Rappers Embracing Words with Friends

I am not a big fan of Zynga (previously), but I am a big fan of one of their games: Words with Friends. I usually have at least three or four games going on at once on my iPhone/iPad.

And it appears the game is making a big splash not just with the general public, but with celebrities. GQ has an interview with rappers Big Boi and Fabolous about Words with Friends and how they got into playing:

GQ: So when did you get into Words With Friends?
Big Boi: I started playing ’cause my wife was on it. Her and her friends, they were playing the game on the phone all the time. I was like, “What the fuck is this?” They said, “Just start playing, you’ll get into it.” So then we started playing for a $100 a game. When we started she’d kick my ass. She can’t beat me no more.
Fabolous: I think I just started from that same engineer who brought it into my studio. Then it advanced to the phone, and he started having it on his phone, and we could play each other on the phones. His name is Scribble, actually.

GQ: Do you have a default strategy? 
Fabolous: I definitely play it defensively. When you first start playing you start playing with an offensive mindset, just trying to make words. And as you learn how to play, you get better. It becomes clear that you wanna play on defense, to let other people not get words, and not get the spaces that get you points.
Big Boi: I’m a little strategic but it’s different each game. It’s whatever strategy for me to get my championship belt.

GQ: When you get jammed up with bad letters, do you swap out letters?
Big Boi: I swap it out. I swap my shit out.
Fabolous: I swap it out sometimes. Sometimes. Depending on how close the score is, I might not swap out. I might just try to hold steady. But if you can’t make a word, definitely, swap out the letters.

GQ: Do you have a favorite word that you’ve played?
Big Boi: I think I played ‘zooms’ for like a 107.
Fabolous: If I get over a 100, I tweet the screen shot. But I had an issue where I did that before. I put it on Twitter because I’m thinking that I wanna shit on somebody and show the whole world what I did, but they seen my [WWF user name] and I got so many friend requests that it ended up freezing my account. I can’t even put my name out there.

They also mention a few gripes with the game, such as people taking many days to make a move. I think Zynga fixed this issue, and now automatically resigns someone if they haven’t made a move in two weeks (I still think that’s too long). And if you’re curious, the biggest word I’ve ever played went for 157 points.

And no, unfortunately the handles of the two rappers aren’t provided in the interview. But if you want to play me, leave a comment with your WwF handle, and I’ll respond to your request.

Walking through Doorways and Forgetting

This is one of the more interesting studies I’ve come across this year:

A new study led by Gabriel Radvansky shows that the simple act of walking through a doorway creates a new memory episode, thereby making it more difficult to recall information pertaining to an experience in the room that’s just been left behind.

Dozens of participants used computer keys to navigate through a virtual reality environment presented on a TV screen. The virtual world contained 55 rooms, some large, some small. Small rooms contained one table; large rooms contained two: one at each end. When participants first encountered a table, there was an object on it that they picked up (once carried, objects could no longer be seen). At the next table, they deposited the object they were carrying at one end and picked up a new object at the other. And on the participants went. Frequent tests of memory came either on entering a new room through an open doorway, or after crossing halfway through a large room. An object was named on-screen and the participants had to recall if it was either the object they were currently carrying or the one they’d just set down.

The key finding is that memory performance was poorer after travelling through an open doorway, compared with covering the same distance within the same room. “Walking through doorways serves as an event boundary, thereby initiating the updating of one’s event model [i.e. the creation of a new episode in memory]” the researchers said.

But what if this result was only found because of the simplistic virtual reality environment? In a second study, Radvansky and his collaborators created a real-life network of rooms with tables and objects. Participants passed through this real environment picking up and depositing objects as they went, and again their memory was tested occasionally for what they were carrying (hidden from view in a box) or had most recently deposited. The effect of doorways was replicated. Participants were more likely to make memory errors after they’d passed through a doorway than after they’d travelled the same distance in a single room.

