Posts from 2011

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Mon 15 August 2011

Using Javascript to control the Nintendo Wii

The Nintendo Wii was released around the end of 2006. That's a solid four years now; an amazing amount of time in the lifespan of a technological device these days. Often overlooked is the fact that the Wii has a web browser, which is in fact a build of Opera, offering support for canvas, CSS3, and more advanced aspects of HTML5. This should be incredible; why does nobody develop more for it?

The Ugly Truth

The chief portion is the target market; with so many internet enabled devices laying around these days, the Wii's browsing experience is one that tends to fall a little short. This was further compounded by a small incident wherein, once the Wii's browser was released, an article went up on Opera's official website about responding to Wii remote commands in Javascript - Nintendo later demanded that they take it down, and to this date I've never seen any official reasoning put forth by either company.

With that said, I don't think the Wii (and the browser therein) are 100% lost potential. One of my goals in life is to examine and improve the methods with which we teach programming to children, and I believe the Wii can work very well for these purposes. Typically, young children don't have their own computers, and from what I've found the recurring issue here is that when they're using their parents computers, they don't have creative freedom to do something that carries with it the idea of being possibly "destructive".

The Wii, on the other hand, is generally thought of as the "kids" device

  • it has a limited set of functionality that kids grasp pretty well right off the bat, and coupled with the concept of "ownership" they'd get out of this device it stands to reason they're more likely to experiment on it.

There used to be various Wii javascript libraries/SDKs laying around, but most of them are woefully incomplete or no longer available. So with that all in mind, I set out to build a library that allows simple, easy, event-based interaction with the Wii's browser, hiding away the somewhat insane complexities of reading the remote codes.

Enter: wii-js

You can check out wii-js over on GitHub; it's entirely open source and released under an MIT-style license. While the repository has in-depth documentation of library usage, check out the example below and see how simple this has become:

/**
 *    Two wii remote instances; first one tracks the first
 *    controller (held horizontally), the second one tracks
 *    the second controller (held vertically).
 */
var wiimote = new Wii.Remote(1, {horizontal: true}), 
    wiimote2 = new Wii.Remote(2, {horizontal: false});

/**
 *    Listen for the "A button pressed" event on each wiimote.
 */
wiimote.when('pressed_a', function() {
    alert('Wii Remote #1 pressed A!');
});

wiimote2.when('pressed_a', function() {
    alert('Wii Remote #2 pressed A!');
});

/**
 *    Start the system!
 */
Wii.listen();

This example showcases how to set up basic controller instances, and respond to events that they fire. Most button combinations are supported (check the docs on GitHub for up-to-date event listings), but sadly this library can only work with the actual Wii-remote. Nintendo (or Opera, it's unknown who) opted not to provide controller mappings for anything else, be it classic controllers or Gamecube controllers. All Wii remote instances, with the exception of the first one, can get controller events from the nunchuk; there doesn't appear to be a way around this, which is nothing short of a shame.

That said, even with these limitations, it remains a pretty versatile library. The next steps for it are bundling in some basic sound/game engine support to make it even easier for kids to jump in and create. Follow the project on GitHub to see updates!

A Note About Performance

Sadly, the Wii isn't the most performant device. It has significantly less memory than most devices on the market today; due to this, it's possible to get under-performant pretty quickly. While it does support the canvas element, it appears you can't force a repaint any faster than in 100ms intervals - anything lower and the Wii begins to choke repeatedly. This isn't really fast enough for games; canvas may be useful for other techniques, but for the most part any game engine that's done outside of Flash needs to be using HTML or SVG. SVG seems promising in recent tests, and it has a side benefit of reacting to DOM events like HTML based scenarios do.

Opera on the Wii also appears to have some level of support for Server-Sent Events, which could possibly prove useful for enabling lightweight two player interaction. The performance considerations here are currently unknown at this time.

The Future

Nintendo recently announced their new console, the Wii U. Whether it will keep the Opera web browser is anyone's guess; it's worth noting that the new 3DS replaced the Opera browser used on previous DS incarnations with an engine similar to that of the PSP. There aren't too many usage metrics which we can use to draw predictions from, either, so at the moment it's a bit of "wait and see".

