If the Phone Don’t Ring

avf1Nobody sees the trouble I’ve known. Maybe not nobody, exactly, but not many. There are two primary RSS feeds published by this site. One is for this blog. The other is for the trip journal. Among the many ways of subscribing to these feeds is a service called Feedly. It is well done and popular. It is the RSS reader I use. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have seen the trouble myself.

People subscribe to feeds through Feedly and Feedly periodically fetches current copies and makes them available in a convenient and personalized manner. Feedly users can read and manage dozens or hundreds of uniformly presented feeds without dealing directly with the individual providers. It’s a fairly common producer to broker to consumer arrangement.

Back in March, I noticed that some of my posts were failing to show up in Feedly even after several days. A fairly convoluted email exchange between me, Feedly, and Arvixe, my hosting provider, followed. It was eventually discovered that Arvixe was blocking Feedly and the block was removed. Because of the asynchronous nature of Feedly’s polling and of RSS in general, things were not instantly fixed but caches, buffers, clouds, and other nebulous cyber-things eventually worked through their stockpile of bad-stuff and started working properly again.

Unless you were paying close attention to dates and time stamps, you might not have realized there was any sort of problem at all. The screen capture at the top of the article is from an attempt to subscribe to a blocked feed through the Feedly Google Chrome plugin. Existing subscribers would have seen nothing; No new posts and no error messages. For those unfamiliar with RSS, think of the problem as somewhat similar to a friend trying to call you with a broken phone or service. Your phone doesn’t ring but you don’t know that it should so see no problem. Even the friend may not see a problem if the failure shuttles them to a voice mail system. You only become aware of the issue when the friend confronts you in a bar about never returning their calls.

The problem resurfaced during the first half of June and this time, after about a week of that convoluted email three-way, I learned of a fourth player in the game. Arvixe uses a security product called BitNinja. Something about Feedly’s access tripped BitNinja’s defenses and a block was activated. Unknowing Arvixe technicians repeatedly removed the block only to have it reappear a few hours later. Once in awhile, the short-lived removal and Feedly’s polling lined up so that posts would slip through. They might appear in a clump and they would have the current rather than publication date but they could be seen by subscribers.

When I first learned of BitNinja’s role, I urged Arvixe to configure their installation to have the security service treat Feedly as a good guy. They, for valid reasons, declined. I also pressed them for a description of what specific aspect of Feedly’s access raised BitNinja’s hackles. Near the beginning of the episode, Feedly had suggested they might be able to alter their behavior if specifics were available. Not being privy to BitNinja’s inner workings, Arvixe could not supply those specifics. Although it was Arvixe who first mentioned it, I suspect all of us thought of it about the same time. Feedly needed to deal with BitNinja directly. The problem might not be limited to my website or even to all Arvixe hosted websites. The risk of Feedly being blocked could exist everywhere BitNinja was being used.

Feedly did contact BitNinja directly and, while I don’t know the details of the exchange, I do know that it resulted in BitNinja removing “a too strict log analyzing rule” about a day later. That was just over a week ago and since then my feeds seem to be flowing through Feedly as they should.

Maybe we should have dug a little deeper in March and it would have been nice if we had not thrashed about for a week in June. There were times when I thought Arvixe could have been more cooperative and Feedly more responsive. I don’t think anyone involved is a candidate for Trouble Shooter of the Year but neither do I think anyone screwed up horribly. I can’t be certain that the same problem won’t pop up again in a couple of months though I’m positive that some problem will pop up someday. This episode has increased my confidence that, when it does, these vendors — Feedly, Arvixe, & BitNinja — will get it sorted eventually. It would be nice is the next problem is as invisible to readers as this one was but I’m not going to count on it.

Incidentally, this post’s title comes from a Wheels song that, in case you don’t remember it, is here.

Beer not Weak. Beer Week.

Taps at Zip's CafeOne response to a request to name 212 things that first appeared in 1926 would be Zip’s Cafe and 211* US Highways. One of the routes designated when the US Highway System was adopted was US 50 from which Fifty West Brewing Company gets its name. When Zip’s and Fifty West collaborated on a beer to become the restaurant’s house brew, the name 1926 Amber Ale was chosen as something that had meaning to both. The “official” tapping took place on Thursday, the first day of Cincinnati Beer Week.

