Monthly Archives: July 2007

Silly Minds Think Alike

One of the things I love about the ‘Net is that it makes you realize that just about anything you can think has been discussed by someone else before.

Case in point. Some of my friends have started playing Scrabble within Facebook using the Scrabulous.com application. So I eventually decided to play with one of those friends. This game is almost over (we take our turns whenever we’re on Facebook) and my friend is clearly winning, but playing Scrabble has made me think about quite a few things.

I used to love playing Scrabble (in French) when I was younger but pretty much didn’t play at all in the last seventeen years. I had never played in English before. After trying the Scrabulous version on Facebook, I tried a few games on the Scrabulous.com website itself, and started looking for different ways to play Scrabble on- or offline. Luckily enough, the Open Source Quackle does have support for French games. But I’m still nowhere as good as the computer player.

I don’t typically find fun in any kind of competition. I don’t want to be the best at anything. I just want to be happy.

Things I find fun can be quite silly.

And I do find Scrabble fun. As per an overly simplified version of Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory, things are fun when they’re doable yet challenging. Playing Scrabble against a bot which has access to the complete dictionary isn’t that much fun. Many of the words played by computer players (or highly competitive players) are extremely obscure. Now, it can be interesting to learn about all about qat and cwm, but this type of Scrabble becomes overbearing after a while.

So my favourite plays at Scrabble were with people who were not totally crazy at playing Scrabble. I remember one play where adding two letters made me score a rather amazing number of points because a high value tile was played on a high value square and was used for two different words. I don’t remember the exact score of any of this but it was quite high and satisfying for the mere rarity of the event. In fact, it’s quite possible that this play I remember so vividly was made by one of the other two player. Yet I only remember the glory of the moment.

Actually, it seems that players who are of a somewhat lower calibre than expert players may end up breaking records because they’re less competitive. But I digress even more than I should.

Point is, I find beauty in Scrabble when it’s not just about strategies for putting the largest number of obscure words on the board and blocking other players. In fact, I’d rather play something that I find neat even if it scores lower. For instance, I enjoyed adding “queen” to “ship” for the mere fact that “queenship” is a neat word (I wasn’t even sure it existed). Also, I like the ability to string two words together to make a new one. Call me crazy. Must come from my language science background.

So… I started thinking about variants. In one variant I had in mind, a player can invent one new word every game as long as s/he can provide a definition for it. This word would then be added to the working dictionary to be used in future games. In another variant, words from multiple languages could be used. In yet another variant, proper names could be used. In perhaps my favourite variant, words which relate to another word on the board would gain the points from that other word (all players would need to agree on the connection).

Possibilities are endless. And many of these variants would be rather easy to implement on a computer-based platform. For instance, all variants which relate to dictionaries could be implemented through the use of custom dictionaries. And alternative scoring rules could be added to a Scrabble program through the use of bonus points or some such.

One variant I thought about which could be quite interesting for language scientists would be IPA Scrabble or Scrabble using the International Phonetic Alphabet. Players could use IPA characters to “spell out” valid words using either narrow or broad phonetic transcription strategies. So, in some cases, ˈlɪtl̩ or ˈlɪtɫ̩ could be allowed. Personally, I’d be one to accept a rather broad range of even impressionistic variants, including “litl” and “lidl” even though they miss some transcription details.

Such a game could be quite fun for people who have working knowledge of IPA and it doesn’t sound so hard to implement. What’s more, it could help people get used to IPA transcription, which is often a good thing in language sciences.

Well, as it turns out, I’m not the only one who thought about IPA Scrabble. A simple Google search for these two turns returns several relevant hits including: a wishlist for fun language things in which IPA Scrabble is assumed to exist; a page for a linguistics club which lists IPA Scrabble as one of their activities; and a page citing Scrabble variants which lists the IPA magnets as a Scrabble-like game. As my wife happens to have these IPA magnets, I was thinking about the same exact thing.

What’s funny about this last page I mentioned as a result for my “IPA Scrabble” Google search is that author Jed Hartman spoke my mind, back in 1998:

I like playing word games for fun rather than competitively. So I like the general idea of Scrabble®, but I don’t much enjoy playing it with devotees of the game; they tend to score lots of points by playing dozens of two-letter words that nobody except The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary has ever used. vv is for vvariants

Three of the six variants he lists are quite close to what I had in mind

  • Multidirectional Scrabble
  • Wraparound Scrabble
  • Multi-Source Scrabble (similar to my multi-language version)
  • Stackable Scrabble
  • Plausible Scrabble (similar to my word-addition version)
  • IPA Crossword (similar to my IPA Scrabble)

So, I don’t score for originality on this one. Ah, well.