I'm going to continue developing the library and concepts surrounding it during my free time, and ideally want to try teaching a small class or two once I've further refined it. If you're interested in helping out, fork away on GitHub!

Tue 31 May 2011

Using the myGengo Translation API with Python

For those who haven't heard the news, Google has deprecated a slew of their APIs, leaving many developers and services in a bit of a pinch. While there's admittedly still time for developers to transition, it's a good time to start considering alternatives. In my opinion, it's probably a good idea to choose an alternative that has the technology in question as a core competency, otherwise you're much more liable to have your provider pull the rug out from underneath you.

With that said, many engineers are hit particularly hard by the deprecation of the Translation API that Google has so generously offered up to this point, and desire a solid alternative. While there are other machine translation APIs out there, I wanted to take a moment to show more developers how integrating with the myGengo API can get them the best of both worlds.

A Polite Heads Up

As of May 31, 2011 I am currently working with myGengo to further develop their translation services. However, this post represents my own thoughts and opinions, and in no way represents myGengo as a company. myGengo offers both free machine translation and paid human translation under one API, and is currently offering $25 in free API credits to all new developers interested in trying it out. I simply want to show other developers that this is very easy to use.

Getting Started with the myGengo API

This takes all of 5 minutes to do, but it's required before you can start getting things translated. A full rundown is available, which includes details on using the API Sandbox for extensive testing. For the code below, we're going to work on the normal account.

A Basic Example

The myGengo API is pretty simple to use, but the authentication and signing can be annoying to do at first (like many other APIs). To ease this, there's a few client libraries you can use - the one I advocate using (and to be fair, I also wrote it) is the mygengo-python library, which you just installed. With this it becomes incredibly easy to start making calls and submitting things for translation:

from mygengo import MyGengo

gengo = MyGengo(
    public_key = 'your_public_key',
    private_key = 'your_private_key',
    sandbox = False, # possibly True, depending on your dev needs
)

print gengo.getAccountBalance()['response']['credits']

The above script should print out 25.00 if you signed up with myGengo using that link above.

Actually Translating Text

Extending the above bit of code to actually translate some text is very simple - the thing to realize up front is that myGengo works on a system of tiers, with said tiers being machine, standard, pro, and ultra. These dictate the type of translation you'll get back. Machine translations are the fastest and free, but least accurate; the latter three are all tiers of human translation, and their rates vary accordingly (see the website for current rates).

For the example below, we're going to just use machine translation, since it's an effective 1:1 replacement for Google's APIs. A great feature of the myGengo API is that you can upgrade to a human translation whenever you want; while you're waiting for a human to translate your job, myGengo still returns the machine translation for any possible intermediary needs.

Note: It's your responsibility to determine what level you need - if you're translating something to be published in another country, for instance, human translation will inevitably work better since a native translator understands the cultural aspects that a machine won't.

# -*- coding: utf-8 -*-
from mygengo import MyGengo

gengo = MyGengo(
    public_key = 'your_mygengo_api_key',
    private_key = 'your_mygengo_private_key',
    sandbox = False, # possibly False, depending on your dev needs
)

translation = gengo.postTranslationJob(job = {
    'type': 'text', # REQUIRED. Type to translate, you'll probably always put 'text' here (for now ;)
    'slug': 'Translating English to Japanese with the myGengo API', # REQUIRED. For storing on the myGengo side
    'body_src': 'I love this music!', # REQUIRED. The text you're translating. ;P
    'lc_src': 'en', # REQUIRED. source_language_code (see getServiceLanguages() for a list of codes)  
    'lc_tgt': 'ja', # REQUIRED. target_language_code (see getServiceLanguages() for a list of codes)
    'tier': 'machine', # REQUIRED. tier type ("machine", "standard", "pro", or "ultra")
})

# This will print out 私はこの音楽が大好き!
print translation['response']['job']['body_tgt']

This really couldn't be more straight-forward. We've just requested our text be translated from English to Japanese by a machine, and gotten our results instantly. This is only the tip of the iceberg, too - if you have multiple things you need translated, you can actually bundle them all up and post them all at once (see this example in the mygengo-python repository).

