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RSS aggregator in Python 2/Tk. Now mostly superseded by 3NewsFeed, the version for Python 3.

branch: master
README.markdown

NewsFeed 2.16 Documentation

Overview

NewsFeed is an RSS/RDF/Atom reader and aggregator for UNIX-like operating systems, such as Linux, Mac OS X, FreeBSD, or Windows. It is written in Python and uses Mark Pilgrim's Universal Feed Parser for downloading and parsing feeds.

NewsFeed aims to be easy to setup and use and is something of a clone of NetNewsWire. It only depends on Tk, no other libraries are required.

Installation

If you just want to try NewsFeed out, no installation is necessary at all. Simply untar the file, cd to the directory and run ./newsfeed. As Python can find packages in the current working directory as well as the global locations, everything should work as expected.

If you want to install the program globally or under your home directory, please choose one of the following two methods:

Method A (automatic install): Use the distutils approach. Untar the file and then do python setup.py install. See the distutils documentation for installation options like directory paths.

Method B (manual install):

  1. Copy newsfeed.py, rssfinder.py, rssparser.py, and dlthreads.py into the Python module path, e.g. to /usr/local/lib/python2.7/site\-packages/ or to where your PYTHONPATH environment variable points.

  2. By default, audio notifications are turned off. If you want them, set the environment variable NEWSFEED_SOUND to the full path of a sound file. (Setting it to "none" disables notification sounds.) NOTE: You need to have either PyAudio or Snack installed to play notification sounds.

  3. Copy at least newsfeed and, if you need them, also add_feed.py, feed2opml.py, opml2feed.py, update_feeds.py, and dinos.py to somewhere in your $PATH.

If you want auto-subscription to work you have to consult your web browser documentation on how to add a handler for specific MIME types or keywords, see below.

The GUI

The NewsFeed main window features a familiar three-pane layout similar to many email programs, where in the left vertical pane the newsfeeds and active searches are listed, with buttons right below to move the active feed up and down in the list. Behind the entries the number of unread items in the feed is shown in parentheses. Empty feeds or feeds that did not update correctly the last time (e.g., because of a server timeout) are put in square brackets. Right below the buttons is the progress bar, which is white normally, but shows a green bar when an update is in progress.

Right next to the feed list is the items list for the selected feed, with newest items at the top. Items that were already displayed are shown slightly indented and in parentheses, whereas new, unread items are shown without indentation. If available, the column right next to the one with the subject lines shows the time stamps for the individual messages, or if not available, for the feed.

Below the topic list is the main text area where the description of the selected item is displayed. In the top right corner is again the date as supplied by the feed if available, while in the lower right corner the download date is shown in local time. The article headline is clickable and will open the browser that is set in the BROWSER shell environment variable. (Dillo is a good choice for a browser in this context, as it starts up very fast and displays most pages quite nicely.) Alternatively, pressing Return opens the current item. The headline will turn violet if has been visited in the browser. Finaly, the URI of the item is printed in a red font below the text.

Top row buttons

  • 'Refresh Now' (Key R): Update all feeds. During updating the user interface can become sluggish for a few seconds, so it is probably better to wait for the update to complete. (Please not that as of v1.6 pressing r now only updates the current channel.)

  • 'Edit Channel' (Key e): Edit the current channel's properties. 'Name' is what is shown in the channel list, if unsure, prepend a '?' to the name, causing NewsFeed to look for the channel name in the newsfeed header. 'RSS' is the URI of the feed, if unknown, enter the URI of the site into 'Home' and 'Press 'Auto-Detect RSS Feed'. With luck, one or more channels will be found for the site and merged into the channel list. 'Update every' marks the update interval for that particular channel, while 'Expire after' is the time for which the feed items are stored. Pressing 'Save Information' saves, while closing the window cancels. Below the buttons the official channel description by the newsfeed provider is shown.

  • 'Subscribe': Creates a new channel and opens its edit box. See auto-discovery.

  • 'Unsubscribe': Delete current channel (or search) from the list.

  • 'Search News' (Key s): Allows to search headlines and content for words or phrases. Select 'Match Case' if capitalization is significant, select 'Match Whole Words' if your search terms should not be part of longer words. Pressing Return or clicking 'Accept' adds the search to the feed list. It gets updated automatically whenever one of the channels changes ("Live Search").

  • 'Next Unread' (Space): Jump to the next unread item, either in this or in other feeds. By repeatedly clicking this button, you can cycle through all new items until none are left.

  • 'Mark All As Read' (Key m): Mark the entire channel contents as read. There is also the catch up command (C, i.e. Shift-c) which marks all items in all channels as read.

  • 'Delete' (Key d or Backspace): Deletes the current item from the feed and remembers not to download it again (at least until the expiration time set for the channel). This is useful to get rid of annoying items such as "Customize this feed", ads, etc.

  • 'Delete All': Resets the current channel. If you refresh immediately, all items currently available will be downloaded again. The delete commands can also be used in a search, where they will affect the feeds in which the items were found.

Other functionality

Note that window positions and sizes are saved when you move or resize the windows. For the helper windows, this does not work if you close them with their close buttons, you have to do 'Accept' or 'Save', respectively.

