Where to read about the Elections in India?

There is an election process going on in India, which is frequently called “the world’s largest democracy” and an “upcoming world power”. Both descriptions are quite true, so elections in such a country should be pretty important, shouldn’t they?

Because of my work I have a lot of Facebook friends in India, and they frequently write about it. Mostly in English, and sometimes in their own languages—Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam and others. Even when it’s in English I hardly understand anything, however, because it is coming from people who are immersed in the India culture.

It is similar with Indian English-language news sites, such as The Times of India: The language is English, but to me it feels like information overload, and there are too many words that are known to Indians, but not to me.

With English-language news sites outside of India, such as CNN, BBC and The Guardian it’s the opposite: they give too little attention to this topic. I already know pretty much everything that they have to say: a huge number of people are voting, Narendra Modi from the BJP is likely to become the new prime minister and the Congress party is likely to become weaker.

Russian and Hebrew sites hardly mention it at all.

What’s left? Wikipedia, of course. Though far from perfect, the English Wikipedia page Indian general election, 2014 gives a good summary of the topic for people who are not Indians. It links terms that are not known to foreigners, such as “Lok Sabha” and “UPA” to their Wikipedia articles, so learning about them requires just one click. When they are mentioned in The Times of India, I have to open Wikipedia and read about them, so why not do it in Wikipedia directly?

This also happens to be the first Google result for “india elections”. And if you go the page “Elections in India” in Wikipedia, a note on the top conveniently sends you directly to the page about the ongoing election process. Compare this to the Britannica website: searching it for “india elections” yields results that are hardly useful—there’s hardly anything about elections in India in general, let alone about the current one.

One thing that I didn’t like is the usage of characteristic Indian words such as “lakh” and “crore”, which mean, respectively, “a hundred thousands” and “ten millions”. I replaced most of their occurrences in the article with the usual international numbers, and I think that I found a calculation mistake on the way.

So while Wikipedia is, again, far from perfect, its “wisdom of the crowds” system works surprisingly well time after time.

WikiAcademy Kosovo 2014 or, “This Israeli geek made a joke about hobbits. You won’t believe what happened next.”

In late February 2014 I attended WikiAcademy in Kosovo.

What do most people know about Kosovo? That it’s a place somewhere… um… they kinda heard about in the news some time ago.

What it actually is? It’s a partially recognized country, which was in the past part of Serbia and Yugoslavia. It is mostly populated by Albanians, with small minorities of Serbs, Turks and others.

The ethnic difference between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia caused many tensions. In the 1990s and 2000s the area experienced a lot violence. NATO and much of Europe supported Kosovo’s independence, Serbia and Russia objected, and after the Kosovo war the region emerged as a de-facto independent state. Some countries recognized it and some didn’t.

Sadly, as it happens very often, what most people hear about such places is a lot of news about violence and very little stories about anything else—history, culture, architecture, language, music. I definitely care a lot about these positive things, and not much about the wars.

I flew via Istanbul, and the lady at the boarding didn’t quite know what to do with my passport: she looked for a visa and when she couldn’t find one, she just asked me whether I need one. I said that I didn’t and she let me on the plane. The passport control guy on arrival also didn’t know whether Israelis need a visa and had to check a table. I guess that not many Israelis come there, which is a shame, really.

Right from the airport my hosts took me to a different event: a BarCamp in Prizren. Prizren is absolutely beautiful. The Byrek—what we call “Burekas” in Israel—is delicious, the beer is fantastic, the streets are beautiful and the buildings are magnificent. Magnificent not like in France, but like in… Kosovo. In the Balkans. Down to Earth and human.

Prizren, Stone bridge and Sinan Pasha Mosque. Tobias Klenze, CC-BY-SA 3.0

Prizren, Stone bridge and Sinan Pasha Mosque. Tobias Klenze, CC-BY-SA 3.0

In the BarCamp there were three talks: two in Albanian, which I sadly don’t know, about… some Open Source projects. The third one was mine, about that-website-that-we-all-know-and-love. I used just one “slide”—xkcd’s famous protester, which, to my surprise, a lot of people in the audience didn’t recognize. I invited people to contribute, of course, and I enjoyed answering a question about how concepts such as “love” can be referenced and fact-checked. The bar is which the event was held is called “Hobbiton”, which is appropriately adorned with multiple Tolkien-themed posters. The Albanian Wikipedia, however, didn’t have an article about Hobbits, which I mentioned in my talk, with hope that it would be written. Was it? Stay tuned.

My second and third day in Kosovo were dedicated to WikiAcademy itself—first in the town of Gjakova and then in the capital, Prishtina.

