Monday, March 30, 2009

From Poland to Israel to Hip Hop Poetry

My son (second on the left, bushy red beard) just returned from a trip to Poland, a trip taken by thousands of Israeli students each year. Some unknown number of Diaspora Jewish kids also do the trip, though they combine it with a followup trip to Israel.

The trip is designed to make real the stories they already know about their heritage: the lost Jewish communities of Europe, and the sickening devastation caused by the Holocaust which occurred while so many others blamed the Jews or turned away. The trip to Poland is unforgettable, as is the return to a vibrant life that the Jews have miraculously built for themselves in Israel.

We're solidly into the second generation away from the Holocaust. My father and grandfather left Germany in 1939; my father was two years old. This is my son's grandfather and great-grandfather. The Poles who now live in Poland are similarly two or three generations away from the perpetrators of these events.

They may be removed from these events, but not from the possibility of their recurrence. The children making this trip were a knife's edge away from never having been born to make it. Many of them will be going into the Israeli army, facing enemies who are just as determined to end their own lives.

Various nations of the world, who still treat their own enemies with rape, torture, and wholesale slaughter, indiscriminately "softening" battlefields with shock and awe, razing remnants of enemy cultures to the ground with music and blood-lust, keep the media headlines busy with rumors of a few moral lapses done by one or two individual Israelis, ignoring the many thousands of acts by thousands of similar Israelis of charity and care to enemy civilians at the very real risk to their own lives, ignoring the deliberate efforts still being made to finish what was left unfinished. Doesn't surprise me much; keeps them from having to face the truth about themselves.

I haven't heard my son's story about his trip, yet, as he has gone up north to walk the land with friends of his who couldn't make the Poland trip. I don't think he's slept in a week.

But today's Jews are no longer found in the ghettos of Europe or the barbed wire of concentration and death camps. They're building businesses, making movies, making science, writing, singing, dancing, helping the poor and sick in every country around the world.

Vanessa Hidary says it:

Or catch a Taglit-Birthright Monologues show.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Seventies Hippie Greeting Cards

It's a Jerusalem tradition to throw still usable items out by leaving them outside where someone else can take them for free, rather than simply putting them in the trash, especially books and shoes. Better for someone passing by to pick up something you don't want, then for it to go straight to a landfill.

My neighbor recently moved / is moving, and they left a bunch of things out over the last several weeks. Yesterday was this groovy set of hippie seventies greeting cards. Enjoy.

Inside: We too, should make love ... not war!

Inside: I'm all together, when we're together.

Inside: My life was going nowhere until I found you!

Inside: I woke up this morning with your love shining all around me.

Anyone want some free greeting cards?

The Chaotic Tale of a Diplomacy Game with 12 Non-gamer Co-workers

The Proposal

In the first session that I organized for my 12 co-workers, we played Pit, Apples to Apples, Haggle, and Set. Other than Set, it went over extremely well, so much so that I was enthusiastically asked to do another one.

For this second one, I was asked to do something with more strategy and tactics, more group work, and around 2 hours. I don't know why, but I immediately thought I could pull off Diplomacy.

My experience with the game is 1.5 games. I'd never tried to explain the game, and I hadn't played in several years. In fact I had to borrow a copy just to have a large map for the official positions. And I don't think I even like playing the game very much. But I was going to be facilitator, not a player.

The Prep

In preparation, I reread the rules. I asked someone who has played several times for advice on how to run the game. I photocopied short rules summaries and many copies of the map for the players to use. I considered changing the theme to something like competing companies with coffee machines for supply centers, but I didn't get around to it. Pre-WWI would have to do.

My biggest problem was that I only had 2 hours. I was hoping I could run rounds in about 15 minutes each, until near the end where I would give 10 minutes each. It was a very ambitious plan, and it failed completely. Instead of the 8 to 10 rounds I was hoping to get through, we only managed to get though 4.

The Explanation

Of course, I had to explain the game rules, and with non-gamers especially, every possible misunderstanding will be misunderstood. To complicate things, non-gamers are not intent and serious when listening to rules; they joke around and talk a lot; they lose focus after you get to the second rule. That's perfectly fair; after all it was supposed to be a social gathering, not a training seminar.

I got sidetracked following up the questions that lead all over the place after the first rule, until I realized that if we didn't start soon, people would just become even more confused and we would never get to play. Once we got started, I filled in individual people and teams as to any holes they still had in the rules. Only the UK people learned about the convoy rules. Suffice to say, I completely botched the rules explanation.

