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What is RSS?

This is the first in a series of posts for FreeThought Fort Wayne to assist its members (and readers) in being able to get the most out of their internets.

Who is this for?

You’ve probably heard the term RSS before but haven’t been able to get any clear direction or information on what it is exactly. This first post will be dedicated to the non-geeks out there. You know who you are and I won’t hold it against you ūüėČ I will publish a second half of this discussion that will delve a little deeper into some advanced features of RSS, despite how simple RSS really is there is an incredible amount of power in the protocol.¬†

What is RSS?

Any good discussion of RSS would be missing something if it didn’t at a minimum discuss what the abbreviation RSS stands for. RSS currently means Really Simple Syndication and there is a reason for this rather untechnical name. You’d expect RSS to mean Robot Super Scripting or include some kind of Star Trek reference but you’d be disappointed (or not).¬†
The idea behind RSS is to provide a standard and universal way in which to describe and distribute content. I use the term “Content” very deliberately because RSS can be used for just about anything on the web such as web site articles, news articles, blog posts, podcasts, advertising and even weather updates. Virtually any kind of information you want to distribute via the Internet can be “packaged” into an RSS feed and distributed to anybody with an RSS reader.¬†
The name can be broken down to describe exactly what RSS does. First, for the Syndication part, think of syndication like TV. When a show like Seinfeld is in PrimeTime, the timeslot and advertisers are tightly controlled, however when its sold for syndication a network like the CW or WGN can air the syndicated Seinfeld episodes whenever they want with whatever advertisers they can get. When an organization like the New York Times decides to “syndicate” their articles on the web via an RSS feed they are largely giving up the ability to decide when that content can be “aired”. If I have an RSS reader (which is nothing more than application or website that knows how to read RSS feeds) I can get to that content whenever and¬†wherever¬†I like.¬†
The “Really Simply” part of RSS means that the way in which the content (i.e., articles, blog posts) are described is pretty basic. In fact, if you were “look under the hood”; RSS includes a title, description, website link and some basic information about the publisher of the content. That’s it!
With such basic information you can put just about anything into that like the following (all information is made up):
Publisher: CarReviews.com
Item #1
Title: 2009 Hyundai Sonata Limited
Description: This is a very nice car, yada, yada, yada. Gratuitous Seinfeld reference.
Date: 8/1/2008
Item #2
Title: 2009 Toyota Prius
Description: You might not be sure if you are driving a car or toaster but it gets great mileage.
Date 7/30/2008
The above example says that the Publisher of this feed (CarReviews.com) can be found at http://www.carreviews.com and that they have 2 items in their RSS feed, Item #1 describes a 2009 Hyundai Sonata and Item #2 describes a 2009 Toyota Prius. Imagine using that same format for describing a news article at the New York Times:
Publisher: The New York Times
Website: nytimes.com
Item #1
Title: Obama unveils his housing stimulus package in Phoenix, AZ
Description: yada, yada, yada
Date: 02/19/2009
So even though RSS is a “web” thing it can be used to describe pretty much anything. I say “pretty much” because there’s probably something out there but I can’t think of anything that can’t be described but I’ve been drinking and well, you know…
 