So what is the WikiAcademy in Kosovo? It’s an event organized by IPKO Foundation, a local organization that promotes modern telecommunications in Kosovo. This event is different from what we call “WikiAcademy” in Israel, which is more like an academic conference with talks—in Kosovo it’s more like a Wikipedia editing workshop for newcomers, but a very large one. The 2014 edition of WikiAcademy is the second edition of this event, and it was held over three weekends in two cities—Gjakova and the capital Prishtina, with participants from several more cities. Over two hundred people participated.

The organizers, some of whom are experienced Wikipedians themselves, prepared the event very well. The logistics were great—working wifi, tasty food and comfortable transportation—but more importantly, the participants were very well-prepared for their task of writing Wikipedia articles: they received clear topics and instructions about writing with correct encyclopedic style and citing sources.

The articles were written in the English Wikipedia. The topics of the articles were all about cities of Kosovo: their architecture and monuments, education, events, festivals, culture, history and nature. Most people probably never heard about cities with unusual names such as Peja (a.k.a. Peć), Ferizaj (a.k.a. Uroševac) and Štrpce and well, now they are not just mentioned in the English Wikipedia by name, but there are several detailed articles about different topics related to each of them.

I’ll reiterate this: It was fantastic to see people sitting with reference books and encyclopedias to be able to cite sources. So often this is the biggest challenge in Wikipedia editing workshops, and the organizers prepared the participants very well. It was also great that everybody knew which articles are they working on.

My role was to give three talks, about Wikipedia’s encyclopedic writing style, about good practices for talk pages, and about translating articles, and other than that—to help people write, cite sources correctly, insert images, and make sure that they don’t violate any policies. It was challenging and tiring, but oh so fun. Hackathons and Wikipedia meet-ups are possibly the only kinds of events where I’m continuously so energized and talkative.

People sitting with laptops in a room

WikiAcademy Prishtina. Katie Chan, CC-BY-SA 4.0.

I also did my best to showcase Wikimedia’s newest software: VisualEditor, which the newbies just loved, and the Content Translation prototype.

During my talk about translation, I created, as a demo, two articles in Albanian: Hobbit (as promised above!), and Haifa, the city that hosted Wikimania 2011.

After I came back, the event continued. I was one of the judges that chose the best articles and photos for awarding prizes. The big winner was the well-deserving Historical monuments in Prishtina, although many others were wonderful: Flaka e Janarit, Rugova Mountains, Health Care in Kosovo, Water in Prishtina. The awards ceremony was held a few days after that.

There was also a bit of a dark side to the contest: Because most of the writers were newbies, and none were English speakers, there were many little innocent mistakes in spelling, referencing and writing style, which the English Wikipedia editors took very seriously. Some articles were even proposed for deletion, although all (or almost all) were kept. This, again, raises the well-known dilemma—it’s important to keep Wikipedia’s standards high, but it’s just as important to remain nice in the process and not “bite the newcomers”.

My thanks go out to the excellent organizers: Arianit Dobroshi, Gent Thaçi, Abetare Gojani, Rineta Hoxha, Altin Ukshini, Lis Balaj and many others. I enjoyed every minute, and learned a lot.


This post mostly uses Albanian spellings of place names. I do that simply because that’s what I saw during my visit. Don’t consider this post authoritative with regards to the preferred English spellings. Wikipedia may use different spellings, and they are not so consistent.

Polish up the gray

Vladimir Putin started his rule in 2000 from getting his businessman friends to take over the biggest independent Russian newspapers and TV stations, most notably NTV. Initially it continued working as usual, but gradually it became an utterly pro-Putin propaganda station, even worse than the major Russian state channels.

It seemed like the Internet was much more free to criticize the Russian government, but everybody who cared about free press in Russia guessed that the Putin regime knows it, doesn’t like it, and plans to act on it. What happened in 2000 with TV and printed media is happening now with online Russian media. The biggest independent Russian news sources, Gazeta.ru and Lenta.ru, were taken over by SUP, a Russian media company owned by a Putin ally. They initially carried on, but lately their editors in chief were fired, and most of staff resigned as well.

In addition, the popular private cable TV channel Dozhd (a.k.a. tvrain), is being essentially shut down – Russian cable operators stop transmitting it because it carried an “unpatriotic” poll a few weeks ago. It was obviously just an excuse; in fact, lots of people were surprised that it survived for so long despite consistent anti-Putin criticism.

SUP also owns LiveJournal—a pioneering free blogging service, which lost its popularity in the west to WordPress and tumblr long ago, but which is still the leading blogs service in Russia. It’s only a matter of time until it becomes censored as well.

And you know, I could be dramatic about this and say that Russia is in trouble and all that, but actually it’s a very personal problem for me. I left that country for good many years ago, and I call only Israel my home, but I still care about Russia and read news from it every day. I don’t have any reasonable source for Russian news anymore. Radio Free Europe is too anti-Putin to my taste; not in the sense that I like something about Putin (I don’t), but in the sense that it hardly talks about anything else. Pretty much all other independent Russian news sources are weird in some not-so-useful way; mostly Stalinist. I used to read Russian “patriotic”—i.e. antisemitic—sites as a hobby for years, but it became too repetitive to be entertaining. Lenta.ru wasn’t nice to Putin at all, but it also gave me other news from Russia. I don’t want to give up and succumb to reading nothing but Putin propaganda or anti-Putin propaganda. Russia is so much more than that; Life is so much more than that. But I don’t know what to do.