Another interpretation of the findings is that they have nothing to do with the boundary effect of a doorway, but more to do with the memory enhancing effect of context (the basic idea being that we find it easier to recall memories in the context that we first stored them). By this account, memory is superior when participants remain in the same room because that room is the same place that their memory for the objects was first encoded.

The full paper is here. I am not entirely convinced the effect is causal, but I certainly believe there is a relationship between the walking through a doorway and forgetting. In fact, one of the superstitions that I’ve heard since childhood is that if I have forgotten something, I should turn around and return to the place where I last remembered it. That often involved passing from one room to another via a doorway.

Errol Morris on Photography

In this video, writer and Oscar-winning documentary maker Errol Morris talks about the nature of truth, art, and propaganda in photography. He draws examples from the photographs of Abu Ghraib and the Crimean war, cited in his book Believing is Seeing. One of the points he makes in this brief video: how does a photograph connect to the physical world? My favorite part comes at around the 3:00 mark, where Morris discusses whether a photograph can be true or false.

Who Owns a Twitter Account?

Well, I think this is kind of ridiculous:

In October 2010, Noah Kravitz, a writer who lives in Oakland, Calif., quit his job at a popular mobile phone site, Phonedog.com, after nearly four years. The site has two parts — an e-commerce wing, which sells phones, and a blog.

While at the company, Mr. Kravitz, 38, began writing on Twitter under the name Phonedog_Noah, and over time, had amassed 17,000 followers. When he left, he said, PhoneDog told him he could keep his Twitter account in exchange for posting occasionally.

The company asked him to “tweet on their behalf from time to time and I said sure, as we were parting on good terms,” Mr. Kravitz said by telephone.

And so he began writing as Noah Kravitz, keeping all his followers under that new handle. But eight months after Mr. Kravitz left the company, PhoneDog sued, saying the Twitter list was a customer list, and seeking damages of $2.50 a month per follower for eight months, for a total of $340,000.

I don’t think you can equate getting Twitter followers under one account, and say, intellectual property developed at a university or a company (using tools available at such university or company). In this case, the effort was entirely Noah’s, with little to no input from his parent company.

Imagine a lawyer or an account who goes from one job to another, and takes along the clients he cultivated at his old job to his new one. Should he get sued in the process?

Who Was the First Novelist to Use a Word Processor?

The literary history of the typewriter has its well-established milestones, with Mark Twain producing the first typewritten manuscript with Life on the Mississippi. But what about the first novel produced with a word processor? From an interesting New York Times piece, we learn about Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, an associate professor of English at the University of Maryland, who is on a mission to answer this question:

Uncovering a clean answer to the question “Who was the first novelist to use a word processor?” is a trickier business, though Mr. Kirschenbaum has promising leads. Through his agent he recently heard that the science-fiction writer Frank Herbert, the author of “Dune,” who died in 1986, may have submitted work to his publisher in the late 1970s on 8-inch floppy disks.

From his website, Kirschenbaum notes about his project:

The project I will be working on is entitled “Track Changes: Authorship, Archives, and Literary Culture After Word Processing.” Unlike my first book, Mechanisms (2008), where I was primarily interested in experimental instances of electronic literature, here I will be looking at the impact of digital media throughout all sectors of contemporary literary composition, publishing, reception, and archival preservation. I intend to argue that the full parameters of computers as what electronic publishing pioneer Ted Nelson three decades ago called “literary machines” have not yet been fully delineated, and that as a consequence we conceive of print and the digital as rival or successive forms rather than as elements of a process wherein relations between the two media (at the level of both individual and collective practice) are considerably more dynamic and contingent.

On a related note, it seems that Stephen King was one of the leaders in using a word processor to publish his stories/novels. Mr. King’s first computer — a behemoth with a beige molded casing, built-in monochrome screen, and an $11,500 price tag — has enjoyed a certain cultish afterlife. The name of Stephen King’s his first computer? Stephen King’s Wang. And Matthew G. Kirschenbaum is trying to buy it.