Taking it One Step Further!

Remember the "human translation is more accurate" point I noted above? Well, it hasn't changed in the last paragraph or two, so let's see how we could integrate this into a web application. The problem with human translation has historically been the human factor itself; it's slower because it has to pass through a person or two. myGengo has gone a long way in alleviating this pain point, and their API is no exception: you can register a callback url to have a job POSTed back to when it's been completed by a human translator.

This adds another field or two to the translation API call above, but it's overall nothing too new:

# -*- coding: utf-8 -*-
from mygengo import MyGengo

gengo = MyGengo(
    public_key = '',
    private_key = '',
    sandbox = False, # possibly False, depending on your dev needs
)

translation = gengo.postTranslationJob(job = {
    'type': 'text', # REQUIRED. Type to translate, you'll probably always put 'text' here (for now ;)
    'slug': 'Translating English to Japanese with Python and myGengo API', # REQUIRED. Slug for internally storing, can be generic.
    'body_src': 'I love this music!', # REQUIRED. The text you're translating. ;P
    'lc_src': 'en', # REQUIRED. source_language_code (see getServiceLanguages() for a list of codes)  
    'lc_tgt': 'ja', # REQUIRED. target_language_code (see getServiceLanguages() for a list of codes)
    'tier': 'standard', # REQUIRED. tier type ("machine", "standard", "pro", or "ultra")
    # New pieces...
    'auto_approve': 0,
    'comment': 'This is an optional comment for a translator to see!',
    'callback_url': 'http://yoursite.com/your/callback/view'
})

# This will print out a machine translation (私はこの音楽が大好き!), and you can 
# set up a callback URL (see below) to get the translated text back when it's been
# completed by a human. You can alternatively poll in intervals to check.
print translation['response']['job']['body_tgt']

# Credit for the note about machine translation goes to https://github.com/aehlke, who
# pointed out where I forgot to note. ;)

All we've done here is change the level we want, to use a human (standard level), and supplied a callback url to post the job to once it's completed. As you can see, the response from our submission includes a free machine translation to use in the interim, so you're not left completely high and dry. You can also specify a comment for the translator (e.g, if there's some context that should be taken into account).

Now we need a view to handle the job being sent back to us when it's completed. Being a python-focused article, we'll use Django as our framework of choice below, but this should be fairly portable to any framework in general. I leave the routing up to the reader, as it's largely basic Django knowledge anyway:

def update_job(request):
    """Handles parsing and storing a POSTed completed job from myGengo.
    """
    if request.method == "POST":
        # Load the POSTed object, it's JSON data.
        resp = json.loads(resp)
        
        # Your translated text is now available in resp['body_tgt']
        # Save it, process it, whatever! ;D
        
        return HttpResponse(200)
    else:
        return HttpResponse(400)

Now, wasn't that easy? Human translations with myGengo are pretty fast, and you get the machine translation for free - it makes for a very bulletproof approach if you decide to use it.

Room for Improvement?

mygengo-python is open source and fork-able over on GitHub. I'm the chief maintainer, and love seeing pull requests and ideas for new features. If you think something could be made better (or is lacking completely), don't hesitate to get in touch!

Sat 07 May 2011

More Power to ExpressionEngine URLs

When playing "contract engineer", you sometimes have to jump in and work with a less than ideal codebase. This was the case on a recent project I helped out on; the codebase is an install of ExpressionEngine 2 (EE2), a publishing system (CMS) developed by the fine people at EllisLab, favored by web designers all over the place. While I personally find it too limiting for my tastes (I suspect this is due to my doing less design based work these days), I can understand why people choose to work with it - highly sensible defaults with a pleasing overall control panel design that you can sell to customers. We can all agree that not reinventing the wheel is a good thing.

That said, I would be lying if I didn't note that there are a few things about EE2 that bug me. I'll write about them each in-depth in their own articles; the focus of this one is on the somewhat limiting URL structure that EE2 enforces on you, as well as how to get around this and obtain a much higher degree of flexibility while still re-using your same EE2 essentials (templates, session handling, etc).

