This past week we decided to participate in a new initiative called nReduce. nReduce was started by a group of entrepreneurs who felt that there was a need for a virtual incubator for startups that would be open to everyone. Incubators like Y Combinator, Seedcamp, Techstars and the like have had interesting successes, but can only impact a small, somewhat arbitrary selection of entrepreneurs. The founders of nReduce felt that there should be a more inclusive, crowd sourced version of the incubator idea, that would be driven by performance and commitment. The simple idea of nReduce is that anyone can join, but you need to ship week after week to not get kicked out. The program is administered entirely through the web (supported by weekly meetups on Tuesday nights for people to connect in person). There is no cost to join, and they do not take any equity from the participants.
Each week by Wednesday 4pm PST, the participating companies are required to submit their “Before” video, showing what they plan to ship that week, and why. By the following Tuesday, 4pm PST, you make a video to show that you did ship and what you learned. The program lasts 3 months (12 weekly cycles) with a demo day like presentation at the end. Failure to ship 2 weeks in a row gets you booted out. Kind of like a virtual Survivors meets Y Combinator, meets Alcoholics Anonymous.
We’ll post various “After” success videos along the way as the weeks progress.
When we spoke to Joe Mellin, one of the founders, at last weeks Tuesday dinner, he said that they were expecting another group to drop out after the first delivery cycle. After a few weeks, they plan to link up groups of 3-4 like minded companies together as support for each other to keep shipping, and give each other encouragement and advice. An interesting note is that nReduce themselves are one of the participants, last weeks tool for submitting your “Before” video was completed an hour or so before the deadline! We’ve already met one ship cycle (whahoo!) and are figuring out what we’ll do for the ship commitment for week #2.
So far we’ve found nReduce to be a powerful tool for sharpening our focus and connecting with interesting folks that we may not have otherwise. It’s a wonderful new development in the startup ecosystem. Will Mightyverse stay on the island? Stay tuned.
Last month we released an update of the Mightyverse web site with fewer features, but with new homepage and FAQ which we hope will help people understand our mission and where we are going. For the last six months, it had felt like we would never finish our upgrade to Rails 3, as Mightyverse development had intermittent spurts of development. In early January, I proposed that we make some hard decisions and ship it earlier by radically cutting any feature that was under-performing in terms of web traffic, which included the search feature. We defined an “MVP” (Minimally Viable Product where the goal is not to create the minimum amount of software from which you can learn). We had just one new feature implemented (changing the URL of the “phrase page”), so that became the one we would test.
Dropping the search feature was a very hard decision, but not as hard as drawing the line on the smaller details. I argued that whatever was wrong we could always fix the day after we release the site, because there could be something even more important to work on that we don’t know about.
It was mid-January and I had told Lee and Curtis who were collaborating with me on developement that we would complete the bare minimum to release the site. Glen, Paul, and Iku tested on our staging server. I queued up a subset of bugs found to be fixed before release and our launch date quickly slipped further into the future. Curtis sent this email:
I noticed a big list of MVP stories.
I understand that the current MVP is very lacking, but I would encourage releasing it … if only to catalog the feedback from the users. My thought is that this can be valuable get an external perspective.
By no means is this a hard and fast rule, but it has worked at times in the past to develop a system in concert with the community.
To which I responded:
…there are humans involved. Sometimes compromise is important. I would have not completed the phrase list page, but Paul uses that to demo to people.
To understand the debate, you need to know that the phrase list page was pretty awful. At the time that we were having this discussion it looked like this: with the video player way at the bottom of the page, like this:
There were missing links and the text was poorly laid out. The placement of the video player was not the only unusable part, but in page playback of phrases was also missing. You can check out what it used to look like. The key thing to note is that we were trying to avoid having a 404 and create a starting point for continuous improvement. Even so most folks would react like Paul did…
“Are you really going to release it like that?” I agreed that it would take just an hour or two to fix the layout and add links, so I said I would do it. Later, I admitted to Paul that I had been called out by a member of our dev team for not sticking with our MVP focus. I also admitted that while I told Curtis that we needed to fix the page because Paul used it to demo to current and prospective contributors, that I really was doing it because I thought it would make Paul really sad if I didn’t.
I had recently heard Corey Haines talk at Heroku’s Wazu conference about using the “5 Whys” for figuring out what features you should build first in a new application, so I asked Paul if he would play this game with me. It’s a simple exercise where you ask someone “why” five times, which can be very annoying unless you tell them first that you are playing a game. It felt more than a little absurd, but I really wanted to follow the MVP/lean startup discipline and be honest about why were making our decisions. Here’s a brief synopsis of the conversation:
Why do should we fix the visual errors and lack of in-page viewing in the phrase list page? We don’t want to look amateurish. Paul told this story of how a friend had gone to our website when we first launch it and had found several spelling errors on the blog and had said that it didn’t seem professional, that it looked “amateurish.” (You might think that no one wants to be unprofessional and amateurish, but when Facebook first launched with a very scattered design and seemingly little attention to visually pleasing pages, people in the industry argued that was precisely why they got so much participation, that people didn’t feel like their posts had to be perfect, so they posted more. So I asked the next question.)
