Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Battlelore, take two...

I mentioned last week how the board game Battlelore started me thinking about readability and my dissertation. I said at the end of my post how Battlelore had got me thinking about the problem, but how it also got me thinking about the solution as well.

Battlelore comes with 8 or 9 battle scenarios. You set the board up according to the rule book, and then play the game. But the first 4-5 scenarios are ‘limited’ scenarios. They are more basic in order to teach the game in a step-by-step method. So in all actuality, you only have a handful of scenarios to play.

So the game company set up a web site where players could submit their own scenarios. Since the game is produced in Germany and France, some of the user scenarios are in a different language. I came across one of these scenarios in French, a language I don’t speak. At all.

But being a fan of Douglas Adams, I’m familiar with babelfish, software that translates text from one language into another.

The software isn’t perfect. Not anywhere nearly so. In fact, sometimes it’s fun to take a piece of text, translate it into another language, and then back into English. You’re left with all sorts of crazy stuff. For example, here is the Gettysburg Address after being translated into Korean and back.

But the software does basically what you want it to. You end up with text that is at least understandable. So I copied the instructions for the scenario into the field, hit submit, and was left with English that wasn’t even close to grammatically correct, but made sense (with a little bit of thought). I copied the translation, fixed all the errors, and resubmitted the game as an English translation.

I had just translated text from French to English, without knowing French.

To take an article in wikipedia written at a post-graduate level, and try to simplify it is a daunting task. Even more daunting is the thought of getting a machine to do it automatically. With current technology it’s not possible. But what if, like the translation software, we could get the machine to do most of the work. Then a human can come in and ‘clean things up’, just as I did with my French translation.

I think it’s our best bet to get the vast amounts of information currently in wikipedia to a larger audience. A group I work with is looking into the matter, and we’re working on software that will help facilitate the work. I’ll keep you posted.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Give it away...

Another article that talks about the benefits of giving content away, and finding an altertnative method to making money. Musicians, artists, authors...could all benefit from new models like this?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Copyright. Problems and solutions.

Trent Reznor gave an interesting interview over at the Herald Sun. In it he states, “It's a very odd time to be a musician on a major label, because there's so much resentment towards the record industry that it's hard to position yourself in a place with the fans where you don't look like a greedy asshole."

He goes on to say, “I've have one record left that I owe a major label, then I will never be seen in a situation like this again. If I could do what I want right now, I would put out my next album, you could download it from my site at as high a bit-rate as you want, pay $4 through PayPal.”

This interview exposes the crux of the problem that exists between artists, publishers, and fans. Whether you are a musician, an author, or a painter, there is an underlying problem that has yet to be solved. Let me illustrate it with my own personal experience.

I wrote a book a few years ago. I thought it to be a fun book, and shared it with anybody who expressed an interest. I probably gave away 20-30 electronic copies, and one printed copy. As far as I know, the printed copy was the only read—and that was because I gave it to dear ol’ mom. Most folks, when finding out I had a book to give away, weren’t interested.

Fast forward 18 months. My book was accepted by a publisher and was now in stores. The only changes that were made to the manuscript I had been handing out were a few spelling and punctuation errors. The same people who I had given free copies to were now paying $15 to buy the book. Suddenly there was an interest in my book, not because the content had changed, but because a publisher thought enough of my story to invest $50,000 in bringing it to the public. I had been ‘validated’. The fact that they were interested in it gave the book value. A value it didn’t have before.

There are millions of people who are making music, writing books, or painting pictures. How do we tell what is good? We could review all the material and decide for ourselves, but most of us have jobs. We don’t have time. The publishing industry does that job for us, and expects to be compensated for it. They are our filters (and not very good ones, but we’ll save that for another post).

The publishers and labels perform a second and equally vital service—that of distribution and marketing. I gave my book away to anybody who wanted it, but without marketing nobody wanted it (marketing is all about convincing you that you have a need). And without distribution, there was no way for me to get it to the people who might enjoy it.

Trent Renzor will be able to sell his music for $4 on PayPal, but only because he has been validated, first by a record label, and then by his fans. But equally talented musicians and artists don’t have the luxury of being validated. They can’t get $4 an album. For the most part they can’t even get folks to listen in the first place, even when they give their music away.

So to recap—the problem is that under the current model publishers and record labels are a necessary evil. We can’t do without them. But we resent them because most of our money goes to them, and not the artists.

