Saturday, March 16, 2013

Facebook Does Something Right...For a Change

Anyone who has read this blog regularly for the past few years know that I have often been very vocal about many of the changes Facebook has made to their site. In the case of many of these changes it has often seemed to me that Facebook was determined to reduce the over all usability of the site. This was particularly true of Timeline, the new user interface for user and page profiles. From the hype Facebook seemed convinced that Timeline was some sort of quantum leap in social network user profiles. On the other hand, most users I know hated Timeline. They thought its double column layout was not only unattractive, but made it hard to read anyone's profile, even one's own. While complaints about Facebook would decline after the social network forced everyone to change to the Timeline layout, the hatred for it has never truly gone away. Most users I know simply tolerate because they feel complaining will do no good.

Fortunately, it appears that Facebook realised that users hated the double column layout of Timeline and started taking measures to correct it. Earlier this year Facebook began testing a single column version of Timeline. Fortunately, I was among the users who received this new Timeline layout and I must say that I liked it much better than the original, double column version of Timeline. Not only was it more attractive, but more importantly it was easier to read. It was just last week that Facebook rolled out a new version of the single column Timeline. If anything, this version is even more of an improvement. Below are a few screen shots.

As you can see on one's posts are on the right, while on the left are a series of boxes. The boxes on my profile are About (a bit of information about myself), Friends, Photos, and Likes (various Facebook pages I like). To some degree one has control over which boxes appear in the right sidebar of one's profile. While one cannot remove the About, Friends, or Photos boxes, he or she could set them to where they could be seen by himself or herself. In addition, one can add boxes for Places (places one has lived or visited), Music, Films, TV Programmes, Books, Notes, and so on.

Above one's boxes and posts, but below the cover photo, one will see a horizontal menu that includes "Timeline," "About," "Friends," "Photos," and "More (which provides a drop down menu including "Likes" and "Notes." This much more compact than the original double column Timeline or even the original single column Timeline, which had little boxes for each category.

My first impression of the new, single column Timeline is that it is much easier on the eyes than the original version of the single column Timline and especially the original, double column Timeline (which I think could quite accurately be described as an "eyesore"). It is fairly easy to use. In fact, I would say it set up much more intuitively than the original, double column Timeline. And I must say I like that Facebook is giving users a degree of customisation, something that has been lacking on the site for some time. Personally I would like to be able to be given the ability to hide all of the boxes (there does seem to be a bit of redundancy in having both a link to one's Photos and a box for one's Photos), but the fact that I can add boxes is real progress for Facebook. Over all, then, I must say that I actually like the new version of the single column Timeline, not something I've been able to say about a change Facebook has made in quite some time.

Of course, this is not to say that Facebook has saved itself in my eyes. Facebook has made far too many missteps over the years for me to think that they are turning themselves around from a company that doesn't listen to its users to one that does. Indeed, they are supposed to be releasing a new version of the News Feed quite shortly and I worry how they may have changed it. Regardless, this new single column Timeline is definitely a step in the right direction.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Margaret Lockwood Society on Facebook

If you are a fan of Alfred Hitchock, British cinema, or both, chances are very good that you have heard of Margaret Lockwood. She may be best known in Canada and the United States as the star of Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938). In the United Kingdom she was the top British star of the Forties. When adjusted for inflation, Miss Lockwood's film The Wicked Lady (1946) still ranks among the highest grossing films in the United Kingdom.

Although she may not be as well known as some of the Hollywood stars of the Forties and Fifties, Margaret Lockwood maintains a following to this day. Indeed, if you are a fan of Margaret Lockwood and you have a Facebook account, there is the Margaret Lockwood Society there. The Margaret Lockwood Society page not only has a wealth of photos, but also links and notes related to her as well.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Demise of Google Reader

It was in on 7 October 2005 that Google launched Google Reader, an RSS aggregator  that was meant to make it easier for users to keep track of blogs and news sites. Yesterday, on The Official Google Blog, Google announced that Google Reader will be retired on 1 July 2013. The reason given was that "...over the years usage has declined." To say that Google Reader's users were outraged might be putting it mildly. In post after post on Google+ and Facebook and tweet after tweet on Twitter people expressed their dismay at Google discontinuing Reader. "Google Reader" zoomed to the top of the trending topics on both Google+ and Twitter. Every place from Mashable to Forbes to The Atlantic published editorials condemning Google's decision. While usage may have declined over the years, it would seem that Google Reader still has a large and fanatically loyal following.

