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Get More Out of Google Reader

Get More Out of Google Reader
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    If you’ve already gotten started with Google Reader, you’re probably ready for some advanced tips and tricks to make better use of this rather full-featured RSS client. Here’s what you need to do to become a real Google Reader power user.

    Get Organized

    Google Reader offers two effective ways to wrangle your feeds into order: folders and tags. (Google is inconsistent in its use of “folders” and “tags”, often treating them as the same thing, but since foldering and tagging appeal to distinct mindsets, it’s effective to talk about them as two separate things.)

    Foldering

    To create a folder, click on any feed and select “New folder” from the “Feed settings…” drop-down at the top right. A pop-up will prompt you to enter a name for your new folder; once you click ok, the new folder will be created and the feed will be moved into it.

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    To add more feeds into a folder, simply select the folder’s name from the “Feed settings…” drop-down while reading the feed; again, it will be moved into the folder. (A neat little fading alert at the top tells you it’s working.)

    Tagging

    You might have already noticed that Google Reader calls the folders you’ve created “tags” when you look at them in the “Settings”. But there’s another, distinct tagging interface in Reader that works more like we’ve come to expect tagging to work.

    At the bottom of each post in a feed, there’s an “Add feed” link (it will say “Edit feed” if you’ve already tagged a post). Clicking this will open a text field to enter tags into. You can enter as many as you like, separated by commas.

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    Once you hit “Save”, scroll down to the bottom in the left-hand sidebar and you’ll see all your tags with little “sale tag” icons next to them. Clicking one opens all the posts you’ve tagged with that tag.

    Share and Star

    On the same toolbar as the “Add tags” link is a link marked “Share”. Google Reader creates a public page for each account, and everything you mark to share gets posted there. For example, my shared items are here. It will also create an RSS feed that your friends or clients or whoever can load into their own RSS reader. In theory, you could load your own shared items RSS, which must be useful for something, but that use escapes me at the moment…

    Right next to “Share” is “Add star”, Google Reader’s version of bookmarking. Anything with a star on it is accessible through the “Starred items” feed at the top left of the page (unlike shared items, starred items do not appear publicly). So you can skim through your feeds, starring anything that merits closer attention, and come back to your “Starred items” view when you have time — just don’t forget to “unstar” them as you read.

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    Take Shortcuts

    Google Reader is fairly intuitive, but there are a few basic keyboard shortcuts you should get to know, to make using it even easier:

    • Go to next item: j
    • Go to previous item: k
    • Down one page: space (will go to next post if current post is less than one page)
    • Star: s
    • Share: shift-s
    • Mark as read/unread: m
    • Mark all in feed as read: shift-a
    • Add tags to an item: t
    • View all items for a tag: gt
    • Go to “all items” view: ga
    • Go to “starred items” view: gs

    Go Further

    The spread of RSS to virtually everything in these mashable times means more and more information can be channeled to Google Reader and available virtually the moment it appears on the web. Here’s a few interesting tricks and hacks I’ve come across to do more with Google Reader:

    • Add your shared items to your own website. Click “put a clip of your shared items” at the top of the “Shared items” view to get the code to add your most recent shared items in a box on your own site. You can choose what to title your feed box, how many items to include (up to 10), the color scheme, and whether or not to show the items’ original sources. (See the “What I’m Reading Lately” box at the bottom right of my site’s home page).
    • Read your feeds on your phone or web-enabled PDA. Google Reader has a beautiful small-screen interface at www.google.com/reader/m. I use Opera Mini on my Treo 680 to view Reader, and although it sometimes takes a little while to load the first page, after that it’s pretty snappy, and Google does a good job of formatting content for the small screen.
    • See what’s playing at a theater near you. Use the Favorite Theater RSS Generator to create a separate RSS feed for each theater you frequent; you will get up-to-date times for each movie currently playing, with one movie title and times per post.
    • Create Google search feeds. If it’s important to you to keep up with new search results for particular search terms, you can use GoogleAlert to create feeds based on selected keywords. The free account allows you to maintain three separate searches; for more, you have to upgrade to a paid account. Make sure you turn off the email alerts under “user settings” or you’ll get duplicate results by email.
    • Create feeds from sites that don’t have them. More patient folk than me can use Dapper to RSS-ify websites that don’t have feeds. You have to identify the content areas to show Dapper how to do it; frankly, the process will need a separate tutorial to explain properly, but if you can figure it out, have at it.
    • Track packages. If you ship a lot of packages, set up a “Package Tracking” folder in Reader and use one of the following services to create RSS feeds for each package. Each is slightly different, so try them all and decide which best meets our needs.
      1. SimpleTracking is, well, simple — enter your tracking number, select what shipping service you’re using, and click “Generate RSS URL”. Cut and paste the URL thus generated into Google Reader. Track your package.
      2. TrackThePack autodetects what service you’re using, and adds the ability to add a note to your feed, which might be useful to distinguish the shipment of toner cartridges from the collection of vintage manga toys you bought on eBay.
      3. Package Tracking With Google Maps and RSS maps your package’s progress on a Google Map, so you can watch your package fly past wherever you live to the central sorting facility and then slowly crawl back to you.
    • Go offline. The latest thing out of Google Labs is Google Gears, an open source browser extension that enables web applications to provide offline functionality using javascript APIs to yadda-yadda-yadda. Here’s the deal with that: Google Gears gives Google Reader mojo, with which you can save your current feeds for off-line reading. If you fly a lot or frequently use your laptop in places where no wi-fi is available, just click “Read offline” at the top right (you’ll be prompted to install Google Gears if you haven’t already; you may be surprised to hear that Google Gears is still in beta, so the usual disclaimers apply). When you come back online, Google Gears will synchronize your offline reading so that anything you’ve read, starred, or shared will show up as such.

    Get All Zen and Stuff

    One last thing: there is no search function in Google Reader. Yes, even though Google is a company built on search technology, the powers that be decided, “no search”. There’s a hack-around involving rolling your own search engine using the OPML export of your Reader subscriptions and a Greasemonkey script and a ball of string and the skull of a righteous man with three silver nails hammered into it, but as soon as you add a new feed you have to start over, and that sounds like a pain in the… neck.

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    So using Google Reader gives you a special opportunity to practice acceptance of those things you cannot change, to learn patience with the way the world is, and rise above your petty yearnings. Which is quite a bit to get from an RSS reader!

    And, like I said, you can track packages.

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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