What should I use instead of Google Reader?

The company is retiring its RSS reader. But there are some viable replacements, writes Alex Hern.

Direst news! Google is turning off its Google Reader service on 1 July, eight years after its birth.

Of course, if you are in what is apparently the vast majority of the population, you either haven't heard of Google Reader, haven't used it, or haven't logged in for years. The company cites declining usage of the service as a reason for its retirement, and they probably aren't making that up: the idea of reading the web by subscribing to RSS feeds through an dedicated app, once posited as the future of publishing, never hit the widespread usage it was expected to.

And if you do use the service, it probably isn't news that it's shutting either—because you've probably already logged in, this morning or last night, to be greeted with the dialogue box of doom:

If you are anything like me, and apparently most of my Twitter followers, you have already got your panicking out of the way. Now the dreadful thought bubbles up: what happens next?

Firstly: don't panic! (Any more than you already have.) Although Google Reader is used as a back-end service for a number of RSS apps, like Reeder and Feedly, a number of them—including those two—have confirmed that they already have plans for a replacement syncing service which should let users carry on as though Reader never shut.

If you are a die-hard user of the Reader web-app, though, you're going to have to make the switch as some point. Come 1 July, reader.google.com will presumably shut down—or, even worse, redirect to Google+—and you'll have to find a new way of using your feeds.

The first thing to do is nab your data out of Google Reader. The company offers its Takeaway service, which ought to make this easy to do. Just click here, and follow the steps.

Once you've got that far, where you go next depends on what you used the old Reader for. There's multiple services which scratch different itches, and any one of them could be right for you.

The most obvious recommendation is The Old Reader. Exactly as it sounds, this is a clone of the old Google Reader (old in this case meaning old-old—it mimics Google Reader as it was before the company removed sharing functionality at the end of 2011). It's still in beta, and doesn't have a mobile app or an API, so if you transfer your data to it, you'll need to be prepared to be in the browser a lot. But if you're averse to change, this might be the best option.

If you're someone who uses Google Reader as a gentle browser, then consider Flipboard. The service is designed for lean-back reading, rather than obsessive newshounds, but it does what it does exceptionally well. If you're the sort of person who panics about not reading every post on your favourite site, it's not for you, but if you've been using Google Reader to find interesting things from a few sources, it might make life more pleasant. Mobile only, though, so you'll need to compliment it with something that has a web or desktop app.

At the exact opposite end of the spectrum is Newsblur. This is designed explicitly for obsessive newshounds; it's fast, powerful and, though I love it, ugly as sin. It takes all your feeds in, and applies a smart filter to them to push the breakingest news to the top of your pile. If you only have fifty feeds, it might be overkill; but if you're pushing five hundred, you'll wonder how you lived without it.

Newsblur also has a mobile app, and the developer has a far nicer-looking UI in beta. It's where I'm planning to move my data, and I don't appear to be alone: by 7:30am this morning, the developer had moved from one server to six, and gone to bed for the night; as I write this, the site is down under excessive load.

Perhaps the best thing about Newsblur, though, is that it's not free (it lets you trial it, but caps your subscription at 100 feeds until you pay). That may be an odd thing to say, but the fact is that if Google Reader hadn't been a hobby for the company—it was staffed, in its dying days, by just five people—it may have stayed alive. We've all heard the clichés, that if you aren't paying, you're not the customer, you're the product; but they are clichés for a reason. Assuming that it successfully scales up past this initial burst of popularity, maybe having all your data on a service with a financial motivation for keeping it is not such a bad idea?

And for the small subset of Google users for whom Reader was a lifeline, this ought to ring warning bells for the rest of the company's services. Sure, Reader wasn't used by many people, while Gmail is the world's email service; but what happens if Google decides that it isn't making enough money to justify running a free email service, and ports everyone to Google+? Will your self-driving car enter a "sunset phase" if the number of users drops below some arbitrary level eight years after you bought it?

The market for news aggregators might get a kick up the arse from the exit of a corporate behemoth which had previously been smothering all innovation with an abandoned, yet still good-enough, free product. As Gawker's Max Read wrote, it kind of excites me, "in the same way i am excited at the prospect of navigating a postapocalyptic urban landscape".

We might end up better after the fall, but it's going to be a struggle to get there.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Alan Schulz
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An Amazonian tribe is challenging scientific assumptions about our musical preferences

The Tsimane’ – a population of people in a rural village in Bolivia – are overturning scientists' understanding of why humans prefer consonant sounds over dissonant ones.

It was 29 May 1913. Hoards of Parisians packed out the newly-opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Messrs Proust, Picasso and Debussy were in attendance. Billed for the evening was the premiere of Le Sacre du PrintempsThe Rite of Spring, a ballet and orchestral work debuted by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.

The attention and conjecture focused on the theatre that day meant expectations were high. However, within moments of the piece beginning, all preconceived notions held by the audience were shattered, as what was unfolding in front of them was a musical tragedy unlike anything they had ever witnessed.