What do you mean RSS Feed? Or RSS Reader?
I’ve touched on them a bit earlier but to be specific an “RSS Feed” ¬†(or simply “feeds” or “news feeds”) is a list of items (like our car reviews above) with some information about who is publishing those items. An “RSS Reader” is a stand-alone program (like Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes) or a webpage (like¬†NetVibes,¬†Google Reader, Bloglines), either way it’s simply a program or website that can translate an RSS feed into something that is easily readable by you and me. RSS Readers are also referred to as Aggregators or News Readers.¬†
As an example, click on the NetVibes link (http://www.netvibes.com) and fill out the little bit of information they want to know like your city and your interests and they will generate an entire website of information. The website they generate in my opinion is crazy and chaotic but every single bit of information was generated as a result of an RSS Feed. In fact, it’s fair to say that NetVibes.com is an entire website of RSS feeds and that it is one big RSS Reader. I show you this not to scare you ( or give you a seizure) but to show you what can be done and all the different kinds of information that can be syndicated, like stock tickers, youtube and vimeo videos, Wired.com articles and Google calendars, Oh! and the current weather.¬†
Now that we have talked about the “idea” of RSS and some ways in which it’s used, i.e., syndicating car reviews or articles on nytimes.com, as well as some common terminology that you might find out there on the Internet, ¬†let’s talk about how to use these things.¬†
How to use RSS?
128px-feed-iconsvgBefore you can use RSS you have to be able to find an RSS feed. Any decent website, blog or podcast will very clearly label their feed. It will be labeled as “Subscribe to our feed” or “Subscribe via RSS” or simply “Subscribe” (like FreeThoughtFortWayne.org, look in the upper right hand part of the webpage). Often times the RSS feed will be identified by an orange icon with white “radio” waves (See the image to the right).
Most RSS Readers that you use will ask you to setup new RSS Feeds. To setup a feed you will need to copy the URI (or URL) of the RSS feed into their program.This is usually the address in your web browser (see below).
Using Google Reader as an example, in order to “subscribe” I have to type in the URL (website address) of an RSS feed to subscribe to it.¬†
So to subscribe to the RSS Feed for The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast I will need to type in the following URL:
http://www.theskepticsguide.org/feed/rss.aspx?feed=SGU (to find this URL go to http://www.theskepticsguide.org and click on the “Subscribe via RSS” link)
Another great example is the news site for the BBC. I’m an avid watcher of BBC news. I don’t watch FoxNews (optionally Faux News) or even MSNBC or CNN. I watch the BBC. When I want to see the “high level” news for the day I go to the website¬†http://news.bbc.co.uk/. And what do you think I see in the upper-right hand corner of their website? You guessed it, our familiar “orange icon” from above and the words “News Feed”. When you click on the icon or link it opens the current news feed. Here’s what it looks like right now using Apple’s Safari web browser
untitled1
So to take advantage of RSS feeds like the Top News from the BBC, sign up for a webpage like BlogLines.com or Google Reader and begin finding blogs, websites and news organizations you want to get information from. Make sure once ¬†you have found an RSS Reader you like ¬†such as BlogLines and “subscribe” to the various websites URL’s.
Why Use RSS Feeds?
Actually that’s a good question. If I can just go to the NY Times or the BBC or the FreeThought Fort Wayne blog, why bother with all the complication of an RSS feed and something to read it with on top of all that? The question you ask actually highlights the very reason why RSS feeds are increasingly popular. How often do you just go to 2 or 3 websites? After all your question asks about 2 or 3 websites (the NYTimes, BBC and FreeThought Fort Wayne). What happens when you want to know about new articles on 43 different websites*? Now you are talking about a bit of a headache aren’t you?
What an RSS feed and a subsequent RSS Reader allows you to do is tp subscribe to multiple (and many) websites and quickly go through the articles for only those stories that interest you. I love Slate.com but they publish 100 articles a day. Without some mechanism to filter or quickly list recent content there’s no way I would be able to stay on top of the most interesting (to me) content being published.
Another option is the ability to save “searches” in various search engines. For example, I frequently search Google for the following, “Fort Wayne” and “Skeptic” (or “atheism” or “humanist”). I basically want to know anytime Google sees a news article that combines Fort Wayne and the word Skeptic (or Atheist or Humanism). This is a tedious task to type this information into Google on a daily basis. What if I could save my search criteria and with the click of a button perform that search. What if I could simply open an RSS feed that automatically lists the search results? That would be really cool. Guess what!? Subscribe to the following URLs and they do just that.¬†
Conclusion
There is really nothing inherently scary about RSS. It’s just a very easy way to share any kind of information. RSS is largely seen as a “web” thing but it’s really not. In my professional career we use RSS as a way to universally (and securely) share information between the company I work for and our clients. What I find most ironic about RSS is that for many getting information via a website is “cutting edge” but for many in the business world that is “so 2005”. If I can’t provide our client’s data in RSS we are really behind the times.
* I personally subscribe to 43 different RSS feeds. That includes all saved Google searches, blogs, news feeds and podcasts. And in all honesty I’m not really tyring. There’s really a lot of content being generated by various blogs, etc. that I’m just not taking advantage of.