I never got around to explaining exactly how orders are suppose to be submitted. During the game, I got "army into B" (which one?), or just "army". I got only one unit submitted from a country, instead of all units. I got verbal instructions on top of the written ones, before, during, and after movement. I got two units from the same country trying to move into the same space several times ("you never said we couldn't do that!" in round 3).

The Questions

During the game's four rounds, I was asked if a unit could move several spaces and not just one, if it had to move to an adjacent space, if a fleet could travel on land, and if an army could travel on water. I was asked how you could move your supply centers and whether you could freely switch around your units at the start of, or during the middle of, the game.

I was asked if you could support an attack on the other side of the board, why you couldn't support and move at the same time (tried, and complained about when it failed), what the supply centers were for, and what the countries without them were for. And what a production center was (I said "production" center instead of "supply" center once - big mistake in a room full of technical writers).

I was asked whether you could get new units anywhere on the board instead of just in your supply centers, or if you could get them in the same space as your current units, or if you get additional units equal to all of your supply centers and not just your new ones. And what was the difference between a unit, an army, and a fleet, again?

And I got asked a lot of strategy questions, nearly all of which which I declined to answer.

The Play

We had 12 players in two teams playing 6 countries. No one played Italy, so it just waited to get beaten up.

It didn't take much time for people to realize that they simply could not achieve anything without trying to forge deals; you have to abandon your home country in order to conquer other supply centers, and that leaves you vulnerable until you get new units. The negotiations really got going, so that worked. The room got quite noisy. All but three of the players got into it and had a good time. They were actually quite good at it.

I told everyone that they could spy and lie. In fact, during the game they all lied continuously. I don't think any deal reached was actually implemented. Sometimes it was just due to misunderstanding how to submit the rules (there was confusion as to how to write "A supports B into C"). Most of the time it was intentional backstabbing.

Specific Reactions

The UK players were sitting next to me, and they had a hard time understanding many of the rules. They were quite happy and willing to try, but they made some mistakes with movement and support, and then complained that they didn't get a complete rules explanation when their moves didn't work. Rightly so.

Turkey and Germany did a fine job of slamming across the southeast and south central areas of the board. They ended as victors with six supply centers each. One of the Turkey players said that the game appealed to him greatly due to his interest in history.

The two Russia players were the sand in the wheels. One of them wasn't at all interested in this type of game, didn't fully listen to the explanation and didn't like all the noise. So she didn't play.

The other one couldn't wrap his head around conquest objectives; he wanted to know why the rules called for military objectives instead of forging peaceful relationships. It was cognitive dissonance. As a result, Russia deliberately made no moves in any of the four turns. Although he understood that a game is a game - and Diplomacy is as abstract as they come in war games - he didn't like playing warfare on real areas of the world where massacres had occurred. He pointed out some on the board for me. I couldn't blame him; I kind of feel the same. Good think we didn't try Nazis vs Britain or somesuch.

Most everyone wanted a big screen with a projection of the game on it. They wanted name tags for countries, so they knew who was who. They wanted better ways to simultaneously update everyone's maps with the results of each round (aka computer assistance). They wanted to know the rules much better.

All in all, considering all the chaos, nine out of twelve seemed to have a good time, and one of the other three probably did, too.


There was of course way too little time. We played only 4 rounds, instead of the 8 or 10 I was foolishly hoping to get to. We even had to stop for a coffee break after round two. I got a few thank yous and compliments.

Allegedly, the point of the game was to a) socialize the group, and b) get our minds working in ways that they are not used to, so stir up creativity. I'm not sure, but I think it ultimately worked.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Session Report, in which we play Dominion and continue to like Fairy Tale

The latest Jerusalem Strategy Gaming Club session report is up. Games played: Dominion, Amun Re, Fairy Tale.

We played a random set of Dominion, revisit Amun Re, and continue to enjoy Fairy Tale.

Session Report from the Beit Shemesh Board Game Group

I had to stop at Avri's in Beit Shemesh pick up a copy of Diplomacy to use tomorrow for my big game day at work. Avri runs the Beit Shemesh board game group on Tuesday nights - what a coincidence - so I stayed for game night. I had brought along Dominion and Race for the Galaxy, figuring that I could teach them a few new games as long as I would be there.

In fact, I got there a bit early. Avri had already played Race for the Galaxy once or twice, so I taught him how to play Dominion. We played, once again, with the coddle set of basic kingdoms, which has barely any player interaction.

I have a pretty pathetic record at the game, and I don't seem to be getting any better. Avri trashed me by tossing out all of his Estates for better cards and then playing Markets to take both a Province and a Duchy on each turn. Yeah, I started taking Provinces before him, but he was still out drawing me.

I seem to have such trouble getting to that 5 coin mark.

