Digital world: Piping democracy

I may give the impression of being a real programming geek, but I'm really more like the average Web-ster: My eyes glaze over when I'm faced with esoteric looking commands that need to be implemented just so.

By DAVID SHAMAH
June 26, 2007 08:08
Digital world: Piping democracy

WYSIWYG 88. (photo credit: )

There are lots of innovative Web sites out there - many with features you wish you could duplicate on your own site. When I see a great implementation of, say, Web mashups - where different data streams merge to create a new animal - I go all gaga and think about how I can do something similar. But then I get down to the details, the actual mechanics of making the thing happen - and I go all sleepy-bye! I may give the impression of being a real programming geek, but I'm really more like the average Web-ster: My eyes glaze over when I'm faced with esoteric looking commands that need to be implemented just so. When it comes to left vs. right brain, I'm a real "rightist." I'll take pictures over text any day! Unfortunately, programming - text programming, where you have to put commands together - is a large part of Web work, and computing in general. There are some bright spots for right-brainers - real WYSIWYG Web design programs like iWeb or Dreamweaver, for example - but by and large, you've got to know the code if you want to do the advanced stuff. But when it comes to cross-breeding mashups, things just got a little more visual - i.e. easier and more user friendly. Now, if you want to, for example, search out news stories about a particular subject and translate them into Chinese automatically via a Web translation filter, you don't have to write 6,000 lines of code, or even know Chinese. Yahoo - specifically, Yahoo Pipes - does all the work for you. All you have to do is a little plumbing! Pipes (http://pipes.yahoo.com) has been around for about six months or so, and I started playing with it almost right away. I had to let it alone, though - it wasn't very user friendly at the beginning, and there was precious little documentation on how to use it. Six months later, though, it's a different story: There are manuals and Web sites guiding you through the process of building pipes - merged data streams that display an aggregated result - and the power of programming that was formerly given to sophisticated and advanced programmers who knew how to RTFM, as the say, is now given to the common wo/man. Like Unix pipes, Yahoo Pipes redirect data from various sources into a single output file (or Web page, RSS reader, etc.) - but unlike with Unix pipes, you don't have to have a whit (well, maybe a smidgen, but definitely not a whit) of programming skill. Take me, for instance - I made a rather simple but highly functional pipe for a Web site I'm working on, which takes hi-tech and financial news about Israel from a number of sources - the JPost, Globes, MarketWatch etc. - and funnels them all into a single RSS feed (http://tinyurl.com/2hu34z). I used only three of Pipes' "modules" - i.e. commands - out of dozens, in order to assemble my data, and yet even this simple implementation will make my site much more useful to those it's aimed at, as all the news from different sources will appear in one window. Now that's what a call good mashing! An excellent, easy way to begin using Pipes is to check out and follow the instructions at http://tinyurl.com/24y3ez or http://tinyurl.com/2gs66g (a YouTube video, keeping in line with the visual theme of Pipes). There are quite a few far more sophisticated Pipes on the Yahoo site that do everything but wash the dishes, it seems. But the bottom line in each of them is how they were constructed - by dragging little "pipes" to connect between the different modules. Your pipe is saved on your Yahoo pipe account page, and listed in the site's directory (it you agree). Since Pipes is a community, your data sources are available to anyone who bothers to look at them (one would assume that you would be using publicly available data feeds inn your pipe), and you can clone a good looking pipe, replacing the data sources with your own sources. The result? You get a mashup like this page (http://tinyurl.com/ywgzmh), where English language RSS feeds get translated to Japanese. One of the Pipes' modules, Babelfish, does the translation. I did find one feed mashing up different Hebrew news sources, but none translating English news into Hebrew, or vice versa - yet, that is. Sounds like a nice project! Yahoo even offers an option for feeding the data off the Pipes page onto your own Web page; you can download the data in JSON - Javascript Object Notation - which you can program (sorry, a little code is necessary here) to embed on your page, as seen at http://tinyurl.com/26ml21. I recently spent a few hours comparing what I did in Pipes to other Web services that purport to perform the same service, as well as several downloadable programs (one free, one not). There was absolutely no comparison; the sites that were easy to use produced extremely unsophisticated results (attempts to do something more ambitious never worked, despite sites' claims that it could), and the downloads were more powerful - but much more complicated to work with. That's the power of Pipes; it's powerful, with the power built into the server modules you employ in order to set up your data stream; but it's as simple as assembling Lego, joining one module to another in order to pipe out the results. Lest you think that I am uncharacteristically gushing here, be aware that I am not the only one, with some comparing Pipes to the emergence of relational databases as a Web tool in the 1990s (http://tinyurl.com/279aam) - and we all know where that went. The difference between the Web and other media - the idea, at least - has been that the Web would belong "to the people," as opposed to the "expert" class, like in the traditional media. Despite the philosophy, however, there was still an "elite" when it came to building Web sites - programmers who knew how to do sites, much less how to work with databases, embedded audio/video, CSS, etc. Sure, the average Joe/Jane could have a Web site - one of those old-style Tripod things - but they could never have a "real" Web site, unless they paid someone to do it for them, thus losing their Web autonomy, as the designer became the arbiter of the data. Now, however, vast power - on a very professional level - has been made available to anyone who cares to take control of it. http://digital.newzgeek.com


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