Help me find a Read-later / Notes solution

Dear Reader,

I’m looking for a suggestion, or a coalescence of suggestions to drive me towards a solution.

I’m looking for a read later solution that doubles as a notes repository. See, I want to not just read longform articles at peace, I want to also take notes and highlight things and (maybe?) search my notes and recall things over time.

Here’s a list of everything I’ve tried to date –

Mainstream

  1. Instapaper – Of course this is first on the list. It ticks off almost all the boxes. It’s reasonably priced, cheaper ($30/year) than its main competitor, and has been around since forever. It’s also everywhere. Why am I even writing this post? Well…
  2. Pocket – This is the alternative. It’s nice. It’s too well integrated into my current browser of choice (Firefox). It handles video etc well, supposedly. (Ah, that’s why I’m pondering this – should I lean towards Pocket because it does things that Instapaper simply is not capable of?) Flip side – Pocket just looks wonky. It’s like they married Material Design and never looked beyond. I hate that their list view doesn’t show snippets of the text of the article (Instapaper does). Heck, I modify my RSS readers to show me that stuff, who is Pocket not to show it to me? When there’s a banner image available, Pocket prefers to show that, which just shows that their style is more images-visual then text-readable. It gives me pause. Also, expensive! Though it’s just $15/annum more than Instapaper.
  3. Wallabag – Yes, this is ‘mainstream’ because AlternativeTo lists it as a leading alternative to Instapaper. It’s also the one most talked about after the top two. Wallabag is nice, and it makes me pause and wonder whether I want vendor lock-in and data dependency over time. Options like wallabag are what make it difficult for people like me to choose closed source over open source. Damn you French people! The problems with wallabag are more like – their iOS apps don’t support note-taking, and neither do their iOS website versions. It’s really painful that I have almost everything I need, including data independence, and then they lack features on the move. Yikes. Free, self-hosted solutions are nice, if they work. Wallabag has a long way to go because it’s ready for this generation of web users.

Others

  1. Polar Bookshelf – This is an interesting alternative. Polar lets you save articles into their app in a custom format, called phz, which is basically where they load the page in a custom browser, let the JS finish it’s magic, then lock it down and freeze the page as such, without any JS. This becomes a very impressive document that’s not PDF (ugh, I hate PDFs), but not a live doc either. I’ve had some hits and misses with Polar though. Sometimes, when it screws up a document’s format (because don’t devs love to write weird CSS?), there’s no way to fix that. Also, due to it’s use of a custom browser, it doesn’t support ad-blocking or element removal as yet. The devs have said that they’re working on a solution so we can use our own browsers and the attached technologies, but no idea when that will come along. Last nail in coffin? Polar has a web app and desktop apps, but no mobile apps. But it’s not all bad. Polar is supported by a vigorous sync solution that’s free (you can pay for Pro if you want some cloud storage (2GB-5GB) and hang out at their members-only lounge). The desktop apps are just great when it comes to actual use and reading. The problem? Their design is that you click on an article in their list and it opens a special view where you read and bookmark/take notes in a sidebar. This view doesn’t open in the mobile version of their sites, specially on the iPad, which is where it would be super useful. Instead of that, they do weird stuff like syncing flashcards to Anki. I guess the dev was a student at one point? Also, pricey if you go for premium ($5-$8 depending on how much cloud storage you need. Seriously, how much cloud storage do we need?)
  2. Hypothes.is – This is, at the same time, not an alternative, and a great alternative. Hypothesis just works. It’s great for when I’m reading something on my desktop, need to quickly highlight, so I hit the bookmarklet and seconds later, the JS has loaded, logged me in, and I’m good to go to highlight and take notes. An amazing thing – hypothesis even works on the move – while they don’t have an app, if you go to their site and paste in a url (this is in mobile Safari), it’ll load up the article with their JS enabled, on their fancy via.hypothes.is domain, and their Annotation and Highlighting features work pretty well there. Problems – lack of app means I end up using the layout of the site, which is something I want to escape at times using pretty read-later fonts and text-extraction. Also, hypothes.is isn’t positioned as read-later+notes. It’s positioned as read-later+notes for scholars, and to promote healthy discussion on the web. This doesn’t mean that your notes are all public. You can choose for them to be private if you want. Also, they have API access for all, but no data export that I could find. Also, also, they don’t add a page to your account till you first annotate it. So it’s not read-later, as much as it’s “we’ll store your highlights and notes from around the web”. Lastly, hypothes.is is free, and a non-profit, and has big media sponsors… I… dunno what to think of that.
  3. Liner – I got a free sub to this when I first created a Samsung account. It’s… ok? It’s got apps across all platforms. It’s got a good set of features. Frankly, I didn’t use it much. Primarily because damn it’s pricey! $5/mo which reduces to $4/mo when paid yearly. Looking at hypothes.is and even Instapaper, that’s a lot! Heck, even Pocket is cheaper!