In the content pane, directly above the item title there is a toolbar (as of v1.7) that contains buttons labeled "back" (Key < or Key [) and "forward" (Key > or Key ]) for navigating between read items in the standard web browser fashion.

Pressing q quits the application. Escape can also be used to dismiss the info and search windows.

Additionally, the up and down cursor keys go the previous/next item in the feed, while the left and right cursor keys jump to the previous/next feed. Finally, pressing v jumps to the history ("Recently Visited") feed.

The "Important Items" feed contains items that were marked as important, either by using the "Mark" button in the item pane toolbar or by using the keyboard shortcut n. Items in this feed never expire and subject lines of flagged items are prepended with "!!!". You can use the keyboard shortcut N (i.e. Shift-n) to jump to this feed.

The font size in the item description pane can be adjusted with the "Smaller" and "Larger" buttons from the item toolbar, or using the keyboard shortcuts + and -.

The keyboard shortcut i iconifies the application (or puts it in the dock on Mac OS X), w toggles widescreen mode, and h opens the homepage of the feed (as given by the URL under "Home:" in the Channel Info window).

Item export

"Export" writes the currently selected item to a file and calls an application with the filename as an argument. Lines 66 to 73 in newsfeed.py show how to set this up using template substitution. You can use this feature e.g. to

  • create a new email with the item as the text body and its title as the subject

  • print the item, for example using a2ps

  • export the item to a weblog editor

  • …or whatever else you can think of

Custom refresh intervals

Custom refresh intervals are implemented as a an item in the refresh interval popup menu in the subscription info box, "Custom". The number of minutes this interval corresponds to is set on line 83 of newsfeed.py in the variable custom_interval. By default this is set to .333, i.e. about 20 seconds.

Auto-discovery of feed URLs

If you want to try the auto-discovery of feeds, enter an URL under "Home:" in the Channel Info window and click "Auto-Detect RSS Feed" (or just hit Return if your are confident ☺). After a few seconds, one or more auto-detected feeds will appear in the feed list if the operation is successful. The temporary feed names are prepended with question marks, which tells NewsFeed to look for a feed name in the feed itself and use that.

Please also note that the Tkinter bindings to the Tk widget set tend to leak memory, depending on the version of the bindings used. In other words, the amount of memory occupied by NewsFeed may grow over time, even if it is mostly idling. Therefore it may not be a good idea to leave NewsFeed running for a prolonged period of time (days, weeks, or so) in a memory-starved or multi-user environment.

Console mode

There is a basic console interface (e.g. for running via SSH) which can be activated with a command line option: newsfeed \-\-nogui. Select a feed from the list by its number, then optionally select an item to open it in the browser. Use "0" to go back or exit.

Helper scripts

  • add_feed.py: Its command line argument has to be an RSS URL, which is added to the list of feeds in Newsfeed either by signalling a running NewsFeed instance or the next time the user starts NewsFeed.
    So typing, e.g. add_feed.py http://hypertext.rmit.edu.au/~burgess/index.xml at the command line will add that feed and load it in NewsFeed if it is running.

  • bsize.py: Show how many bytes each feed uses in memory. (Only the content of the feed is counted, not the additional overhead in Python for managing objects.) If a feed uses a lot of memory and the program becomes slow, consider lowering the caching time for that feed.

  • dinos.py: Locates "dinosaurs" in your subscription list, i.e. feeds for which no new items have been downloaded in a long time. The feed might be dead —then again, it might just have changed its URL. Remember, NewsFeed does not change feed URLs on its own behind your back in response to HTTP status codes, so you have to do it yourself if there is an address change.
    This script outputs a sorted list of feed names and their age in days, as measured by the download time of the most recent item for all feeds for which this age exceeds ten days. Obviously, you will find the most likely candidates for "dinosaur" feeds at the top of the list. You can optionally specify a minimum age on the command line, e.g. dinos.py 15 for feeds that have received no updates for at least 15 days.

  • dumpfeed.py: Dumps a feed's contents to the console, in the format _TITLE_ :: _DESCRIPTION_ with one item per line (but of course line breaks in descriptions are also printed). For example, dumpfeed.py Slashdot print the contents of the feed called 'Slashdot' to standard output. The match is not case-sensitive.

  • export_flagged.py and export_unread.py: Export flagged or unread items, respectively, in HTML format to standard output. The result might even validate as XHTML if the HTML markup in the indivual news items is conformant. One usage scenario for export_unread is to export the unread items to read them in a web browser and then later to start up NewsFeed and use Shift-C to mark those stories as read.

  • feed2opml.py: Exports you feed list to OPML format, prints to standard output.

  • opml2feed.py: Reads a file with feed descriptions in OPML format and adds them to the NewsFeed subscriptions list if they are not already in the database (identified by their feed URI), so e.g. you would type opml2feed new_feeds.opml to process the entries in new_feeds.opml and append them to the list.
    Note that NewsFeed should not be running while you do this, as otherwise it will overwrite the changes. Also note that this script will have to remove any active searches from your NewsFeed subscriptions list, as some versions of Python may show unexpected behavior if the searches are kept. Of course you can add them again after the import is complete.

