Thursday, January 6, 2022

Narratopia is an open source game

Two blog posts back, I said I was going to work on Narratopia again. I said I planned to work on two tasks: (1) trim the print-on-demand version of the game to make it cheaper, and (2) make the game easier to translate. 

I did try. For weeks. But both of the tasks turned out to be much harder than I anticipated. I could not find a way to trim down the print-on-demand cost very much. And I could not find a way to make the translation process easy for you without creating an ongoing burden for myself.

Eventually I found a solution. It happened through a chain of events that I would like to tell you about.

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a visual artist, so I took every art class I could find. At first I had trouble getting started on new drawings. Every time I faced a blank sheet of paper I would freeze. So I developed a mantra: There's always more paper. I would look through my drawing pad, of perhaps 200 pages, and say to myself, "If I try to draw this thing" -- whatever I was drawing -- "this many times, probably at least one of them will be all right." And then I could start drawing. 

I've used that mantra for everything I've done since then: for every drawing, but also for every blog post, article, book, software package, game, and so on. That's why every project I've ever worked on has gone through so many versions. And that's why I intended to go back and work on Narratopia for a fourth time. I did work on it. I got stuck. I was trying to get unstuck.

Then, over the holidays, I decided to take a rare week off and play video games. I was playing a nice little puzzle game called The Last Campfire when I realized something about my mantra.

In The Last Campfire, you are a little pillowcase being, and you walk around a fantastic landscape helping other little pillowcase beings find the energy or hope or something to move on in their journey to . . . I don't know, I haven't finished the game yet. Anyway, so far all of these little pillowcase beings have been super grateful for my help, and I've been getting a nice warm feeling every time I help one.

But it's a lie. I'm not playing the game to help the pillowcase beings. I'm playing the game because the way you help the pillowcase beings is to solve puzzles. Solving the puzzles is interesting and fun. That's why I'm playing the game. The pillowcase beings are basically just animated buttons I click to get to the puzzles. 

So anyway, I was playing this game, and I thought: this game reminds me of my life. 

I have spent a good portion of my professional life as a speculative entrepreneur. Over the years I've worked on project after project that nobody asked me to do. I've written blog posts, articles, and books. I've developed concepts, frameworks, exercises, and methods. I've built software and games. I've started professional networks. I did all of these projects because I wanted to help people. But I also did all of these projects because they were interesting and fun. To some extent, the people I helped were just the buttons I clicked to get to the puzzles.

My next thought was: ah, but there is a critical difference between The Last Campfire and my life. In The Last Campfire, after you solve each puzzle and free its little pillowcase being, you get to walk away. In my life, it has never been easy to walk away from projects. Every project I have started has taken on a life of its own, and it has lingered, clinging, demanding my time and energy. For years, sometimes for decades. The downside of "there's always more paper" is that, well, there's always more paper, and more, and more.

Thus arose a new mantra: There's always more fire. An infinite capacity to create requires an infinite capacity to destroy. You can't have one without the other.

I can't believe it took me forty years to figure that out. This year, I resolve to get better at walking away from projects I no longer find interesting or fun -- even if I think people still need them. If people need them, people will step up.

So, when I got back to work, I decided to release Narratopia as an open source game. You figure it out. You can now download all of the files I used to make the game and mess with them yourself. If you want to print the game more cheaply, go ahead. If you want to translate the game, go ahead. I'm moving on to the next puzzle.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

The Confluence Workbook, among other things

Readers, I have several things to tell you about: a workbook, a podcast, a FAQ, sales, plans, and reviews. 

The Confluence Workbook

As I worked on Confluence over the past two years, thinking my way through the examples you see in the book (and many other examples that didn't make it into the book), I drew hundreds of thinking-space diagrams, on paper and using the computer.

While I was doing this, I kept thinking that at least some of the people who read the book would want to draw their own diagrams. That is the point of the book, after all: to help people think about situations by filling up thinking spaces and noticing patterns. So when I created the downloadable exercise materials for the Confluence web site, I included some "coloring book" pages people could print and write on. 

But as I talked to people who were reading and using Confluence, I realized that some people might like to have a place to keep their diagrams together, in a sort of Confluence book they wrote themselves. So about a month ago, I started working on a write-it-yourself workbook companion. It looks like this.

