

by Quinn

Oh what fun I’ve had behind the scenes at The Obscurer recently. If you’re one of the few humans to read this on the website itself (as opposed to a human who uses a feedreader, or a spambot that visits the website) then you may have noticed the other day that I’d experimented with my first major redesign of this blog since I’d moved to WordPress some three years ago. I loaded up the the beautifully minimalistic Manifest theme, and I was very happy with it, noting the way the look of this blog had mimicked the career path of Talk Talk from “The Party’s Over” through “The Colour Of Spring” to “Spirit Of Eden”, as I started with the classic-pop of the standard Scribe template on Blogger, stripped it down to my more individual style with the assistance of veryplaintxt, and then pared everything to the beautiful bare bones with no widgets and fewer plugins. That was until my wife, after viewing this blog in IE6 at work said “what the hell have you done to your blog?” “Looks good, don’t you think?” I responded. “It looks awful,” she replied. And viewing it on IE6, I had to agree. So, for now, we’re back to this archaic theme, albeit one with a bit of the clutter removed from the sidebar, and a plan to investigate “child themes” so I can keep my customisations while finally updating the theme to include all those newish WordPress features like threaded comments that I don’t want to use.

Oh don’t worry, I’m under no illusions. I’m fully aware that no one else shows a tenth of the interest in this blog that I do, and to an extent that is part of the appeal. Tinkering pointlessly with the design and set-up at times seems more important to me than actually writing a post; and writing a post often plays second fiddle to actually publishing it. Often a sort of pedantic perfectionism takes a hold and I’ll spend way too long faffing about over some trivial rejig, but I justify it with the fact that I’m doing this for my own satisfaction rather than for an imaginary reader who might actually give a damn. That way I don’t feel so bad about spending ages installing drop capitals, or sorting a mobile edition, or changing the font in my blockquotes; all stuff you almost certainly won’t have noticed. One day I spent hours trying to debug a problem with the template which meant that the meta-data (that “This was written by Quinn…” gubbins at the bottom of each post) would ride up the side of an image if the text in the post was only short and the image was aligned to one side or the other. It was a problem that affected literally two-or-three posts such as this one, and which I’m sure fussed not a soul; yet when I’d finally sorted it (a simple “clear: both;” command in the stylesheet) it gave me a great sense of achievement.

But my most wasteful waste of time has got to be my tumblr. I already had one tumblelog which I used for my family and friends, for displaying simple snapshots or videos or brief posts, emailing them from my mobile whilst on holiday, so that on my return people could tell me “oh aye, I forgot to check your website for updates when you were away.” But I suddenly became attached to the idea of creating another tumblog for The Obscurer, to collect together links to all my posts, tweets and delicious bookmarks. I didn’t care if nobody looked at it – and in that I haven’t been disappointed, and I have the stats to prove it – I just liked the idea of tying things up neatly for me to refer to again if I liked. And it was easy enough to set up too, not even that time consuming; simply a matter of creating the tumblog, playing with a template to imitate some of the look of this blog, and then arranging it so it would publish the result of my blog, twitter and delicious rss feeds. Perfect, if pointless.

But of course it wasn’t that simple, and soon I realised I had gone down the path, once again, of creating a time consuming project that no one else cared about but which would frustrate the hell out of me. It was those rss feeds that were the problem; everything was duplicated, everywhere. I’d use twitter tools to issue a tweet each time I published a post post here, so each post would show up in both my blog and twitter feeds, and so would show up twice on my tumblr; and I used twitterfeed to do the same for each delicious bookmark, with the same result. I also, at the time, was doing those weekly twitter digests, meaning that tumblr would needlessly update each week with a link to a post here which detailed the collection of the tweets my tumblr had already reproduced individually over the preceding seven days. Now, I could just manually delete those duplicates as and when then came in, but that would be stupid waste of time. Better just to scrap the idea of the tumblog, obviously. But sadly, for no good reason, something in me wouldn’t allow me to do that. There was a problem, and I just needed to find some solution, somehow.

And I found that solution my usual way; by trying everything I could think of and getting it wrong wrong wrong until suddenly, surprisingly, I stumbled upon the thing that worked. And that thing was Yahoo! Pipes. Now you may well know about these things already – I’m usually the last to know – but in essence pipes are where you create your own rss feeds; you can take a feed or a number of feeds in one end, amend and adjust them, and out the other end you get your own personal feed. So, rather than tumblr simply publishing this blog’s rss feed, I get it to publishes the blog pipe; the blog feed goes in one end, runs through an operation that strips out any posts in the “twitterings” category, and publishes a revised feed at the other end. I did the same for my twitter feed; tumblr instead publishes the twitter pipe, being the twitter feed minus my blog posts and bookmarks. Out go the duplicates, and what is left is an easily maintainable tumblog that I can ignore as easily as everyone else can. Sorted.