Avri 33, Jon 28

Avri's daughter (around 5 or 6) then wanted to play For Sale, which we did. I played my houses in completely random order on the checks (without telling Avri), and I nearly won anyway.

Avri 72, Jon 68, daughter less

A few others came and we were five, so Avri kindly suggested Santiago, a game I love but never get to play in my own group because they don't like it as much. It's still a fine and elegant game, but I was still not playing optimally. Avri offered a lot of money for bribes at the beginning, which served him well. I didn't, which served me less well, but I thought the money I was saving was still doing me good.

But then I ended up spending all of my money near the end of the game, anyway.

Avri 75, Jon 64, Mory 60, Eliezer 55, Marc 54

Richie came during Santiago, and I offered to play him simultaneously, so that he wouldn't be bored. We played It's Alive, advanced scoring. This was my first play with the second edition components and rules, and in fact I wasn't even clear on all of the rule changes for second edition.

Still, I finally did well at something.

Jon 48, Richie 37

With all the new players, I taught Dominion yet again, with the coddling set yet again. I still lost, to first-time players. I suck.

Mory 28, Jon 20, Richie 18

We played Dominion again, and finally I played - for the first time - with new kingdoms. We generated a random set, and ended up with: Moat, Moneylender, Thief, Bureaucrat, Woodcutter, Militia, Smithy, Gardens, Laboratory, Mine.

Thank god for the Moat, as three of these cards are attacks. It was a painfully slow set, with very few ways to boost money, and only one cards that gave 1 additional action. Ouch.

The more interactive cards let in elements of luck that don't exist with the less interactive cards. Mory used Thief only once but it destroyed my first silver right after I bought it, which was very hard for me. Richie and I used Thief, but not only gained nothing from it, but ended up clearing out victory cards from people's decks for them.

All of us had 30+ card decks, which made Gardens a no-brainer over Duchy. I still lost.

Mory 28, Richie 24, Jon 21

While we played Dominion, the others played Race for the Galaxy. First game for all but Avri.

Avri 43, Eliezer 40, Marc less

We hadn't quite finished our second game of Dominion, so they then started up a game of Notre Dame. And when I left, my two opponents started a game of Lost Cities. I didn't stick around to see the end of either game, nor if they played any further games.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

How Can User Interface Design Skills Influence Technical Communication?

On the subject of revolutionizing the field of technical communication, read this little piece on how changing a simple form process on a web site increased a company's sales by $300 million.

The moral of the story is: get the hell out of the user's way and get him or her to what he or she wants, now.

Too much of our technical communication is about what we HAVE to present, or about our branding, our legal requirements, our business goals, or about anything except the reader.

We have to ask the questions, very seriously: how do people read our stuff? Why do people read our stuff? And whatever the answers are, that's what we should be giving them. Everything else is in the way.

So if the TOC, the cover, the tables, the figures, the indices, the words, or even the paper, is in the way, get it out of the way.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Interactivity in Dominion

Nadine came over for dinner and we ended early enough to convince Rachel to try another game besides Puerto Rico (or Scrabble). We would have tried Agricola, but we wanted something quicker so that we could also play Puerto Rico afterward.

So I taught both Rachel and Nadine how to play Dominion (Amazon's price right now: $159 ???).

We used the basic set; I've yet to play with any other. One of the problems with the basic set is the lack of interactivity. Aside from the very remote possibility of cards running out in a stack (unlikely, unless everyone is following the exact same strategy), there's only the Militia kingdom.

As a result, Rachel found the game rather boring. Nadine liked it, although she is also looking forward to sets with higher interactivity. I beat her 40 to 39; pretty close.

It shouldn't be hard to increase the interactivity. Instead of 10 cards in 10 kingdoms and the game ends when 3 piles run out, why not 3 cards in 20 kingdoms and the game ends when 12 piles run out? This way, you get the interactivity of running out of piles quicker, more strategic options, and less of the game running out really quickly (if it still does, make it 14 or 15 piles).

Of course, you can't buy tons of all the same card. And there's less variance in the game, but once the first few expansions come along, that won't be a problem.

Anyway, after Dominion we played Puerto Rico. I started the game really well, so well that I though victory would be a piece of cake. I traded tobacco early, pulled two corn plantations with a Hacienda and got a Wharf (we don't play with Harbor). All well and good, but Nadine's coffee, Factory, and Discretionary Hold managed to trump me. If I had gotten a Factory before my Wharf and I would have done much better.

Nadine won with 54, to my 48 and Rachel's 39.

Friday, March 20, 2009

I'm Probably Going to the Next BGG Con

BGG Con 2009 dates have been announced for next November and registration is open. It's looking very likely that I will attend.