Filed under: Atheism, Internet, Skeptic, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Skeptics Guide to the Universe on YouTube

I’ve been on vacation and have been seriously slacking on my blog so I’m catching up on old news here.

The fine folks from the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast have created there very own YouTube videos. You should check it out.

Here’s a couple of videos from the collection (Ok fine it’s the only 2 they have but still)

and

Filed under: Science, , , , ,

The Renaissance of UFOs

I have always been fascinated with UFO and aliens and bigfoot and Loch Ness and all those other stories that we humans tell each other are real. And to be honest I bought most of it. Some of the stuff seemed like a stretch at the time but I wanted to believe so badly.

Even after my mind grew more skeptical (long before I discovered Skepticism), I always found the “historical” paintings and renderings of what seemed like UFO’s to be so compelling. These things always had a big question mark over them. I now know that the biggest problem with interpreting an object/rendering in a particular painting as a UFO out of the context of the painting is a big no-no.

I was clearing out my RSS reader and somehow missed this little gem from gather.com, UFO’s in Renaissance Paintings Explained.

Filed under: Science, , ,

Who was Frederick Seitz and why would I care?

I kept seeing these new items popup…

…and never quite connected the dots. When I took a moment to actually read one of the articles I realized now why that name seemed familiar. He was the guy who conned rounded up a number of other global warming skeptics¬†and got them to sign a petition stating that global warming was not only not caused by man but that it isn’t even happening.

I remember looking into this guy a number of years back and found out that he was employed by RJ Reynolds to dispute that smoking does not cause 80-90% of all lung cancers. Oops he picked the wrong side of that debate. But it’s interesting that a doctor would be so misinformed. What’s that? Oh he wasn’t a doctor he was a physicist? Okay that seems a bit of an odd choice of an expert to pick for your medical review committee.

Actually that seems a bit odd¬†that your leading scientist in your list of scientists who deny global warming isn’t even a climatologist or related field. I distinctly remember something smelling fishy about that whole publicity stunt.

Filed under: Environment, , , ,

Takes one to know one

I recently posted my thoughts on the Epidemiology of Global Climate Change. In that post I detailed 3 arguments global warming skeptics often employ to prove why global warming isn’t real.¬† I addressed in the previous entry the more important question regarding not only why global warming is real but that man is the cause. I would like to take a moment and quickly dispatch one of the other arguments. It turned out to be relatively easy once I spent a moment to think it through. I will reiterate the position,

1) I’m (the Skeptigator) not a climatologist and therefore unqualified to make any reasonable judgment on my the validity of climate science, which is true.

On its face this seems like a fairly substantial argument. This argument itself is a logical fallacy, actually you could group it into a number of them but the most relevant to this post is the “Unstated Major Premise“. The unstated premise here is that the global warming denier (who is usually not a climatologist themselves) is rejecting out of hand the science of global warming. I am simply supporting the position of the experts, the denier is actually making the implied statement, “I am fully qualified to reject all of the evidence for global warming” however this statement is implied in their accusation against you. Hence the very clever title to this post.

The science behind global warming while admittedly not as concrete as say gravity or evolution there is still a preponderance of evidence in suppport of a anthropogenic (man-made) cause of global warming.

So the next time someone accuses you of not being qualified simply say to them, “I know I am but what are you”

Filed under: Environment, , ,

The Epidemiology of Global Climate Change

I am first¬†going to admit to 3 things. I am not a doctor, I am not a climatologist and I know you can’t have an epidemiology (see definition)¬†of global climate change. Oh and the book Conjuring Science (see Brain Food) inspired me to write this post.

