I have a rotten memory.  I am not exactly legendary for it but it is something I know of myself and a character trait that is not exactly my favourite.  Coupled with this is a relatively short attention span.  We’re not talking ‘could do with medication’ here but it’s definitely in the realm of ‘hey, man, you really need to buckle down and pay attention here or something bad will happen.’  As an example take this story from a time when I was driving Amy home from Brock University when she was in teachers’ college:

Traffic toward the highway was fairly heavy and I was following a truck that was towing a large trailer.  Out of the corner of my eye, I espied a bucket rolling around on the side of the road.  I was so engrossed in my contemplation of this pail that I would have ploughed directly into the trailer had Amy not called my attention to its imminent stopping.  My response was a rather lame ‘but there was a bucket over there.’  I was concerned at the time that the bucket would travel into our path and I would strike it and was wholly unmindful of the more pressing peril into which I was headed.

This combination of psychological factors results in me forgetting what it is I like to read on the Internet.  With the astounding plethora of content available, it’s easy to get deluged beneath a raging flood of blog posts, webcomics and (for me) stationery websites (more on this another day).  I used to (for example) read some comic’s entire archive and then promptly forget that I liked to read it and not look at it again for six months and have to re-read to catch up.  Since I don’t really have the attention span for this, it became something of a hassle.  In other cases, the site is updated very irregularly and I often forget its presence entirely.  This is where RSS comes in and bails me out.

RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication and it is more or less a oh rss how useful you areconstantly updating list of what content has been posted online at a particular site.  Nearly any site that has a logo like the one at right (fig. 1) has such a feed.  This site has it (marked as FEED over there on the left) but if you click that it will give you a monstrous wall of text that probably won’t make much sense.  Never fear; this is where a Feed Reader, News Reader or Aggregator comes to the rescue.

All three of these terms refer to a program or part of a program that looks at these RSS feeds and makes them into some kind of coherent and legible form (depending on what content you like to read, that is.  Some of the stuff I like to follow bears the same resemblance to coherent that a butterfly does to Dysnomia, the moon of the dwarf planet Eris.  So does most of what I write, actually).

There are a great many feed readers available.  I use Google Reader for several reasons: a) it is available to me on nearly any computer with internet access b) I am accustomed to the interface and c) I already had a Google account.  Not everybody wants to use Google’s surely benevolent and increasingly pervasive services but fortunately there are several other online options including NetVibes and Bloglines (both via Lifehacker) but I’ve not used either of them so can’t recommend one way or the other. 

Thunderbird and Outlook (and many other mail clients) have some kind of news feed functionality to them.  If you use a version of Internet Explorer since 6 (so, 7 or 8), there is a built-in news reader as part of the live bookmarks system.  Opera has this functionality baked right in and Firefox has it available via a number of plug-ins.  The linked plug-in is called Sage and I tried it very briefly before moving to Google Reader.  Since I no longer use Firefox it is of fairly limited use to me.  There are several stand-alone programs as well that have their own more and less useful functions.  I also tried FeedDemon before moving to Google Reader.

Tomorrow I’ll run down some of the more useful and handy options available in Google Reader.

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