Tag Archives: Mahalo

Is Search Broken? Some Mahalo Insight

Interesting Scoblevision video about “human-powered search” firm Mahalo.
Part I of Inside Mahalo, the Human Produced Search Engine | FastCompany.TV
An interesting section (at about 13 minutes) is with Eric Stephens, who’s “director of user experiences” for Mahalo. In the Mahalo “lab,” Stephens does something very close to an open-ended interview. Don’t know if Stephens has a background in ethnography but his methods are pretty ethnographic. In fact, those methods are even closer to what is done in British ethnography these days than to typical North American ethnography. Maybe just a coincidence but, in my mind, a good point for Mahalo as a company.

Most of the interview focuses on Jason Calacanis, Mahalo’s founder and CEO.
To be honest, Mahalo and Calacanis are kind of growing on me. One set of reasons has to do with JaCal’s most recent TWiT contributions and Véronique Belmont‘s role in the startup. Doesn’t sound very rational but at least I acknowledge these biases.

There’s another side to my enhanced appreciation for Mahalo and Calacanis, and this side is more rational. I recently got this strange feeling recently that search was broken. I began to notice that my Google or Yahoo searches weren’t as effective as before. After blaming myself, I came to a conclusion which resonates with what Calacanis is saying here. The need for more and more reformulation of queries (with more and more words), SEO/result-spam, information overload, etc. One outcome of this “search is broken” feeling is that I spend more time going directly to a Wikipedia page by typing the URL directly instead of trying a search. Another is that I’m progressively giving Mahalo a chance.
Though I haven’t really integrated Mahalo in my routine yet, I do feel a bit like I felt when I first saw a beta version of Google.
Did I drink the Kool-Aid? Maybe a few sips.

Another point I can connect with: the blogging community as peanut gallery. Of course, some people talk about reactions to the Lacy/Zuckerberg interview as displaying mob mentality. But there’s more to it than that. In the aforementioned video, Calacanis talks about ignoring bloggers because they don’t represent the core user group for his company’s main product. Even though I blog quite frequently and now consider blogging a part of my identity, I can’t help but agree with Calacanis on this. In fact, some of that sentiment was behind my “geek niche” post just before SXSWi. Sure, bloggers and other ‘Net-savvy people are fascinating and influential in the context of online services. But they (we) still tend to represent a small proportion of the global population. Because of idealism and sociocentrism, several people would probably argue that despite clustering effect and limited demography, bloggers and geeks are “winning.” But social Darwinism has no place in this scenario.

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Veronica Belmont’s Mahalo Prequel

Mahalo Daily » Blog Archive » Hello world!

Nice pastiche (in both senses of the term). A hodge-podge imitation/parody of some of the most prominent video podcasts of the last few years.

But:

  • Don’t we get to vote?
  • Where’s Tiki Bar TV???

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”).