Why don’t we want to look amateurish? We want people to believe we are credible. I listened to another story from Paul about how being amateurish erodes your credibility. No real surprise here, so I moved on to the next why.
Why is it important to be credible? If we aren’t credible, then people won’t listen to our message. This surprised me. I thought Paul was going to say something about people trusting the fidelity of our translations, but I hadn’t really thought about our having a message. Now I was really engaged in the game and wondered how he would answer the next question. I really wanted to ask what he thought our message was, but instead I continued asking why…
Why do we want to convey a message, why is that important? We need to convey a brand promise.
Why do we need to convey a brand promise? We want to incite participation.
“What do you mean?” I asked, “we have no participation features on the site… you can’t even leave a comment, let alone record phrases, add translations, or make corrections.” Paul responded as I hoped he would. He didn’t refer to some future contributors using some future features, instead he referenced our real world community, like @brianrieger who tweeted about using Mightyverse to learn Mandarin on his mobile phone and our small community of contributors we have in-person relationships with who record phrase videos using our desktop application or in the Sausalito studio. People who develop web software sometimes seem to forget that community is a real world phenomenon.
Before we released the new site, we made the page look better including in-page playback, but skipped paging (because most of the phrase lists are short anyhow). After we released the site, we discovered that we have a broken link on the homepage and that an entire language was missing its data, but I feel good about letting our community in on the process a little bit. We’re a very small group of people making Mightyverse and we need more people involved if we’re ever going to capture a meaningful amount of even the world’s popular languages, let alone making a dent in the almost 7000 less widely spoken ones.
We’ve had a lot of conversations about our brand promise. We want it to be about integrity and treating people’s language and people’s contributions to Mightyverse with respect, but we also realize that even though we fixed this one page, that we break our brand promise all over the website when we have errors in the translations. We decided to prioritize the editing features over the live recording feature. This silly game sparked conversations that have changed the details of what we are doing and how we prioritize new features on the site. Our vision remains the same, but I think our path toward it has changed a little. I believe the details make all the difference.
Sarah Allen, co-founder of Mightyverse and Railsbridge
Our own Sarah Allen, Mightyverse CTO and co-founder, was recognized today in onlinemba.com, listing Mightyverse as one of the top 15 startups founded by women. The 15 include some of our favorites: LoveWithFood, 23andme and TaskRabbit. Go check them all out, they are all standout companies, doing really cool stuff. It’s a great group of people to be recognized with, and as always, we’re crazy proud to be working with Sarah Allen!!
NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman includes a wide collection of thought-provoking research on children and learning. The last chapter focuses on language, with some of its lessons applicable to both early language acquisition by babies and later language learning as well.
Babies learn to decipher speech partly by lip-reading: they watch how people move their lips and mouths to produce sounds. One of the first things that babies must learn—before they can comprehend any word meanings—is when one word ends and another begins. Without segmentation, an adult’s words probably sound about the same to an infant as does his own babbling. At 7.5 months, babies can segment the speech of people they see speaking. However, if the babies hear speech while looking at an abstract shape, instead of a face, they can’t segment the sounds: the speech once again is just endless gibberish. (Even for adults, seeing someone’s lips as he speaks is the equivalent of a 20-decibel increase in volume.)
When a child sees someone speak and hears his voice, there are two sensory draws—two simultaneous events both telling the child to pay attention to this single object of interest—this moment of human interaction. The result is that the infant is more focused, remembers the event, and learns more. –pp. 203-204).
In addition to reporting that multisensory input helps, the authors include research from University of Iowa (p. 217-218) that hearing language from multiple speakers accelerates learning.
This supports our anecdotal evidence that hearing slight variations in accent help people in learning new phrases. When we acquire a new language, we are not only acquiring vocabulary, but learning to differentiate phonemes and process new sounds.
Grammar teaches Vocabulary
Bronson and Merryman also discuss the value of variation sets where children learn vocabulary where words are repeated in varying contexts. Initially a noun is easily recognized when it follows a “word frame” such as “Look at the ___.” Then using some repetition to highlight variation helps with learning. They point out that “grammar teaches vocabulary.”
For instance, a variation set would thus be: “Rachel, bring the book to Daddy. Bring him the book. Give it to Daddy. Thank you, Rachel—you gave Daddy the book.” — p. 219
This is exactly how I like to learn a new language, learning vocabulary and grammar together in context. I am often frustrated that such variation sets are hard to assemble in typical language workbooks. I think this could inform how we create “phrase lists” in Mightyverse and I can’t wait until we make the tools a little easier so we can let other folks experiment with lists of their own making.
This is really wonderful press for a project we are quite excited about.
