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Once bitten by Open Source, hooked forever?

So some would claim. But having just read the news from Munich, I would re-iterate the need for some soul-searching as to the truth of that claim. The news being that the City of Munich, having decided to switch from Microsoft to Linux in 2004, is considering going back to Microsoft. Sure, there may be some shady business involved but reading the article, there are valid problems that the users are raising.

There are undeniable benefits of Open Source stuff and I won’t bore everyone with going into them again. And undoubtedly some issues stem from users just being so used to Microsoft. But what stood out for me was the comment Munich’s mayor Dieter Reiter made about the complications with managing email, calendars and contacts and that in his view, Linux is sometimes behind Microsoft.

Now before y’all start listing the amazing tools I can sudo onto my Ubuntu machine, that’s not the point. The point is that what Microsoft does offer and which still eludes the Open Source scene is integration and end-user friendliness. Ubuntu sort of makes a stab at that but in my view still falls short.

I will forgo my usual verbosity and simply pose some questions:

  1. Was it really smart of Mozilla to ditch the official development of Thunderbird (their email client) and Lightning (the calendar that goes with it)? Rather than integrating it further with Firefox and coming up with a webmail service based on it?
  2. Why is there still so little cross-project coordination and cooperation in the Open Source scene?
  3. Could this be a painful lesson that OS is not an addictive drug to most users and that they will come off it if they’re having a bad trip? Does this mean that the cavalier way in which most OS projects approach issues of usability and the user interface are coming round big time to bite us?

Don’t get me wrong. I still think it’s the only sustainable way forward, especially for SMLs (small to medium locales). But pride in amazing code will not cut the mustard with Mrs McGinty down the road who just wants something she can use out of the box and link to her phone and with a calendar for her webmail so she won’t forget her next appointment with the orthodontist. Without resorting to command lines that would make Linus weep.

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While 420km below the ISS a Dani is sharpening his stone axe

26/05/2014 5 comments

Sometimes the world of software feels a bit like that, a confusing array of ancient and cutting edge stuff.I see you nodding sagely, thinking of the people still using Windows 98 or even more extreme, Windows 3.11 or people who just don’t want to upgrade to Firefox 3 (we’re on 29 just now, for those of you on Shrome). I actually understand that, on the one hand you have very low-key users who just write the odd email and on the other you have specialists (this is most likely something happening at your local hospital, incidentally) who rely on a custom-rigged system using custom-designed software, all done in the days of yore, to run some critical piece of technology and who are loathe to change it since… well… it works. I don’t blame them, who wants to mess around with bleeding tiles when they’re trying to zap your tumour.

But that wasn’t actually what I was thinking about. I was thinking about the spectrum of localizer friendly and unfriendly software. At the one extreme you have cutting edge Open Source developers working on the next generation of localization (also known as l20n, one up from l10n) and on the other you have… well, troglodytes. Since I don’t want to turn this into a really complicated lecture about linguistic features, I’ll pick a fairly straightforward example, the one that actually made me pick up my e-pen in anger. Plurals.

What’s the big deal, slap an -s on? Ummm. No. Ever since someone decided that counting one-two-lots (ah, I wish I had grown up a !San) was no longer sufficient, languages have been busy coming up with astonishingly complex (or simple) ways of counting stuff. One the one extreme you have languages like Cantonese which don’t inflict any changes on the things they’re counting. So the writing system aside, you just go 0 apple, 1 apple, 2 apple… 100 apple, 1,000 apple and so on.

English is a tiny step away from that, counting 0 apples, 1 apple, 2 apples… 100 apples, 1,000 apples and so on. Spot something already? Indeed. Logic doesn’t really come into it, not in a mathematical sense. By that I mean there is no reason why in Cantonese 0 should pattern with 1, 2 etc but that in English 0 should go with 2, 3, etc. It just does. Sure, historical linguists can sometimes shed light on how these have developed but not very often. On the whole, they just are.

