Tag Archives: flow

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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Brewing Philosophy, Techniques

Not to wax too philosophical, but brewing can really help people
achieve what psychologists call "Flow" experience. It's the way you
feel when you're in a situation that's challenging enough without being
discouraging. Some people see brewing as "meditation" and there's part
of that for some people. Also, there's a huge social part.

Perhaps the most obvious social part is that it's quite easy to make
friends when you offer them free beer. If someone's friends like bland
beer from macrobreweries, it's still possible to help them appreciate
beer for the way it tastes. The best way to do that is to brew beer
with that goal in mind. Sure, it's a challenge. It might take a few
trials and any given batch might not be that well-appreciated by
everyone. But little by little, it's possible to make people understand
that binge-drinking on Rolling Rock isn't that enjoyable when you can
get tasty beer on the cheap.

Another social aspect is that brewers tend to do things together.
Adults of any age or "walk of life" may belong to the same brewclub
and, usually, there's a very strong sense of friendship among brewers.
I know brewers and brewing groups in a couple of places and could help
people make contacts. Even if it's just sampling each other's brews or
discussing the amount of diacetyl that's acceptable in an Extra Special
Bitter, it can be quite fun.

Now, to get someone started on brewing. Many people start with cans of extract and it's certainly a solution. A cooler method is to use "ingredient kits" (e.g. from Grape and Granary) which include malt extract, grains, hops, and fresh yeast. You steep the grains and boil that solution with the extract. It's easy enough to do and it givessome amount of control. It's not the cheapest way but it works well. The
equipment one needs for these types of brewing techniques would mainly include a large kettle, a plastic bucket, a glass carboy, and some tubing. Homebrew supply shops usually sell equipment kits like that but it's easy to get many parts through other ways…

Among homebrewers, "all-grain brewing" is often considered the advanced step. It's not that much more complex and it's usually cheaper to do (especially with bulk grain). It does require a bit more equipment and more time on brewday. The equipment needed can be as simple as two plastic buckets. One has small holes drilled in it and serves as a false-bottom while the other one has a spigot. Some very good brewers
use that kind of a system and it works quite well. What I use is the same thing except that the bottom bucket has a heater element in it so I can control temperature. Other people use an Igloo-type cooler with a manifold in it built with some copper tubing in which slits have been cut. Other people go nuts and have a semi-automatic system made of stainless or even copper with all sorts of pumps and heat exchangers.
All of these achieve the same results: quality beer.
The basic principle remains the same. If you want to brew…
You need to mash grain at a certain temperature (150F to 158F, depending on what you want to achieve) for a certain amount of time (20 minutes to an hour or so). You then need to pour hot water in that mash to get all the sugars out. That's the all-grain part and you end up with wort (sweet liquid).

You then boil the wort for an hour or so, adding hops at specific points (for bitterness, flavor, and aroma). You then chill the boiled wort, transfer to a primary fermenter (usually a plastic bucket), pitch yeast, and wait for a while.
After a week or two, you transfer from primary to secondary fermenter (usually a glass carboy). After a few weeks in secondary, the yeast should have finished its main job and you can bottle. After a week or two in bottle, the beer is ready to drink. If you have a kegging system (with those 5-gallon kegs that were used for soft drinks), you can get the beer carbonated within minutes instead of weeks.
Some beers don't need to be transfered into a secondary fermenter and might even be ready to bottle within a few days. But it's safer and usually better to do a secondary fermentation.
Palmer's book (available online) explains most of these techniques well enough. And all the brewing books you could buy will give details on every step of the process.
With all of this, sanitation is quite important, especially after the wort has been boiled. But we all do a few things that aren't completely sanitary and scrapped batches are quite rare.
Among brewers, the motto is "Relax, Don't Worry, Have a Homebrew!"
Again, brewing can be a very nice "Flow" experience. It can be intensely creative and it relies on a scientific basis (enzymatic reactions, use of gravity, etc.). Plus it can be very social.
While it's easy to go overboard with equipment or ingredients, homebrewing can be quite cheap an activity. IMHO, it's quite easy to get started for less than 100USD and then get more equipment as we go on. Brewing with other people, it's often possible to cut costs by sharing equipment or doing bulk orders. Without cutting costs too much, I think I can brew a batch for 1USD/gallon, especially if I repitch
yeast (use it for several batches). On average, I'm guessing I probably spend about 7–10USD for a 5 gallon batch as I use a bunch of specialty grains, expensive yeast packages, and some spices. The larger the amount brewed, the cheaper the gallon will be, for many reasons (including the cost of bulk ingredients, the energy costs (fairly minimal anyway), and "mash efficiency" (the proportion of sugar
extracted from the grain)).
Of course, that's not counting the time spent brewing. Some people say
it should be counted but then one would need to "deduct" the experience
gained and the relaxation coming from brewing…
In my mind, it's a very enjoyable activity which has brought me a lot
of nice things in the last four years.

Cheers!

AleX