Rachel has a teaching gig at a Dallas synagogue on that shabbat, and my friend will be lecturing again at SMU for Fall semester, so we'll have a place to stay. Too bad the conference location is so far from Dallas proper.

I'll be spending a few days after in New Orleans, as well (Rachel has a conference, and will hopefully have her first book published by then).

If I'm disciplined, I'll have a new game to play-test by then, too. Or my own book.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The last two lines are verbatim

"The great thing about this type of fancy restaurant is that you can eat food you would never be able to make at home."

"Where are my glasses?"

"Look at these weird things."

"Look at these prices!"

"Stop it. Hmmm, veal brains in scallop sauce. Care to try it?"

"Tonight's special is a steak with fois gras in a brandy sauce with truffles."

"Truffles? Are those mushrooms?"

"I think they only grow for two weeks a year in France and you need specially trained pigs to snort them out."

"I've got some growing in my socks."

"I'll have the bearded liver in cannibalized sauce."

"That's seared liver in caramelized sauce."

"I can't see without my glasses."

"Look, here's sweetmeats. What's that?"

"That's balls. Try some."

"No it's not. It's tonsils. See, it says here 'shekedim'."

"No, I think it's balls."

"Yeah, between missing its brains and its balls, there's some poor beast walking around without any meaning in life."

"Nah, it can always run for knesset."

Self-Referential Chart 1

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Session Report, in which we play Agricola, and Dominion twice

The latest Jerusalem Strategy Gaming Club session report is up. Games played: R-Eco, Agricola, Dominion x 2, Traders of Carthage.

Josh and Alexis were back in Israel for a short visit. While we played Agricola, others played Dominion twice and Traders of Carthage, too.

Starting a Revolution in Technical Communication

The Lecture

Miriam Lottner of Tech-Tav gave a lecture at the recent Israeli Technical Writing Conference that has started a revolution.

The gist: ten years ago we were writing PDFs and CHMs, and today we're writing PDFs and CHMs. Meanwhile, vast numbers of people around the world are now turning to Google, blogs, forums, Wikipedia, and so on to find information. If five years from now, the only thing we do is write PDFs and CHMs, we're soon going to be out of the loop.

My own take on this is: we exist to smooth and enhance the experience of the user. If the only information they need is from the programmer, we function as rapidly less-needed middlemen. How can we stay relevant?

The Aftermath

Following the lecture, Miriam received hundred of comments and emails and held conversations with Paula of WritePoint, organizer of the conference. A blog and Facebook group were created. Paula gave over the lecture at the last Jerusalem Technical Writing workshop, and Miriam gave over the lecture at least one other time (possibly more).

They decided to host a think-tank in Tel Aviv to spur innovative thinking in the field.

The Meeting

Tonight, we held a first meeting at Check Point's offices in Tel Aviv. I eyeballed about 75 people in attendance.

Miriam chaired the meeting. She had set up circles of chairs within the room, each of which was meant for a small group and contained a sketching board with a question that was supposed to spur creative solutions within the field of technical writing.

She began with an opening presentation: The world is changing fast, and the non-US world is changing faster than the US part. You can't assume that people outsource to India and China only because it's cheaper, but we (US, Israel) produce better quality. Even if this is true now, it won't be true for long: Indians are also smart, and much more numerous and growing.

In this economy, cutting technical writers is easy if they appear to be giving less value than training and customer service. And that's going to happen more and more as people turn to alternate sources for information.

How can we create services that help companies sell more products?

At the end, we followed up with a few more points:

- Consider the market (by age, profession, gender, etc) for your product to determine the correct documentation types: video, PDF, web, etc...

- We are not concentrating on specific tools, since a) some of the participants sell tools, and b) these tools may not be what we need in the future.

The Brainstorming

These were the questions and summaries of the answers.

How can you convince an intransigent boss to change things?

- Understand your manager's actual limitations
- Clarify what changes you want
- Arguments: you can reduce customer support, increase branding, increase customer contact, increase customer satisfaction, achieve a more effective use of time
- Assure boss that changes won't "rock the boat"
- Additional argument: Increase flexibility and accessibility of information

If you had two weeks of no work, what would you do with the time?

- Research your industry and other industries
- Learn skills and your own products
- Review your own documentation and cut inefficiencies
- Take a break, recharge
- You can work on these, even without two weeks of free time

How can we make documentation more efficient or faster?

- Minimize documentation
- Cooperate more closely with R&D and Customer Support
- Single source
- Centralize access to documentation, so as to share what we're writing
- Offer quick guide documentation and/or less perfect documentation before offering the complete and full documentation. In some cases, after the quick documentation you need only add responses to FAQs. [This was my contribution.]

