NewsBlur Review

One of the very, very common refrain I hear in my circles, probably because my circles are full of ex-users of it, and at the same time of Googlers and Xooglers, is that the Internet changed when Google Reader was shut down, and that we would never be able to come back. This is something that I don’t quite buy out right — Google Reader, like most of the similar tools, was used only by a subset of the general population, while other tools, such as social networks, started being widely used right around the same time.

But in the amount of moaning about Google Reader not existing anymore, I rarely hear enough willingness to look for alternatives. Sure there was a huge noise about options back then, which I previously called the “Google Reader Exodus“, but I rarely hear of much else. I see tweets going by of people wishing that Reader still existed, but I don’t think I have seen many willing to go out of their way to do something about it.

Important aside here: while I did work at Google when Reader was shut down in effect, the plan was announced in-between me signing my contract and my start date. And obviously it was not something that was decided there and then, but rather a long-term decision taken who knows how long before. So while I was at Google for the “funeral”, I had no saying, or knowledge, of any of it.

Well, the good news is that NewsBlur, which I have started using right before the Reader shut down, is still my favourite tool for this, it’s open source, and it has a hosted service that costs a reasonable $36/year. And it doesn’t even have a referral program, so if you had any doubt of me shilling, you can vacate it now.

So first of all, NewsBlur has enough options for layout that look so much like Google Reader “of back then” — before Google+ and before losing the “Shared Stories” feature. Indeed, it supports both its own list of followers/following, and global sharing of stories on the platform. And you don’t even need to be an user to follow what I share on it, since it also automatically creates a blurblog, which you can subscribe to with whatever you want.

I have in the past used IFTTT to integrate further features, including saving stories to Pocket, and sharing stories on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Unfortunately while NewsBlur has great integration, IFTTT is now a $4/month service, which does not have nearly enough features for me to consider subscribing to, sorry. So for now I’m talking about direct features only.

In addition to the sharing features, NewsBlur has what is for me one of the killer features: the “Intelligence Trainer”. Which is not any type of machine learning system, but rather a way for you to tell NewsBlur to hide, or highlight, certain content. This is very similar to a feature I would have wanted twelve years ago: filtering. Indeed, this allowed me to hide my own posts from Gentoo Universe – back when I was involved in the project – and to only read Matthew’s blog posts in one of the many Planets he’s syndicated, like I wanted. But there’s much more to it.

I have used this up to this day to hide repetitive posts (e.g. status updates for certain projects being aggregated together with blogs), to stop reading authors that didn’t interest me, or wrote in languages I couldn’t read. But I also used the “highlighting” feature to know when a friend posted on another Planet, or to get information about new releases or tours from metal bands I followed, through some of the dedicated websites’ feeds.

But where this becomes extremely interesting is when you combine it with another feature that nowadays I couldn’t go without, particularly as so much content that used to be available as blogs, sites, and feeds is becoming newsletters: it’s the ability to receive email newsletters and turn them into a feed. I do this for quite a few of them: the Adafruit Python for Microcontrollers newsletter (which admittedly is also available through their blog), the new tickets alerts from a bunch of different venues (admittedly not very useful this year), Tor.com, and Patreon.

And since the intelligence trainer does not need to have tags or authors to go along, but can match a substring in the title (subject), this makes it an awesome tool to filter out certain particular messages from a newsletter. For instance, while I do support a number of creators on Patreon, a few of them share all their public videos as updates — I don’t need to see those in the Patreon feed, as I get them directly at source, so I can hide those particular series from the Patreon feed for myself. And instead, while I can wait for most of the Tor.com releases, I do want to know quickly if they are giving away a free book, or if there’s a new release from John Scalzi that I missed. And again, the highlighting helps me there: it makes a green counter appear next to the “feed”, that tells me there’s something I want to look at sooner, rather than later.

As I said the intelligence trainer doesn’t have to use tags — but it can use them if they are there at all. So for instance for this very blog, if I were to post something in Italian and you wouldn’t be able to read it, you could train NewsBlur to hide posts in Italian. Or if you think my opinions are useless, you can just hide those, too.

But this is not where it ends. Beside having an awesome implementation of HTTP, which supports all bandwidth-saving optimizations I know of, NewsBlur thinks about the user a lot more than Google Reader would have. Whenever you decide to do some spring cleaning of your subscription, NewsBlur will send you by email an OPML file with all of your subscribed feed before you made the first change (for the day, I think). That way you never risk deleting a subscription without having a way to find it agian. And it supports muting sites, so you don’t need to unsubscribe not to get a high count of unread posts of, say, a frequent flyers’ blog during a pandemic.

Plus it’s extremely tweakable and customizable — you can choose to see the stories as they appear in the feed, or load into a frame the original website linked by the story, or try to extract the story content from the linked site (the “reader mode”).

Overall, I can only suggest to those who keep complaining about Google Reader’s demies, that it’s always a good time to join NewsBlur instead.

LibreView online reporting service

You may remember I complained about cloud-based solutions before. I have had harsh words about what are to me irresponsible self-hosting suggestions, and I’m not particularly impressed by how every other glucometer manufacturer appears to want their tools to be used, uploading to their cloud solutions what I would expect is a trove of real-world blood sugar reports from diabetics.

But as it happens, since I’m using the FreeStyle LibreLink app on my phone, I get the data uploaded to Abbott’s LibreView anyway. The LibreView service is geo-restricted, so it might not be available in all the countries where FreeStyle Libre is present, which probably is why the standalone Windows app still exists, and why the Libre 2 does not appear to be supported by it.

I haven’t used the service at all until this past month, when I visited the diabetic nurse at the local hospital (I had some blood sugar control issues), and she asked me to connect with their clinic. Turns out that (with the correct authorization), the staff at the clinic can access the real-time monitoring that I get from the phone. Given that this is useful to me, I find this neat, rather than creepy. Also it seems to require authorization on both sides, and it includes an email notification, so possibly they didn’t do that bad of a job with it.

The site is also a good replacement for the desktop app, when using the app with the phone, rather than the reader. It provides the same level of details in the reports, including the “pattern insights”, and a full view of the day-to-day aligned on weeks. Generally, those reports are very useful. And they are available on the site even for yourself, not just for the clinics, which is nice.

Also it turns out that the app tracks how many phones you’ve been using to scan the sensor — in my case, six. Although it’s over 1⅓ years since I have used a different one. I couldn’t see a way to remove the old phones, but at the same time, they are not reporting anything in and they don’t seem to have a limit on how many you can have.

Overall it’s effectively just a web app version of the information that was already available on the phone (but hard to extract and share) or on the reader (if you are still using that). I like the interface and it seems fairly friendly.

Also, you may remember (or notice, if you read the links above) that I had taken an aside pointing out how Diabetes Ireland misunderstood the graphs shown in the report when the Libre reached Ireland. I guess they were not alone, because in this version of the report Abbott explicitly labels the 10th-90th percentile highlight, the 25th-75th percentile highlight, and the median line. Of course this assumes that whoever is reading the graph is aware of “percentile” and “median” stand for — but that’s at least a huge step in the right direction.