This post appears very near the mid-point of Cincinnati Beer Week which, like all good weeks since 1964, is eight days long. Cincinnati Beer Week is immediately followed by, but not connected with, the Cincy Beerfest. The Beerfest is a great place to sample a large number of beers though I personally don’t find big events of that sort nearly as enjoyable as I once did. Fortunately, the appearance of “rotating taps” in a large number of taverns lines up well with my own proclivities and allows me to sample a variety of beers over time from the comfort of a bar stool.

So, while I encourage others to do so, I won’t be attending the Beerfest this year nor, for similar reasons, will I be going to the bigger Beer Week events. At least not during their peak periods. The event that started my Beer Week, the Brewer’s Choice for Charity at Arthur’s Cafe, is a big event that packs the place in the evening but I was there early in the afternoon. Arthur’s was the first (if not only) area bar to switch all of their draft beer taps to local brands. For this event, each of the eight taps pours something from a different brewery and each brewery picks a charity to receive a dollar for each pint sold. The restaurant then matches the amount earned by the top selling brew. I beat the crowd while scoring a buck apiece for Madtree and Blank Slate.

Zip's entrance in snowThen I headed on over to Zip’s and even snapped a photo of the entrance with a fair amount of snow covering the curbside area out front. I feared that the tapping at Zip’s might be something of a frenzy but, even though the place was quite busy, it wasn’t crazy. There was not a big ceremony and the new beer started flowing well before the clock struck 5:00. I suspect the introduction was even less formal at the brewery itself, which had several representatives on hand.

At least one of the Fifty West people used to work at Jackie O’s in Athens, Ohio, and there is still a connection of sorts. On this evening, four of the eight taps at Zip’s were devoted to Jackie O’s products and the other four (in the top picture) to Fifty West. While waiting for the 1926 Amber Ale, I stayed hydrated with a standard Fifty West brew, the Thirty-37 Pale Ale.

Zipburger and 1926 Amber AleFifty West 1926 Amber Ale’26, as I heard one of the brewery guys call it, struck me as a pleasant middle of the road brew that should fill the role of restaurant house beer quite nicely. My own timing was no more precise than the new brew tapping and my glass of 1926 Amber Ale was half gone when my Zipburger arrived. They still still make a lovely pair.

* There are many ways to count the number of “routes” covered by the adoption of a national numbering system on November 11, 1926. 211 is the number of entries in the list provided here by Robert V. Droz.

Feedly Fumble: Two weeks ago, this website switched hosting companies. On the morning of January 26, a blog entry titled “Moving Day” was posted from the old server. Toward the end of the day, when the move was essentially complete, an entry titled “Meet the New Host” was posted from the new server. The actual RSS feed and most accesses behaved as expected with the morning post disappearing to be replaced by the evening post in due time. The Feedly reader, which I use and generally like, has been the exception. To date, it continues to show the early post rather than the later one and no flushing, resubscribing, or incense burning has helped. If you use Feedly and fear there is something you’ve missed, the first blog entry from the new host is here. Feedly has performed just fine with subsequent posts.

My Apps – Chapter 7

FeedForAllI am a fan of RSS. I subscribe to a number of feeds and I publish a few. I even know what the acronym stands for. Maybe. Unfortunately, the words behind the letters have changed over the years so that discussing the acronym is more involved than discussing either the concept or its application. If you already know — or don’t care — about RSS, feel free to skip to the sentence in bold. If you want to know even more than I am about to tell, go here or here.

Originally, back in 1999, RSS was an acronym wrapped around an acronym. It stood for RDF Site Summary with RDF being an acronym for Resource Description Framework. It identified a standard format for summarizing… something. Within months, Netscape, where RSS originated, simplified the format and called it Rich Site Summary. In 2002 someone else made more changes to the format and called it Really Simple Syndication. To distinguish it from the earlier RSSs, he added a 2.0. The 2.0 doesn’t always get used but almost all references to RSS mean RSS 2.0 and Really Simple Syndication. Knowing the rest of that stuff is pretty useless except for maybe winning a bet — or getting punched — at the local bar.

Really Simple Syndication is an accurate description. Sure, the internals can seem goofy and arbitrary like most stuff designed by geeks for geeks but the concept, and most people’s relationship with it, really is Really Simple. Publishing consists of putting a properly formatted file somewhere on the internet, telling people it’s there, and changing it as the need arises. Subscribing consists of looking at the file from time to time and reading it when it changes.

There are tons of apps, widgits, and other gizmos dealing with the subscribing end. Some are readers or aggregators through which a user subscribes to specific feeds and knows that is what they are doing. Others are embedded in applications or web pages where the user may not even know that the information they see changing now and then is coming through an RSS feed. The point is that you do not need to understand or even be aware of the underlying rules and conventions to subscribe to and read RSS feeds.

The same is true for many forms of publishing. Website content managers and blog generators often produce RSS feeds automatically. Just click a box or two and maybe set a few options and a feed will be updated automatically when the content is changed or a new blog entry or comment is posted. Not only are people reading RSS feeds without realizing, many are unknowingly publishing them as well.

But what if you want to publish an RSS feed that isn’t just a side effect of something else? You can learn all the rules of XML and RSS and edit the posted file directly or you can use something like FeedForAll.

I use FeedForAll to maintain an RSS feed for my trip journal. It was 2007 and I was seeing RSS as something really attractive as a subscriber. I had been offering email notification of journal updates for quite some time. Thinking that there were others who, like me, were more likely to subscribe to an RSS feed than a newsletter, I started looking around for ways to create and maintain a feed. I know I looked at some other tools but I no longer recall what they were or what I liked/disliked about them. I experimented for a bit with the free version of FeedForAll, decided it did exactly what I needed, and purchased the real version. That is one of the few decisions I’ve ever made that I’ve had no second thoughts about over a half-dozen years.

I thought the product was reasonably priced in 2007 and was surprised to see that the price remains the same, $39.95, in 2013. So I guess it’s even more reasonable now than then. I am not a power user. I maintain a single feed with nothing fancy in it. It’s not a podcast and contains no graphics though FeedForAll supports both. Almost all of my posted items are nothing more than some text and a URL or two. When an item is complete and the “Publish” button clicked, FeedForAll makes the connection and transfers the update. FeedForAll does as-you-type spell checking and validates all data before publishing it.

In practice, the journal’s email list and RSS feed get essentially the same daily posts. The cover page for each trip contains a link and blurb for each day and that blurb is usually quite similar to what goes into the email and RSS. A lot of copying and pasting takes place between these three. The RSS feed is the least work of all.

My Apps – Chapter 6 — Easy Thumbnails

I’ve Caught Up
(with a tiny piece of my world)

Feedly screen shotI subscribe to more than seventy blogs. Most are very quiet and some are probably dead. Only a half dozen or so actually publish much of anything on a regular basis. When I’m at home, leisurely sipping coffee, keeping up with them is simple and not a problem. When I’m traveling, it is simply not possible,

On a road trip where I’m maintaining a journal, my computer time is used for writing and editing photos not reading. I try to keep up with email and I do occasionally read a blog post but mostly they just pile up. When I got home from the recent Lincoln Highway trip, the unread pile contained nearly 800 items. I’ve been nibbling away at it and shortly before 7:00 on Thursday morning, I cleared the pile. I did it with my phone and captured the moment with the screen shot at right.

Using the phone helped and I suppose I should thank Google for that. I used to use a product called Google Reader for reading blogs. I actually used it for all RSS feeds but most of those come from blogs. A few months back, Google announced that they were dropping Reader on July 1, 2013. There was much alarm and a fair amount of anger but there were alternatives so things eventually settled down. Google giveth and Google taketh away.