The Scenario to Fix

The way that EE2 handles URL routing is pretty simple, and works for a large majority of use cases. The short and sweet of it is this:

http://example.com/index.php/\ template_group/template/

That url will render a template named "template" that resides inside "template_group", taking care of appropriate contextual data and such. Let's imagine, though, that for SEO-related purposes you want a little more dynamism in that url - the "template_group" should act as more of a controller, where it can be re-used based on a given data set. What to do about this...

Wait! EE2 is CodeIgniter!

This is where things get interesting. EE2 is actually built on top of CodeIgniter, an open source PHP framework maintained by EllisLab. It's similar to Ruby on Rails in many regards.

That said, if you're new to web development and reading this, please go learn to use a real framework. Learning PHP (and associated frameworks) first will only set you up for hardships later.

Now, since we have a framework, we have to ask ourselves... why doesn't EE2's setup look like a CodeIgniter setup? Well, EE2 swaps some functionality into the CI build it runs on, so things are a bit different. This is done (presumably) to maintain some level of backwards compatibility with older ExpressionEngine installations.

Exposing the Underlying Components

The first thing we need to address is the fact that the CodeIgniter router functions are being overridden. If you open up the main index.php file used by EE2 and go to line 94-ish, you'll find something like the following:

<?php

// ...

/*
 * ---------------------------------------------------------------
 *  Disable all routing, send everything to the frontend
 * ---------------------------------------------------------------
 */
$routing['directory'] = '';
$routing['controller'] = 'ee';
$routing['function'] = 'index';

// ...

You're gonna want to just comment those lines out. What's basically going on there is that this is saying "hey, let's just have every request go through this controller and function", but we really don't want this. By commenting these out, the full routing capabilities of CodeIgniter return to us.

One thing to note here is that if our desired route isn't found, ExpressionEngine will still continue to work absolutely fine. This is due to a line in the config/routes.php file:

<?php

// ...
$route['default_controller'] = "ee/index";
$route['404_override'] = "ee/index";

// An example of a route we'll watch for
$route['example/(:any)'] = "example_controller/test/$1";

// ...

The default controller, if no route is found matching the one we've specified, is the EE controller, so nothing will break.

Controllers and Re-using Assets

So now that we've got a sane controller-based setup rolling, there's one more problem to tackle: layouts and/or views. Presumably all your view code is built to use the EE2 templating engine; it'd be insane to have to keep a separate set of view files around that are non-EE2 compatible, so let's see if we can't re-use this stuff.

A basic controller example is below:

<?php

if(!defined('BASEPATH')) exit('This cannot be hit directly.');

class Example_controller extends Controller {
    function __construct() {
        parent::Controller();
        
        /* Need to initialize the EE2 core for this stuff to work! */
        $this->core->_initialize_core();
        $this->EE = $this->core->EE;
        
        /* This is required to initialize template rendering */
        require APPPATH.'libraries/Template'.EXT;
    }
    
    function test($ext) {
        echo $ext;
    }
}

/* End of file */

Now, viewing "/example/12345" in your browser should bring up a page that simply prints "12345". The noteworthy pieces of this happen inside the construct method; there's a few pieces that we need to establish in there so we have a reference to the EE2 components.

Now, to use our template structures once more, we need to add in a little magic...

<?php
    
    // ...
    
    private function _render($template_group, $template, $opts = array()) {
        /* Create a new EE Template Instance */
        $this->EE->TMPL = new EE_Template();
        
        /* Run through the initial parsing phase, set output type */
        $this->EE->TMPL->fetch_and_parse($template_group, $template, FALSE);
        $this->EE->output->out_type = $this->EE->TMPL->template_type;
        
        /* Return source. If we were given opts to do template replacement, parse them in */
        if(count($opts) > 0) {
            $this->EE->output->set_output(
                $this->EE->TMPL->parse_variables(
                    $this->EE->TMPL->final_template, array($opts)
                )
            );
        } else {
            $this->EE->output->set_output($this->EE->TMPL->final_template);
        }
    }
    
    // ...