You can use The Confluence Workbook to think about organization and self-organization and how they flow together in situations that arise in your life, work, family, community, and organization. You can also use the workbook to record what happens when you do the group exercise described in Confluence.

The workbook contains 120 two-page spreads like this one.

A thinking space on the left is followed by three prompts on the right:

  • Context: Why you explored the topic, when, where, and how you explored it, and so on. 
  • Patterns: What you saw when you placed your items into the thinking space - clusters, gaps, boundaries, links, and contrasts. 
  • Thoughts: What you learned, what surprised you, what you are curious about, and what you would like to do next. 

There are 24 of these two-page spreads for the first (main) thinking space, and 16 for each of the other six spaces. For convenience, the workbook also includes a brief description of each thinking space (with examples), a summary of the group exercise, and copy-and-cut exercise materials.

To be perfectly clear, every word in The Confluence Workbook can also be found in Confluence or on the book's web site. In fact, you can assemble your own workbook by printing pages from the exercise materials PDF on the web site. The printed workbook just gives you a nice bound volume in which to store your diagrams. There's a blank space on the workbook's spine, so you can write in a topic or theme.

ComPlexus Podcast
My hope is that The Confluence Workbook will help all of us: you as you think through situations that matter to you, and me as I try to keep doing this work (I will get 1-3 dollars for each workbook sold). If you have any feedback or suggestions about the workbook, let me know.

Here I am talking about Confluence

Soon after I published Confluence, I had a lovely conversation with Bruce Waltuck for the Plexus Institute ComPlexus Podcast. That conversation is now available as Episode 4 of the podcast. 

In the interview, I talk about where Confluence came from, how I hope people will use it, and what I plan to do next.

A Confluence FAQ

People have been sending questions about Confluence, and I've been answering their questions and compiling the answers. As a result, there is now a Confluence FAQ on the web site, which I will continue to improve over time. 

Thank you to those who have written! If you have a question about the book, feel free to drop me a note (cfkurtz@cfkurtz.com).

Sales and plans

Sales of Confluence are coming in at almost exactly the same rate as Working with Stories in its first year. As I recall, WWS sold 250 copies in its first year. Confluence has sold roughly half that many copies in its first six months. It's déja vu all over again! Perhaps I have encountered some sort of universal word-of-mouth constant.

I am very glad the book is selling. At the same time, however, I am not going to be able to keep writing books at this rate. After seven years, WWS has paid me about one dollar per hour for the 2.5 person-years I spent writing it. I need to make more than that on Confluence if I am going to be able to write any more books.

Here's what I would like to accomplish over the next few years. I submit it to you (all of you, collectively) as a sort of proposal.

First, I would like to finish At Home with Stories, my long-gestating book on the interactions between commercial and conversational storytelling over the past few centuries. As many know, I have written about fifteen blog posts (some the length of book chapters) on this topic. This book will draw all of those thoughts together, along with some yet-to-be-completed due-diligence work on the history of these two forms of storytelling, from ancient times to the present moment. I think this book project will take at least a year to finish, but I'm hoping it can be done by the end of 2022. 

Secondly, I've been thinking that 2024 might be a good year to publish a tenth-anniversary fourth edition of Working with Stories. Based on many reader comments, I think it would be best to split WWS into three books, thus:
  1. A short (say 100 page) easy-reading book on participatory narrative inquiry for absolute beginners. It will introduce the basic concepts of PNI, but it will leave out most of the details that make the current edition of WWS too long and too complicated for many beginners.
  2. A slightly trimmed-down (say 400 page) main version of WWS. This book will keep most of what is in WWS now, but it will remove some less-than-essential elements that I now think could have been placed elsewhere. I will also update the new edition with several new exercises, insights, and ideas that have bubbled up over the past seven years of work in this area.
  3. A PNI-for-professional-story-workers book. This will have everything that is now included in More Work with Stories (a book I never got around to finishing), plus some of the bits to be trimmed out of the main WWS version. I will also update MWWS to reflect more experience-based insights, drawing from dozens of new projects I've consulted on over the past several years.

I believe that splitting up WWS in this way will make the whole body of work more useful to more people. Probably the mid-size version of the book will keep its original title. The professional version will probably be called More Work with Stories (as it has been called all along). And the simple version will be called . . . something simple.