I have been having a number of discussions regarding Global Warming with someone who¬†I very much wish¬†could see past their conservative politics and actually appreciate the considerable scientific evidence. Personally I think he disagrees with the policy recommendations that many global climate change “believers” propose and therefore rejects the science of global climate change. Obviously this is backwards but nonetheless his position.

I searched for sometime to come up with a good way to explain why I personally accept global climate change. He has put forth a number of different reasons why global warming isn’t real (Milankovitch cycles, delayed CO2 forcing) but there are a few statements that I think¬†are the most¬†common and¬†the most credible accusations to the average Joe,

  1. I’m (the Skeptigator) not a climatologist and therefore unqualified to make any reasonable judgment on my the validity of climate science, which is true.
  2. He brings up Global Cooling and Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb as¬†recent examples of science having it wrong and therefore what makes Global Climate change as a scientific position that much better than those.
  3. His last allegation is that if you follow the money, those scientists who say global warming is real get funding, those who don’t are marginalized within the scientific community and therefore do not get the funding. This creates a disparity in the ability of believers finding evidence and deniers not being able to have the resources to find evidence.

As I have time and as I become confident that my rebuttals are logically sound and easily explained to a non-believer I will post them. What I would like to do is explain my rebuttal to the first allegation.

Let me first say that this claim is probably some kind of logical fallacy, probably some variation of the Argument from Authority, meaning if I were some kind of authority I therefore could be believed to be speaking the truth but since I’m not therefore I am not speaking the truth. This might not be correct but let’s be realistic even if it were true pointing out logical fallacies¬†really carry any weight for a normal person. I can’t say, “That’s an Argument from Authority logical fallacy and therefore I don’t have to dignify your statement with a¬†response.”

Anyway, perhaps the best¬†analogy is the science behind smoking and your health. Put simply, we know that smoking is bad for your health by the same methods that we know that global warming is caused by mankind. Let me be clear I don’t know anyone that denies that the Earth is warming anymore, the¬†argument usually lies in whether mankind is the cause (and what we should do about it, but let’s figure out how to accept responsibility first and then work from there).

There are 2 primary methods for doing studies regarding the effects of smoking on health. There are empirical methods (or replicatable demonstrations) for determining causation and there are statistical methods for determining causation. Well, first and foremost you really can’t use replicatable demonstrations since you can’t take one person and clone them and then make one smoke and one not smoke and then see which one got lung cancer or emphysema.¬†Not only is this scientifically impossible it’s probably ethically wrong even if it were. So we are stuck using admittedly an inferior way of knowing something by using epidemiological-statistical methods.

Epidemiological-statistical methods can never give you 100% certainty they can only give you varying confidence levels. A particular study by the EPA will come to the conclusion that second-hand smoke is detrimental to your health with a confidence level of 95% (p <.05). What does that mean? It means that the scientists are pretty damn sure that the results of their study show that the net effect is detrimental to your health. In fact, when it comes to this kind of study having a p-value less than or equal to .05 is about as certain as you are ever going to get.

There are enough studies out there that the preponderance of the evidence/results of these studies show that a staggering 87% of all lung cancer in the U.S. is the direct result of smoking. These studies had to use epidemiological methods for determining that smoking/tobacco use were the single largest contributing factor to the development of lung cancer. If you control for age, weight, sex, ethnicity, income, access to healthcare, work environments and whatever else they do science finds over and over again that smoking is the key factor.

What does this have to do with global warming? You guessed it. We can’t rely on empirical methods alone for determining causation of global warming for several reasons. First and foremost, the time scales involved are too great for humanity to be able to make any reasonable, direct¬†observations, second the scope of observing planetary changes and interactions to the climate in real-time is beyond our current technology. So what are we left with? Our understanding of small-scale, regional effects on weather and lots of statistical data. We know that when you remove most of the trees from a large tropical island there is marked decrease in rainfall. Why is that? It’s because the removal of those trees has interfered with the natural cycling of water from ground to atmosphere. This example is a good demonstration of the kind of man-made interference that has local effects that can be understood and more importantly it reveals important mechanisms of how our planet works.