I was alarmed and angry with everyone else but it didn’t last long. I tried a couple of the suggested alternatives and quickly settled on a product called Feedly. It was different and, of course, I didn’t like it being different but that didn’t last too long either. I accepted some things and Feedly, finding hordes of Google Reader refugees beating a path to their door, made some adjustments. I got all of my feeds switched over and even succeeded — eventually — in adding a few. Within a couple weeks of Google’s announcement, I was a happy Feedly user. Die, Google Reader, die. I care not a bit.

Then I made a wonderful discovery. I had Google Reader on my phone but almost never used it. There were problems. Sure, some of those problems may have been with the user but it never seemed to synchronize things quite right. An article read on the phone might show up as unread on the PC or vice versa and I swear that articles disappeared on their own now and then. That sort of thing did not happen without the phone app in the picture so I essentially quit using it.

Not surprisingly, after I’d installed Feedly on my PC, I was invited to put it on my phone and I did. I even used it a few time. Nothing bad happened. I used it some more and still nothing bad happened. Articles read on one platform showed up as read on the other and articles not read on either stayed unread on both. I was an even happier Feedly user and tried to convince myself that it was OK that Google Reader was allowed to live several more weeks.

I eat out frequently and I usually have a book or magazine next to my meal. With a back log of several hundred posts, I started reading my phone instead of a printed page. It took me thirty days to catch up after a thirty-five day trip. That means I was reading, or pretending to read, about twice as many articles per day as usual. I still read many at home on my PC but I probably read just as many on the phone. If I really did read half of the articles on the phone, then the phone was entirely responsible for the doubling and Google’s dropping of Google Reader is entirely responsible for me finding an application that allowed me to reliably read RSS feeds on my phone. Thanks Google. What’s next?

Feedburner? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Two months ago, when this blog was just a couple of weeks old, I made a post confessing to underestimating the power of a WordPress plug-in to provide email notifications. In this one, I’m confessing to overestimating the ability of Feedburner to do it. Technically, I suppose I didn’t actually overestimate its abilities but I think I overestimated its dependability and relevance. At the time of that first confession, I switched to the plug-in and stopped promoting Feedburner. I didn’t worry about any subscriptions already in place and assumed they would just keep going. That assumption was reinforced by the fact that my own test subscription continued to work. I was in “set it and forget it” mode regarding Feedburner.

Then, just a few days ago, I was doing some general website maintenance and decided to look in on my Feedburner account. It must still be there — at least one subscription is working — but I can’t login to it. Google bought Feedburner back in 2007 so you would think that all the “moving” associated with the change in owners had occurred long before I came along in 2011. Guess not. Feedburner.com is redirected to a Google address where I am invited to “Claim your feeds now” and I’ve tried. One needs to submit one’s Feedburner username and password to do that and I’m told that those I’m submitting are “incorrect”. My note keeping isn’t the best and my memory’s worse so I suppose that’s possible. But when I enter an email address to recover my forgotten password, I’m told it is “not found”. I’m pretty sure I know my own email address so I’m suddenly not so ready to believe that all of the problem is all on my side of the screen.

Google offers some FAQ style “help” for Feedburner but there is no contact information for support. Of course, actually reaching support for anything Google related is a challenge but Google does provide forums where we can “talk among ourselves”. They are divided by product or service and there are more than forty of them. There is one for “Web Search”, and for “Toolbar”, “Picasa”, “Google Earth”, and so on. Tellingly, there is none for Feedburner. Using that Google “Web Search” thing to dig around the internet turned up several indications that Google’s acquisition of Feedburner may not have been such a good thing for Feedburner users.

I’m sorry. Had I initially understood that I could provide email notification of posts directly, I’d never have embraced Feedburner. Now I can’t even login to let go. Plus I have no faith that any Feedburner subscription other than my own is working. At least one certainly is not.

I recalled that long time trip report reader (and sometimes much appreciated proofreader) Laurel Kane had subscribed following my first blog post. At that time I could still login to Feedburner so I’m pretty sure things started off OK. I dropped Laurel a note and learned that she hadn’t seen email from my blog for a long time. I know that there were only four or five subscribers back when I could see my Feedburner account and I doubt that any have been added since I dropped the link from the blog page. If, by some strange means, any of those are still working, I strongly suggest unsubscribing. I am officially announcing that The Blog At Denny G’s Road Trips and Feedburner are no longer pals.

