Archive for August, 2011

Differences Between Things

The search box in Wikipedia suggests auto-completion when you start typing. For example, if you type “je” in the English Wikipedia search box, you’ll get the suggestions “Jews”, “Jewish”, “Jerusalem”, “Jesus”. (Jews kick ass!)

Jews Kick Ass. Henry Winkler, Albert Einstein, Sammy Davis Jr., Jesus, William Shatner, Bob Dylan

If you search for “differences between”, you’ll get this list:

auto-suggestions at Wikipedia for "differences between"

The top spot belongs to “Differences between editions of Dungeons & Dragons” and that shouldn’t be surprising: the article “List of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition monsters” only recently lost its first place in the list of the longest English Wikipedia articles by number of bytes to “‎2011 ITF Men’s Circuit” (it’s something in tennis).

Out of ten suggestions, six are related to languages. American and British English are considered one language, but everybody admits that it has many variations by pronunciation, spelling, vocabulary and many other parameters, and lots of people love to bicker about the spelling of “meter” and “aluminum”. Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian are one language that has different names for reasons that are more political than linguistic. Something similar can probably be said about Malaysian and Indonesian, Norwegian Bokmål and Standard Danish and Scottish Gaelic and Irish, but i know very little about these pairs.

Spanish and Portuguese are related, but definitely separate and mostly mutually unintelligible languages. It’s been said that it is easier for Portuguese speakers to understand Spanish speakers than the other way around, which is interesting, but it doesn’t really justify an encyclopedic article, as in the other cases. In fact, i am somewhat surprised that “Differences between Brazilian and European Portuguese dialects” is not in the list, given the huge number of arguments about it in the Portuguese – sorry, Lusophone – Wikipedia.

“Butterflies and moths” is probably the most serious article in this list, but that’s probably because i’m not a Biologist.

And the last two articles are about movies (James Bond – movies vs. novels) and religion (Codex Sinaiticus vs. Vaticanus), which is also very Wikipedia, the encyclopedia about which someone said that it has more stamp collectors than good writers. (Citation needed; I can’t find the original quote.)

The Software Localization Paradox

Wikimania in Haifa was great. Plenty of people wrote blog posts about it; the world doesn’t need a yet another post about how great it was.

What the world does need is more blog posts about the great ideas that grew in the little hallway conversations there. One of the things that i discussed with many people at Wikimania is what i call The Software Localization Paradox. That’s an idea that has been bothering me for about a year. I tried to look for other people who wrote about it online and couldn’t find anything.

Like any other translation, software localization is best done by people who know well both the original language in which the software interface was written – usually English, and the target language. People who don’t know English strongly prefer to use software in a language they know. If the software is not available in their language, they will either not use it at all or will have to memorize lots of otherwise meaningless English strings and locations of buttons. People who do know English often prefer to use software in English even if it is available in their native language. The two most frequent explanations for that is that the translation is bad and that people who want to use computers should learn English anyway. The problem is that for various reasons lots of people will never learn English even if it would be mandatory in schools and useful for business. They will have to suffer the bad translations and will have no way to fix it.

I’ve been talking to people at Wikimania about this, especially people from India. (I also spoke to people from Thailand, Russia, Greece and other countries, but Indians were the biggest group.) All of them knew English and at least one language of India. The larger group of Indian Wikipedians to whom i spoke preferred English for most communication, especially online, even if they had computers and mobile phones that supported Indian languages; some of them even preferred to speak English at home with their families. They also preferred reading and writing articles in the English Wikipedia. The second, smaller, group preferred the local language. Most of these people also happened to be working on localizing software, such as MediaWiki and Firefox.

So this is the paradox – to fix localization bugs, someone must notice them, and to notice them, more people who know English must use localized software, but people who know English rarely use localized software. That’s why lately i’ve been evangelizing about it. Even people who know English well should use software in their language – not to boost their national pride, but to help the people who speak that language and don’t know English. They should use the software especially if it’s translated badly, because they are the only ones who can report bugs in the translation or fix the bugs themselves.

(A side note: Needless to say, Free Software is much more convenient for localization, because proprietary software companies are usually too hard to even approach about this matter; they only pay translators if they have a reason to believe that it will increase sales. This is another often overlooked advantage of Free Software.)

I am glad to say that i convinced most people to whom i spoke about it at Wikimania to at least try to use Firefox in their native language and taught them where to report bugs about it. I also challenged them to write at least one article in the Wikipedia in their own language, such as Hindi, Telugu or Kannada – as useful as the English Wikipedia is to the world, Telugu Wikipedia is much more useful for people who speak Telugu, but no English. I already saw some results.

I am now looking for ideas and verifiable data to develop this concept further. What are the best strategies to convince people that they should use localized software? For example: How economically viable is software localization? What is cheaper for an education department of a country – to translate software for schools or to teach all the students English? Or: How does the absence of localized software affect different geographical areas in Africa, India, the Middle East?

Any ideas about this are very welcome.

Type O Negative, part 2

Since my previous and very negative post about Google+ i played with it a little more. Apparently, a lot of my misunderstanding was related to actual bugs in its interface – for example, people that i’m not supposed to follow appear in my stream. I guess that it’s understandable, given that the service is so young.

I do have something very nice to say about it – it has an excellent interface for reporting bugs. You simply click the problematic area on the screen, write a description and submit the report. It is very buggy on Firefox, but i can understand that, too, hoping that they will fix it. It does work well in Google Chrome, but i can’t really use it, because Chrome’s right-to-left editing support is very bad. The sad thing is that after the report is submitted i don’t have a way to know what happens to it. Public bug tracking is one of the most common, most appealing, and most overlooked features of Free Software. However, reporting bugs in Free Software projects is a relatively hard process – the interface of bug tracking software such as Bugzilla is intimidating and lots of people don’t even know that they can use it.

I hope that Free Software web frameworks such as MediaWiki (Wikipedia’s engine), WordPress and Drupal, will adopt a similar model for reporting bugs and combine it with the already excellent concept of public bug tracking. If that would be Google+’s contribution to the web, it would be enough to say that it doesn’t suck.



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