The solution? Unfortunately this little problem hasn’t been solved yet. And you can bet that the publishers and labels will violently oppose ANY action that begins to encroach on their turf (remember back in 2005 when Google tried to scan books?)

There needs to be a way for artists who have material, and consumers who would find that material enjoyable, to get together. If you’re an artist, and I like your work, I’m willing to pay for it. I’m not willing to pay $20 to a corporation that then gives you a few quarters. But I am willing to pay you.

So… Somebody solve this problem already. We’ve already seen success in other areas. Look at digg and reddit. Thousands of stories are submitted to these sites, and most users only see the best of the best. There are certainly problems with this method but we’re moving in the right direction.

We’ll all be better off for it, with the exception of the RIAA. And at this point, not too many tears will be shed over that love lost.


I grew up on video games and board games. So it's no surprise that my dissertation (assuming it ever gets written, and at this point that is a big assumption), was triggered by a boardgame.

Battlelore is a very enjoyable, quazi wargame. It's based primarily in a fantasy world, but there are also historical battles you can play. It was one such battle that triggered the thought process which lead me to my dissertation topic.

After getting the game I read the rules, called my 9 year old, and we began with a historical battle-the Battle of Agincourt. I decided that along with the fun time, we would do a quick history lesson on the battle. Not knowing anything about what happened at Agincourt, I hopped online, entered the key words into google, and the first link was to wikipedia. One click later I was looking at a great article on the history of the Agincourt battle.

I had first thought that I would just have my son read the article, but I realized that double spaced, the text would be over 22 pages including footnotes. That is some pretty heavy reading for a 9 year old.

So I decided to skim the article myself, and then just explain the gist of it. However, the article was packed with data. This was no simple list of facts, it was an in-depth, complex, well written essay. I found myself needing to click on links to other articles to really understand what was being said.

I eventually prepared a brief history of the battle, explained it to my son (who was not above rolling his eyes several times during my 'lecture'), and we played the game and had a good ol' time.

But this got me thinking about the readability of wikipedia articles. Clearly my son couldn't have read and understood the article. The level at which the content was written was simply too high. Wikipedia has a lot of content (1.8 million articles), but that doesn't matter to those who can't understand the content.

I decided to try something. I went back to wikipedia and copied the article. A quick search led me to a site that gave you the readability level of text. I pasted the article into the field, hit submit, and was suprised to find the article was on the extreme end of the spectrum. The article wasn't at a highschool level, or even a college level. It was post graduate. It was on the same level as the Harvard School of Law Journal.

A quick and dirty sampling led me to conclude that most of the 'featured articles' (the articles the wiki community finds to be of high quality) were at this high level of complexity.

The aim of wikipedia is lofty. They want to provide a resource to every person on the planet, in their own language. But as things currently stand, my sons are left out. High school students are left out, to some extent. A large portion of Americans are left out.

So in the back of my head something clicked. It doesn't make sense to 'dumb down' wikipedia. But what if a copy could be made that was easier to read? Or what about several copies. One at a high school level, another at a gradeschool level. Wouldn't that make wikipedia accessible to more people?

Well, a simple wikipedia already exists, but instead of 1.8 million articles, there are only 16,000. For whatever reason, the simpler version is not gaining any traction.

So, the problem is that wikipedia is quite complex, and efforts to make a simpler wikipedia are having a hard time getting off the ground. The solution? Well, the solution lies in the same boardgame that brought the problem to my mind in the first place. I'll write more about that later.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Old Utah Theather

I have seen many a movie at this theater. The Hunt for Red October (about 6 times). Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the original one). The Little Mermaid (where I got to hold a girl's hand). In fact, any decent movie that came out in the late 80s, I probably saw here. It was a dollar theater, so I could afford it.

The theater closed down several few years ago. One day it was open, then it was gone. I hadn't seen a movie there for nearly 10 years.

A few months went by, and then, almost as suddenly as it closed, it was once again open. But instead of current movies it now shows classic movies.

This is a long way to say that after about a decade, I have once again attended this beautiful theater. Last night I took my two boys to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was a great experience. The boys loved it, I enjoyed seeing Indy on the big screen, a good time was had by all. I'm glad to see an old theater still being put to good use.

And as long as I'm talking about my boys, the other day at dinner I asked my sons what they wanted to be when they grew up. Number 2 immediately said he wanted to be an anti-aircraft person so he could shoot down bad guys in planes. Hmmm, hope there is good money in that. My third son said he wanted to be a fireman. No surprise there. My fourth son shoveled another pile of food in his mouth (he's 3). My fifth son shoveled another pile of food on top of his head (he's 7 months).

