Friday, May 29, 2009

On the horizon: Google Wave

Google Wave looks very interesting. It is an email client (replacing Google Mail?), but it is also something of a collaborative document editor. I took a look at part of the developer announcement, and here is what you might want to know for now.
Traditional email works like this:
I.e., one person sends an email to one or more persons much in the way that traditional snail mail has worked. It's just easier to write to many persons at one time and to respond to messages. Google Wave is conceptualizing a different model which looks like this: I.e., it thinks of a conversation as a centrally (i.e., server-based) object which involves two or more persons. The huge benefit of this approach is that it allows a much clearer view of conversations, and anyone can be invited to join the conversation at any point and have the whole conversation in front of them. Conversations, instead of being a collection of "forward/reply to all" emails with a bottom up chain of earlier messages, will now look like threaded message boards. In addition, participants can jump in at any point and respond to particular parts of a message, and it will all be clear in its threaded outline. In addition, this is all happening in real time, so, in effect, it can also replace your instant messaging devices with the advantage of providing a clear conversation among multiple participants. (NOTE: This looks to me to be a much superior method as compared to carrying on conversations in Twitter, AIM, Facebook, etc.)
Google Wave is also intended as a way of sharing and editing text, photos, maps, etc. with others. The API is open, so they are leaving room for further development to extend its capabilities with other gadgets.
Google Wave is supposed to be available later this year, and I am eager to try it out. In particular, from an educational perspective, this is the best way I have seen to carry out threaded discussions and allow for sharing of resources and do it all in real time if desired. At our seminary, we are trying to think about how we might conduct classes online in cases of emergency. (Think of a blizzard closing campus or a H1N1 flu epidemic causing restrictions.) Google Wave would be a great way to conduct discussion for an online class.
UPDATE: 2009.06.01: HERE is a great overview of Google Wave terminology and capabilities.

On the horizon: BING

Bing is, in many ways, Microsoft's response to Google search, and it will replace Microsoft's LiveSearch. However, it is promoting itself not as a "search engine" but as a "decision maker." I.e., it intends to process information to help you make a decision about such things as (and here is where the initial focus appears to be) shopping, health, travel, and local businesses. If you click on the logo above, you can see the brief video promo, and you'll note how it tries to incorporate reviews with the shopping or local search experience or use 'expert' sites for health info or provide 'farecasts' with travel planning. (The travel part looks to be a combination of Expedia and Farecast, both of which are Microsoft related sites.)
I recently mentioned Wolfram|Alpha which bills itself as a "computational knowledge engine," but its value for biblical studies is rather limited, and I'm guessing that bing won't be of any particular extra benefit in this field either unless you find its presentation of results more appealing.
More info here and here.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Zotero 2

Zotero 2 (a stable beta, at least) has been released, and you will want to check out some of the highlights noted on Dan Cohen's blog. To highlight just a few things:

  • The syncing of collections works great and is done automatically on the Zotero server. This means that you any additions or changes you make on one computer will be reflected on another one you use. It also means that you can access your library data from any computer by logging in to Zotero and checking your library on that web site.
  • You can create your own free account and then complete a profile to make yourself visible to other Zotero users. As of today, 156 users list themselves as working in the "Religion" discipline. You can search for other labels. E.g., I find 16 users associated with "seminary." This works a bit like as a way of finding others with similar interests, but has done more for organizing by schools and/or disciplines.
  • Perhaps more interesting is the Group colloboration to create library collections. There aren't too many at this time, but as an example, I started a "Parables of Jesus" group. You can view the bibliography of books I've started to organize here. You can also join the group (if you are logged in to Zotero), and then the resources will show up in the Zotero frame in your own collections. I have set this group up so that others can add resources to it. This looks to be a very promising way to build collections that appears to be more group-friendly than some of the other library management tools.
In any case, check out the updates and let us know what other ways you are using Zotero.
From the comments: check out additional info at nerdlets.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Tavultesoft Keyman Web - Multilingual web input

I have just noticed that Tavultesoft, makers of the Keyman program for inputting characters for any kind of Unicode languages, has released a Keyman Web program. They describe it as "a multilingual input solution for your website":

With an increasingly connected global community and rapidly growing markets in Asia and Africa, the need for a simple and effective multilingual input solution has never been greater. KeymanWeb is a solution that works with:
* Any computer keyboard
* Any language
* Any web site
* Unicode
With KeymanWeb, your web site will provide better access to more users, enabling fast and efficient text input in their preferred language.
They offer a variety of subscription plans including a FREE one that allows for one keyboard and up to 3000 hits/month. (The next step up is unlimited keyboards and 10000 hits/month for AUD9.99 [about US$8] per month.)

If you want to give the Greek keyboard a try, go to my Scroll and Screen site. As depicted above, go to the bottom of the screen, click on the Search box, and you will see the Keyman Web toggle button. Click to choose Greek. Try something like λογος and you will get some hits drawn from my Greek class resources. (BTW, you will note that I am using a Google Custom Search I created to search across my various web sites.)