I don't know how much of this plan I will be able to carry out. It depends on book sales, and it depends on consulting. I love helping people do PNI projects. I learn something new on every project, and it's wonderful to see people using PNI in the world. At the same time, however, it's hard to concentrate on large, complex writing projects while dealing with frequent meetings and emails. So I guess I'll see how things work out.

Reviews

This brings me to my final point, and to a request. Confluence needs more book reviews. If you have read the book, please consider writing a review: on Amazon, on your blog, on LinkedIn or Twitter or wherever you post things. Simply put, if you want me to keep writing books, a good way to help me do that is to post reviews of the books I have written. The more books I sell, the more books I can write. 

And of course, many thanks to everyone who has helped with this work, whether through collaboration, consulting, word of mouth, or encouragement. Every little thing makes a difference.


Tuesday, October 26, 2021

We Are Now Leaving NarraFirma (for a while)

As you may know, my husband and I started working together on NarraFirma, our open-source software for participatory narrative inquiry, in 2014. We put out our first release in October of 2015. Since then I have tried to work on the software for at least a month every year. All in all, I would estimate that we have put between four and five person-years into the project.

Over the past few weeks, as I drew my latest pulse of work on NarraFirma to a close, I found myself running out of low-hanging fruit. The last three things I tried to do were too hard and/or too system-breaking to finish. So I decided to put all of them off for a while, at least until I (or we) have enough time and/or funding to work on NF again next year. 

(Of course, if you find a bug in NarraFirma, please let me know right away.)

These are the three fruits I could not reach.

Not doing: ODF export

I wanted to give NarraFirma users the option to write catalysis reports directly to Open Document Format (ODT) files, because most word processors cannot process HTML files very well. 

I looked into this, and I even got a little way into implementing an ODT export function. However, when I converted one of NF's reports to ODT using pandoc, I realized that it was a waste of my time to reinvent the wheel. Pandoc is free and easy to use, and it converts NarraFirma's HTML reports to ODT or DOCX formats quite nicely. As long as pandoc exists, NF has no need to generate anything other than HTML.

I should have tried pandoc a long time ago. I can't imagine why I didn't. (Three-years-ago-me was so stupid.) Anyway, I recommended pandoc on the help page and moved on.

Not doing: Survey piping

I wanted to support conditional question asking (sometimes called "piping") in NarraFirma surveys. I spent quite a bit of time trying to get this to work. But in the end I decided to back out and abandon the effort because it was a bad fit with NF's surveying architecture. To implement it, I would have to make much larger and deeper changes than I am comfortable making right now. 

Also, I'm not sure that conditional questions are all that important to NF users. Or at least they are not important enough to risk destabilizing a part of the software that needs to be rock-solid. Maybe I'll revisit that decision someday, but right now it doesn't seem worth doing.

Not doing: Multiple sets of answers per story

If, back in 2014, we had thought of having multiple sets of answers per story, and we had worked that through the entire data structure, it would have been so easy to implement a survey that showed people stories (told by other people) and asked them to add their own interpretations. Sadly, we did not think of that possibility at the time. Or maybe we triaged it out, I don't remember. But in any case, NF expects there to be exactly one set of answers for each story.

I spent some time trying to find a workaround for this, because I really would like to support multiple interpretations of each story. However, I decided, again, to put it aside for now. Not only would I have to write a converter to transition legacy data into a new structure - that's doable - but I would have to change a lot of things about how graphs and statistics work. So that idea will have to stay on the back burner for a while longer.

Did: Better clustering

After failing to accomplish these three tasks, I wanted to do something to round out this pulse of work. So I looked around in NarraFirma for some ugly, unpleasant thing I could improve. 

I remembered that people have often had trouble with the clustering interface, where you group your interpretations or observations to create sections of your catalysis report. (The same interface is used in the planning part of the software as well.) 

I had drawn cluster names with very large bubbles. Reasonably, people tried to place their items into the bubbles, as if they were containers. But in fact, it was not necessary to do that, because NarraFirma determines clustering based on distances between center points, not boundaries. 

So I shrunk the cluster names (now they no longer look like containers) and drew lines that connect items to clusters. This should make the process more clear.

I also replaced the line of buttons below the clustering space with one of my "things you can do" lists, which (I think) are clearer and more compact. And I replaced the brute-force method of setting print orders by hand with a simpler method. Ugliness reduced; usability improved. You can read more about NF 1.5.2 on the NarraFirma blog.