Strange experiments of the fourth kind

So, after I mucked around with all kinds of cross-platform services, I dipped my toe into some platform specific, or interesting solutions –

  1. FiveFilter’s Push to Kindle – Yes, this is a neat solution. I like reading on my Kindle app, and Kindle’s note taking abilities are epic! Every book I’ve read in there has it’s notes stored away safely (really?) in Amazon’s vault. I have exported said notes when I needed them. The problem with this process is that my Kindle experience gets cluttered. Almost all the problems with this process are at Amazon’s end – their library management is pretty s-h-i-t-e. I can’t sort stuff into folders, and for mobi files I’ve exported, if I mistakenly delete them from a device, all my notes are gone too (I think). Also, if I send a document to one device, it doesn’t go to other devices. There’s no way for me to tell the system to send this document to, like, my iPhone and my iPad. Also, even if I send it to my iOS devices, I can’t open the document on Kindle Cloud Reader, which would be a nice-to-have. On the FiveFilter’s side, the problem is that I don’t want to send single documents any more. They clutter my Kindle library up. I want to send a few at a time. So, I discovered –
  2. Epub Press – Epub Press is this awesome thing that lets you take a bunch of tabs, combine them into one big eBook and ship it away. Well, not quite. Their email function doesn’t work. So I can download the files to my dropbox and sync away. This suits me because I can then import the file to the Kindle app on all my devices. But the text-extraction isn’t very impressive. There was absolutely no formatting applied to the end-product, almost as if it were an archive.org eBook. (I know, I shouldn’t be shitting on a free resource like archive.org, but seriously, they need to learn eBook creation from Gutenberg). Epub Press is a fair solution because they allow you the choice of creating a mobi (for Kindle) or an ePub (for Apple Books), and because they let you compile as many articles as you want into a weekly/monthly/weekend reads. If it weren’t for the problems with Kindle, this could have been an ideal solution for me.
  3. Mobile Safari’s Create PDF/Save PDF in Books – I hate PDFs.
  4. Mobile Safari’s Send to Kindle – This is supposed to be from the Kindle app itself, but it doesn’t seem to work for me. Hit and miss. Sometimes, it’ll tell me that it’s sending the document to my Kindle app, and will then just… forget.
  5. Using a journal app to take notes – I used Day One as my primary thoughtsbox. I have a journal in there called Quotes that I sometimes add a good quote to. It’s a nice way to recall some thought years later. But Day One is staunchly not-cross-platform. They keep promising a web app, but haven’t delivered a fully functioning one yet. Their Chrome extension is nice, but I’ve yet to see a corresponding Firefox one yet. Not that I need it. I hacked my way to make the Chrome extension independent of Chrome, but it’s still a jugaad and there’s no good way for me to make extensive notes and highlights on it. I also don’t want to clutter it with read-later stuff. Just doesn’t feel like the right use of the technology.
  6. Publicly blogging about it – once in a while, I’ll want to talk about an article publicly and so I’ll make a blog post with highlights, my notes, etc. But it’s not a very easy process. I have to constantly go back and forth between my site and theirs, to copy content over (because WP supports a ‘quote’, but only one quote to begin a post with. After that you’re on your own to copy paste and format). This method doesn’t work well on mobile. I’d rather have a dedicated reading space which lets me highlight stuff, and then export it, sort of how the Kindle does it.
  7. Not-publicly blogging about it – The same as above, but I don’t publish it publicly, I just keep the notes in Private mode. I like private mode.

There are solutions that I’ve tried over the years and not bothered pursuing or listing here. Apps like Unmark, which do a great job of letting you know what’s on your plate to read, but don’t let you read in a clean environment, or let you make notes, don’t count here. Similarly, apps like Evernote don’t either, because they’re not a read-later solution.

