Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Daily exercise for your creative muscles

Create a flow gadget or RSS feed or other auto-updating thing to give people a short and straightforward creative exercise to do, up to twice a day. In the style of OneWord as an iGoogle gadget, for example.

Could make it social with games like these:
* Write oneword type paragraph, then provide a (related) word for the next person. Show your previous posts in the string.
* Web 2 whispers - you write for an unknown random number of seconds, then the text is snatched away for the next person to continue - they get as many seconds as you had to read it, then a random number to write.

But really, variety would be a great thing. Get people doing word association, describing a day as an X, relating two words, perhaps even writing for the length of a particular song, taking a phone photo of some interesting bit of ceiling, writing a haiku, chewing an interesting shape, drawing on a banana, following on from a randomly chosen sentence, following on from other people's following on sentences, taking a photo of two and a half things, explaining their choice of colour for 'think', imagining the world without an X, thinking up new ideas about a randomly chosen product, venting their spleen, getting angry, sending an extract from a receipt in their pocket, drawing a both-ways-up face, designing a tshirt, spilling some water (intentionally) and giving it a caption, "You are a dog, what do you think of fridges?", asking any of a thousand useful (and perhaps user contributed) questions - what would make a train journey better?, things to do with paperclips/cds/receipts/short pencils/unwanted cushions, invent a new magazine.

How would it work? Just provide a stimulus for the first few people, and occasionally drop in the question: what would you ask of people?

Setup: Blog-style post-and-reply would work well, but the replies must become the centre stage, rather than the post, and it must allow for more complicated supply and reply mechanisms for many of the above games.

Ah! How about a dynamically generated RSS feed unique to each user, supplying a reply-type link for the responses, which updates to show the state of the game when they're finished.

Further rumination, generalising yet further: make the whole thing a game. Let people cluster towards fellow users who supply their kind of game or stimulus, allow them to form their own mini communities. I don't want to say 'Facebook app', but...

Monday, May 26, 2008

Dealing with long words

In his blog entry Injecting Word Breaks With Javascript, John Resig suggests using javascript to insert word-break positions in long words, solving long-word-broke-my-page-layout problems. The hyphenation problem has been around a long time, and in decent typesetting systems like LaTeX, libraries do the job for you, breaking in the right places to maintain the flow of a sentence and not leave you on a new line starting with a spare letter. One comment relays a story of their own algorithm which ran each time, breaking up words too long for the lines, but that it grew too computationally expensive. That implies it was being done every time the page was loaded.

As far as I can see, there are two different challenges here: dealing with long words and dealing with URLs. My comments:

Long words
Given that the best length of a line for legibility is somewhere in the 20-40em range, very few normal words will break your layout. Perhaps just process it when you are about to insert the text into the database - use a proper hyphenation script to insert zero width spaces or wprs or whatever. You can always replace them all later. This way each chunk of text gets hyphenated properly once, instead of badly repeatedly.

Unless you maintain a site dedicated to long strings of text, livingwithspacebarphobia or organic chemistry, URLs are the vast majority of long strings. Why treat them differently? Because they are not expected to be shown in their raw form; most people would prefer the long URL to be hidden behind the usual linktext.

  • Replace the linktext with a shortened form - keep some of the beginning (so we can see the domain) and perhaps the text between the last slash and the following dot (the page name), to make something like 'slashdot.org/.../index...'
  • Steal the title text of the linked page - in processing the form data, follow each link and get hold of the page title, and use that (or, again, a shortened form) as the link text.
The overriding principle? Sanitize user input. Even when all they are doing is typing in words and pasting in URLs, users can cause unexpected problems. And do the sanitizing on input, not as a reformatting exercise on output - the input processing happens once and the result is served up many times.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Social side of bookshops

Bookshops are a hallowed ground on the high street, or on campus. They have the high spending per square metre of a shop, but the quietness and sensible nature of a library. No pumping music, no anorexia-inducing models on display - unlike the rest of retail, the focus is on knowledge and choosing the right product. It is generally a solitary activity, even if you're there with a friend or spouse.

Yet those that frequent a bookshop are more united than most other shoppers. If I stand in front of the Computing section and leaf through Agile Methods books or Web Site Zen, I am united with the other browsers of the section. The basic elements for a classic community are there - geography (we're in the same bookshop, in the same town), commonality of interest (the section we're browsing) and probably social status (although that shouldn't separate us, really).

A golden opportunity.

The web two-point-oh 'revolution' is about interaction and user-generated content. But that's just community with shiny buttons. The internet has always been about information, porn and community. Assuming we've grown out of the second, much of the latest stuff has just been usable combinations of information and community. And if I'm in community with my fellow information seekers in a bookshop, we've shortcircuited the painful path to video-based social networking websites dedicated to specific groups.

The idea is this: have book nights for given subjects. Get an author or other 'name' in, provide coffee/beer and have a short talk and a Q&A. Let people ask questions about which books are actually useful, or whatever they like related to the subject. An example: "Computing book night, with the author of Agile Methods. Bring an inquisitive mind and questions about Agile methods."

There's some truth in the stereotype that geeks lack social skills, yet everyone needs community. I suspect that for many subjects of these book nights, if you build it they will come. But tell tem it's for their education, and let the social side accidentally happen.

Here's the stimulus; my suggestion for a campus bookshop which also sells snacks and drinks:
"It's summer, so let's have an al-fresco reading area outside - provide some cheap novels, expect people to buy their books first. Nice comfy sofas from the union communal area should work.

That should get people to come to the bookshop, and consuming more snacks."