But my first son looked thoughtful. He asked me what I was. I told him I was an 'Information Liberator".

"That's what I want to be." he said. And we all went back to shoveling food in our mouths.

It was a happy moment.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Mobs or Crowds? Which would you rather have?

Excellent article over at blog critic. The author describes in my opinion, one of the biggest challenges to user-driven sites like digg and reddit.

"The biggest problem seems to be visibility. When one submits a link to one of these sites, how many people will actually see it? If the first few people who see it don't value it, most people will never even see it, so the control of the site falls to those most able to spend the most time on it...

"Not to put too fine a point on it, the people with the most time are not often the people with the most experience or wisdom. Those people are, we hope, creating content more than voting on it!

"How is that anyone thinks that social news sites will avoid the problems inherent to committees? When a sufficiently large group of individuals is added to a committee, the result more or less exactly fails to please anyone."

The context in which content is displayed plays a large part in how that content is received. Why do you think we call it 'open source' and not 'freeware' anymore? Because if something is free, it can't be that good, right? If they're just giving it away, it's because it's not valuable.

Too often we are affected by what the crowd seems to think. Can 700 digg users really be wrong? If all of them found it fascinating, it must be. I have often seen a site hit the front page. The link is dead (due to the increased traffic), and yet the submission continues to get hundreds of diggs. People are voting it up without even being able to get to the site!

Digg hides the methods in which they decide what stories make it to the front page, and I'm not sure reddit and other sites publish their algorithms either. If we had an 'open' algorithm would that help, or only make it so that more people could abuse the system? What about a system that didn't show the popularity? Maybe some kind of tiered system that moved a story up, but only if the interest was based purely on the content, and not the fact that the mob liked it?

Too many questions, not enough time.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Encyclopedia of Life

A new site getting some press is the Encyclopedia of Life. The goal is to catalog all 1.8 million species or organisms on the planet. A lofty goal, and one they think they can accomplish in roughly 10 years. A few interesting things in their FAQ.

"Unlike conventional encyclopedias, where an editorial team sits down and writes the entries, the Encyclopedia will be developed by bringing together (“mashing up”) content from a wide variety of sources. This material will then be authenticated by scientists, so that users will have authoritative information. As we move forward, Encyclopedia of Life and its board will work with scientists across the globe, securing the involvement of those individuals and institutions that are established experts on each species."

The bit where they say, "authenticated by scientists so that users will have authoritative information" almost sounds like a jab at wikipedia. You won't get information from just anybody, you'll get it from 'scientists'. But a bit further down, appropriate props are given to the 'Wild West' of encyclopedias:

"Wikipedia inspired us. Wikipedia accumulated about 1.5 million entries in English in its first four years. That gave us confidence that our tasks are manageable with current technology and social behaviour, although the expert community in a lot of the subjects for pages in Encyclopedia of Life may be only a handful of people. Wikipedia has also created some species pages, as have other groups. Encyclopedia of Life will, we hope, unite all such efforts and increase their value. The Wikimedia Foundation is a member of the Encyclopedia’s Institutional Council."

Conspicuously missing from all of the FAQ is the subject of price. Will this be a free resource? If not, how much will it cost? None of that is addressed, and I suspect that there will be a fee for schools and individuals to access the EOL. And I suspect that the entire site will also be securely copyrighted, so no derivative works will be allowed. Which is too bad, because the whole site is possible based solely on the idea of building on the works of others.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


I'm back from Spain, and it was a lot of fun. It's amazing how many people speak Spanish over there! Even the little kids have picked it up.

So, I've put up a few pictures over on flickr. You can see my famous 'self portrait' pose. I know, it gets old after a while, but there you have it.

The chocolate was/is incredible, and I ask myself once again why we eat the brown waxy stuff over here. We really need a revolt. I have a good pound or so down in my storage room, and I intend to eat it slowly.

Also, I've put up a new wiki with an easier to read URL. If you'd like to contribute your favorite scout story (or any other story for that matter), you can do so at http://www.buckleywiki.com

Hope to see you over there.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Castle Real, Santander Sapin

Castle Real, Santander Sapin
Originally uploaded by firemeboy.
I probably won't be blogging for a few days, as I'm in Santander, Spain. I've seen a castle, the ocean, some incredible hot chocolate, and a sheep.

Good times.