I know there are hundreds of solutions I’ve not tried or talked about. Most of them are closely related to what I’ve listed above. For example, TheBrain, DevonThink, Refind, Google Keep, OneNote, etc are all nice, but don’t fit into the box I’m trying to fill here.

So, dear reader (first of all, thanks for getting to this point), tell me what should I do? Should I bite the bullet and go with the top most solution, Instapaper, which is well priced, focused specifically on reading text (which is what I primarily want), but which is run by someone else? Or should I go with some form of open source solution that might cause me headaches but at least I’ll keep all of my thoughts with me over the years? Maybe I should go with a solution like Hypothes.is, which is free, non-profit, and an interesting technology. Or maybe I should be looking at it from a different perspective, or looking at a solution I’ve never even heard or thought much of? What’s your opinion?

Dat Rats

But if a YouTube channel disappears, it’s gone to us.

Source: Dat Rats

I worry about this too, sometimes, because it would seem that we’ve created and destroyed more content on the Internet than the entire Greek civilization produced for us.

But other times, I’m ambivalent to the idea. Some of the most important ideas survive and move on to the next level or the next civilization and there’s always progress.

So while yeah, it would suck if these cool/weird/fun sites disappear, and if YouTube one day loses all content from a period of time. But how much would it be a loss for civilization? The ideas would have been absorbed by the people of the time and the most important ones move on with artists and consumers in different ways.

A comment on The YouTube Conundrum

The following is a comment I was writing on the above post. It became long enough that I’d rather just throw it on here for posterity. A couple of loosely knit thoughts on YouTube –

YouTube seems different.

Source: Is YouTube Fundamental or Trivial? – Study Hacks – Cal Newport

YouTube is different.

Instagram, twitter etc have a feed. YouTube doesn’t have a feed like that. YouTube does have an autoplay option, but in my experience most people prefer to keep it turned off. It’s a fundamentally different browsing model than these other social networks.

The author wishes people use YouTube as a sort of backend to embed videos into their websites. I’d say that a lot of people did initially experiment with video embeds as a means of ‘indiewebifying’ YouTube and Vimeo. Many still continue to do so. So many methods of embeds exist, from WordPress shortcodes to YouTube itself giving you easy to copy iframe and html5 snippets. But that’s not how YouTube is truly consumed. Just like those other social networks, YouTube is consumed mainly within their app. There’s true continuity there, even though most people don’t actually use it.

The other point is that content is king. When you’re chasing silly cat videos, whatever YouTube suggests seems fine. Similarly, when my wife has to do some housework, she puts on one fashion blogger or the other and the algorithm takes her on a journey of background noise that’s more than adequate.

However, when we get home and want to either watch some news/latenight commentary/random funny videos from specific content creators, we specifically select a video, play it, and exit after it’s done.

My main method of consuming YouTube is on the Apple TV. With the new version of their app, YouTube has effectively shot themselves in the foot. The app doesn’t do a very good job of good, engaging, never-ending recommendations. We’re a little more discerning than letting complete random videos play when we’re actively looking at the screen, so after a few refreshes, the content of the day dries up and we can actually get out and watch something else we’ve been paying for – Netflix or Amazon.

So what’s the right way to think about YouTube: is it fundamental to the internet revolution, or just another source of social media distraction?

YouTube is both, true. But it’s both because people have recognized the value of uploading serious content on there. Now, serious content isn’t only suited to video format. It can be made in photos (see brainpickings Instagram) and in tweets (the reuters twitter feed). But can it be consumed in those formats easily? No, and that’s why YouTube stands out.

YouTube is a conundrum because people actively upload cat videos on it.

Squarespace is the best and the worst at RSS

Within the last 12 hours, I’ve come across two websites hosted on Squarespace that portray how one mustn’t do RSS. Sadly, at some level, it’s not necessary that the owners of these websites even know what I’m talking about.

I’d like to name these sites –

Soup

and

StephenMarche

These are nice sites – well designed, purposeful, vibrant. But their content is so pitifully inaccessible through RSS. Here’s why –

With Soup, I really wanted to get RSS access to all of the topics they cover. These are Culture, Food, Interviews, Features, to name a few. Usually, when I’m on a site that has RSS feeds, the SubToMe extension tells me how to get to it. In the case of Soup, it failed. The content is visible on the homepage, but the RSS feed that it picked up was blank –

http://thesoup.website/index-rally?format=RSS

‘rally’ is what piqued my interest. What is this CMS?

WhatCMS says that it’s Squarespace.

Well, what do Squarespace’s docs say about RSS feeds? Do they even support them?

As it turns out, they do, and quite well! (or so say their docs)

So I opened each of the ‘topics’ I wanted to subscribe to on Soup’s site and found their RSS feeds using SubToMe. One example –

http://thesoup.website/culturesoup/ -> http://thesoup.website/culturesoup?format=RSS

I immediately noticed that the content is there in it’s entirety! That’s amazing. It almost never happens on commercial sites that the RSS feed carries the entire content.

Good – RSS feeds contain entire content

Bad – I had to subscribe to eight different feeds. There’s no parent or ‘all’ feed

 

Later, I came across Stephen Marche’s writing in NYT and that led me to his site. Again, beautiful site, really modern, really functional and pleasing. I jumped to the Essays -> Recent Work section but alas, SubToMe didn’t find any RSS feed!

By now, I’d wizened up. I know that on most pages, just adding ‘?format=rss’ at the end will get me the RSS feed. So I did that. Nothing. Why is that? Perhaps because the recent work page isn’t really a traditional list of items that Squarespace converts into RSS. It’s a static page which the Admin just adds URLs to the top of. But how would I know the difference? There’s no way. So as of right now, I’m subscribed to Soup’s RSS but not to Stephen Marche’s. I followed him on Medium, but ugh.

Pro – ???

Con – Maybe the admin turned off RSS on purpose? Maybe the page I’m looking at cannot support RSS?

Now, I can reach out to the owners of these sites to figure things out. Maybe I’ll end up educating them on the importance of RSS and maybe I’ll learn something new about Squarespace (do they even support an ‘all’ RSS feed? I don’t know, I’ve never used the platform). Maybe all they need is a slight push in the right direction, or maybe it’s a long project that’ll require a reworking of their workflow (which, tbh, why would they do that for me?)

But I don’t want to do any of this. RSS is the perfect stalker medium on the Internet. Facebook and WhatsApp show you read notifications. On twitter and Instagram you’d end up hitting ‘like’ by mistake. But RSS is one-way (depending on which RSS reader you use) and so it’s perfect for people like me who just want to cultivate their little corner of the Internet.

There’s a post out today by Brent Simmons talking about an article that’s talking about the demise of RSS. Brent points out that RSS doesn’t need to be the ‘default’ for everyone and RSS readers don’t need to be installed on every device on Earth for this to be a successful technology. It already is.

This is most visible with beautiful walled gardens such as Squarespace. Most people who host with Squarespace do it because it’s commercial and aligns with their interests. The primary method of communication for consumers is the newsletter. There are options for eCommerce shops, podcasting, and email campaigns. Much off this could happen without RSS. But Squarespace took the basic RSS technology and chose to use it as the back-end for most of these things. Podcasting is basically an RSS feed with audio attached, so there really was no choice but to use this open standard. Wherever RSS feeds are available, they’re full length and rather useful. So could RSS have a place on the Internet? It already does.

Has anyone I know played with Tim Berners-Lee’s Solid?

I was reading TBL’s profile in Vanity Fair and I learnt of this new idea he is working on – an idea of “Socially Linked Data” (SOLID) – which wants to decouple data and the apps that consume them, thus allowing more data portability and data ownership. The profile itself was more focused on the persona and his Oxonian wispy hair (I can’t blame Vanity Fair for focusing on that, but I can blame them for not linking to Solid’s homepage or github on their site) so the above description is from Solid’s sites.

Has anyone I know used it or played with it? How does it differ from or relate to IndieWeb?

Also, how does this truly help in making our data more free? The value that Facebook and Google derive from our data is not from the data itself, but the linking of that data with other data, or the relations that said data makes within itself. I do not know the extent of the data that Facebook creates on me. That data, wholly solely is owned by Facebook. Even if I export large parts of data about myself using their export, including the data they’ve collected (such as the WiFis I connect to, the times I browse my phone, all the items I’ve left in carts of shopping sites that connect with Facebook), I still cannot, afaik, get my hands on the data they create on me. How will a solution such as Solid make that data less harmful?

Anyone care to comment?

Photo by willowbl00