I’ve always been fascinated by other languages and yet have never been able to discipline myself to learn another language besides English with any fluency. Despite years of French, my most passable second language is Spanish (which I speak like a not very intelligent 2 year old). Regardless, little snippets of languages I’ve picked up over the years have been so important to me. Saying “itadakimas” before eating, or “hi!” when you want to emphatically agree with someone as they speak has become woven into my vernacular.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all share each other’s poignant, wise, deeply felt expressions and take them into our own communications as we move through life?
This has been a driving force behind Mightyverse.
Imagine being able to say, “Wow, that’s extraordinary, thank you!” or “I love cheese!” in all 7000+ languages spoken today.
With community based language recording efforts by the Rosetta Project, Internet Archives (and in our small contribution, Mightyverse) that has some chance of becoming possible.
We can’t think of better partners in the social mission side of Mightyverse than The Rosetta Project and The Internet Archives. The Record-a-thon tomorrow is going to be a really fun start to that collaboration.
We’ve been working on a very cool web recording feature for Mightyverse. One of the reasons that it is not quite ready for prime time is a bug in the Flash Player where sometimes you can’t click the “Allow” button in the microphone/camera privacy dialog. (It happens when the SWF is not aligned to a pixel boundary, which happens quite frequently in normal CSS/HTML layout.)
Flash Player 10.3 was released on Friday, which is supposed to fix the issue. You can download it here, or you may follow the detailed steps below to workaround the bug.
Right-click (or control-click on the mac) and a menu like the one below will appear:
Choose “Global Settings…” and the Flash Player system preferences will open (sometimes this takes 10-15 seconds). Then select the “Camera and Mic” panel (1) and click “Camera and Microphone Settings by Site…” (2).
A panel will drop down displaying the sites that have asked you for camera or microphone permissions. Click the [+] button in the lower left corner:
Next type the full hostname “www.mightyverse.com” as the site domain and select “Allow” from the popup and click “Add.”
Click “Close” (and optionally close the system preferences window) and then refresh the browser page. Now the privacy dialog should not appear and the site will have access to your camera and microphone. Whew!
In doing some research into localized SEO this weekend, I found an awesome blog post that well describes the difference between localization and SEO translation.
As an example of localization challenges, it reports “an Iranian soap product line is called ‘Barf‘, which actually means ‘snow’ in Farsi, but becomes ‘vomiting’ in English.” I tweeted this excellent example, and learned from @adamwride that Argentina actually has a line of hamburger patties named “Barfy”!
Using our fun, new not-yet-publicly released web recording interface, I recorded some English phrases for the occasion:
On July 30th, 2011 we will meet at the Internet Archive in San Francisco, where volunteers will record the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in their native language(s). Mightyverse volunteers will assist recording at several recording stations. Each station will be equiped with a video camera, monitor, lighting, microphone and Mightyverse PhraseFarm teleprompter system to enable the capture of spoken language. These high quality recordings of native speakers will be made available at archive.org under a Creative Commons license.
Mightyverse is excited to support the Long Now Foundation‘s 300 languages project in its July 30th 2011 record-a-thon. The goal of the 300 languages project is to record spoken language that has parallel translations in at least 300 languages. Towards that effort, Laura Welcher and her team at The Rosetta Project (an ongoing effort by The Long Now Foundation) have identified texts that already exist in parallel translations. Of those texts, we at Mightyverse were especially excited by the UDHR.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is the most translated document in the world and has over 400 translations. It was ratified by the United Nations in 1948. The UDHR was the first international recognition that all human beings have fundamental rights and freedoms and it continues to be a relevant document today over 60 years later. The UDHR continues to be a very important inspiration for millions of people, and through our efforts with The Long Now Foundation, The Internet Archives and Mightyverse, our hope is to create a lasting archive of language that extends the mission that was set forth over 60 years ago.
We believe that language is the key to cultural understanding, our ability to create a peaceful prosperous world and literally our survival as people on this planet. We are very excited to participate in this project.
Please join us. If you can be in SF, you can record with Mightyverse. If you are remote, you can submit recordings of the UDHR or other spoken language that you record on your own:
The South African Bill of Rights, enacted in 1996, provides very broad protections for human rights as part of the constitution, including strong protections for language and culture. Here are some excerpts:
“Everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice” (29.2)
“Everyone has the right to use the language and to participate in the cultural life of their choice” (30)
Naturally, the Bill of Rights is available on the web it in the other 10 official languages:
From 2001 Census reports, fewer than 1% of South Africans speak a native language that is not one of the 11 official languages ( via wikipedia). Visiting South Africa, I have enjoyed the rich diversity of language and culture. Of South Africa’s 11 official languages, I speak only English, but I’ve overheard many conversations in a great variety of languages and I’ve noticed that most South Africans speak at least two languages and many speak 5 or 7.
It has been a month since the Tohoku Pacific Ocean coast earthquake that occurred on March 11, 2011. Japan is still suffering with series of strong after shocks and radiation problems. However, support from inside of the country and foreign countries to Japan continues.