If you have any wish-list items for NarraFirma, drop me a note to let me know. But as of now, NarraFirma will go back onto the back burner until next year.

Next stop: Narratopia

Now I plan to turn my attention to another long-neglected project: Narratopia. As you may remember, the last time I worked on "the conversational story game," I expanded it into a larger and better version. However, its price doubled, and, well, people have pretty much stopped buying it. 

To be clear, I have never made any money on Narratopia sales. My "profit" has always been less than a dollar per game. However, I do want people to be able to afford to buy the game, even if I make nothing (or very little) on it. So I plan to go back and redesign the game to fit into a smaller box and cost less. TheGameCrafter.com, the print-on-demand service I use to publish Narratopia, has some new options, and I have some new ideas for slimming down the materials while keeping the gameplay intact.

The second thing that has happened with Narratopia over the past few years is that several people have written to me about creating translations of it. As I recall, the proposed languages have included Russian, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Italian. However, nobody has yet finished any of these translations. That is mostly because in Narratopia's current state, it takes a very long time for both contributors (the translator and myself) to change the relevant files. Sometimes people have not had time to do the translations, and sometimes I have not had time to deal with translations.

So I intend to transition the files that make up Narratopia to a different format in which I can easily put together a new translation, based on something like a spreadsheet of alternate texts, in an hour or two. I might use squib, or I might write my own scripts. I'll see how it goes.

If you have played Narratopia, ever, and you have not told me about your experience, please tell me what the game was like for you.

I played Narratopia just a few weeks ago with some visiting relatives, and I was pleased to see that I did not feel the need to make any major changes to it. (Maybe a few tweaks to the instructions.) However, having said that, I would love to hear your recommendations for improving it as I begin to work on it again.






Friday, September 24, 2021

NarraFirma 1.5.0 is out

All righty then. I've been working on the latest pulse of NarraFirma development for about two months, and I've got some things to show you. I'll just show you a few of my favorite changes here. For more detail (than you could ever want), visit the NarraFirma blog.

Better surveys

The surveying part of NarraFirma has always been its weakest part. It's a little stronger now. Here are a few of the biggest changes.

You can now create surveys that accept write-in answers for every type of survey question. You can use these for "other" answers below a fixed list, or you can use them for follow-up questions (which are especially useful in pilot projects). Write-in answers are treated in the same way as answers to free-text questions (they have a special "graph type" in catalysis, and you can write observations based on them).

New write-in field example

You can now create multi-lingual surveys. Participants can choose a language at the start of the survey, and their choice is saved for graphing. You can enter and edit translations within NarraFirma or using CSV import.

New multi-language surveys

There are also several smaller surveying improvements, which you can read about in the blog post.
 

Better qualitative analysis

Another weak spot in NarraFirma has been its annotation system. I meant it to support qualitative analysis, but I didn't have time to finish it properly. So this time I went back and improved it. You can now create annotation questions whose answers emerge as you read through your stories. 

Improved annotation
 

This should improve the qualitative half of NarraFirma's mixed-methods support tremendously.

Better data lumping

This version of NarraFirma adds display lumping: treating similar answers to choice questions as if they were the same. Like story filtering, display lumping massages your data on its way to being graphed and tested.

New display lumping feature

You could always do data lumping in NarraFirma by exporting and re-importing your data, but that took time, and doing it over and over while you worked out your lumping schemes could be annoying. Now you can try out a lumping scheme in seconds by filling in a field. This improvement means that the integrity-checking and data-massaging step of the catalysis process should be over and done with much more quickly.

Usability

I also made many little usability improvements to parts of the application that were ugly or difficult to use. For example, here's a better way to choose and arrange questions on a story form:

New questions chooser

Please send bug reports!

If you are using NarraFirma and you find a bug, please visit the GitHub issues list and tell me what happened. You can also send me an email at cfkurtz@cfkurtz.com.

What's next

I have one more to-do item on my list for this pulse of work. It is to export catalysis reports in ODT (Open Document Text) format, which can be read by most word processors. This is another longstanding limitation of NarraFirma that I think I can remove. I hope to have that done within the next month or so.

If you would like to suggest any new features you think would make NarraFirma work better for you, please send me a note. I would love to hear what you would like to see.


Wednesday, July 28, 2021

A New Journey to NarraFirma

Hello everybody. After nearly two years, it's finally time to go back to work on NarraFirma. I am now beginning a new development pulse. Hooray!