On Understanding Advanced Mathematics

What’s it like to have an understanding of very advanced mathematics? A very detailed answer in a Quora post:

  • You can answer many seemingly difficult questions quickly. But you are not very impressed by what can look like magic, because you know the trick. The trick is that your brain can quickly decide if question is answerable by one of a small number of powerful general purpose “machines” (e.g. continuity arguments, combinatorial arguments, correspondence between geometric and algebraic objects, linear algebra, compactness arguments that reduce the infinite to the finite, dynamical systems, etc.). The number of fundamental ideas and techniques that people use to solve problems is pretty small — see http://www.tricki.org/tricki/map for a partial list, maintained by Tim Gowers.
  • You are often confident that something is true long before you have an airtight proof for it (this happens especially often in geometry). The main reason is that you have a large catalogue of connections between concepts, and you can quickly intuit that if X were to be false, that would create tensions with other things you know to be true, so you are inclined to believe X is probably true to maintain the harmony of the conceptual space. It’s not so much that you can “imagine” the situation perfectly, but you can quickly imagine many other things that are logically connected to it.
  • Your intuitive thinking about a problem is productive and usefully structured, wasting little time on being puzzled. For example, when answering a question about a high-dimensional space (e.g., whether a certain kind of rotation of a five-dimensional object has a “fixed point” which does not move during the rotation), you do not spend much time straining to visualize those things that do not have obvious analogues in two and three dimensions. (Violating this principle is a huge source of frustration for beginning maths students who don’t know that they shouldn’t be straining.) Instead…
  • When trying to understand a new thing, you automatically focus on very simple examples that are easy to think about, and then you leverage intuition about simple examples into much more impressive insights. For example, you might imagine two- and three- dimensional rotations that are analogous to the one you really care about, and think about whether they clearly do or don’t have the desired property. Then you think about what was important to those examples and try to distill those ideas into symbols. Often, you see that the key idea in those symbolic manipulations doesn’t depend on anything about two or three dimensions, and you know how to answer your hard question.
    As you get more mathematically advanced, the examples you consider easy are actually complex insights built up from many easier examples; the “simple case” you think about now took you two years to become comfortable with. But at any given stage, you do not strain to obtain a magical illumination about something intractable; you work to reduce it to the things that feel friendly.
  • You go up in abstraction, “higher and higher”. The main object of study yesterday becomes just an example or a tiny part of what you are considering today. For example, in calculus classes you think about functions or curves. In functional analysis or algebraic geometry, you think of spaces whose points are functions or curves — that is, you “zoom out” so that every function is just a point in a space, surrounded by many other “nearby” functions. Using this kind of “zooming out” technique, you can say very complex things in very short sentences — things that, if unpacked and said at the “zoomed in” level, would take up pages. Abstracting and compressing in this way allows you to consider very complicated issues while using your limited memory and processing power.
  • Understanding something abstract or proving that something is true becomes a task a lot like building something. You think: “First I will lay this foundation, then I will build this framework using these familiar pieces, but leave the walls to fill in later, then I will test the beams…” All these steps have mathematical analogues, and structuring things in a modular way allows you to spend several days thinking about something without feeling lost or frustrated. Andrew Wiles, who proved Fermat’s Last Theorem, used an “exploring” metaphor: “Perhaps I can best describe my experience of doing mathematics in terms of a journey through a dark unexplored mansion. You enter the first room of the mansion and it’s completely dark. You stumble around bumping into the furniture, but gradually you learn where each piece of furniture is. Finally, after six months or so, you find the light switch, you turn it on, and suddenly it’s all illuminated. You can see exactly where you were. Then you move into the next room and spend another six months in the dark. So each of these breakthroughs, while sometimes they’re momentary, sometimes over a period of a day or two, they are the culmination of—and couldn’t exist without—the many months of stumbling around in the dark that proceed them.”
  • You are humble about your knowledge because you are aware of how weak maths is, and you are comfortable with the fact that you can say nothing intelligent about most problems. There are only very few mathematical questions to which we have reasonably insightful answers. There are even fewer questions, obviously, to which any given mathematician can give a good answer. After two or three years of a standard university curriculum, a good maths undergraduate can effortlessly write down hundreds of mathematical questions to which the very best mathematicians could not venture even a tentative answer. This makes it more comfortable to be stumped by most problems; a sense that you know roughly what questions are tractable and which are currently far beyond our abilities is humbling, but also frees you from being intimidated, because you do know you are familiar with the most powerful apparatus we have for dealing with these kinds of problems.