Anyone desiring email notification of new blog posts, should enter their address in the field to the right of this blog’s home page and hit “Subscribe”. That’s regardless of whether you were an original Feedburner subscriber or not.

I’ve been kind of struggling with the relationship between this blog and the trip reports. Here is what I’m currently thinking. The blog is not confined to road trips. I intend to post to the blog at least once a week on Sunday. I want to have a blog post associated with each trip or oddment to provide a place to comment on that trip or oddment. To date, when I’ve been on the road on a Sunday, I’ve posted something trip related as a sort of placeholder. This has resulted in multiple blog posts for a trip and some are rather silly. From now on, each Sunday post will be a “real” one and each trip or oddment will get a single post. If something occurs during the week that I think interesting and I have time to write it up, that will be the Sunday post. If not, I’ll use a canned article like those in the “My Gear” series. When a trip starts on a Sunday, there just might be two posts for that day. I’ve always said that once a week was the lower not upper limit.

A Better (IMO) Email Approach

I wasn’t really satisfied with the end-of-day mailing provided by FeedBurner but I convinced myself that it was the best available. I have since learned of a way to offer real-time mailings on every post and I’ve now made that available. What some could see as a negative is that this newly installed method will send only a pure text excerpt of the post with no pictures. I see that as yet another advantage.

People with less than whippy quick Internet connections don’t like being surprised by large emails and, when traveling, I am often one of those people. At those times, getting a short message that lets me know something exists then lets me access it on my own schedule is much preferred. With this change, I am now emailing unto others as I would like to be emailed.

Since there is no reason to kill them, the FeedBurner feeds will remain and existing subscriptions will continue to function. However, new FeedBurrner subscriptions, can only be made through this site’s FeedBurner page. Email subscriptions entered through the blog will now be to the new mechanism which will deliver a pure text excerpt of each new entry shortly after it is posted. If you want to switch, just unsubscribe from FeedBurner and subscribe here.

EDIT 30-Oct-2011: Although existing Feedburner subscriptions may or may not continue to function. DennyGibson.com no longer actively supports Feedburmer and the subscription page referenced in the preceding paragraph no longer exists.

I have also added links for the Entries and Comments RSS feeds simply to make their existence a little more apparent. The Entries RSS currently contains the full post but I’m a little uncomfortable with that. I opted for publishing the full post rather than a summary because that’s what nearly, but not quite, all of the blogs I’ve subscribed to do. I’m now having second thoughts. Even though I subscribe to those blogs via RSS, it is funneled through Outlook and eventually looks a lot like email. Of course, an RSS feed converted to email looks exactly like email because that’s what it is. There have been a few times when I’ve turned off RSS feeds because of a slow connection so I’m feeling a little guilty about larger than necessary RSS entries and am tempted to switch to just publishing summaries. FeedBurner emails have contained the full posts simply because they are just a repackaging of the RSS feed so changing the RSS will change FeedBurner. If anyone has any thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them.

The new email mechanism is a WordPress plug-in called “Subscribe2”. I’d looked at it when I first set up this blog but erroneously decided that it wouldn’t work for me. When I asked a cyber-friend what he was using on an installation similar to mine, that’s the answer I got and a second look revealed my error. Note that I said the installation was similar to mine; Not the blog itself. The Civil War Daily Gazette is about 1000% better than this blog will ever be and is a tremendous source of Civil War information. There is a new well written and researched post every day telling of events exactly 150 years ago. I suggest that anyone with even a little interest in America’s Civil War take a look.

Hello again, world.

Two very legitimate and possibly obvious questions are “Why a blog?” and “How is that different from what you’ve been doing?” I probably can’t answer either of those questions to everyone’s satisfaction but I’m going to try by tackling the “How…?” question first.

