Monday, February 27, 2012

Hooked on Pinterest, but it could be better

Pinterest is fascinating, addictive ...and frustrating. Well that's how it seems after a few days of trying it out.

I wanted to experiment with something different from the collections of pictures of women's shoes, clothes, home decorating ideas and fancy foods its users currently specialise in. And I wanted to use its collaborative features to build a little Pinterest corner with the help of other users.

My Places As They Used To Be (below) has done pretty well in a few days: 144 followers, and growing daily, 81 pictures (or "pins" in Pinterest parlance) and 50 people able to contribute.

What's more, only 17 of those pictures were "pinned" by me. Several sociable people I don't know came up with the rest. And one has even gone the extra mile and put corresponding pins in my linked Google Map, which I also opened to general contributions.

So I haven't got much to complain about. But my frustration comes from the clunky process involved in doing what I said I'd do at the top of the board: to invite "as many people as I can to contribute to this board - just follow and I will add you." Pinterest is set up so you can't let people contribute to a board unless you follow each other

So the first job was to follow people who have shown an interest in my board. But that wasn't so easy.

If you look at your Profile page on Pinterest you can click on "Followers" and simply press a button to Follow them back. But on an individual Board, for some reason the Followers sign doesn't click through to a list. Nor does the Profile page Followers link include Followers of your separate Boards.

The only way to invite Followers to contribute is to go through all the emails from Pinterest which tell you who is Following the board, click through to them on the site, and Follow them.

Then, unless you want to write down everyone's names, the quickest way I've found to add them as contributors is to go through the alphabet letter by letter in the 'adding contributors' box and click on each of the names suggested that begins with that letter.

But even after all that you can't count on your contributors staying on the list. Within about 20 minutes of adding a load of names, half of them disappeared (and I'm convinced they hadn't all taken themselves off the list). One person has already asked me to put him back on the contributor list twice because Pinterest's system dropped him for no apparent reason.

These are minor problems. My point is this: why not have a system in which a user can start a board and simply have a setting to allow anyone on Pinterest to contribute to it?

Pinterest is still a work in progress, still in beta: that's why it's officially 'invitation only'. It has so much potential, and no doubt these are just teething troubles. But to move beyond its existing demographic, I'd say it needs to create easy, different kinds of usage by coming up with small technical tweeks that lead to new results socially.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Taking Scrabble too seriously

Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble PlayersWord Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players by Stefan Fatsis

With the Olympics juggernaut rumbling towards us, it’s timely to remember the arbitrariness of sport and games. If humans are hard-wired to compete for food, territory or whatever, we are almost as susceptible to the quasi-competition of games.

What’s more, at two steps removed from our biological imperatives, following the action as spectators, we can still find ourselves as emotionally involved as the players themselves (ask a football fan).

Stefan Fatsis kept all this in his head but not his heart as he embarked on a three year journalistic enterprise to report on the world of competitive Scrabble - by attempting to become a world class player.

In the process, he got close to a handful of eccentric top players, scraped into the ‘Scrabble Expert’ category briefly and spent many more hours learning obscure words than I’m sure he ever intended when he started the project.

To Scrabble amateurs like me, one of the revelations of Word Freak is that beyond a certain level of expertise, winning is all about learning words – to be precise, all the 267,751 words in the two official Scrabble dictionaries (one used in North America, the other in Europe). But it’s more complicated than that: it’s also about learning anagrams, and especially learning words of more than 7 letters which would allow you to ‘bingo’ – use all the letters in your tray. And don’t even start playing until you know without hesitation, the 124 acceptable two letter words.

Top players, like top athletes, keep in training with huge word lists that they constantly scan. If you doubt it’s as mechanical as that, Fatsis reports that some of the top players in the world, from Thailand and other Asian countries, can’t actually speak English. Knowing what words mean isn’t important, nor even necessarily helpful. What’s helpful is knowing each of the letters that go with any particular group of seven to make an eight letter word.

None of this was intended by Alfred Butts when he invented the game in the 1930’s. Butts was an architect who lost his job in New York City in the Depression and moved upstate. He started manufacturing the game himself, but sales were modest (perhaps because it was then called Lexiko). After rejection by the big toy manufacturerers, it was only after a series of takeovers and accidents that the renamed Scrabble became an American craze in the 1950s. Igor Stravinsky and his wife Vera were photographed playing it in their Hollywood home for the New York Times: it was the Angry Birds of its day, except that you couldn’t buy a set because they were all sold out.