In an agile documentation process, what can you do?

- Work with developers
- Peer review
- General knowledge of entire product for all writers to ensure flexibility
- Aim for no downtime
- Minimal sized texts, modularization

How to argue with boss that a GUI screen flow document is wrongheaded?

- First off, the participants agreed that it is better to document tasks than a comprehensive GUI layout, although it might be necessary in certain circumstances, such as when you have no idea how GUI will actually be used
- You can save on training. Actually, to create the documentation, find out what trainers actually teach and that's how you should document.
- Find out what end-users or field engineers really want
- Mature companies do task oriented documentation; best to start the documentation this way
- Examine competitor's documentation
- Especially, you don't need to document all confirmation dialogs
- If you must do GUI oriented, add task oriented diagrams

My Response

I'm fairly excited to be part of a revolution. Kudos to both Miriam for spearheading the issue, and Paula for recognizing and helping run with it. (I don't know all the background details, so it's possible the ideas were jointly developed by them and others.)

The points Miriam raised in her lecture are exactly right. Although I don't see the need for plain old PDFs and CHMs disappearing as quickly as she does, it's entirely true that companies, products, users, and writers will benefit if we can use all the new tools for disseminating information at our disposal.

The meeting was run well, and the participants were active and interested. The questions got our juices flowing and got us to share our best current procedures with each other.


But I promised Paula to write something negative, so here it is: there's a lot of fear of change. Fear that all the companies and managers will resist our ideas, but just as much fear in the room about proposing new ideas that really break boundaries.

Big companies look at their documentation as a representation of their company. Unless the documentation looks serious and business-like, they fear it will reflect poorly on the serious and business-like image they want to project.

Managers are afraid of releasing "poor" documentation, because of what may happen if a user trips up on it. This is certainly the case for million dollar equipment running major telecommunication exchanges that lose $10,000 if they're down for one minute. But most documentation isn't like this. In many cases, poor documentation put up hastily on a Wiki will be corrected and supplemented by users on their own, saving everyone a lot of time.

Writers are afraid to propose radical ideas to our companies and bosses, because we don't want to lose our jobs, especially not now. Well, that's how it goes. Even if we propose to continue doing what we're doing, but add some new types of documentation to see how it goes, we need managers to scare up money and time allocations that they don't want (or have) to spare.

Even Miriam seemed afraid at this meeting to ask the really radical questions that needed to be asked.

"Work closer with R&D?" "Peer review?" "Learn new skills?" These are hardly the answers that revolutions are made of.

Challenging Entrenched Ideas

In my opinion, we need to start challenging really entrenched ideas. For instance:

- How many of us write in black ink? Why not blue or multi-colored? Apple's revolution was a design revolution as much as a usability one.
- Why do we write in portrait, and not landscape or diagonally? Take a look at Yahoo's home page; why don't our documents look like that?
- Why are we writing linear narratives? Could we write dialogs, plays, speech bubbles, cartoons, or poems?
- People love learning from games. Can we convert our documentation into games? Can we make the pages into collectible cards, embed RFID chips, make them scannible and come alive when exposed to a video camera?
- How do we transition large documents to videos and still retain all the information? Can we do it in Flash without an inordinate amount of extra work?
- Can our books be broken into pieces? Can the pages be broken into pieces and stuck on the side of the computer?
- Can we add humor and other entertainment value to our documents so that people want to read them?
- Can we turn them into puzzles or contests? For instance, after reading the document, you take an online quiz and if you pass you get $10?

I think the people in the room were capable of adding to this list, but we needed more audacious questions.


Miriam said that we will create specification and working teams to further the ideas discussed.

My proposal for "next step": Let's brainstorm some really new, really good ideas and solidify a few of them. Then let's take them to our companies and see what we can do.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Shabbat Gaming

Dinner: I asked a few questions from the trivia game Moot. Any trivia game is only worth as much as its questions, and Moot is THE game to get if you're interested in etymology or English language usage.

Lunch: Rachel and I played Puerto Rico with Nadine and her son Yona. Scores: Yona 52, Me 49 + 4 coins, Rachel 49 + 3 coins, Nadine 47. The important thing to note here is that I beat Rachel. By a mile.

I had Factory and Harbor, and a viable Tobacco. Yona had a coffee monopoly and then Wharf with several corns. Nadine had Factory and tobacco in front of me, but lacked the Harbor (she took Discretionary Hold). Rachel went for early victory points and Harbor, and made it to 36 shipping points, but (as you can see) nothing much in the building department.

My daughter Tal is acting in a play starting tonight and over the next week: 7th annual director's showcase. Go see it. She's great.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Online Bridge

Game night was canceled this week owing to Purim and so much else going on. But I played a few hands of Bridge online at . First time on the site.