This render method should be added to the controller example above; it accepts three parameters - a template group, a template name, and an optional multi-dimensional array to use as a context for template rendering (i.e, your own tags). If the last argument confuses you, it's probably best to read the EE2 third_party documentation on parsing variables, as it's actually just using that API. There's really less black magic here than it looks like.

With that done, our final controller looks something like this...

<?php
    if(!defined('BASEPATH')) exit('This cannot be hit directly.');

    class Example_controller extends Controller {
        function __construct() {
            parent::Controller();
        
            /* Need to initialize the EE2 core for this stuff to work! */
            $this->core->_initialize_core();
            $this->EE = $this->core->EE;
            
            /* This is required to initialize template rendering */
            require APPPATH.'libraries/Template'.EXT;
        }

        private function _render($template_group, $template, $opts = array()) {
            /* Create a new EE Template Instance */
            $this->EE->TMPL = new EE_Template();
            
            /* Run through the initial parsing phase, set output type */
            $this->EE->TMPL->fetch_and_parse($template_group, $template, FALSE);
            $this->EE->output->out_type = $this->EE->TMPL->template_type;
            
            /* Return source. If we were given opts to do template replacement, parse them in */
            if(count($opts) > 0) {
                $this->EE->output->set_output(
                    $this->EE->TMPL->parse_variables(
                        $this->EE->TMPL->final_template, array($opts)
                    )
                );
            } else {
                $this->EE->output->set_output($this->EE->TMPL->final_template);
            }
        }

        function test($ext) {
            return $this->_render('my_template_group', 'my_template', array(
                'template_variable_one' => 'SuperBus',
                'repeatable_stuff' => array(
                    array('id' => 1, 'text' => 'This'),
                    array('id' => 2, 'text' => 'Will'),
                    array('id' => 3, 'text' => 'Be'),
                    array('id' => 4, 'text' => 'Repeatable'),
                )
            ));
        }
    }

    /* End of file */

Awesome! Now what?

Please go use a more reasonable programming language that enforces better practices. While you're at it, check out one of the best web frameworks around, conveniently written in said reasonable programming language.

Of course, if you're stuck using PHP, then make the most of it I suppose. If this article was useful to you, I'd love to hear so!

Sat 16 April 2011

Emitting Custom Events in Node.js

Note: This is an article I wrote for the March 2011th issue of JSMag. It's a great piece of literature released monthly, and a great way to keep up to date on the latest news in the Javascript community. Check it out!

Node isn’t the first approach to event based programming, and with its explosion of interest it probably won’t be the last. Typical JavaScript patterns for callback functions involve passing around references to functions and managing odd scope levels. In many cases this is less than ideal; that said, there’s another option when you’re in Node: emit your own events, and let functions attach and respond to those. EventEmitter makes this incredibly easy!

The Typical Approach...

If you’ve written or even worked with JavaScript libraries before, you probably understand the callback function scenario – that is, functions that execute once a certain task is completed. A typical use might be something like what you see in the following example:

var x = 1;
var foo = function(callbackfn) {
    return callbackfn(x * 2);
};

foo(function(x) {
    console.log(x);
});

Here, we’ve defined a function that accepts another function as its main argument and passes the callback function a doubled version of x. Pretty simple, and many libraries use this technique for Ajax calls. Let’s take a minute and spin the globe, though – what if, instead of arbitrarily accepting a function and having to worry about possible scoping issues, we could just announce when an event of interest has occurred, and fire an attached function at that point? This would be so much cleaner than passing around function references everywhere.

Enter: events.EventEmitter

The great thing about all this? We can actually do this in Node through use of the events library. This, in many ways, is core to how things in Node work. Everything is event based, so why shouldn’t we be able to fire off our own events? To showcase what’s possible with this, let’s build a basic library to connect to Twitter's Streaming API, which we can then filter results from as we see fit.