This is where it gets entertaining (for linguists). First insight, there aren’t as many systems as there are languages. So much less than 6,000. In fact, looking at the places where such rules are collected, there are probably less than a 100 different ways (on the planet) for counting stuff. Still fun time though (for linguists). Let me give you a couple of examples. A lot of Slavonic (Ukrainian, Russian etc) languages require up to 3 different forms of a noun:

  • FORM 1: any number ending in 1 (1, 11, 21, 31….)
  • FORM 2: ends in 2, 3 or 4 – but not 12, 13 or 14 (22, 23, 24, 32, 33, 34…)
  • FORM 3: anything else (12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 25, 26, 27…)

That almost makes sense in a way. But we can add a few more twists. Take the resurrected decimal system in Scottish Gaelic. It requires up to 4 forms of a noun:

  • FORM 1: 1 and 11 (1 chat, 11 chat)
  • FORM 2: 2 and 12 (2 chat, 12 chat)
  • FORM 3: 3-10, 13-20 (3 cait, 4 cait, 13 cait, 14 cait…)
  • FORM 4: anything else (21 cat, 22 cat, 100 cat…)

Hang one, you’re saying, surely FORM 1 and FORM 2 could be merged. ’fraid not, because while the word cat makes it look as if they’re the same, if you start counting something beginning with the letter d, n, t, s, the following happens:

  • FORM 1: 1 taigh, 11 taigh
  • FORM 2: 2 thaigh, 12 thaigh
  • FORM 3: 3 taighean, 4 taighean, 13 taighean, 14 taighean…
  • FORM 4: 21 taigh, 22 taigh, 100 taigh…

Told you, fun! Now here’s where it gets annoying. Initially, in the very early days of software, localization mostly meant taking software written in English and translating it into German, French, Spanish, Italian & Co and then a bit later on adding Chinese, Japanese and Korean to the list.

Through a sheer fluke, that worked almost perfectly. English has a very common pattern, as it turns out (one form for 1 and another for anything else) so going from English to German posed no problems in translation. You simple took a pair of English strings like:

  • Open one file
  • Open %d files

and translated them into German:

  • Eine Datei öffnen
  • %d Dateien öffnen

Similarly, going to Chinese also posed no problem, you just ended up with a superfluous string because (I’ll use English words rather than Chinese characters):

  • Open one file
  • Open %d file

also created no linguistic or computational problems. Well, there was the fact that in French 0 patterns with 1, not with the plural as it does in English but I bet at that point English developers thought they were home and dry and ready to tick off the whole issue of numbers and number placeholders in software.

Now I have no evidence but I suspect a Slavonic language like Russian was one of the first to kick up a stink. Because as we saw, it has a much more elaborate pattern than English. Now there was one bit of good news for the developers: although these linguistic setups were elaborate in some cases, they also followed predictable patterns and you only need about 6 categories (which ended up being called ONE, TWO, FEW, MANY, OTHER for the sake of readability – so Gaelic ended up with ONE, TWO, FEW and OTHER for example). Which meant you could write a rule for the language in question and then prep your software to present the translator – and ultimately the user – with the right number of strings for translation. Sure, they look a bit crazy, like this one for Gaelic:

Plural-Forms: nplurals=4; plural=(n==1 || n==11) ? 0 : (n==2 || n==12) ? 1 : (n > 2 && n < 20) ? 2 : 3;\n

but you only had to do it once and that was that. Simples… you’d think. Oh no. I mean, yes, certainly doable and indeed a lot of software correctly applies plural formatting these days. Most Open Source projects certainly do, programs like Linux or Firefox for example have it, which is the reason why you probably never noticed anything odd about it.

