Sticky is good, brimming is better

In my last post on the topic, I said that when I reached into my memory for alternatives to Goodreads, I remembered only StoryGraph and Literal.

This is good. Whatever is sticky is what we use in the end.

Recently, it went a little further. Lately, I’ve become a fan of a lot of alternatives to books. 13 out of the 18 books I “read” this past year were audiobooks. Another 3 were actually Harry Potter fan fiction web novellas from a series called Ever Upward. It’s worth a read.

There’s another web novel which I’m reading right now, on and off, which I have no hopes of finishing soon. It’s called Worm and it’s three times the size of War and Peace, which took me well over 2 years to read.

But the significant thing is that both the fan fiction and the web novel are online entities that have no ISBN, publishing house, or even profit motive. They are purely labors of love, freely given to the world, published online in a format that may outlast humanity or may disappear tomorrow.

Which means there’s no serious way to track the fact that I’m reading them other than putting them in my notes or on my blog. Goodreads doesn’t acknowledge them. Neither does Literal.

But StoryGraph does.

A few months ago, I wanted to record that I’m reading Worm. None of the services – Goodreads or it’s alternatives seemed to have Worm as a “book”. But StoryGraph did. I added it. But I’ve not really used it to track my progress. Mostly lack thereof.

A few days ago, I felt like adding my progress on the Ever Upward series to the reading services. Sure enough, StoryGraph is the only one that has it, with each numbered novella a separate entity. I added it and quickly marked the first three novellas as “read”, adding them to my 2023 Reading list.

I like Literal. It’s got a nice interface, a very good community. They have this cool feature where you can create Clubs based on any random criteria and people can join them and add recommended books as well as posts to those Clubs. I’m an active member of a club called “Complex Females” and the creator of a club called “Short books“. But like most other non-Goodreads platforms, Literal suffers from a lack of records. Books are missing or not available in the format I’m reading them in. To fight this, Literal created a program called Librarians where you can contribute information about missing books and editions. Still, there doesn’t seem to be a way in Literal to track non-ISBN books.

StoryGraph doesn’t have a program like this per se. But any member can import a ISBN based book. What they also have is a feature that says that if you don’t have an ISBN, you can manually add a book and plug in information about the work. This is probably what some kind strangers used to add Worm and Ever Upward to the platform. I’ve found this to be a rather unique option that’s not present anywhere else. In general, if you want to track something you’re reading on the web, your main options are Read Later tools like Instapaper or Omnivore. I do not want StoryGraph to track every article or LongRead out there, but the idea of tracking web novellas is unique and very satisfying.

I want to give my money to StoryGraph. It’s $50 a year for the annual plan (or $5 a month for the monthly plan). That seems like a reasonable way to support the platform. Literal on the other hand, has a “Patron” system where you can contribute $5/$10/$20 a month to help keep the lights on and improve the platform. Seems reasonable too.

Literal has a social aspect that StoryGraph lacks. StoryGraph has Stats. Who doesn’t like stats?

Ideally, I’d like these platforms to merge so I can have exceptional stats as well as a social aspect that’s entirely around book clubs. But that’s just wishful thinking.

What do you think dear reader? Where should my money go?

Oh, and about the title of the post. I am leaning towards StoryGraph because it’s brimming with more than just ISBN based books. It’s helping me track web novellas which I would have no way of tracking through a “reading platform” otherwise.

Refreshing my RSS feeds list

Welp, I’ve done it this time. I was fiddling with some settings in my current feed reader of choice – Fiery Feeds – and I hit a sync button that’s meant to download everything from iCloud and rebuild the database. Turns out, iCloud is, as usual, not good at actually saving important data. Part of this is my fault. I have had some 14,000 unread items in there, and about 900 feeds. Sync would often time out and almost never complete.

So I lost all my feeds. As I stared at it dumbly, waiting for the feeds to come back, a calm came over me. This is what inbox zero feels like. When, after multiple forced syncs later, nothing happened, I was relieved.

I thought about it. The last OPML export I have is from December of 2019. I’ve added maybe 20 feeds since then, which are now lost. If I import the OPML, I’ll get back my starred items and general state, but I’ll not get back the calm.

So, I’ve decided to do an overhaul of my feeds. I know a lot of sites I’ve subscribed to either don’t exist any more, or haven’t updated in a while. So it’s time to shed the load.