The Basics: exporting an EventEmitter instance

Before we get into anything Twitter-specific, we’ll demonstrate basic usage of EventEmitter. The code below shows how simple this can really be – it’s a contrived example that constantly increases numbers by one, and emits an event called “even” every time the number becomes even.

var events = require('events'),
    util = require('util');

var Foo = function(initial_no) { this.count = initial_no; };

Foo.prototype = new events.EventEmitter;

Foo.prototype.increment = function() {
    var self = this;
    setInterval(function() {
        if(self.count % 2 === 0) self.emit('even');
        self.count++;
    }, 300);
};

var lol = new Foo(1);

lol.on('even', function() { 
    util.puts('Number is even! :: ' + this.count);
}).increment();

Usage of EventEmitter is pretty simple – you basically want to inherit all the properties from EventEmitter itself into your Object, giving it all the properties it needs to emit events on its own. Events are sent off as keywords (‘even’, ‘error’, etc), called directly on the object. You can extend the prototype chain further, and EventEmitter should work fine and dandy.

Changing Tracks for a Moment...

Now that we’ve shown how EventEmitter works, we want to go ahead and use it for Twitter's Streaming API. For the unfamiliar, the Streaming API is essentially a never ending flood of tweets. You open a connection, and you keep it open; data is pushed to you, reversing the typical model of “request/response” a bit in that you only really make one request. EventEmitter is perfect for this task, but to satisfy some basic needs for interacting with Twitter's API, we’ll need a base library, like what’s shown in the example below:

var util = require('util'),
    http = require('http'),
    events = require('events');

var TwitterStream = function(opts) {
    this.username = opts.username;
    this.password = opts.password;
    this.track = opts.track;
    this.data = '';
};

TwitterStream.prototype = new events.EventEmitter;
module.exports = TwitterStream;

Here we require the three main resources we’ll need (util, http and events), and set up a new Object that’s essentially an instance of EventEmitter. We’ll throw it over to exports, too, so it plays nicely when relying on it in outside code. Creating instances of our Twitter object requires a few things – ‘track’, which is a keyword to filter tweets by, and a ‘username’/’password’ combination which should be self explanatory (in terms of what they are).

Why ‘username/password’, though? Twitter's Streaming API requires some form of authentication; for the sake of brevity in this article, we’re going to rely on Basic Authentication, but moving forward it’s recommended that you use OAuth for authenticating with Twitter, as it relies on the user granting you privileges instead of actually handing over their password. The OAuth ritual is much longer and more intricate to pull off, though, and would push the length and scope of this article far beyond its intentions.

Emitting a "Tweet" Event

Now that we’ve got the basic scaffolding for our library set up, let’s throw in a function to actually connect, receive tweets, and emit an event or two that other code can catch. Check out the following for a prime example of how we can do this:

TwitterStream.prototype.getTweets = function() {
    var opts = {
        host: 'stream.twitter.com',
        port: 80,
        path: '/1/statuses/filter.json?track=' + this.track,
        method: 'POST',
        headers: {
            'Connection': 'keep-alive',
            'Accept': '*/*',
            'User-Agent': 'Example Twitter Streaming Client',
            'Authorization': 'Basic ' + new Buffer(this.username + ':' + this.password).toString('base64'),
        }
    },
    self = this;

    this.connection = http.request(opts, function(response) {
        response.setEncoding('utf8');
        response.on('data', function(chunk) {
            self.data += chunk.toString('utf8');
            var index, json;
            while((index = self.data.indexOf('\r\n')) > -1) {
                json = self.data.slice(0, index);
                self.data = self.data.slice(index + 2);
                if(json.length > 0) {
                    try {
                        self.emit('tweet', JSON.parse(json));
                    } catch(e) {
                        self.emit('error', e);
                    }
                }
            }
        });
    });

    this.connection.write('?track=' + this.track);
    this.connection.end();
};

If you’ve worked with Node before, this code shouldn’t be too daunting, but we’ll summarize it just in case. We’re extending the prototype of our Twitter object that we created before, and adding a method to start the stream of tweets coming in. We set up an object detailing the host, port, path and method, as well as some custom headers (notably, setting ‘keep-alive’ and Basic Authentication headers). This is passed to an http.request() call, and we then write our tracking data and end the connection.

The response function has some logic to handle putting together tweets that are sent in by Twitter. The API dictates that a tweet object will end on the two characters ‘\r’ and ‘\n’, so we basically walk the built up JSON strings as they come in and separate them out. If a JSON string is successfully pulled out, we emit a ‘tweet’ event, and pass it the parsed JSON data. If something went horribly wrong, we emit an ‘error’ event and pass it the associated object.