I can perfectly understand the reaction of many Google Reader users. While there are many RSS aggregators out there, in my humble opinion there is only one that is as good as Google Reader (more on that later). What makes Google Reader such a good web feed aggregator is that it is simple and without any frills. In one's subscriptions one only sees headlines and the first few lines of each blog post or news story. This makes it easy for someone to swiftly scroll through Reader and pick out what he or she wants to read. What is more Google Reader can be accessed directly through the web without having to install any applications, plug ins, or extensions. The simple fact is the vast majority of aggregators do not have these advantages.

Indeed, while Bloglines, Netvibes, and Newsblur are all accessible through the web, they also tend to be heavy on graphics, making them less desirable to someone who simply wants to read headlines and the first few lines of blog posts or news stories. Feedly has the simplicity of Google Reader, but one must install the Feedly application to one's browser to use it. While there may be others, the one RSS reader that is both simple and easily accessible through the web would  seem to be The Old Reader, which is in some ways even simpler than The Google Reader. Unfortunately there is not a phone or tablet computer app for The Old Reader as of yet. It would then seem that very few of Google Reader's rivals possess its elegant simplicity or its ease of access. It is little wonder, then, that its users are upset.

Regardless, it would seem that Google Reader is by far the most popular RSS aggregator out there. In posts to social media sites, blog posts, and articles in various publications journalists and writers complained that they use Google Reader in their work. Even various third party apps depend on Google Reader for syncing and subscriptions, including Pulp, NetNewsWire, Reeder, and others. These apps will be forced to find alternatives. As to somewhat more casual blog and news readers, they were not happy at the prospect of finding another RSS aggregator. It would seem that the retirement of Google Reader will have a huge impact across the internet.

While it probably would not be a good idea to get one's hopes up, I do think it is possible given the outcry that Google could reconsider its decision. Unlike some other web based companies (I won't name names, but if you follow this blog you can probably guess whom I am talking about), Google actually does listen to its users. I see this regularly at Google+ where they have made changes to the site based on our suggestions. It is possible, then, that Google might listen to its users and keep Google Reader in some form. That having been said, I have no idea how likely that is.

If Google does indeed retire Google Reader, and I think we should probably just assume they will until we get word otherwise, I suspect that another simple, web based web feed aggregator will take its place. Right now my bet is that it will probably be the Old Reader. While phone and tablet users might choose Feedly, I think desktop and laptop computer users will prefer something that does not require them to install an application or plug in to their browser. Regardless, it seems obvious to me from the outrage expressed over the retirement of Google Reader that there is a big demand for RSS aggregators so that something will rise up to take its place.

In the end, however, I think it would be wise for Google to reconsider its decision. Over the years various web sites have done away with various features with nary a peep from their users. Google itself has discontinued many products (everything from Google Buzz to Google Wave) with virtually no complaints from users. That the announcement of the closure of Google Reader provoked such widespread outrage demonstrates that it is still popular and used by many, many people. Any company that has a product with that kind of popularity and loyalty would be well advised to keep it.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Clive Burr R.I.P.

Clive Burr, best known as the drummer on Iron Maiden's first three albums, died on 12 March 2013 at the age of 56. He had primary progressive multiple sclerosis.

Clive Burr was born on 8 March 1957 in Manor Park in London’s East End. He took to drumming at a young age, even building his own drum kit as a boy. He performed with the band Maya for a time before joining the band Samson in 1977. He remained with the band until 1978. It was in 1979 that he joined Iron Maiden. He appeared on the band's debut EP The Soundhouse Tapes, released in November of that year. Iron Maiden released their eponymous debut album in April 1980. The album not only received critical acclaim, but produced a hit single in the form of "Running Free (which went to #34 on the UK singles chart)."

Iron Maiden followed the success of Iron Maiden with their second album, Killers. Killers proved very successful, reaching #12 on the UK albums chart and #78 on the U.S. albums chart. It also produced a hit single in the form of "Twilight Zone," which went to #31 on the UK singles chart. It would be their third album, The Number of the Beast, that would establish Iron Maiden as one of the premiere heavy metal bands to emerge from the United Kingdom. The album reached #1 on the UK albums chart and #33 on the Billboard albums chart in the United States. The album produced the hit singles "Run to the Hills" and "The Number of the Beast," both of which hit the top twenty of the UK singles chart.