I never refer to DennyGibson.com as a blog. I know some people do and I’m OK with that but my idea of a blog is something different. Web stuff does not need to be produced by things like WordPress or Blogger to be a blog but the stuff that WordPress and Blogger produce are certainly blogs. In my view, if it looks like something that could have come from WordPress or Blogger it might be a blog. If it doesn’t, it probably isn’t. My trip reports definitely have some similarities with blogs. The biggest one being that both have chronological entries. But a multi-day trip report at DennyGibson.com is treated as a unit and tied together with a “cover page”. If it’s big enough, there might also be some other pages related to just that trip. Maybe you see the difference and maybe not. The truth is that there is no rigid definition of the word “blog” that precisely distinguishes what I’ve been doing from what Gizmodo has been doing so it’s a good thing that I’m not trying to convince you that I haven’t been blogging but just explain why I don’t think I have.

What I’ve just added and what you’re now reading is clearly a blog. It qualifies as “something that could have come from WordPress” by coming from WordPress. It will have a single chronological flow of entries which will be archived monthly and which can be commented on. That last bit is starting to get at the “Why…?”.

Ever since that first reported trip in 1999, I’ve looked for ways to interact with readers. I received some emails throughout that trip which led to some one-on-one conversations and that made me want something more. In 2002 I added a guestbook. People could post and I could answer but the conversation either ended with that single exchange or became one-on-one and private. A forum seemed like a good idea so I added one just before my 2003 Route 66 trip. There was some initial interest and some folks signed up but there was very little activity. I retired it not long after I returned home. I tried again in early 2010. Again there was some interest and even a small flurry of activity though it soon faded. The forum is still there but it’s been more than seven months since anyone other than me has posted. A blog won’t permit others to start conversations but it will permit them to comment on ones I’ve started and it may be more familiar and accessible. I haven’t removed the forum yet but I intend to shortly.

The other “accessories” will stay. Namely the guestbook, the newsletter, and the home page RSS feed. There’s already some overlap there, especially between the newsletter and RSS feed. Now there will be some more. On the other hand, some misuse should go away. Both the newsletter and the RSS feed were intended to be ways that people could learn of road trip related activity without repeatedly visiting the site to see if something had changed. But I’ve used them for decidedly non-road trip stuff, like web server issues, because there was nothing else. Now this blog should handle things of that sort and the feed and the newsletter should be left to their intended function.

Most of the overlap between the newsletter and the RSS feed is intentional. The newsletter came first and when I added the feed I received some email from concerned and potentially disgruntled subscribers asking if they had to change. They remained gruntled when I assured them that I was definitely keeping the newsletter and was merely giving them another option. I hope to do the same with the blog. RSS is automatically produced by WordPress but email is not nearly as natural. For that, I’ve gone to FeedBurner, a service that lets people sign up to receive RSS feeds via email. A widget was available for subscriptions to the blog’s post feed and I included it. To make that work, I had to register the feed at FeedBurner and I registered the site’s other feeds as well. Those are the existing RSS feed from the home page and the blog’s comment feed. A new page, accessible here and through the “FBurner” link on the home page, supports signing up for email delivery of any or all of the three feeds. FeedBurner delivers email once a day so any “real-time” aspects of the original RSS feed will be lost but it’s there if you want it. As previously mentioned, FeedBurner email of the blog’s post feed can be subscribed to on the blog’s main page plus email of comments on individual posts can be subscribed to via the post itself. Of course, all RSS feeds can be subscribed to directly through any reader you may be familiar with.

EDIT 9-Jan-2016: As of October 2011, DennyGibson.com no longer actively supports Feedburmer and the subscription page referenced in the preceding paragraph no longer exists. This edit finally makes note of that and removes the obsolete link.

The most important thing to stay is everything else. I am not changing the way I do trip reports or post photos. I’m merely adding something new to the site and you can completely ignore it without missing a thing. Oops, that’s not exactly what I meant to say. Hopefully I’ll have some things in the blog that are worth reading but you can ignore it without missing anything you’re seeing now.

Blogs should be fed regularly and I hope to feed this one at least once a week My goal is to have something posted every Sunday sometime between noon and midnight. See you next week.