Archive for June, 2012

One forward and two to the side

25/06/2012 2 comments

The debate about digital technology and localization and internationalization has probably raged in one form or other ever since someone invented the first program. Mind, for me personally it goes back to that ill-fated moment when ASCII was born with some bright spark arguing that no one would ever need more than those few letters that English has. My first computing headaches were around ASCII – how do I do an /ɣ/ and what the heck was %73£ when someone typed it at the other end?

Much has happened since and I’ve moved from phonology to software translation big time but I still can’t quite decide whether we’re in a better place now or not when it comes to small languages. Those technicalities (like ASCII vs Unicode) aside, the field has indeed opened up, in particular when it comes to open source software. There’s nothing but laziness that stops a language from having at least an office suite (LibreOffice), a browser (Firefox or Opera), an email client and calendar (Thunderbird and Lightning), a media player (VLC), a wiki (MediWiki), a spellchecker, a forum package (phpBB) and blogging software ( and .com) – satisfying a fair chunk of your average user. For the really tough there’s Linux in all its scary glory of course. Ignoring the height of the bar when it comes to actually localizing some of them, that’s not the whole story though.

At least in digitized countries, a significant chunk of our work and social lives have shifted onto various digital platforms. Desktops, laptops, smartphones, tablets… you name it. Hardly a year goes by without some innovation hitting the headlines. And the tech savy (overwhelmingly the young) have become real digital nomads. Yesterday’s app is so passé today and today’s market leader mobile phone OS may be tomorrow’s digital roadkill (anyone remember Symbian?). It’s a bewildering, fluid place.

It’s a place we can’t ignore. Whether we like it or not, virtually anyone under the age of 25 has a smartphone, from rocky outcrops in the Western Ocean like Barra to the mountains of Gipuzkoa, the deserts of Arizona and the steaming hills of Papua New Guinea. Ok, maybe not Papua New Guinea yet though it wouldn’t surprise me. The more of a space we can carve out for out languages and cultures, the better because sadly the old maxim of “Use it or lose it” – or however your language puts that – is true.

So we must compete somehow, at least at some base level. But I increasingly feel that without a small but dedicated full time team, this will become harder and harder unless there’s some magic on the way that I haven’t heard about. Let me give you an example. Predictive texting goes back to the 1970s, believe it or not but not wanting to be too depressive about it, it probably did not make huge inroads into our lives before the year 2000 or so when it really took off on phones. Back then, you had those languages which your manufacturer deemed appropriate, maybe a dozen or so if you were lucky. We’re now in 2012 and I’m waiting with bated breath for the first release of Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx on Adaptxt which, after much searching, I discovered last year. Finally an open source predictive texting project open to any language. Yay! Ok, so it only works on Android… I can live with that, looking at the Android market share. It would be good if iPhones also supported 3rd party entry methods but they don’t and I’m getting to the cheesed off stage with Apple’s approach to non-billion-speaker-languages anyway.

But I digress. There we are, happily preparing the tool which will finally take Scots Gaelic and Manx out of the letter-by-letter age (Irish has had Téacs since 2008 but I’m not sure how alive the project is) when Apple starts pushing Siri (that voice recognition thing on iPhones which, by the way, only works if your accent resembles that of the Queen and or Charleton Heston). I bet my bottom dollar that before long, every major mobile phone manufacturer will be running something similar.

Here, I gnash my teeth. Predictive texting is reasonably easy to do as long as you have a framework you can feed your data into. For example a spellchecker. But it’s taken around a decade for such a framework to grow out of the cyber community. Speech recognition is a harder. A lot harder. I have no idea how long it will take for languages such as Gaelic to take that hurdle and even less so of how many of this planet’s 6,000 languages will manage to do so. And that makes it all a little frustrating.

I don’t know what the answer is, right now, I just feel it would be nice if stuff slowed down a bit. Honestly, how much technological innovation do we need in 12 months? Or rather, how many false summits can we and our languages keep pace with?

The what keys?

02/06/2012 4 comments

I’ve just been through a head-scratching exercise and before you suggest anti-dandruff shampoos, it was about access keys. Yes… or was it shortcut keys? Or a hotkey? Or a quick key? Which sums up part of the problem – there’s too damn many of them. Now the basic idea is solid – access keys are keyboard combinations which allow you to instruct your computer to carry out frequently used tasks without having to click through the menu. So far, so good. For examply, on Windows CTRL c has long been the command for copy and CTRL v for paste. Then there’s CTRL z for undo and… errr… yes, to be honest, that’s all I ever use and I use PCs a lot, more than I care to think.

I don’t know who invented the first access key but our friends the consumers-of-too-many-pizzas must have thought this was brilliant. If copy and paste access keys are good, surely there must be other useful ones… like for open, save, close, tools, help, save as, pluck a chicken, pick your nose… and soon the whole program was peppered with the damn things. Not only that one program of course … wherever it has started, it soon spread to the rest and like the thing about electric plugs, everyone used a different name and a different key combination without ever giving a thought to the end user. Was it CTRL j, ALT j, ALTGR j or ALT CTRL SHIFT j? Or ALT OPTION or hang on, that was my DoodleBug program on Windows, I’m now on a Mac in VLC. Should I use the Apple button or Fn?

I bet if you did some research, you’d find that a lot of people only ever use a minute fraction of the available access/shortcut/whatever keys. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that the smart everyday user knows less than half a dozen and that most know none at all. And certainly no one uses them to navigate 5 levels down to the Proxy Settings of their browser. Yes, there have been attempts to streamline them but that again ignored the basic question of “do we need them” or “how many do we need”? In any cases, the attempts have been as successful as moves to standardise electric plugs or convince China that the rule of law is a good thing.

So what does this have to do with localization and my headscratching? Well, unfortunately no one bother either to automate the process. Which means that when you localize software, you have to manually add them. Now if the localization process in general was smarter, then that might sort of work but remember that when localizing software, from Microsoft to LibreOffice, what you essentially get is a table with one language in one column and your translation in another. Certainly no visual context. And usually no info which tells you anything about the scope (as in, which of these appear next to each other). So you’re faced with something like this:

Deep fr&y

And it’s left to you to figure it out. In the above, your guess is as good as mine whether those all appear in the same menu or in two different ones (perhaps the first 3 in a Fry menu and the last in an Other menu). Oh, and did I mention that they don’t even agree on the symbol? In some, it’s &Fry (which gives the end user the line under the Fry), in others you have to to ~Fry and… oh, you get the idea.

So to a half-baked idea, we’ve added a haphazard localization process. Great. Oh, did I mention the guidelines? The ones which say you should put lines under letters with descenders (something dropping down like gjpqy)? Which is usually fine in English with its 26 letters. But Gaelic only has 18 guys, 16 if I have to cut out letters with descenders and even less if I’m instructed not to use thin letters (like ilf). Do I look like the Brahan Seer? I won’t even start on the difficulties that arise in locating said string when you see a wrong access key on screen in testing.

I did take the time to make sure that the most visible ones don’t overlap in programs like LibreOffice and Firefox. But several layers down, to be honest, I can’t be bothered. So I had to remind myself that the nice person who filed a bug on my behalf with a list of them for some several-layers-down-menu-about-frigging-proxies that they’re not responsible for the general mess that are access keys and not to bite their head off. In the end, I did post a condensed version of my reasoning – the fact they’re mostly pointless and as a result, that I don’t have the time and manpower to fix something which the translator shouldn’t have to fix in the first place.

Honestly, don’t people ever take a step back and think?