Usage and Application

Alright, so now we should have a pretty functional library once we put those two together. The code below shows how we can now use this library in a simple script.

var TwitterStream = require('./twitterstream'),
    util = require('util');

var twitter = new TwitterStream({
    username: 'username',
    password: 'password',
    track: 'JavaScript',
});

twitter.on('tweet', function(tweet) {
    util.puts(util.inspect(tweet));
});

twitter.on('error', function(e) { 
    util.puts(e); 
});

twitter.getTweets();

Wrapping Things Up

EventEmitter is an excellent, easy to implement option for dealing with cases where you might want to defer an action until data is ready. Readers with further questions should check out the Node.js documentation on EventEmitter.

Sun 06 March 2011

Hacking the Human Brain

Back in 2008 I was frequently riding a train twice a day for a ridiculous ~3 hour (each way) commute that nobody on this planet should ever have to do. Needless to say, I did a lot of reading, particularly issues of Wired Magazine. To this day, one article still stands fresh in my mind, which essentially dealt with the concept of surrendering your brain to an algorithmic approach to memorization. The man behind the core of the theory is Piotr Wozniak, a gentleman out of Poland who still somewhat astounds me to this day.

I won't reproduce the theory in full here, as the Wired article does a much better job writing things up, but the core things to take down are that the human brain tends to have times when it memorizes better or worse, and it's possible to capitalize on these moments to increase your potential for solidly committing something to memory. SuperMemo is an effort to implement this in software. It's cool and all, but I'm not sure I'm in 100% total agreement.

Hack Faster, Please.

You see the thing about the theory is that your core memory might work on a two week cycle; learn something today, see it again in two weeks, and if everything holds true you'll probably never forget it. However, I disagree with the concept that short term memory commitment can't be stronger for certain concepts.

Take something like teaching yourself a new language. If it's something truly foreign to you, the characters won't make sense, the pronunciations will sound totally off, and there's a good chance that anyone who's not forced through it will give up in about a week or two. Long term memory won't have a shot in that case; maybe not due to any particular flaw in the theory, but merely due to the lack of willpower some people have. In addition you have to factor in the concept of age: as we get older, our memory and the way it works through concepts changes. Short term memory is nowhere near as slighted when up against these two conceptual foes; are we certain there's no good middle ground to hit?

Can It Be Proven?

So let's provide a short bit of backstory here. This past week (beginning of March, 2011), I got the awesome opportunity to work with the folks at myGengo, a company that builds tools to help ease translation efforts. This required heading to Tokyo - for the astute, I had visited Tokyo some months prior, so I wasn't a total stranger to what I'd experience upon arrival. I do want to learn the language, though.

A typical approach for character memorization would be to make flash cards, sit down and repeatedly run through them. I won't lie, this bores the hell out of me. I'd much rather have something portable that I can use on the train when I'm traveling in the mornings. To that end, I just went ahead and built an Android application (app) to do this.

Katakana on the Android Market

Now, since I was already creating an app for this, I figured I could take some liberties. With the theory still lingering in the back of my head, I began to muse: what's my own learning pattern like? Well, for the past (roughly) seven years I've learned things incredibly quickly. In some cases this was by design, in other cases... well, you get the idea.

The thing is that it's worked for me so far, and it's the same for many other programmers I know. Programmers far and wide can attest to the fact that while there's no doubt benefits to the long-term memorization benefits, we consistently rely on short term to do our jobs. We accrue a sometimes ridiculous amount of information in a short period of time that will instantly come back to us when we need it. The key is, of course, when we need it, generally through a trigger (a linked piece of information, for example).

The Theory Itself

So this theory started formulating in my mind. What if I could apply elements of Wozniaks theory to short term memory, and then rely on the trigger to pick up the rest? Even in short term memory I found that I, personally, had a few-minutes window where if I reviewed the same concept, I'd commit it pretty quickly. The triggers, in this case, will be as I walk down the streets of Tokyo or read a menu.

