The Making Of LOL Feeds

Last week I wrote and released my LOL Feeds site. It takes RSS or Atom feeds from the web and makes a series of lolcat-style images on a web page. It’s really way funnier than it sounds.

Initially I wanted to be able to auto-generate Jerk City comic strips based on my friends’ twitters, but when that seemed hard I opted for lolcats style images. After all we’d been seeing a lot of the lolcats on twitter – they’re displayed when the site is undergoing maintenance.

The original version of the script was very very clever. It used the Google AJAX Feed API and the Flickr API to pull in feeds and random images of cats from Flickr, combine them together with a PHP script I wrote to generate transparent PNGs of text live onto the page. It used the browser’s own text-flowing algorithms to lay out the text. It was however amazingly slow.

Browsers only allow a low number of concurrent connections to one site – four or eight I think – and this made the text crawl in. Also while the Google AJAX Feed API and Flickr API are pretty snappy they’re way slower than doing it server side. I was sad about this because I’m kind of in love with fully dynamic client-side applications (just look at my home page) but I actually wanted this to see the light of day.

Out with the old, in with the goo(gle)

[flickr-photo:id=28961855,size=m] Some time ago I reworked my home page to feature content from various other sites I post to (blogs, flickr, delicious) by using some JSON tricks to pull in their feeds. I blogged about how to do this with Feedburner’s JSON API, so that my actual page was just static HTML and all the work was done client-side.

Last week I decided to revisit this using Google’s new AJAX feeds API. Feedburner‘s API never seemed to be well supported (it came out of a hackathon) and it forced me to serialize my requests. In the process I neatened up a bunch of the code.

Burning your Drupal feed in two easy steps

[flickr-photo:id=136409681,size=m] FeedBurner provides all kinds of neat stats, but it didn’t seem straight-forward to “burn” my blog feed since I’m using Drupal 5. After a little fiddling I think I’ve got a pretty good idea how to make it work in probably the simplest way possible. In fact, it doesn’t require and Drupal configuration at all.

  1. First I set up a FeedBurner account and burned my feed. The feed Drupal produces for me is: http://ianloic.com/rss.xml. Now when I access http://feeds.feedburner.com/ianloic I get the contents of that feed. It’s pretty simple, but so far nobody is going to see that feed.
  2. Then I simply told Apache to redirect all requests for that feed, except the ones from the FeedBurner bot to my FeedBurner feed. With the slight of hand magic of mod_rewrite this is pretty straight forward. In the root of every Drupal install there’s an .htaccess file containing a bunch of stuff. I just added a few lines to the mod_rewrite.c block of that file:
      # Rewrite rss.xml to http://feeds.feedburner.com/ianloic
      # unless FeedBurner is requesting the feed
      RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST} ^ianloic\.com$ [NC]
      RewriteCond %{HTTP_USER_AGENT} !FeedBurner.*
      RewriteRule ^rss.xml$ http://feeds.feedburner.com/ianloic [L,R=301]

    This will cause Apache to send a 301 redirect to http://feeds.feedburner.com/ianloic any time anyone requests http://ianloic.com/rss.xml, unless their HTTP User Agent begins with FeedBurner.

  3. Now I’ve got access to all the FeedBurner statistics and fun features. Since I didn’t actually touch the Drupal configuration I’m pretty sure a similar approach can be taken to applying FeedBurner to any feed.

Tag Clouds Two Point Oh?

[flickr-photo:id=15085782,size=m] Tag clouds bore me. They’re a relatively effective way of indicating quickly what topics are popular but that’s it. From del.icio.us’ cloud I can see that the site is for nerds – web nerds specifically. Flickr’s tag cloud tells me that people tag events and place names but that’s about it. My personal tag clouds on these sites tell me even less. My del.icio.us tag cloud tells me almost nothing – its a huge block of dark-blue and light-blue text. The Flickr one isn’t much better – it tells me mostly that I took a bunch of photos kayaking in the Queen Charlotte Islands, or perhaps more specifically, I got around to tagging my kayaking photos.

I’m more interested in seeing what’s going on right now and seeing how these topics are related. Since this is a graph visualization exercize I threw graphviz at the problem. After a bit of preliminary experimentation I ended up defining a graph based on recent tags pulled from an RSS feed. Each tag is represented as a node and any tags which appear together on the same post have arcs between them. Tag text gets scaled up a little with frequency. The effect isn’t perfect. Its pretty boring when there isn’t much data like on this site:

With a bit more data, like from my recent delicious feed things can get cluttered but we can see what I’m interested in right now:

This idea isn’t fully developed. The complexity of laying these graphs out in a sensible manner increases pretty rapidly as the number of nodes and arcs increases and so does the visual clutter. I’d like to experiment with client-side graph layout (ie: implementing graphviz in JavaScript) and doing something more sensible with synonym tags – ie: tags which always appear together. Synonym tags are somewhat interesting, but can distract from the relationships between concepts. Treating all tags that are coincident over a small number of posts as synonyms may often result in false synonyms, and collapsing synonyms will make it easier to scale to more posts, so I expect that that may be a productive path to go down in scaling these visualizations up to encompass more posts.

Oh, and the final demonstration – my friend Dan is looking for and apartment and is a Ruby on Rails web application developer: