Know Sooner

The man on the stage is striding back and forth with a microphone, the cable trailing behind him. He’s in a suit – navy blue, with a red tie and short-cropped hair, his wide smile lit warmly by the stage lights. The heads in the audience rotate and follow him when he moves, his shiny shoes drumming on the blonde wood. He speaks with religious enthusiasm:

Have you ever been in a situation where you knew the answer just a little bit too late? That job interview where you didn’t know the capital of Nebraska. That date whose father died. The horse which came in fourth. Don’t you wish you could have known five minutes before you needed to know, not five minutes after?

My name is Kenneth Spooner and I’m here to tell you – you can. With my special twelve-step system you can know things before you need them, not after. Next time you need a fact at your fingertips you won’t need to worry, because you’ll know what you need to know when you need to know it. There are so many things you learn because you just might need to know someday. Why waste time learning when you could be out doing? With my unique training there’s no need to worry about exams, uncomfortable meetings, or long silences while you guess what to say next. I can help you eliminate useless time spent learning and allow you to reach your full potential.

Cindy asked me a question about geography. My first thought was, don’t worry, you’ll learn it when you need it. But what if that’s too late? Suddenly I had this vision of a motivational speaker.


In Defence of Polling

There was a recent discussion on Slashdot about the problem of too many RSS aggregators fetching their feeds on the hour every hour and overloading the server. The common accusation levelled at syndication technology is that it depends on polling – the client checks periodically for new content even when there is none. The obvious solution, Slashdotters felt, was to notify the client when the feed changes. They are dead wrong. RSS is a success precisely because it doesn’t work this way.

I think this is a common misconception about syndication, and it should be put to bed. Concerns about polling are narrowly focused on technical efficiency. In the end, the technology has to do something for people – and not just Slashdot people. RSS is a success for the same reason that HTML is a success: both hit the 80/20 point of simplicity. Creating an RSS feed requires nothing more than writing a file far simpler than an HTML web page. There is no special software required on the server – or, heaven forbid, a special protocol1. If syndication had required special software, we wouldn’t be worrying about its efficiency because no-one would be using it.

Many people (Tim Bray, Eric Raymond) have said this before, but it bears repeating: the best technologies are simple, with just enough complexity to do something useful. Their ranks include HTML, XML, HTTP, UNIX pipes, even poor pathetic DOS meets this criterion. Worse is Better. Polling is fine.2


1 Update: I originally said “or, heaven forbid, on the client” – which is of course incorrect.

2 Gabriel’s brilliant Worse is Better argument is in section 2.1