I used to play Bridge at OKBridge, and then Yahoo Games, and then MS Zone. I'm probably missing a few. Each place has it's own interface, it's own proportion of good to bad players, and annoying to polite players.

I don't know why I keep moving. Actually, I play wherever my brother/friends are playing at the moment, so it's more accurate to say that I don't know why they keep moving. Except for OKBridge, which stopped being free.

What's your favorite place to play mainstream card games like Bridge and Hearts?

Planning a New Game Session at Work: Diplomacy

I'm planning a new game session for work. In the last session, I introduced 11 coworkers, none of them gamers, to the joys of Pit, Apples to Apples, and Haggle. I interspersed games with short history and cultural information about tabletop games in general and these games in particular.

They asked me to do another one. This time, the criteria was: 15 people, more cerebral, more group activities (not individuals, and not only two teams), and up to two hours. I asked on the Geek for some suggestions, but before I even got any, I knew what I wanted to run: Diplomacy.

Now, Diplomacy has some drawbacks:

1) It's far longer than two hours, usually. That's ok. I'll just limit turn length to 15 minutes each, and play only 7 rounds.

2) It can make you some serious enemies. I'm thinking that I can keep the session light-hearted enough to not have to worry about that.

3) It's "a war game" sort of, and won't appeal to everyone. Again, I'm pretty sure I can overcome that; they were all pretty game for all three of the previous games I ran, and the time length is limited.

4) I've never run a Diplomacy game before. Actually, I've only played Diplomacy 1.5 times. I also don't own a Diplomacy game.

As to the last problem, I know how the game works. I've also downloaded the rules and a map. I feel confident I can explain the game and get it running.

As to the third problem, I'm thinking about re-theming the game. Maybe make the supply centers coffee stations, and the areas work projects, and the winner the one who has control of the most work projects (or coffee stations) by the end of the seventh turn.

I can make the armies "writers", and the fleets "secretaries". No? Got any better suggestions? Where can I find alternate maps (suitable for printing)?

I know that I have to carefully work on keeping the game rules explanation down to 5 or 10 minutes. Any other suggestions?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Part 1 of Purim Shpiel

You can see the first part of the Purim Shpiel below. I'm the humble archaeologist, and my wife is the professor.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Purim Play and Party

Tonight I performed in a Purim Shpiel put on by our shul Mizmor LeDavid, written by our downstairs neighbor Allen Rabinowitz, and starring my wife as Professor Addlebrain and me as a humble archaeologist who discovers the Dead Sea Disks. Actually, it was the musicians who were the stars, we were just the dialog between songs. But in the end I got to say, "As an archaeologist, I really dig you, Professor Addlebrain."

It was great fun, despite a number of gaffes in sound engineering and chorus cues. That just kind of adds to the fun, in its own way. Even the somewhat lamer songs were received by our packed audience with a great response.

We played to an audience of some hundred and fifty (we were expecting 70 or 80), and all the money raised is going to Keren D'or, which gives medical supplies to the needy elderly. We raised quite a bit of money. Yeah us!

Now we're back home, partying to classic rock, disco, eighties, and nineties dance music.

I received a fantastic email from a reader this evening: "In the meantime, consider this a "well done" note. I consider yours to be one of the most important minds I have come across in my meanderings across the digital landscape."

I'm not even thinking about that I may be losing my job soon.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

A Torah Lesson From Dr Reiner Knizia

In Israel, every synagogue has one or more weekly Torah pamphlets available for its congregants when they arrive on Friday afternoon before services. The pamphlets include a few pages of discussion about the portion of the week, and may also include other stories or Halachic discussion.

You are supposed to read them after synagogue when you return home; of course, most people read them during synagogue when they are supposed to be praying or listening to the Rabbi's sermon.

The pages come in various languages: Hebrew, Russian, French, English, and from various political and religious bents: from Chabad, by settlers, women's voices, for kids, and so on.

The most popular English language Torah page is Torah Tidbits from the OU Israel Center in Jerusalem. The brain-child of Phil Chernofsky, TT is huge - some 40 to 50 pages - and populist: written in simple language with a very decisive strict Orthodox pro-Zionism slant. In each issue, you will find: almost no Hebrew, that everyone should get off their can and make aliyah (unless they really have no alternative), many word puzzles on the Torah portion, that adherence to the strictest of all opinions is probably best, and that readers must consult with their local Orthodox Rabbi for anything beyond the simplest of questions. (This may be a bit of an exaggeration, but not much.)