Accordance8, BibleWorks7, Logos3, VulSearch4, LaParola: Latin Bible Texts Available

I've previously posted about Latin versions of the Bible available in various Bible software packages. Now that BibleWorks8 is out and in light of some recent user-created additions (way to go, Pasquale!) as well as other developments with Logos, I've updated the charts.

Here is the table available either as an XLS spreadsheet or a PDF file.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Wolfram|Alpha and Biblical Studies

There has been considerable buzz lately about WolframAlpha, a "computational knowledge engine." Designed by the brilliant guy who developed Mathematica used in serious mathematical calculations, it is a web search engine that, unlike Google and others, does not direct you to other sites (though it does sometimes offer to send you to Wikipedia), but attempts to calculate and compute your query and return what you actually are hoping to find. It has just gone live today (2009.05.18) on the web, and I thought I would run some biblically related queries through it to see what value it might have for the kind of work I do.

As you can see above, it understands "Jesus" as a person and gives suitable biographical information you might expect for any historical person. Interestingly, it picks up his name in Aramaic but provides modern names for birth and death places. It appropriately identifies some uncertainty in the birth date but is quite confident about the death (though this is a typical date surmised by many).

A query for "Bible" turned up this result. Not much there... but its attention to the sales number hints at what WolframAlpha is more interested in.

I tried searching the "Gospel of Mark," and it did not understand my query. Looking for "Qumran" did no better.

WolframAlpha does like things related to dates. "30 ce" will get you the following.
Also check entities that are associated with dates, e.g., "Roman Empire."

It does seem heavily tilted to USA-centric matters, and it does best at things requiring computational work: numbers, dates, and especially business matters. It has some adeptness with geographical concerns. I tried "jerusalem to jericho." It assumed Jerusalem, Israel and Jericho, New York, but it understood that I may have intended a different Jericho and provide a link to correct it to Ariha, West Bank. Here is the result, and it helpfully provided distance, local times, a map, populations, and elevations.

It also can compute n-grams.
According to Wikipedia, "N-gram models are a type of probabilistic model for predicting the next item in a sequence. n-grams are used in various areas of statistical natural language processing and genetic sequence analysis." I was pleased to see that WolframAlpha is unicode-friendly, so it was able to accept unicode Greek. Here is the n-gram of John 1.1 in the Greek. Perhaps linguists will be excited about the potential for this tool, but this word-level bigram can give you an idea of what it might be able to do.

BOTTOM LINE: WolframAlpha is not going to replace Google or other search engines you may be using for doing research related to biblical studies. It does have some interesting potential for computations involving dates or words. Play around with it and let us know if you discover something unique that it can do for the biblical studies field.

An excuse ... and an Excel tidbit

As blogs go, sometimes there is time to write and sometimes not. I'm in the midst of having finished the semester, getting grading done, have done a number of presentations, and trying to sell and buy a house. It will still be bit before I'm regularly blogging...

UPDATE (2009.05.20): Thanks to Dick and James who contacted me off-blog, I have learned new and wonderful Excel tricks. In particular, what I describe below does work, but it is using the brute force approach. A more elegant method is to use named ranges. Very nice. To see an example, check out this XLS file. I also learned the $cellname trick to refer to an absolute cell. Thanks again to Dick and James!

In the meantime, I'm bragging a bit here for having figured out a neat little Excel trick to help me as I report grades. At our seminary, students have the option of choosing to take a course as Pass/Fail or as a letter grade. What I usually do is assign number values to assignments throughout the semester. Then at the end, I come up with a total score based on the percentage values for each component. What I then need to do is either assign a P or F if they chose pass/fail or assign a letter grade if that is what they want. I figured out how to make Excel assign the correct value in a single step by using this heavily nested IF statement (which is set in cell N2 in my example):


In this statement, B2 is where I've pasted in the Registrar's listing of the students' choice for a letter grade (the value is "L") or pass/fail (the value is "P"). So, the formula first checks if B2 is a "P," and if it is, then it looks at M2 where the total grade score is entered. If M2 is less than 70, then a "Fail" is entered in N2. If that is not the case, then a "Pass" is entered. If B2 does not have a "P," then I know they want a letter grade, and so the last set of nested IFs works through my grading ranges to assign a grade in cell N2. (Note that it starts with looking at less than 70 is an F, if not but less than 80 a C, if not but less than 93 a B, otherwise it is an A.

We also need to have established desired outcomes for our courses and listed how those outcomes will be evaluated. For me, this is a combination of scores of various quizzes, exercises, classroom participation, etc. So, for each desired outcome, I can come up with a number value based on the various assignments and their percentage values. What I also need to do, however, is assign a level of competency: Fail, Minimal, Satisfactory, or Superior. Here's the IF formula I use to run that through:


AG2 is the cell with the score total, and the correct value gets entered in.

I drag/copy these formulas into the neighboring cells, and so I get all the values I want without much more effort. Now I can compose my Descriptive Reports in Microsoft Word and use this spreadsheet as the mail merge source to enter in all the values. In the past I had manually entered the grades and values, but from now on I can use these formulas to speed up the process considerably. You will doubtless have to change the cell names, but I hope this trick can help someone else. For someone who knows Excel well, this is probably pretty basic, but how many seminary teachers have the time to figure out the intricacies of Excel?