We can analyze all of this statistical data¬†(with computer models, simulations) and begin to make predictions about what should be happening in the future and validate those predictions against¬†what should have happened in the past. We can continue to refine these models as our understanding of different variables increases. Obviously this is an oversimplification of the process involved but the basic idea is there. Over time we have slowly “controlled” for factors as we were able to measure them, understand their impact and interactions in a very complex system. We have gotten to a point that the evidence is significant enough that the IPCC not only released a consensus report on the reality of global warming but gave a 90% confidence level that mankind is responsible for that warming. What gets lost in translation for many people is that a scientific consensus is a significant thing and that a 90% confidence is pretty damn confident. To put that in perspective, I’m mixing sciences here, many studies regarding the detrimental effects of second-hand smoke have confidence levels of 80-85%. Is long-term exposure to second-hand smoke detrimental to your health? Who knows? But we are 90% sure that mankind is responsible for global warming.

Do I personally think a lot of the rhetoric surrounding global climate change and the imminent disaster to mankind is alarmist? Yes. I personally think people are turned off by all the doom and gloom that surrounds global climate change. The opposing viewpoints are too often given equal weight in the media and too often the talking heads from either side are the worst kind of caricatures, you have the “poor gas in the lake it don’t matter” deniers on one end and the “shit in a bucket and smoke eat grass” hippies on the other.

I think if people could accept that we are the cause of Global Climate Change we can begin to make some concrete changes NOW for our future. Let’s do it now while the cost of those changes is small. Should gas be artificially jacked up to $10.00/gallon? No that’s stupid. Let’s do some reasonable things. Start replacing the most commonly used light bulbs in your house with CFLs. The new 2008 EPA CAFE standards in the U.S. are a good start, let’s keep raising the bar. There’s a whole bunch of common sense things that can be done now. I’ll have to compile a list of things sometime.

Filed under: Environment, Health, , , , , , ,

Is It Real?

If you get a chance to check out National Geographic’s Is It Real? program you should. It’s a great example of skeptical investigation. It is not like those crappy History channel-token skepticism UFO specials. This is a show that sets up the paranormal claims and then gives skeptics a decent platform for explaining not only their position but how they come to their positions.

They frequently have James Randi as a guest and the last one I saw involving hauntings featured Richard Wiseman.

Filed under: Psychics, Skeptic, , , , ,

New Skeptical Podcast

There is a new podcast¬†put on by the folks who do the Skeptical Guide to the Universe and contains a brief (about 5 minutes) review of a current news item from a skeptical point of view. It’s called The Skeptic’s Guide 5×5. And if you don’t already subscribe the full Skeptic’s Guide you should be ashamed of yourself.

Filed under: Internet, Skeptic, ,

The subtle art of Disinformation

I am currently reading the compilation by Disinformation title “Everything You Know About God is Wrong: The Disinformation Guide to Religion”. There is so much good stuff in here. I haven’t even gotten a fraction of the way through the book and I already feel compelled to blog about the first essay.

¬†James A. Haught’s Everyone’s a Skeptic – About Other Religions makes a very good point. It even lists a number of core beliefs from a number of religions.

Douglas Rushkoff’s Faith = Illness: Why I’ve Had It With Religious Tolerance asks why can’t the Bible be book of stories? Why must it be a literal history? I’m not trying to give you too much but this section just sticks with me

… the stories in the Bible are less significant because they happened at some moment in history than because their underlying dynamics seem to be happening in all moments. We are all Cain, struggling with our feelings about a sibling who seems to be more blessed than we are. We are always escaping the enslaved metality of Egypt and the idolatry we practiced there. We are all Mordechai, bristling against the pressure to bow in subservience to our bosses.

But true believers don’t have this freedom…

Filed under: Atheism, Religion, Reviews, , , , ,

Brain Food

Check out the new Brain Food resource that I am assembling. This is my attempt at a “What I’m Reading Now” as well as what I’ve read in the past as well as a link to Amazon.com and any reviews that I have done on my own blog.

Technorati Skeptic

Filed under: Reviews, ,

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