A bassoon hummed into the ether before ballet dancers stomped on stage; the music, unpredictable with its experimental edge, drove forth the onstage narrative of a young girl whose selection during a pagan ritual saw her sacrificially dance towards death. Stravinsky’s composition and the ensemble of the night caused the room to descend from laughter and disruption to chaos and uproar.

The employment of dissonance – sharp, unstable chords – largely contributed to the audience’s disturbed reaction. Dissonant chords create a tension, one which seeks to be resolved by transitioning to a consonant chord – for example an octave or perfect fifth. These musical intervals sound far calmer than the chords which riveted the audience of The Rite of Spring.

Dissonant and consonant intervals find themselves as binary opposites; the frequencies at which notes played together vibrate determine whether an interval is consonant or dissonant. Consonant intervals have simple mathematical relationships between them, but greater digression from that simplicity makes an interval increasingly dissonant.

It’s long been believed  both experimentally and anecdotally – that the preference among Westerners for consonant chords highlights a universal, perhaps biologically-rooted, leaning among all humans towards consonant sounds. If you were present at the introduction of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on that night of furore in Paris, you’d find it hard to disagree.

There is, however, a growing movement against this consensus. Ethnomusicologists and composers alike argue that favouring consonance may just be a phenomenon that has evolved from Western musical culture. And following the visit of a group of researchers to a remote Amazonian society, these claims could well be grounded in scientific evidence.

Led by Josh McDermott, an MIT researcher who studies how people hear, the group travelled to a village in the Amazon rainforest called Santa Maria. It’s populated by the Tsimane’ – a group of native Amazonians whose rural abode is inaccessible by road and foot, and can be reached only by canoe. There are no televisions in Santa Maria and its inhabitants have little access to radio, meaning exposure to Western cultural influences is minimal.

The researchers were curious to see how the Tsimane’ would respond to music, in order to determine whether they too had a preference for consonant sounds over dissonant ones. To everyone’s surprise, the Tsimane’ showed no preference for consonance; the two different sounds, to the Tsimane’ at least, were equally pleasant.

Detailing their research in a paper published by Nature, the group explains how the Tsimane’ people’s indifference to dissonance is a product of their distance from Western culture and music, removing any purported notion that humans are hard-wired to praise perfect fifths and fourths.

McDermott tells me that the Western preference for consonance may just be based on familiarity. “The music we hear typically has more consonant chords than dissonant chords, and we may like what we are most exposed to,” he says. “Another possibility is that we are conditioned by all the instances in which we hear consonant and dissonant chords when something good or bad is happening, for example in films and on TV. Music is so ubiquitous in modern entertainment that I think this could be a huge effect. But it could also be mere exposure.”

To fully gauge the Tsimane’ responses to the music, 64 participants, listening via headphones, were asked to rate the pleasantness of chords composed of synthetic tones, and chords composed of recorded notes sung by a vocalist. At a later date, another 50 took part in the experiment. They had their responses compared to Bolivian residents in a town called San Borja, the capital city La Paz, and residents in the United States – locations selected based on their varying exposures to Western music.

What made the Tsimane’ particularly interesting to McDermott and his group was the absence of harmony, polyphony and group performances in their music. It was something the researchers initially thought may prevent an aesthetic response from forming, but the worry was quickly diminished given the Tsimane’ participants’ measure of pleasantness on the four-point scale they were provided.

Unsurprisingly, the US residents showed a strong preference for consonance – an expected preference given the overrunning of Western music with consonant chords. Meanwhile, the San Borja and La Paz residents demonstrated inclinations towards consonant sounds similar to the US residents. The implication of these results – that consonance preferences are absent in cultures “sufficiently isolated” from Western music – are huge. We most probably aren’t as polarised by consonance and dissonance as we assume; cultural prevalence is far more likely to have shaped the consonant-dominant sounds of Western music.

McDermott raised the question about why Western music may feature certain intervals over others to begin with:

“One possibility is that biology and physics conspire to make conventionally consonant and dissonant chords easy to distinguish, and so that distinction becomes a natural one on which to set up an aesthetic contrast even if the preference is not obligatory. We have a little evidence for this in that the Tsimane' could discriminate harmonic from inharmonic frequencies, which we believe form the basis of the Western consonance/dissonance distinction, even though they did not prefer harmonic to inharmonic frequencies.”

There has been some criticism of this. Speaking to The Atlantic, Daniel Bowling from the University of Vienna said:

“The claim that the human perception of tonal beauty is free from biological constraint on the basis of a lack of full-blown Western consonance preferences in one Amazonian tribe is misleading.”

Though the results from the Amazonian tribe demonstrate a complete refutation of previous assumptions, people's musical preferences from other cultures and places will need to be analysed to cement the idea.

With research beginning to expand beyond WEIRD people – those from a Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic background – the tastes in music of people the world over may continue to surprise, just as the Tsimane’ did.

The Rite of Spring, which was met with ridiculing reviews has now been canonised and is considered to be one of the most important pieces of music of the twentieth century. A Tsimane’ crowd on that tender night a century ago in Paris may have responded with instant praise and elation. With further research, the imagined Bolivian adoration of a Russian composer’s piece in the French city of love may prove music to be the universal language after all.