Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Planet CodeMash (Yahoo! Pipes)

When a product is described as, "Easy to use - requires no programming!", run. Run, and don't look back.

That's been my rule, anyway. After my first Yahoo! Pipes project, I'm willing to flex it... a little bit. It's been a blend of agony and ecstasy.

Dozens of CodeMash attendees have listed the URLs of their (human-readable) blogs on a webpage. I wanted to browse their blogs, but not by drilling into each one manually. I wanted to read them in one place, with a Planet CodeMash.

(Would you believe that I couldn't find an online "planetizing" website that would simply take a list like that and generate the planet for me? The closest I found was RSSMix, which wanted me to find the RSS URLs myself - which I did, with Python - but then it couldn't read Feedburner links.)

Enter Yahoo! Pipes. VoilĂ .

Planet CodeMash

Yahoo! Pipes is good for problems like this where you get web-published data (not only RSS feeds, as I first believed), apply a series of transformations, and publish it.

You design your project by dragging logical blocks around a 2-D graphical flowsheet, with pretty curvey lines connecting them. The modules are well-chosen to provide a fair amount of versatility despite their limited number. I was happy to find a Regex module, as well as Feed Auto-Discovery, which drills into a page and finds its RSS link - perfect for this project.

There are problems, however. The biggest one is that, since the editor runs in your web browser, there are some... annoying... ... lags. Every time you click on anything, it takes a second or two for your click to register. That's more than annoying; when you need to click-and-drag, it's nearly crippling. If you can sit there with your finger on the mouse button, wondering, "Has my click registered? Can I drag yet?", again and again, and not curse somebody, then you're a wonderful person.

Of course, every new environment seems a bit confusing and wrong until you've had a chance to poke all the buttons and twiddle the knobs - but this painful interface pretty much prevents playful exploration, so the environment will remain alien and full of surprises for a long time,

Oh, and the error messages stink. "Oops: System error. Problem parsing response." Gee, thanks.

Still, I did get it done, in a halfway reasonable amount of time, and the result is undeniably pretty.

I will consider Yahoo! Pipes for future projects like this. And if I ever find a way to run its editor locally, it will probably become one of my favorite toys.

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