RSS and why you need it

Montage of RSS feed icons and logos
Montage of various RSS feed and feed reader icons

Yesterday, I was quite surprised to read in a Yahoo! report that awareness of RSS is low among Internet users. The report, based on a survey, discovered that only 12% of Internet users are aware of RSS, while only a third of those (4%) have actually knowingly used RSS! It’s time to do something about that, I think.

Depending on who you speak with RSS can mean either “Rich Site Summary” or “Really Simple Syndication”. I prefer the latter. The observant amongst you will have noticed over the last couple of days a few new pages going up on this blog, including one called What is RSS?.

So … what is RSS?!

As there are now billions of web pages on the internet, keeping up to date with your favourite websites can be a time consuming business. Up until now you will have had to click from site to site to find the information that you want.

But now you can have all the latest news delivered directly to your computer using a clever service called Really Simple Syndication, that is as quick and easy to use as downloading your e-mail.

This information is delivered as an XML file called an RSS feed, RSS stream, or RSS channel. An orange rectangle with the letters XML or RSS is often used as a link to a site’s RSS feed. This is slowly being replaced with the orange RSS ‘broadcast’ icon that you can see on this site, such as this one:

RSS Feed

RSS, which stands for ‘Really Simple Syndication’, takes the hassle out of staying up-to-date with your favourite websites, by allowing you to identify the content that you like and having it delivered directly to you.

It is now very common to find RSS feeds on most major web sites, as well as many smaller ones. Most blogs these days now carry an RSS feed.

An example

As an example, I’ve set up a page on this website that collects the latest 5 stories from the following websites: BBC News, BBC News Scotland, The Scotsman Edinburgh-specific news, Jonny Baker’s Blog and GadgetVicar’s Blog.

The software (in this case a WordPress plugin called Feed List) has queried each of these websites and downloaded the news feeds. It presents in each case the latest headlines (or blog post titles) and an excerpt of each story. (You’ll notice that GadgetVicar’s feed is set to share the entire feed text rather than just an excerpt.)

How you can access the RSS feed

Obviously I can’t just set up a page with all your favourite news and blog feeds — I don’t know what you like.

So, you will need a software application called a News Reader, (sometimes also called a Feed Reader, or News Aggregator) which can check RSS-enabled webpages, such as this one, and display any updated articles that it finds.

There are many different versions available. Some are accessed using a web browser (such as Mozilla Firefox), while some are downloadable, standalone applications that you need to install.

You can find a list of RSS News Readers on the Google Directory. These are organized into categories by operating system (eg Windows, Mac, Linux) and those that are web-based; many are free to use.

Whichever version you chose it will allow you to subscribe to and display the RSS feed that you want. The software typically downloads an excerpt of each of the latest news stories from the feeds that you have subscribed to, along with a link to read the full version of the content.

My favourite RSS Readers

logo for FeedDemon

My favourite RSS Reader for Windows XP is FeedDemon by Bradbury Software, which you have to buy (it currently costs US $29.95 / £17.50). I’ve also used RSS Reader, which is free, and RSS Bandit which I’ve only just discovered and really quite like the look of.

Mozilla Firefox‘s Live Bookmarks are also very good, although perhaps not so good if you check a lot of RSS-enabled sites each day.

I’m told that the RSS features in the Mac-only Safari browser are the best.

How to use RSS Bandit

As an example I’m going to use the RSS Bandit, because it’s free and easy to use.

Screenshot of RSS Bandit
A screenshot of RSS Bandit.

  1. Download and install RSS Bandit.
  2. Once it has installed double-click the cheery RSS Bandit icon on the desktop to start it.
  3. You’ll notice that the main area of the screen has been divided into three spaces. It may remind you of your email program, such as Outlook Express. On the left you have your “Feed Subscriptions” arranged in a file/folder hierarchy. On the right at the top you have a list of the latest headlines, and beneath it a preview pane initially showing you a ‘newspaper’ view of all the headlines with an excerpt of the story beneath it.
  4. Click the Update All Feeds button:
    Update All Feeds button in RSS Bandit
  5. This instructs RSS Bandit to visit all the sites that it has subscribed and pull in all the news feeds.
  6. To subscribe to a new feed there are a number of ways you can do this. The easiest is to open your web browser (I prefer Mozilla Firefox) and visit a website that you know has an RSS feed. This one, for example!
  7. Simply click on the RSS feed and you should get a new window pop up saying “An external application must be launched to handle this feed”.
    Screenshot of External Protocol Request window
  8. Allow it, RSS Bandit will start (if it’s not already running) and you’ll be walked through a simple process to subscribe to this feed

That’s all there is to it. If you want to find out more read through the RSS Bandit Help website for walk-through guides on all the ways to subscribe to new feeds, how to find feeds, how to customize the look of RSS Bandit, and a whole lot more.

Finding the right font

Logo for Identifont website

The Identifont website has come to the rescue this evening as I’ve been retyping a few of the documents I lost when I accidentally trashed my hard drive in September of last year.

The idea is simple. You answer a number of questions about the font you’re looking for based on what the various glyphs (characters) look like and it will attempt to identify the font for you.

So, for example, the first question is “What type of tail does the upper-case ‘Q’ have? (Ignore the shape of the tail.)”:

  • Crosses the circle.
  • Touches the circle.
  • Below and separated from the circle.
  • Tail extends or lies inside circle.
  • Circle is open, tail part of same stroke.
  • Not sure.

As you progress through the questionnaire Identifont gives an update on how close it is to finding a possible match, eg “2441 candidates. Approximately eleven more questions.”

The documents I’ve been re-typing are for our holiday cottage in Cellardyke. Foolishly I’d not taken a back-up, but thankfully I did have a hard-copy of the Booking Form and Prices Summary Sheet and after trawling three times through my list of installed fonts I gave up and called on the help of Identifont, which after about 12 questions — and my squinting closely at the print-out — suggested that it might be one of

  • Gill Display Compressed
  • Gill Sans Condensed
  • Jigsaw Light
  • EF Lucida Casual T
  • Tantalus

“Ahhh … Gill Sans!” I exclaimed. “That’s it!”

It wasn’t.

But it was GillSans Light, a Type 1 Adobe font. Identifont had correctly identified the font family, which was a great help.

Thanks go to James Frost who first showed me the Identifont website.

No Cameo disappearance

Cameo cinema
The Cameo cinema, Tollcross, Edinburgh. (Photo: Surviving Scotland Cinemas)

Last month I blogged about the campaign to help save The Cameo cinema in Edinburgh’s tollcross area.

Great news: the campaign has been a success! I just read about it on the Edinburgh Evening News website:

Cameo campaigners celebrate victory after bar plan shelved

Brian Ferguson — City Council Reporter

Campaigners battling to secure the future of the Cameo cinema were celebrating a double victory today after its owner abandoned controversial plans to convert its main auditorium into a bar-restaurant.

City Screen, the London-based owner of the Tollcross cinema, has officially withdrawn the planning application for the overhaul after a wave of protests.

The chances of the building being sold to new owners who would keep running it as a cinema have also been increased by the invervention of the city council.

The local authority, which owns part of the Cameo building, has refused to renew the present owners’ lease, which is due to run out in three years time.

The council says it wants reassurances about the future use of the building before agreeing to extend the lease.

Great news indeed. It just goes to show that not all (local) government decisions are made by numpties, or based on policies that bear little resemblance to the needs of real people and real situations.

For those of you who’ve never been inside The Cameo, check out these photographs of the exterior and interior of the cinema at Surviving Scotland Cinemas.

I grew up in Selkirk, in the Scottish Borders, where we didn’t have a cinema. Our closest was the Kingsway in Galashiels, which before it was the Capitol, and before that the Playhouse. (You can see photos here.) It is now called the Pavillion, and thankfully they did away with the garish 1970s-style facade. I remember when the plans were mooted to reopen the Kingsway as the Pavillion I read in our local newspaper that they were converting the space from one screen to four screens. I began telling people that that simply meant they’d have one cinema and three televisions in the foyer!

I was wrong. It has four cinema screens. Sometimes my Mum’s cousin and his wife go near the end of a film’s run and get the small screen all to themselves. Mind you, Jane and I have been known to get that here in Edinburgh! I love the cinema.