In fact, I have already released a new minor version. You can read about the changes in version 1.4.2 in the narrafirma.com blog post announcing the release

Now here's my wish list for this next pulse of work, which will take place over the next 3-6 months (how long it lasts depends on what else happens during that time). The big-ticket items are as follows.

Display-only lumping

When you ask people a question and give them several answers they can choose from, some of the answers might not be chosen very often. For example, if I say, "How do you feel about this story?" People might respond with a distribution of answers like this:

  • satisfied (12)
  • frustrated (18)
  • relieved (13)
  • angry (14)

Most statistical tests can't compare counts less than twenty. Also, the more ways you slice and dice your data (by province, by age, etc), the smaller your counts get. So, catalysis almost always involves a time-consuming step where you lump similar answers together to get larger counts. 

You can lump answers in NarraFirma right now using the import system. In the above example, you can tell NarraFirma that it should read the answers in your data file thus:

  • satisfied (12) or relieved (13) -> positive (25)
  • frustrated (18) or angry (14) -> negative (32)

Lumping via import works now. But it's a pain to keep re-importing your data over and over as you make lumping decisions. This is an aspect of the NF catalysis process that I have always found to be particularly annoying.

I am fairly certain that if I tread very carefully, I can add display-only lumping to NarraFirma. That is, you will be able to enter a series of commands into a field on the "Configure catalysis report" page, and NarraFirma will draw lumped graphs without changing your data. That means you'll be able to change your lumping scheme without re-importing anything. This could speed up the catalysis process considerably.

The system will probably work like the filter system does. The commands will look something like this:

  • Feel about == satisfied || relieved == positive

Meaning, when NF gets to the question "Feel about," it will pretend that the answer "satisfied" is the answer "positive." And it will do the same thing for the answer "relieved."

Survey improvements

Originally we wanted to build a strong story-gathering capacity into NarraFirma. However, we ran out of money before we could get to it. As a result, gathering stories using NF is very simple and plain. 

As far as I know, most of the people who are using NF today are not using it to gather stories. They are using SurveyMonkey, Google Forms, Open Data Toolkit, LimeSurvey, and many other options. That's why I improved the import functionality of NF in the last pulse of work on it.

However, in this pulse of work, I would like to improve how NF collects stories.

I have done a few things already. I added a "maximum number of answers" field to keep people from ticking off every possible answer to multi-choice questions. And I spent a little time improving the accessibility of NF surveys. 

But there's much more I would like to do, if I can. Specifically:

  1. I would like to make it possible to display images and videos (via web links) as introductory, question-asking, and answer-representing elements in a survey. 
  2. I would like to make it possible to specify multiple language versions for all text elements of story forms, to be selected via a language-choice question at the start of the form.
  3. I would like to see if NF can support uploading of images and recording of audio stories during the survey.
  4. I would like to support an "other" write-in text box on single or multi-choice questions.

I cannot promise any of these things, because a lot of them have to do with legacy infrastructure decisions we made several years ago. But I do at least want to see what is possible.

Theming

Another feature I had wanted to have in NarraFirma back in the day, but had to put off for lack of time and funding, was a theming page. 

This would be in the catalysis section. You would read each story, write a few brief themes to describe it, and then merge your themes into a short list. The list would become answers to a question with counts you could graph.

You can actually do this in NF now, using the annotation system. But it's such a pain to do it that way that I usually do my theming in a spreadsheet. I would like to see if I can make an interface within NF that makes theming simpler and more intuitive.

Reporting

The last big-ticket item on my wish list for this pulse is the ability to export a catalysis report in ODT format, which can be read by most word processors. Writing reports only to HTML is a big limitation, and it has bothered me for a long time. I believe that this task is doable; it just requires a lot of time and careful attention.

Little things

There are many small suggestions I would like to work on, most of them submitted by NF users. I will be attending to everything listed on the GitHub issues page, and I have many other little things to look at that people told me about in emails. 

If there is something you would like me to change in (or add to) NarraFirma, now is the time to speak up. Add an issue on the GitHub issues page, or send me an email at cfkurtz@cfkurtz.com. I would love to hear from you.

And as always, I want to say a big thank you to everyone who has helped with NarraFirma, recently and in the past. Every donation, commission, suggestion, and encouraging email has helped me to keep working on the software and making it better and better.