I do wonder if Hartman himself has played all of these variants. And I wonder how implementable they all are through computer versions. My hunch is that any competent program could easily implement most of them within certain limits. For instance, the multi-source variant would only need dictionary files to be implemented but such dictionary files may be hard to come by. Although, with initiatives like Wiktionary and Urban Dictionary, it may be relatively trivial to get wordlists for use in dictionary files.

One thing this all made me think of is the fact that there’s indeed a lot of data available out there and that uses of data may not be entirely predicted by the type of data used. Ok, sure, the leaps from online dictionaries to wordlists to dictionary files to multi-source Scrabble are rather obvious. But chances are that most contributors to Wiktionary and Urban Dictionary weren’t thinking of multi-source Scrabble when they added most of those entries. There’s a whole thing about human-readable vs. machine-readable data involved here. And it all makes me think about newish approaches to data management, such as Freebase (results for “Scrabble”) and Mahalo (results for “Scrabble”).

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Faceblogging

[Updated 06/02/08 10:41:11 AM, added link to app.]A WordPress.com application in Facebook? My predictions weren’t that far off!

Tomorrow’s blogging platforms are likely to get increasingly like, say, Facebook.

Almost 30k (December 20, 2006)


One Cellphone Per Child? Ethnographic Insight and Individualism

Lots to mull over.

Haven’t read this report by Daniel Miller and Heather Horst (PDF) yet, but it does sound quite insightful:

The whole report is full of examples for ethnography’s ability to check (and often disprove) common-sense beliefs concerning the benefits of new technologies

Rich ethnographic reports about the uses of ICT in low-income communities « Culture Matters

Especially interesting to me is the discussion of the potential implications of cellphone use in “highly individualistic” Jamaica:

One promising way would be to provide limited internet access through the (highly popular) cell phone.

Rich ethnographic reports about the uses of ICT in low-income communities « Culture Matters

In some cases, Internet access through cellphones sounds more appropriate than Nicholas Negroponte‘s well-publicized brainchild, the One Laptop Per Child project. Like many others, I have been thinking about the implications of the OLPC project. And about the fact that cellphones might be a better tool than laptops in several of those contexts in which Euro-American technocrats try to empower others through technology.

On a Radio Open Source episode on the OLPC, cellphones were very briefly mentioned as an alternative to laptops. I really wish they had discussed the issue a tiny bit more.

After all, cellphones may be The Globalisation technology. And it can be very local. So “glocal” is the ugly but appropriate name.

One thing which makes me think cellphones may be more appropriate than laptops is the rate of penetration for cellphones in many parts of the world. Even in West Africa, where computer networks tend to be rather slow, cellphones seem quite appropriate.

A few months ago, I was discussing cellphone use in Africa with a Ghanaian professor of economics who made me realise that, contrary to what I thought, cellphones are quite compatible with African sociability. Yes, a cellphone can be the prototypical “individualistic device” but it can also be a way to integrate technology in social networks.

One problem with cellphones is the perception people may have of the technology, especially in educational contexts. Some school districts have banned the use of cellphones and such bans have led to intriguing discussions. Some people see cellphones as disruptive in learning environments but at least one teacher, Don Hinkelman, has found ways to use cellphones in the classroom. It seems relevant to point out that Don teaches in Japan, where cellphone technology seems to be “embedded in the social fabric” in ways which are quite distinct from the ways cellphones are used in North America.

Fellow anthropologist Mizuko Ito and others have published on cellphone use in Japan (see Savage Minds). Haven’t read the book but it sounds fascinating. Also interesting to note is the fact that books recommended by Amazon.com in relation to Ito’s Personal, Portable, Pedestrian mostly have to do with cellphone technology’s impact on social life. Yet anthropologists are typically anti-determinists, contrary to McLuhan followers.

Now, to loop this all back… Another book recommended for readers of Ito et al. is The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication, written by Heather Horst and Daniel Miller. Yes, the authors of the article which sparked my interest.