Butts refused to take an interest in ‘professional’ Scrabble. With an admirable sense of proportion he appeared to think anyone contemplating learning a dictionary was taking it too seriously. But Wall Street Journal sports reporter Stefan Fatsis became a Scrabble obsessive, and this chronicle of his temporary addiction is fascinating, if sometimes giving almost too vivid an insight into what matters to those who think of little else but Scrabble.

By the end, he is able to report he has got a life again: in fact, he’s acquired a wife and a baby. But his shining of a light onto this obscure world had its effect: following publication of his book, five documentary crews showed up at the 2001 World Scrabble Championship in Las Vegas to capture on film the eccentric world he had reported on.

A couple of weeks ago, I caught the results of one of those film crews’ work, a documentary called Word Wars, which was shown on Sky Arts. Not very beautifully filmed, but seeing the characters I’d read about in Fatsis’ book really brought them to life - I'm sorry Stefan - in a way that the book, with its complicated am-I-just-a-reporter-or-not dilemma hadn’t quite managed for me.

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Wall Street in the 19th Century

A nice picture from Adventures of America (1938), originally from Harper's Weekly.

I have been experimenting with Pinterest, and have 'pinned' this pic onto my 'board' of old prints, gleaned from other websites here.

You can read on my BBC blog, about Pinterest as a business and a phenomenon. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Richmond as it was in the 1890's: a Pinterest experiment

Source: via Charles on Pinterest

Richmond on Thames in the 1890's, with the Star and Garter hotel at the top of the hill. 

The view doesn't look that much different in this direction today, more than 100 years later. Charles Dickens loved coming here to get away from London, so he would almost definitely have seen this.

I have been experimenting with Pinterest, from which the above is embedded. You can find my 'board' of old prints, gleaned from other websites here.

And you can read on my BBC blog, about Pinterest as a business and a phenomenon. 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Walking on water with Hamburgers

When it comes to bracing, Skegness has nothing on Hamburg on a February morning. But it was worth the cold to have a chance to walk on the Au├čenalster.

Some people I talked to said the ice must be about 15 cms thick because "otherwise we wouldn't be allowed on", and that it froze around one year in three.

It seemed reassuringly solid through there was a line of tape to stop people wandering under the bridge at the end of the lake.


I knew the guidebook my friend had kindly lent me was going to be useful, even though it was in German: it shows the place as it usually is: 

I didn't get a chance to see much else, but there are plenty of elegant buildings on the way to the airport, and a general air of prosperity about the place.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Someone else's snowman

Two grownups made this brilliant snowman in Richmond Park this afternoon, then left him to melt. A distant relation of Lenin perhaps?

Saturday, February 4, 2012

My home becomes an eighties vision of the future, thanks to Virgin

We've been done. The phone line has been cut, and dangles uselessly on the side wall (below). Our house is now in touch with the big wide world via cable. 

Since the 1980s, I've thought of cable as something Americans have - the system that gave them so many TV channels when we had so few (or so it seemed once we realised how many they had). 

But now my house has not just cable, but fibre optic cable - the version discussed earnestly in the eighties as the shape of things to come: the Holy Grail of home communications. It's the result of the decision I'd made - with anxious second thoughts, as I explained here - to let Virgin provide our TV, phone and broadband. 

While I'd never seen a cable on many trips to the USA, now, through the undergrowth in the front garden a florescent green plastic tube brings the cable to us from an outlet in the pavement.

The tube leads to a enigmatic grey box which has been mounted on our front wall.

Just above it, there's a connection through a specially-drilled hole in the sitting-room wall. On the inside of the wall, the cable is fed through and splits into two: one side goes to the television, with the newly-installed Tivo box beneath it, and the other to the wireless router for the broadband.

Finally, a second wire from the outside box, the phone line, runs below the windows, round the front door and up to where the old phone line went into the house. There, some kind of join between wires is wrapped in a piece of gaffer tape, and so the phones in the house are once more connected to an outside line - now by cable rather than the old telegraph poles. 

Well that's the theory. In practice it wasn't so simple. As I will explain next time.