One step down from this nice implementation of plurals are projects like Joomla! who will allow you to use plurals but they won’t help you. Let me explain (briefly). Joomla! has one of the more atavistic approaches to localization – they expect translators to work directly in the .ini files Joomla! uses. Oh wow. So to begin with, that DOES enable you to do plurals but to begin with you have to figure out how to say the plural rule of your language in Joomla! and put that into one of the files. In our case, that turned out to be

   public static function getPluralSuffixes($count) {
if ($count == 0 || $count > 19) {
$return =  array(‘0’);
}
elseif($count == 1 || $count == 11) {
$return =  array(‘1’);
}
elseif($count == 2 || $count == 12) {
$return =  array(‘2’);
}
elseif(($count > 2 && $count < 12) || ($count > 12 && $count < 19) {
$return =  array(‘FEW’);
}

Easy peasy. One then has to take the English, for example:

COM_CONTENT_N_ITEMS_CHECKED_IN_0=”No cat”
COM_CONTENT_N_ITEMS_CHECKED_IN_1=”%d cat”
COM_CONTENT_N_ITEMS_CHECKED_IN_MORE=”%d cats”

and change it to this for Gaelic:

COM_CONTENT_N_ITEMS_CHECKED_IN_1=”%d cat”
COM_CONTENT_N_ITEMS_CHECKED_IN_2=”%d chat”
COM_CONTENT_N_ITEMS_CHECKED_IN_FEW=”%d cait”
COM_CONTENT_N_ITEMS_CHECKED_IN_OTHER=”%d cat”

Unsurprisingly, most localizers just can’t be bothered doing the plurals properly in Joomla!.

Ning is another project in this category – they also required almost as many contortions as Joomla! but their mud star is for having had plural formatting. And then having ditched it because allegedly the translators put in too many errors. Well duh… give a man a rusty saw and then complain he’s not sawing fast enough or what?

And then there are those projects which stubbornly plod on without any form of plural formatting (except English style plurals of course). The selection of programs which are still without proper plurals IS surprising I must say. You might think you’d find a lot of very old Open Source projects here which go back so far that no-one wants to bother with fixing the code. Wrong. There are some fairly new programs and apps in this category where the developers chose to ignore plurals either through linguistic ignorance or arrogance. Skype (started in 2003) and Netvibes (2005) for example. Just for contrast, Firefox was born in 2002 and to my knowledge always accounted for plurals.

Similarly, some of them belong to big software houses which technically have the money and manpower to fix this – such as Microsoft. Yep, Microsoft. To this date, no Microsoft product I’m aware of can handle non-English type plurals properly in ANY other language. Russians must be oddly patient when it comes to languages cause I get really annoyed when my screen tells me I have closed 5 window

A lot of software falls somewhere between the two extremes – I guess it’s just the way humans are, looking at the way we build our cities into and onto and over older bits of city except when it all falls down and we have to (or can?) start from scratch. But that makes it no less annoying when you’re trying to make software sound less like a robot in translation than it has to…

PS: I’d be curious to know which program first implemented plurals. I’m sort of guessing it’s Linux but I’m not old enough to remember. Let me know if you have some insights?

PPS: If you’re a developer and want to know more about plurals, I recommend the Unicode Consortium’s page on plurals as a starting point, you can take it from there.

Sometimes being anal-retentive works

But mostly, it doesn’t. As is my conclusion regarding the “security” settings in Windows 8 where they’ve frankly tied themselves into a knot that would do the Midgard Serpent proud.

I only became aware of this knot when trying to install a program recently, in my case this was the highly innocuous LibreOffice update (which is basically a re-install that keeps your personal files and addons rather than an upgrade). So for the purposes of what I was doing, let’s treat this as a new installation. You get half way through and what happens? Error 1303 is what happens, the one about “installer has insufficient privileges to access blablabla”:

So basically it’s telling me that I, the one and only user of this machine who also happens to be logged in as an admin, doesn’t have the necessary rights to install a program. Rrrright…

There are two ways I can look at this. The cynic in me says they’re trying to force the bulk of users (who are out-of-the-box users who don’t “mess” with their systems) into using the pre-installed, approved and expensive junk their computers come with. Because the solutions to this problem start at the Gordian level and spiral upwards, some involving command prompts or a staggering array of permission setting windows that looks more like a digital card-house than system administration.