Turns out, I should really learn more about what fellow anthropologists are saying about cellphones.

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Wishlists and Dreaming

I like how the OpenMoko people think.

Alcohol meter

Give the phone some info about your body (gender, size, weigth) and when/what you drink and it will compute an approximation of the amount of alcohol in your blood. Updates automatically, could have an alarm, when you are probably sober again. See, for example (German text) http://www.misterio-online.de/promille.htm

Wish List – OpenMoko

OpenMoko is an Open Source project for cellular phone software. It seems quite active and they have a current version of the software running on an actual phone. So it’s not just vapourware, AFAICT.

The whole wishlist is certainly worth a read. Full of neat ideas, some of which are trivial to implement, others are much more ambitious. For those who care about creativity, innovation, and technological sophistication, this is exactly the kind of project which shows the power of dreaming.

Or maybe I’m just recognising other “benevolent inventors.” 😉

Whatever this feeling is, OpenMoko might drive my dream phone in the not-so-distant future!

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Joe the Ninja

He’s been called a rogue ninja. And I think he deserves a raise. Whatever he’s getting.

“Rogue ninjas”… I wonder if we can get that on our business cards.

Best compliment ever « whateverblog.

Well, these days, I’m doing “evaluation of quality” surveys over the phone so I often hear about people who apparently deserve praises and raises. Joe Cheng is probably one such person. Chances are that so do other people on the WLW team.

What’s WLW? Windows Live Writer, a blog editor developed as a Microsoft project. Mentioned it in previous entries about blog editors. It’s become the most popular standalone blog editor for WordPress.com:

Obviously some of you have already discovered the coolness that is Windows Live Writer because we found it was our most used blogging client,

Windows Live Writer FTW « WordPress.com

It’s in fact the app I’m using right now to post this entry. It has plenty of neat features including a nicer link management than I imagined.

So, a nice little app that can be useful. World-changing? Maybe not.

Now, why would I want Joe to get a raise? Simple: responsiveness. The keyword that I would associate with getting a clue.

This Joe Cheng character actually posted three (count them) comments on my blog about WLW. True, I had mentioned a bug I got and a report was sent somewhere. But, man, talk about dedication! Not only did he post three separate comments on my lowly blog but those comments were actually useful, straightforward, and at exactly the right tone

Added to this is the transparency of Joe’s own blog. Microsoft seems to have learned something from the Scoble era. Now, I’m clearly not a Microsoft fanboy and some of my comments about the company might have been a bit harsh, on occasion. In fact, I still think that some of Microsoft’s practises were, erm, beyond the pale. Not that Joe and the rest of the WLW team really change anything about this but, you know, I like to give credit where credit is due and I like quality work enough to reassess my opinion of a company based on some things that are done well.

So, for the record: WLW actually comes close to my dream blog editor in terms of accessing a browser history when adding links. If it could actually access my cross-browser history through Google Web History and social bookmarks (including links added to previous blog entries), I might really start singing the praises of that development team.

Until then, I may merely say that Joe deserves praises.

Hey, it’s something!

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Blog Editors, Yet Again

Not that these things matter so much to me. I’m perfectly ok with writing posts directly in a browser. But I like it when there are better solutions.

As it took me almost an hour to refresh WordPress categories in Flock, I’ve taken this, my main blog, out of Flock. Too bad, though, as I have a kind of investment in this blog. Not that it’s likely that Flock will become my main editor but I did notice that I have a tendency to use my personal Blogspot blog more while I’m giving Flock a whirl.

I’m writing this in Windows Live Writer. Yesterday, it crashed miserably while I was simply switching blogs. As WLW is in beta, I wasn’t that surprised and I should have used this as an opportunity to help out the developers. But I kind of lost my patience with beta software. I used to love beta software and didn’t mind the occasional crash. But I need to improve my workflow and not be bogged down with bugged down software.

WLW does seem like a well-planned editor but I already see a few quirks. Like the fact that there’s no easy way to activate a “spell as you type” feature. I’m guessing the feature is there but it’s not very easy to find.

The categories menu for this blog doesn’t allow for direct addition of categories in the categories field. You can add categories by opening the list and adding categories from there. Makes sense for blogs which have reasonable numbers of categories but since WordPress.com blogs have categories serving as tags, it’d be useful to add categories directly. Of course, it’s easy to add Technorati tags and I’m guessing that commonly used tags are somehow kept in the interface. But I prefer to use WordPress categories as tags because they work as both links from WordPress.com and as actual Technorati tags.