TT has a weekly column called "Portion from the Portion". It's a small thought about the weekly Torah portion, followed by a recipe that is supposed to be linked to the portion somehow.

This week's thought was about Amalek, and how we have to protect the weakest elements of our nation to ensure that they are not left behind to fall prey to outside attacks. And the inspiration for this thought, according to the columnist?

Fantasy Flight Games' Ingenious by Reiner Knizia, known in Israel as Hiburim or Connections. You see, in Ingenious your score is the value of your least numerous color out of six colors. So you have to remember as you're playing the game to watch out for your least strong color, so that it doesn't get left behind.

Yeah, ok. But isn't it funny when you find games in places you least expect it?


Friday night we had some friends over for dinner. While waiting for the latecomers, we played Bananagrams. Actually, we don't have the game Bananagrams, but we played with Scrabble tiles. I'd never played before, but both Nadine and my wife Rachel had. It's cute, and I would rank it fairly high as far as word games go, but certainly lower than straight Anagrams. But I would have to play with the correct number of tiles and scoring to be sure.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Session Report, in which we play Dominion for the first time

The latest Jerusalem Strategy Gaming Club session report is up. Games played: Metropolys, Dominion x 2, Pillars of the Earth, Puerto Rico, Fairy Tale x 2, Bridge.

We play Dominion for the first time, and discover that it would make a nifty computer game. And I continue to think that Fairy Tale has much potential.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Cloud Computing and Web 3.0

What I Heard

I heard a few lectures about cloud computing this morning at ISOC-IL. Cloud computing is an evolutionary step up from grid computing. Essentially, your data and processes are replicated on many different locations online, and someone else manages (at least part of) your application hosting. You work on something in your office, and without any effort on your part, it's also available in your home when you get home.

One benefit is giving up your IT department (except to manage your PCs) and the costs and headaches this entails. A related benefit is that you pay for the capacity you need when you need it, without having to plan, running short on capacity, or paying for more than you need. Plus auto-backups.

Drawbacks are possible lags, service, security, compliance, and licensing issues. And all your legacy apps, of course.

One lecturer mentioned that, just like everyone stopped generating their own power 100 years ago and moved to the electricity grid, people will stop running their own computers and move into cloud computing.

What I Thought

At first glance, this sounds good. It is easy for a start-up to have access to high-powered servers without having to invest anything; that's good sense. I think cloud computing will grow in the near future.

But ... I've heard this story before, too.

Once we had very expensive computers, and everyone had to go to a cathedral-like server center to get any work done. Then we had cheaper computers and everyone owned their own computer. Then we had cheaper computers, and we all used dummy terminals that connected to a central computer. Then we had cheaper computers and we all owned a PC. Now we have cheaper computers and allow major companies to store all our data and services.

Cloud computing seems like a nice answer for problems we have today (IT depts are a nightmare), but what about tomorrow's needs? What happens when computers cost $0.30 and bandwidth is effectively infinite and free?

With cheap computers and the right software, we can own grids of disks and processors where today we own single servers. When one dies, our replicated data will live on in dozens or hundreds of our other cheap disks. We'll just pull it out, toss it, and stick in another. Same with processors.

I see our IT departments as expensive today only because our computers still justify the cost of this expense. When computers are as cheap as light bulbs, assuming we can run open source cloud computing software, IT will not really be a problem. What will become of these cloud computing companies when we no longer need them?

Maybe I have a pie in the sky attitude about this, but that's what I envision. Cloud computing looks to me to be one baby step on the road to my vision of Web 3.0.

The 2009 Techsoret Technical Writing Conference

Last Thursday I attended the Techshoret conference on Technical Writing in Israel. In addition to the opening and closing remarks, there were four tracks with four lectures in each track. There were a little more than 100 attendees and around 8 exhibitors.

My boss, Miriam Lottner of Tech-Tav, was one of the exhibitors and one of the first speakers in one of the tracks. I figured her lecture would be good and I would be able to hear about it later, so I tried another lecture instead. Whenever I got bored in one track, I skipped over to another. In all, I got the gist of 8 of the lectures.

They were generally poor quality. The topics were somewhat interesting but either the presentations or the presenter were poor. You got the feeling that Techshoret had scrounged for, rather than been glutted with a surplus of, speakers to fill track time.

In one case, the presenter simply read, line by line, the powerpoint presentation. I could read faster than she could speak, and it was physically painful to watch. In another, the presentation was good but at an incredible low level. A quarter of the way through his allotted time, he was still going point by point as to how and why one could use the Internet for marketing. The internet is good for networking and spreading your message, by the way.