The other of course is sheer idiocy, where some developer figured that the best way of stopping users from cough using their systems would be the implement a fiendish array of permissions and user levels that would prevent unauthorised programs from installing themselves or users from accidentally messing up things. The only Ymir-sized snag is that you end up with users, desperate to install the things they actually want, from fiddling around with the permission settings for users and admins. Usually in the form of trying to create at least one super-user to get around all these issues. Which brings us round in a neat circle, where anyone gaining illegal access to the system has all the privileges they could ever want. I believe sporting natures describe that as an “own goal”. Nice one chaps.

Oh, but I did find a fairly simple workaround in the end. Amusingly, this anal-retentive approach seems to apply mainly to system folders and folders the system created. Such as Programs or Programs (x86). If you tell the installer to create a new directory, such as C:\Programan\LibreOffice4\, then it doesn’t bat an eyelid. “Oh my” as George Takei would say…

When peer review goes pear shaped

29/01/2014 2 comments

Well I’m glad I asked. What happened was this…

I had a request from someone asking if I could localize TinyMCE (a WYSIWYG editor – think of it as a miniature form of Word sitting within a website) so they could use it on their website for their Gaelic-speaking editors. There aren’t that many strings and the project is handled on Transifex using po files so the process seemed straight-forward too (if you don’t know what a po file is  – the main thing about them is that there are many translation memory packages which handle them and, if you have already done LibreOffice or something like that and stored those strings in the memory, there will be few strings in a project like TinyMCE for which there are no translation memory suggestions. In a nutshell – it allows an experienced software translator to work much faster).

So off I go. Pretty much a cake-walk, half a Bond film and 2 episodes of Big Bang later, the job was done. Now in many cases once a language has been accepted for translation and when you have translated all or at least most of the project, these translations will show up in the released program eventually. But just because I’m a suspicious old fart (by now), I messaged the admins and asked about the process of getting them released. Good thing too. Turns out they use an API to pull the translations from Transifex and onto their system (they’ve basically automated that step, which I can understand). The catch however is that it only grabs translations set to Reviewed.

Cue a groan from me. To cut the TinyMCE story short at this point, it seems this is down to Transifex (at least according to the TinyMCE admin) so they were quite happy for me to just breeze through them and set them to Reviewed myself. Fortunately it wasn’t a large job so 15 minutes later (admittedly, I have a about 14 other jobs on my desk just now which I would have rather done…), they were all set, thank goodness to keyboard shortcuts.

But back to the groan. I have come across this approach before and on the face of it, it makes sense. If you do community translation (i.e. you let a bunch of volunteers from the web translate into languages you as admins don’t understand and don’t have time to QA) but you’d like to have at least some measure of QA over the translations, by adding this step of peer reviewing, you can be at least more or less sure that you’re not getting ‘Jamie is a dork’ and ‘Muahahaha’ type translations.

The only problem is, peer review in online localization relies on large number of volunteers. Only a small percentage of speakers have any inclination towards translating pro bono publico and even fewer feel like reviewing other people’s translations (there is something slightly obscene about proofreading, it’s like having someone else put words in your mouth, they almost always taste funny…). I once did some rough and ready stats on the percentages of people of a given language who will be engaged in not-for-profit localization (of mainstream projects like Firefox or LibreOffice). It’s about ONE active localizer for every 500,000 speakers. So German can call upon something like 20 really active localizers. Scottish Gaelic on the other hand statistically has … well, it has less than 60,000 speakers. You work it out. So it’s seriously blessed by having TWO of them.

In any case, even if you disbelieve my figures (I’d be the first to admit to not being great shakes at numbers), the percentages are really small. So if you set up a translation process that necessitates not only translation but also peer review, you’re essentially screwing small languages because the chances are there will never be a reviewer with enough time or energy (never mind ability) to review stuff. It’s one of the reasons why we haven’t touched WhatsApp yet, they simply won’t let a translation into live without review.

So if you design a process like that and want to make sure you’re not creating big problems for smaller languages (and we’re not just talking Gaelic-style tiny languages, even languages like Kazakh or Estonian have such problems) make sure you

  • allow enough wriggle-room to over-ride such requirements, for example by allowing a localizer to demonstrate their credentials (for example through long-term participation in other projects) and
  • design a system where, if it’s absolutely necessary to set specific tags, admins can bulk-tag translations for a certain language.