But it got me thinking; what other uses could there be for Yahoo! Pipes? Surely in this internet and digital age where everything is reduced to zeros and ones there must be a way to use Pipes – or some distant cousin of Pipes – beyond just amending rss feeds for websites no one reads into a combined rss feed for another website no one reads? Surely they must have a more practical use? And once I had set my mind on that train of thought, it was hard to stop.

Let’s take it a step at a time. When I first started reading blogs I liked to read widely, to actively court opposing views; some, like Biased BBC, I read just because I couldn’t help getting wound up by them (before finally kicking the habit), but others I found genuinely interesting even if they did come from a different point of view. But time is tight, and those reasoned blogs I’d disagree with could always be relied upon to write one too many stupid posts until my considered opinion was “get to fuck”; and so over time the stuff in my Bloglines Google Reader has come to reflect rather than challenge my prejudices. However, stray onto the comment pages of those blogs written by authors I agree with and before long you will still encounter those tiresome opinions that I’d much rather be insulated from. I’m talking about the likes of Newmania on Hopi Sen, Bob B on Stumbling & Mumbling, David Duff on Banditry*, Sally on Lib Con, Quinn on The Filter; all people who I rapidly scroll past when I guess that the tedious drivel I’m reading is one of their efforts. But how better to avoid this crap altogether?! I could use shutup.css or readability to get rid of the lot, but many comments are fine. Most blogs , though, now publish a comments feed; couldn’t you just whack one through a Yahoo! pipe, strip out any comments that are by or refer to the aforementioned bores and hey presto! A more enlightened comment thread at a stroke! There has to be a plugin going begging right there.

What about beyond blogs and out in the dreaded MSM? Perhaps you could do the same on the Daily Mail so you only read red arrowed comments? Then again, it’s probably better to simply avoid the Daily Mail altogether (and bless Rupert Murdoch for saving us the job and putting The Times behind a paywall, so it doesn’t even trouble Google News). But what if I want to know about a particular subject, say our good friend “public sector pensions”, but I want to read informed analysis of their viability rather than an ideological rant? Could I just set up a Google news alert for “public sector pensions”, run it through a pipe that strips out any article that mentions “gold plated” or “pensions apartheid” and consider it done? I don’t see why not. Sure it’s not foolproof, I may still get articles I disagree with, but that’s fine; they should at least be a little bit more intelligent, or at least more imaginative in their bias.

But of course the internet isn’t just web pages. I love my Pure Evoke Flow internet radio for the way it can slip almost seamlessly between listening to live Test Match Special on 5Live Sports Extra to yesterday’s Archers on Listen Again to a Collings & Herrin podcast. How about the viability of someone far cleverer than me hacking it and running its output through a pipe? Then, when listening to football commentary on 5Live it can automatically go quiet when Alan Green comes on? Sure, Jimmy Armfield or Graham Taylor will sound as if they’re talking to themselves for a while, but that’s still better that hearing Green whining on and on about some minor, trivial point as if it is a serious affront to human decency. Perhaps you could take another feed from another radio station – even TalkSport – when the egotist approaches the mic, until John Murray or Mike Ingam get their turn? Okay, it’s a rough idea, a work in progress, but one worth considering, and extending to television in turn.

When I was younger I always thought that technology had advanced as far as it could; that the arrival of Betamax and Channel 4 were the apex of our achievements and that the fantasy you’d see on Space 1999, of people talking into little mobile video phones was just that. Now my kids look baffled when we’re on holiday and I have to explain that we can’t pause and rewind the TV like we can on our PVR at home, an invention I never even countenanced. But as times change so do our expectations; we have come a long way since those days when we had no choice but to be passive recipients of whatever the neutral reporting of the BBC and ITN allowed, our prejudices only partially sated by the bias of the Telegraph or the Observer. The internet and new media on the otherhand has allowed such a wonderful profusion of different voices, a boom in choice and variety, that it has enabled us to selectively listen to a far narrower range of views than ever before. With filters such as Pipes going that inevitable step further and, if successfully arranged, preventing any dissenting voices from ever invading our brain space, technology allows us another fantasy: an echo chamber where we can confirm what we always half-believed. That all our opinions are wholly right.

Update 5/9/10: That’s the way to do it! Via Jim, a Ryan Avent-only pipe drawn from the RSS feed for The Economist’s “Free Exchange” blog.

* I’ve given up on John B, actually, after reading one daft comment too many. Although a pipe to remove any post where he deems it necessary to refer to someone as an idiot just because they hold a differing opinion† may be tolerable.
† Oh dear. Sadly, that’s all of them.