In another, the presenter presented a very simplistic idea, and couldn't convey to the audience why he was presenting this nor what the point was, and the presenter couldn't understand why no one understood. Very frustrating. One lecture presented a DITA case study, which wasn't too bad, but much of the time was spent finding the menu items on which to click rather than solidly covering the material. In another otherwise good lecture, the lecturer gave some good analogies, but spent far too long on them before returning to his main topic; at least at the end of it I came away with new and interesting information, the only lecture about which I can say that.

I caught the tail end of Miriam's lecture which was good, as expected. Throughout the day people came to her telling her how good it was. It has since spawned online discussion, a new blog, a new Facebook group, and a new meeting to address her topic. Considering the lectures that I went to instead, I'm very sorry to have missed it. Hopefully I can catch the online version.

Suggestions: Better not to have a conference, or a scaled down one with fewer tracks, than to fill up slots with speakers who can't present. Presenters, please learn how to present. Please pick interesting points, clearly label them as "very basic", "advanced", or "entirely new", and concentrate on those points only. Don't ever put more than 6 words on any power point slide. And don't ever repeat more than one of these words in your presentation.

New Torah Blog: Rachel Adelman

My lovely and talented wife Dr Rachel Adelman has a new web site. And she's now blogging! She intends to post a weekly written version of one of her shiurim or divrei torah. Check it out.

Board Game Studies Colloquium XII in Jerusalem Next Month

The next Board Game Studies Colloquium is scheduled for next month in Jerusalem. It's the only international serious conference on board games, and this is the first year it's being held in Israel. Top board game scholars are scheduled to attend, and I'm going to confront Prof Irving for his statement that Monopoly was the last great innovation in board games. I'm very excited.

But attendance is only borderline. To ensure a healthy and diverse conference, please make every effort to attend and pay up asap.

The Google Ad Exchange

David Rosenblatt kicked off the ISOC-IL conference describing plans for a Google Ad Exchange that would look like a stock exchange.

Why are people still spending most ads on top sites like Yahoo, when these sites have proportionally small audience? Because it's hard to figure out how to sell ads to millions of smaller sites; it's easy to just call Yahoo and buy an ad.

Google sees in the future that 95% of ads will be sold through an ad exchange (ala stock exchange). People will buy ad space in large pools and sell them to advertisers.

It's easy to use an ad exchange rather than try to find all the relevant sites that meet your ad needs. Google is aiming to build a big and liquid ad exchange. They'll still promote doubleclick for 5% of direct sales. And they will create a Google network to function as an independent ad brokers for Google's ad exchange.

For previous coverage on this, see paid content (David gave the same speech last week). (also see)

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Wielding the Decks 7: Card-cassonne

OK, I haven't tested this, and it's not very much like Carcassonne in terms of scoring, but it sure looks like fun. Anyone want to test run it for me? It probably needs a tweak.


2-4 players


2 decks cards, 7 tokens for each player


Mix the cards, place one face up on the table, and remove 11-13 other cards without looking at them (there must be an equal number in the draw deck for all players). Each player draws three cards and looks at them. Each player takes 7 tokens.

You can vary the length of the game by removing more or less cards. You can make easier or tougher game by giving players more or less tokens.


Players take turns, in clockwise order. On your turn, a) play a card onto the board, b) place a token onto the played card, c) score completed or partially completed areas, and d) draw a card.

Playing a card: All cards played must touch orthogonally at least one other card on the table. You may place any card so that it touches only a single other card of any suit. You may place any card so that it touches only other cards of the same suit. To place a card that touches more than one card of different suits, the placed card must be numerically equal to or higher than the lowest number on any of these cards, and equal to or lower than the highest number of any of these cards.

Areas: An area is defined as a set of 1 or more cards, all of the same suit, all touching orthogonally. An area is complete if all spaces orthogonal to all cards in the area are filled by cards of the other suits. An area is partially complete if the number of empty spaces orthogonal to the cards in the area is equal to or less than the number of cards in the area.

Placing a token: You may only place a token on the card you just played. You may not place your token into an area that already contains a token. Additional tokens may become part of an area that already contains a token if two separate areas are merged through one or more placed cards.

Scoring areas: You may score any area that is partially complete. You must score any area that is complete. You score 3 points for placing the card that creates a completed area (for each completed area).

When scored, an area scores points for the players who own tokens on an area. All tokens in the area score these points (so double if you have two tokens). The score is 1 point per card in the area if the area contains 2 or fewer cards, otherwise 2 points per card in the area. All tokens that score are returned to the players (this is not optional); this is the only way to get back placed tokens. A token can be placed on a card, score, and be returned on the same turn. One area can score multiple times in a game.

At the end of the game, players score 3 points each for any tokens they have on the board that are on face cards (J, Q, K, and A).