After three albums with Iron Maiden, Clive Burr was asked to leave the band for reasons that still remain unclear. He played for a time in the French band Trust. In 1983 he was a member of the initial line up of Alcatrazz, remaining with the band for only a week. From reports he left the band after learning it was going to be based in the United States as opposed to England. He was a member of the British supergroup Gogmagog, which featured former Iron Maiden vocalist Paul Di'Anno as well. They only released one EP, I Will Be There, in 1985. Clive Burr also formed his own band. Initially called "Clive Burr's Escape," it was later renamed "Stratus" and included former members of Praying Mantis. Stratus released one album, Throwing Shapes, in 1985. In the Nineties he performed with both Elixir and Praying Mantis, although he was never officially a member of either band.

It was in 1994 that Clive Burr was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis. The disease would eventually affect his drumming skills and in the end he was confined to a wheelchair.

Clive Burr was arguably one of the best drummers to emerge from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. He had a particularly powerful drumming style, strong and often complex. It was in many ways the perfect compliment to Iron Maiden's guitar harmonies. While he was with the band for only their first three albums, it was his drumming that helped shape the sound of the band for the rest of their career. In turn Clive Burr would also influence a generation of heavy metal drummers, from Machine Head's Dave McClain to Jason Bittner of Shadows Fall.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Peter Banks R.I.P.

Peter Banks, the original lead guitarist of Yes and founder of prog rock band Flash, died on 7 March 2013. The cause was heart failure.

Peter Banks was born Peter Brockbanks on 15 July 1947 in Barnet, Hertfordshire. He learned to play guitar and later banjo when he was still a boy. He eventually joined the band The Syn, which is where he met bassist Chris Squire. When The Syn broke up, Messrs. Banks and Squire joined Mabel Greer's Toyshop. Peter Banks left briefly to join Neat Change, then rejoined the band. It was at Mr. Banks' suggestion that Mabel Greer's Toyshop renamed themselves "Yes!" The band would later lose the exclamation point to simply become "Yes."

Yes signed with Atlantic Records in early 1969 and their first, eponymous album came out that August. While the album was not a huge hit on the charts, it received largely favourable reviews. Yes followed their first album with the album Time and a Word in 1970. It proved to be their first big success in the United Kingdom, hitting #45 on the albums chart. Unfortunately, songwriter and lead vocalist Jon Anderson's decision to use a full orchestra on the album would result in tensions within the band. Peter Banks opposed this decision and as a result he was asked to leave after the album's completion.

Following his career with Yes, Peter Banks worked briefly with Blodwyn Pig in 1970 and appeared on the band's album Getting to This. In 1971 he formed the band Flash with vocalist Colin Carter. Flash's self titled first album was released in 1972. It produced a minor hit for the band, "Small Beginnings," which went to #29 on the Billboard Hot 100. Flash released two more albums: In the Can in November 1972 and Out of Our Hands in the summer of 1973.

In 1973 Peter Banks released his first solo album, Two Sides of Peter Banks. That same year he formed Empire with singer Sydney Foxx, who would eventually become his wife. Empire released three albums: Mark I (1973), Mark II (1974), and Mark III (1979).  In the late Seventies and in the Eighties Peter Banks appeared only as a session musician or special guest on others' records.

In 1991 Peter Banks appeared once more with Yes during the encore at the 15 May concert at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California. In 1994 he would appear the Yes fan festival called "Yestival." That same year he released his first solo album in over two decades, Instinct. In 1995 he performed the Yes song "Astral Traveller" for the Yes tribute album Tales From Yesterday. He released three more solo albums in the Nineties: Self-Contained (1995), Reduction (1997), and Can I Play You Something? (The Pre-Yes Years Recordings From 1964-1968) (1999). From the Naughts into the Teens he appeared as a guest on various albums. In 2004 he formed the band Harmony In Diversity, which released a single EP, Trying, in 2006.

Peter Banks has been described as the Architect of Progressive Rock, and it would be very difficult to argue that he did not have an influence on the subgenre. Mr. Banks' style could rightfully be described as classical guitar, with a subtle balance between delicate guitar work and outright grandiosity. What is more, Mr. Banks could switch between styles with ease, going from hard rock to jazz with no difficulty at all. While his successor in Yes, Steve Howe, may have become more famous than Peter Banks, it was arguably Mr. Banks who paved the way for most of the progressive rock guitarists who followed him.