Working through this large an OPML file is a chore. First, I tried to do it manually. Too much work. Then I tried to find tools to help. I found a six year old github repo to find dead feeds. It found a few, but mostly got it wrong. Instead, I’ve imported the OPML to my Firefox LiveMarks extension. It’s not the perfect solution, but at least I’m able to go through the list faster and cull it satisfactorily.

Other than the feeds that are dead, I’m also striving to shed some weight. At some point, I subbed to some GTD and Productivity feeds. Deleted those. It’s no longer my area of interest. Older still are feeds related to Network Engineering. It’s what my MS is in, but it’s no longer my main area of concern. So I’ve removed those. I’m also removing webcomics that haven’t been updated since mid-2019. There are quite a few of those. Frankly, it’s fine if the authors want to take a break. I, too, don’t update my blog often. But there are other ways for me to discover their content. Tapas and Instagram are doing a good job, so I’m going to lean on those for my comic needs. This doesn’t mean all webcomics are going away from my feeds. On the contrary, I’m keeping most of them, specially long-running stories that I follow keenly, like Gaia comic, and Slack Wyrm. But others are out.

At some point I also subscribed to a lot of programming related blogs. Those are nice navel-gazing, but ultimately worthless to me. I’m not a programmer, I’m a scripter. I’m not into deep programming concepts even on the languages that are my bread, butter, and jam – python and JavaScript. So for me to sub to serious computer scientists and programmers was a mistake then, and is a mistake now. It’s not that I won’t glean something off them, just that I don’t need to, right now.

This is tough work, but it’ll be worth it in the end. Recently, I found out that a friend has a very strict gate on who she follows on Instagram. She has a roster of 99 people and whenever she has to follow someone new, she forces herself to remove one person from the list. I’ve never, ever removed a feed from my list. This is the same list I’ve been carrying around since my first RSS feed reader – Fever – and some items are even carried forward from Google Reader. I’ve always thought that at best, the feeds that die are not much extra weight than some processing cycles, and at worst, the items I don’t read get deleted at the end of my 15 days, one month, two months, 90 days limit. That moving limit is part of the cause of all this trouble I’m in.

But the largest forcing function is my feed reader. Fiery Feeds is an awesome piece of software and Lukas Burgstaller is an exceptional dev, and a highly responsive support person. But I made a conscious choice at one point to move away from all server-side RSS feed services and use Fiery Feeds’ native, on-device accounts. I’m paying for the app because I love and want to support it, so I might as well use the biggest feature Lukas has introduced. But this on-device, synced-via-iCloud system has its drawbacks, and this means that I can’t be an ignorant buffoon about my feeds any more. I have to shed, cull, strip, whatever you want to call it.

One very interesting thing I’ve done over time is to use kill-the-newsletter.com to the best of its abilities. I do not like newsletters, but there’s a LOT of content that’s going to email newsletters exclusively nowadays, and that sucks. Kill The Newsletter converts these emails to RSS feed items. It’s not a perfect solution, specially since it’s a bit of a blackbox, but it works just fine for now and it’s FOSS, so I’m happy. So, these are a guilty pleasure I’m not getting rid of. We’ll see how this decision pans out. Maybe I’ll have to figure out a way to merge all newsletters into one RSS feed. Or use a dedicated app to read newsletters on my iPhone. There are a few of those out there now.

All in all, this is an exercise in refreshing and rethinking what I consume online. Hopefully, it’ll lead to a better feed reading experience for me.

Reeder 4 is here?!

I’ve been experimenting with Tiny Tiny RSS for a couple of weeks now, to figure out if I’m done with Fever RSS. Part of it is that Fever runs on a Digital Ocean VPS and I’d like to reduce the load on that server as much as possible.

I run TT-RSS on my home PC and get access to it using ZeroTier wherever I am. My app of choice for it on the move is Fiery Feeds. It’s a beautiful app with an amazing, rich feature set. But the main reason I use it is because Reeder doesn’t natively support TT-RSS.

But, I’m learning that I’m set in my ways. the TT-RSS web app feels just as dated as Fever, and there are some features in Fever that I really enjoyed, which I miss in TT-RSS. Since I’m looking at two dated, self-hosted RSS readers, why not go with the one I’ve used more?

Also, Fiery Feeds is gorgeous, but it’s not Reeder. Reeder is familiar and cozy. It’s got matured syncing and great UX. Fiery Feeds comes close, but there are some things which are just irksome, such as the way it opens up articles as a pop up. The cadence of Reeder’s panes is just beautiful to work with.