But WLW has some cool features. Like the link glossary which seems to be relatively close to what I was wishful-thinking about yesterday. Actually, I quite like the “Insert Hyperlink” interface as it’s very elegant, it’s just a keystroke away (ctrl-k), it’s fully keyboard-operatable, it has access to previous posts on the author’s blogs (including entries posted by other authors on collaborative blogs), and it can add some link properties like XFN. Good job! Now, if I can just have access to my complete Web history and favourites using some kind of cross-platform synchronisation mechanism à la Google Browser Sync, I’m happy.

WLW also has some neat features like blog stats and comments. This might explain why so many WordPress.com bloggers use it as their main blog editor.

We’ll see how this goes.


Flock as Blog Editor

Now that Flock has a “spell as you type” feature, I can give it a fair shake as a blog editor.
Flock 0.9 Beta Release Notes | Flock
Thing is, though, it seems to have a problem with my main blog‘s extremely long list of categories. When I tried posting a blog entry with my WordPress.com blog account listed among the others, Flock became unresponsive as it was trying to download all my categories (all 2,751 of them). Maybe I could have waited longer but after a number of minutes without being able to use my computer at all, I decided to let it go.
Still, it made me a bit cranky. So the rest of this post will sound like a rant. It’s more like wishful thinking, though. I like wishful thinking.
I don’t like the way Flock’s blog editor handles link insertion. Sure, like any WYSIWYG editor out there, it has a button on which you can click to add an appropriate URL to text you’ve selected. But there’s no clear shortcut for this button and it could be much more powerful than it currently is.
Qumana has a better way to handle links. For one thing, it automatically inserts the clipboard’s content in the URL section of link insertion dialog box. And since it keeps published blog posts, it makes it easy to copy the “permalink” to another blog entry (for those bloggers, like me, who tend to be self-referential). Can’t remember off the top of my head but I’m pretty sure ecto and Windows Live Writer have similar features.
Ok… Flock does have this drag and drop interface for “media streams” (basically, Flickr or PhotoBucket accounts) and for “Web snippets” (local content, including text and links). Good idea and I guess I could make my “bloggable content” available to me while blogging by adding lots of content to my Flock installation and Flickr account. Makes a lot of sense for those who mostly use blogs as placeholders. But it’s still not the ideal method for blogs which rely on more extensive writing. Or for message writing.

What I want is pretty obvious but I haven’t found it yet, even in dedicated blog editors. I want my blog editor to have access to all of my links (Web history, favourites, social bookmarks…) and make it easy to work with those links while I’m writing. Sure, a “Web Snippets” feature is useful. But it still requires a fair amount of mouse movement to simply insert a link. Call me lazy but I prefer limiting my mouse movement while I’m writing.
My dream editor would integrate all of my social bookmarks, Web histories, and address books in the same interface. I could use a keystroke and start typing to get access to those links and addresses that I use frequently. Why addresses? I want to use the same editor for writing blog posts and email messages. Why not? Messages and posts end up having very similar features anyway. As many sites label it, it’s all about “sharing content.”
(I’m not really into IM but, as logic would have it, the same features should work with IM as well.)

To me, the “killer feature” in modern browsers is that auto-complete in the URL bar. I want to go back to a site I’ve visited recently, I just start typing the URL in the URL bar and the browser shows all related URLs. Same thing in Gmail: start typing an address and Gmail auto-completes it. So simple that nobody ever talks about it. But this simple feature is yet completely absent from blog editors, AFAICT.
Oh, sure, Flock does auto-complete in the search field. In fact, it supports incremental searches, which is really nice. But I need auto-complete for links and addresses.
What makes auto-complete even nicer is that it’s now possible to synchronise browsers through Google’s Browser Sync extension for Firefox (it might work with Flock too). Google also saves a Web History. And Gmail users get easy access to their address books from Google applications like Google Docs. And Google has toolbars for most browsers. So I guess Google could easily implement my dream editor.

Thing with my wishful thinking is that it’s often obvious enough that it becomes concrete very quickly after I say it. For all I know, this feature may exist somewhere and everybody else knows about it. But I’ve been missing it for a while now.
Ah, well.

Blogged with Flock

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