I got down to building the app. The core details of building an Android app are outside the scope of this article; the algorithm I threw in is worth detailing a bit, though. In my mind, when you use an app on your phone, you're going to use it, at most, for five minutes. The app concept just lends itself to this, a bunch of miniature worlds that you can hop in and out of at will. So with that in mind, I set the high barrier for this experiment at five minutes - roughly the maximum amount of time I expect someone to stay engaged.

I'm assuming, based on my own use cases and the trials of a few friends, that on average I can expect people to get through roughly three cards in a minute. At five minutes, fifteen cards, not too bad. The question of where to 're-appear' content then came up - for this, I first settled on throwing it back in the users face every couple of minutes. The number of minutes is variable; it starts off set at one minute, but will adapt based on whether or not you answer correctly as things re-appear. If you memorize things at the four minute mark, for instance, it'll edge towards that - never 100% four minutes due to the relative inaccuracy of Android's timing, mind you, but it gets the job done.

I've been using the application myself for roughly two days now, and it's easily topped any effort I put in with books or traditional methods over the past two months. It's worth noting that I still can't write Japanese to save my life, but that's also a two fold issue: characters can be quite complex (kanji), and don't lend themselves well to a trigger-based scenario for recall. However, if I'm looking at a character screen, I can at least make some sense of what I'm seeing now.

Taking This Further

My theories aren't proven, but then again, it's the human brain we're dealing with. I released the Android app as a test of my take on Wozniak's theory with a bit of my own magic; based on how well it does, I'll release apps for Hiragana, Kanji, and anything else applicable. I personally believe that the effects of memory commitment through short term memory optimization can be optimized, and this is a pretty great and open way to give it a whirl.

Mon 07 February 2011

The Everlasting Fight To Expand My Metaphorical Sight (Part 2)

Well, time certainly flies by quickly. Since the last entry in this little mini-series, I've globe-trotted some more (London, New Jersey, New York City, DC, San Francisco, Seattle... San Francisco again...) and released some new projects that've been in the pipeline for some time. What's next?

On Traveling

London was a very, very interesting experience. I had the fun experience of being stuck there well past my intended departure date due to a massive snow storm that shut most of Europe down; London Heathrow, why you refused the help of the Army to clear away snow is simply beyond me. That said, the city of London itself is a nice place, one that I could see myself spending more time in. The surrounding area is equally cool and worth checking out! Yet again this was a country where public transportation is pretty slick. Notice a recurring theme here?

The rest of my travels have been pretty US-centric; nothing noteworthy, sans shooting up to Seattle for a week to visit with my younger brother. Now, enough of all this personal drivel, there's work to discuss.

ProgProfessor

I think kids should be taught programming at a young age, but with absolutely no initial focus on mathematics. People can fight it all they want, but math doesn't interest kids, and a direct approach to trying to make it interesting so more come into the subject field won't work. Programming, if taught with a creative and artistic edge, is well suited to fix this problem.

At least, that's my theory, and the entire line of reason behind my efforts with ProgProfessor. This'll be followed up soon with a few other new projects, stay tuned!

FeedBackBar

When I got back into San Francisco, I met up with my good friend Brandon Leonardo. Awhile back he had conceived of this pretty cool idea to distribute a "feedback bar" type widget, where any site could sign up, throw some code on, and get immediate feedback from users. It's an idea somewhat in the same realm as UserVoice or Get Satisfaction, but much more stripped down and to the point. I thought it was pretty cool, and we managed to hack it out in a night.

FeedBackBar is free and quick to implement. Check it out and let us know what you think!

pyGengo - Pythonic myGengo Translation API Library

The other notable release I've thrown out in the past month is pyGengo, a library that wraps the myGengo API. myGengo is a cool service that offers an easy, reliable way to get text translated into other languages by other humans. Machine translation alone can be notoriously incorrect, so having a human back it up is quite the awesome technique to have up your sleeve.

pyGengo is fully documented and has a test suite to boot. Issues can be filed on the Github Issue Tracker, give it a shot and let me know what you think!

So... What's Next?

I've got a few projects coming up that should be pretty significant releases, so at the moment I'm working towards those. You should follow me on Twitter to know when they're released!