Today I learnt that Reeder 4 has been out since April 25th. At an absurd cross-device cost of $5, it’s a steal for all the features Reeder gives you.

But here’s the flip side – I only use Fever (and now TT-RSS) and while TT-RSS has a plug-in for Fever, I’m more inclined to just use Fever. Which means I have no space for using any other paid or free RSS reader service. So I’m really restricted in what I’m doing with Reeder. Further, though I’ve started using Instapaper as my read later solution, I’ve never really understood the point of using Reeder for Instapaper. It’s fine to skim through, but wouldn’t you rather use the Instapaper apps to read the content? For me, the highlighting and notes functionality of Instapaper is essential. How does one ignore that to read content on Reeder?

Lastly, there’s the demise of Mercury. Mercury has been my savior in this mess of RSS feeds. My TT-RSS installation has a Mercury plugin that cleans up and extracts content from the feeds. It really just works, and since they’ve made it open source and unavailable as an API, Reeder is bound to suffer. Reeder 4 is now experimenting with something called Bionic Reading and it’s a hit or miss. We’ll see.

So here it is –

  1. I’m tired of TT-RSS and untired of Fever (for now).
  2. I love Reeder 3 and Reeder 4 is ridiculously cheap for an upgrade. I have an older iPad Pro, so Reeder 3 works really well for me. But buying 4 means supporting Rizzi in the amazing work he’s doing.

  3. Fiery Feeds is awesome and pretty and useful, but I don’t pay for the subscription, so I don’t get to use the fancy automatic folders that it creates.

  4. RIP Mercury

  5. I really want to get my RSS feed reader off the VPS and onto my local setup, secured and made accessible through ZeroTier.

How many people reading this have already bought Reeder 4?

How is it?

Have you used Bionic Reading?

Which RSS reader service do you use it with?

Do you read Instapaper articles on Reeder 4? How is that experience?

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?

How to read today

I just read Lipi Mehta’s article on TheReader about her habit of reading and how it disappeared.

I faced a similar situation at one point in my life when I realized that I’ve stopped reading. I used to read a few books a year, at least but of late I’d struggled with even one. This is the advice I gave to myself and to Lipi as a comment on the site –

So many of us began our lives as readers and then slowed or stopped. I got the mantle of “William Shakespeare III” in 9th class for my habit of writing, which to me is nothing more than an extension of my habit of reading. The phrase, “you read a lot”, has stuck with me throughout my life.

But just like you, I don’t read as much any more. I moved on to the Internet a long time ago and things just seem to go along. Here and there, I’d read a book. Then I was gifted an iPad and I thought, “this is it; now I’ll read a lot!” That didn’t happen.

Of late, I’ve discovered something – if I can pick up a book with a good font and just devote every evening to it, I’ll get through it. I read James Michener’s Poland like that recently. It was just me and the book every evening after work. It irritated everyone around me, but I stuck to it and did finish it. I tried to do the same for “Bullet or the Ballot Box”, a book about the recent history of Nepal. But I had to return the library copy. I then realized that I must move on to eBooks. I found the ebook and did the same thing I did for Poland, this time on my phone. I got through the book and made extensive notes too.

Now, I’ve decided to tackle “War and Peace”. It’s a massive book. I know this not by the size of the book in my hand, but the number of chapters iBooks lists in the index. But I’m toiling through it, one line at a time. I read whenever I get the chance – travelling in the bus, waiting for someone or something, a few pages before I sleep.

I know I’ll get through this book too. It’ll be disjointed and broken. The experience will not be as character-building as the books in our childhood were – we used to read voraciously, swallowing ideas and notions whole. Now, it’ll be a miracle to just get through the book.

But here’s my suggestion to you – load up a book on your phone. Find eBooks or borrow them. Just don’t make the mistake of loading up a library. Make it one book at a time and read as much as you can, as often as you can. Suddenly, you’ll realize that you’d have gone through most of the book and the plot will be able to climax. That’s when you’ll thank yourself for taking this advice!

Cheers!
Nitin

DotIt!

A bookmarklet for importing to DotDotDot –

A few days ago I posted about an up and coming service called DotDotDot that is a great replacement for Instapaper. That day someone posted a link to my blog on HackerNews and my site got 280 hits in a day, a record for my blog… 🙂 Continue reading