Over and out.

All look same, eh?

15/09/2012 5 comments

I must have been an elephant in another life, given how much time I seem to spend these days shaking my head over “avoidable stupidity”. Or maybe I’m just becoming a grumpy old man. That might be it – I’m losing the ability of youth to look at a slice of cold pizza and go “yummmm”. These days, I look at it and think “The cheese is hard, the cat sniffed it, I can’t even remember when I ordered it” and chuck it out. Ah but I digress.

This week’s headshaker is the way we seem to be loosing control to the developers, control over things that should not be in the remit of developers. Things like letting some algorithm “identify” the language of web content and adjusting my search results based on that. Who dreamt that up? No idea but I bet he was white, monolingual and only had the faintest notion that apart from English, there’s that thing the people making tacos speak and then maybe the thing the Chinese takeaway people use. Choice of three – easy, if L does not equal English, check for non-Latin. If it’s non-Latin in must be Chinese, if it is, it’s Spanish. At least that’s the way it comes across.

The problem is, dear developer, that there’s a great many languages out there and there’s quite a few which are fairly close to each other. Like Irish and Scottish Gaelic for example. So if you’re decide to automatically identify content by language and modify my search results based on that, then bloody well make sure you get it right! Anything else is just seriously annoying unless you give me the option of manually tweaking it.

Given that it’s not like it’s impossible to teach a computer to figure out the difference (for one, Irish uses acutes, Gaelic graves… the one goes up, the other one down, see?) it also raises the question of exactly whom they’re getting to program this stuff? High school students?

Probably not actually, I suspect they’re all really good at code. But listening to my other half, a business consultant with his very own set of why-oh-why’s, I suspect the problem actually is NOT the ability to do code. It’s lack of guidance at all levels. The way big companies hire folk these days goes something like this:

  1. Company A identifies an apparent problem. Without making sure they identify the root cause, they call for a Fixer-of-Problem-A. First mistake. You’re granny breaking her ankle may be the apparent problem but without checking, you don’t know if the problem is actually osteoporosis.
  2. So, having rightly or wrongly identified the problem, these days, a job spec gets sent to an agency. Second mistake. They usually get the wrong person to write the job spec, which means the agency is already at the receiving end of a potential mis-diagnosis and a badly written job spec. I’ve seen some of these… the really bad ones are the equivalent of needing a plumber and calling for someone with a proven track record in “the physical aspects of interior decoration as relates to waste disposal”. Yes. THAT bad.
  3. So we move onto mistake four. The agency usually adds its own flavour of inane, if not misleading, waffle. Using the plumber again, they add something about needing an end-to-end CV showing more than 20 years of experience in toilet seat lifting in blue-chip companies.
  4. Because it’s an IT related job everyone on this daisy chain assumes that the fixer and/or overseer of the fixing have to be IT people. Wrong. Fifth mistake. Of course you need IT folk to do the black magic but the overseer of the circus does not have to be one. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that they shouldn’t be one. Developers, when left to their own devices, tend to lose themselves in coding “fun” stuff. A failing I guess we all suffer from in our respective domains but for some reason, we let developers get away with policing themselves. In other words, a herd of sheep needs a sheepdog and a shepherd for guidance and direction, not another sheep. The sheepdog and shepherd should have a track record of having dealt with sheep but they don’t have to be sheep themselves.

I reckon it’s this nauseating daisy-chain of mistakes which blesses us with nonsense like the above. We need the coder to do the fancy stuff which, for example, helps identify the content of web pages. Jolly good, I can see the use of that if well done. But it should not be left to the developers to decide that is what’s needed right now, what it will do, how it gets tested, how it gets implemented and how to make sure the user has the necessary control over it if they need it. For that, we need a shepherd who’s not a sheep. If we manage that, I suspect we’d see fewer Siris, fewer counter-intuitive user interfaces, better language in the interfaces and a way of stopping Google from asking me every two seconds if I want to translate this damn page. No, I’m multilingual, and besides, running Irish machine translation over Gaelic won’t work anyway, dammit!