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(Hat tip: Chris Dixon)

Social Media During the Reformation, or How Luther Went Viral

It’s hard to put the words “social media” and “Reformation” together, yet this brilliant piece in The Economist explains how Martin Luther’s 95 Theses went viral.

Although they were written in Latin, the “95 Theses” caused an immediate stir, first within academic circles in Wittenberg and then farther afield. In December 1517 printed editions of the theses, in the form of pamphlets and broadsheets, appeared simultaneously in Leipzig, Nuremberg and Basel, paid for by Luther’s friends to whom he had sent copies. German translations, which could be read by a wider public than Latin-speaking academics and clergy, soon followed and quickly spread throughout the German-speaking lands. Luther’s friend Friedrich Myconius later wrote that “hardly 14 days had passed when these propositions were known throughout Germany and within four weeks almost all of Christendom was familiar with them.”

The unintentional but rapid spread of the “95 Theses” alerted Luther to the way in which media passed from one person to another could quickly reach a wide audience. “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation,” he wrote in March 1518 to a publisher in Nuremberg who had published a German translation of the theses. But writing in scholarly Latin and then translating it into German was not the best way to address the wider public. Luther wrote that he “should have spoken far differently and more distinctly had I known what was going to happen.” For the publication later that month of his “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, he switched to German, avoiding regional vocabulary to ensure that his words were intelligible from the Rhineland to Saxony. The pamphlet, an instant hit, is regarded by many as the true starting point of the Reformation.

You probably learned in your world history class that the 95 Theses were a precursor to the Reformation. So why did Luther’s message spread?

Unlike larger books, which took weeks or months to produce, a pamphlet could be printed in a day or two. Copies of the initial edition, which cost about the same as a chicken, would first spread throughout the town where it was printed. Luther’s sympathisers recommended it to their friends. Booksellers promoted it and itinerant colporteurs hawked it. Travelling merchants, traders and preachers would then carry copies to other towns, and if they sparked sufficient interest, local printers would quickly produce their own editions, in batches of 1,000 or so, in the hope of cashing in on the buzz. A popular pamphlet would thus spread quickly without its author’s involvement.

As with “Likes” and retweets today, the number of reprints serves as an indicator of a given item’s popularity. Luther’s pamphlets were the most sought after; a contemporary remarked that they “were not so much sold as seized”. His first pamphlet written in German, the “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, was reprinted 14 times in 1518 alone, in print runs of at least 1,000 copies each time. Of the 6,000 different pamphlets that were published in German-speaking lands between 1520 and 1526, some 1,700 were editions of a few dozen works by Luther. In all, some 6m-7m pamphlets were printed in the first decade of the Reformation, more than a quarter of them Luther’s.

Another interesting point is that the spread of Luther’s message wasn’t limited to printed media:

It was not just words that travelled along the social networks of the Reformation era, but music and images too. The news ballad, like the pamphlet, was a relatively new form of media. It set a poetic and often exaggerated description of contemporary events to a familiar tune so that it could be easily learned, sung and taught to others. News ballads were often “contrafacta” that deliberately mashed up a pious melody with secular or even profane lyrics. They were distributed in the form of printed lyric sheets, with a note to indicate which tune they should be sung to. Once learned they could spread even among the illiterate through the practice of communal singing.

The piece is interesting throughout, and has a very good conclusion: Today’s social-media systems do not just connect us to each other: they also link us to the past.

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Question for the reader: what other events/messages in history, do you think, spread virally in a similar fashion? I can think of a few.