  • update_feeds.py: Updates the NewsFeed cache from the command line. The idea is that you invoke this script from a cron job that runs, say, every hour. That way, feeds will be updated even when NewsFeed itself is not running, so you don't miss any articles in between. Note that this script only runs if no instance of NewsFeed is active to avoid conflicts over the database. Also note that all feeds are updated regardless of their time of last update. When an optional command line parameter is provided, \-v, this script reports if an instance of NewsFeed is already running.

Environment variables

  • NEWSFEED_SOUND — path to sound file to play when new items have arrived

  • BROWSER_NEW — open stories in new window (as opposed to existing window)? Can be either "yes" or "no".

  • MEDIA_PLAYER — program for handling enclosures

If these environment variables are not set, builtin defaults will be used.

Upgrading and troubleshooting

Before you upgrade, copy your latest ~/.newsfeed to a safe place, so you can restore it should there be a problem.

If your ~/.newsfeed configuration file is from an older version of NewsFeed, the latest version might not import it, because rssparser.py was renamed to feedparser.py at some point. Therefore, if NewsFeed overwrites the old .newsfeed file with its default configuration, try to quit, copy the old .newsfeed in its place again, copy feedparser.py to rssparser.py, and relaunch.

Configuration file and item store

By default, the configuation as well as the cached data is stored in ~/.newsfeed, while in ~/.newsfeed.pid the PID of the currently running NewsFeed instance is stored. Finally, ~/.newsfeed.addfeed contains new URIs from the helper script and should be processed (and then deleted) by the main program.

As the entire program state is stored in the platform-independent ~/.newsfeed file, one can sync NewsFeed to a different machine or restore a previous state by copying / moving /renaming ~/.newsfeed.

Automatic versioning of the configuration/cache file

Earlier versions of NewsFeed (up to 1.5.2) used only one copy of the configuration/cache file. In the unlikely event that the computer crashed while NewsFeed was in the midst of saving its state, the file could become corrupted.

As of NewsFeed 1.6, the configuration file is versioned, that is, older versions with the extensions .1, .2, .3, etc. are kept in case something goes wrong with the main file.

This versioning mechanism is fully automatic and also features automatic recovery, meaning that if the main configuration file is unreadable for some reason, NewsFeed looks for older revisions of the file and uses the most recent version.

If required, the number of old revisions to keep (which defaults to three) can be set on line 86 in newsfeed.py. Also note that, as opposed to the numbering scheme in VMS, lower extensions denote more recent versions.

Extra configuration file

As of v2.6, NewsFeed also looks for the file newsfeed_defaults.py—first in the current working directory, then in the directory where newsfeed.py resides, then in the usual module search path—and tries to import it. This file may contain definitions of global variables which override the assignments at the top of newsfeed.py.

So for instance, you could have a newsfeed_defaults.py that contains:

custom_interval = 1
browser_cmd = "konqueror %s &"
config_file = "/Users/martin/Public/testfile"
fontscaling = 1.2
ask_before_deletion = False

It would cause NewsFeed to

  1. set the custom refresh interval to one second,

  2. use a different command for opening the web browser (ignoring the BROWSER environment variable),

  3. use a different location for the cache and configuration files,

  4. use bigger fonts at startup,

  5. and to disable the warning when deleting a feed.

This feature is mainly meant to facilitate keeping NewsFeed together with Python/Tk and a lightweight web browser on a removable medium such as a USB flash drive. In this case, newsfeed_defaults.py should be in the same directory as the other Python scripts and minimally contain new definitions for browser_cmd (to point to the browser on the USB drive) and config_file (for NewsFeed to store its setting and cache on the drive as well).

Auto-subscription

In principle, getting auto-subscription, i.e. the appearance of new feeds in NewsFeed when you click on them in the browser, to work would consist in defining add_feed.py as a handler for files with ".rss" extensions. Now, apart from the fact that some feeds have an ".xml" entension, browsers decide on which program to use by MIME type.

Ideally, HTTP servers would be configured to send the MIME type "application/xml+rss" for files with "rss" extensions. Unfortunately, most are not, sending "text/xml" or even "text/plain" instead. This complicates auto-subscription unnecessarily, because Mozilla likes to handle the latter types internally.

Alternative solutions have been discussed at length, for instance prepending a "feed:" to the URI or replacing the "http://" with a "feed://". The add_feed.py script supports all these mechanisms, but since there exists no standard way of auto-subscription right now, expect problems, at least with some servers.

Performance issues

Given that Python is a byte-compiled language and that functional constructs are used heavily by the program, NewsFeed may become sluggish if the individual feeds have a lot of items. In that event, reducing the time for which items are cached may be a good idea for feeds with many new items per day (see bsize.py).

NewsFeed is not multithreaded, so it is perhaps advisable to simply leave it alone while it is updating (as indicated by the white/green status bar in the lower left corner), at least on high-latency internet connections.

Generally, having searches in the feed list slows the program down. Thus, for maximum performace, delete searches when you do not need them anymore.

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