With great sadness I removed Lenta.ru from my RSS reader. I don’t want my brain to melt gradually. I need to find a new source for Russian news, although it may take time.

Here’s to hoping that at least wordpress.com won’t be taken over by a Russian company.

The Original Snakes on a Plane

It may seem tasteless to many of you, but I just had to share it. The lost Malaysian airplane story reminds me of an 1980s Polish-Soviet adventure-sci-fi film “The Curse of Snake Valley”.

It was, without doubt, inspired by Indiana Jones films: a Polish linguistics professor deciphers an ancient manuscript that promises “great power” to anybody who recovers a treasure from South-East Asian temple. He goes to recover it with the help of an aging French tough guy, who turns out to be a villain who wants the power to himself, and a tastelessly sexy female French journalist, who also turns out to be a villain working on behalf of a sinister organization, which – you guessed it – also wants to take over that mysterious power. The treasure turns out to be a biological weapon brought to Earth by aliens who have a thing for snakes (yet another Dr. Jones reference). When the first test of the weapon goes awry and kills the sinister organization’s boss, the new boss sends it for testing in a Pacific atoll, and the airplane that carries it disappears in the sky.

This is the Russian-dubbed version. You can see the airplane scene at 1:31:30.

Don’t have big expectations: The movie was voted in a poll in Poland as one of the worst Polish movies ever. It was, however, a huge hit with Soviet children back in 1988. I went to see it in the neighborhood cinema at least three times, and I had oh so many discussions with my friends about the deep meanings in its plot.

And, well, yes, it reminds of the odd Malaysian story. Can’t help it. At least it’s an opportunity to tell a strange little story from my Soviet childhood.

Weird GMail Habit: Removing Control Characters

GMail has a weirdish feature that probably very few people except me know about. When using it with a Hebrew user interface, invisible control characters—LRM, RLM, RLE, LRE and the like—are added to some strings to make them appear correctly in a mixed-direction interface.

Most notably, they are added to email addresses. I sometimes want to copy these email addresses as text, and my mouse pointer picks the control characters as well. Of course, these control characters are by themselves invisible to humans, but very much visible to computers, and an email address with these characters is not correct, even if it appears to be the same to human eyes.

It already became a habit for me to carefully delete and manually restore the first and the last characters of an email address to make sure that the control characters are removed.

It would be better if GMail just used the <bdi> element or CSS bidi isolation. They are fairly well supported in modern browsers and provide better experience.

Air Holes

I drank a glass of something that tasted like water and somehow found out that it was Phenylalanine. Recalling that it’s a lethal poison, I rushed to check whether I can save my life. I found the website of the people who invented it. It was written in a modern informal Web 2.0 style and said something like this:

The only antidote is to drink as much clean cold water as you can to dilute the toxicity during the first 18 minutes since intake. After that you can try drilling air holes in your casket, but we doubt that it will help.

I drank a lot of water and it saved my life.

It was a dream, of course. Phenylalanine is not a lethal poison, and it’s likely that we all consume a lot of it every day. It’s not the first time that I dream about poisoning from a substance that is not a poison in real life; last time I remember this happening, it was Papaverine.

Most curiously, it was in English. That probably has something to do with the fact that despite preaching to use native languages, I still mostly search the web in English for useful life-saving stuff, and that I get most of my humor in English as well.

It may also have something to do with Stan’s Previously Used Coffins.

The Case for Localizing Names, part 2

My name is written Amir Elisha Aharoni in English. In Hebrew it’s אמיר אלישע אהרוני, in Russian it’s Амир Элиша Аарони, in Hindi it’s अमीर एलिशा अहरोनि. It could be written in hundreds of other languages in many different ways.

More importantly, if I fill a form in Hebrew, I should write my name in Hebrew and not in English or in any other language.

Based on this simple notion, I wrote a post a year ago in support of localizing people’s names. I basically suggested, that it should be possible to have a person’s name written in more than one language in social networks, “from” and “to” fields in email, and in any other relevant place. Facebook allows doing this, but in a very rudimentary way; for example, the number of possible languages is very limited.

Today I am participating in the Open Source Language Summit in the Red Hat offices in Pune. Here we have, among many other talented an interesting people, two developers from the Mifos project, which creates Free software for microfinance. Mifos is being translated in translatewiki.net, a software translation site of which I am one of the developers.

Nayan Ambali, one of the Mifos developers, told me that they actually plan to implement a name localization feature in their software. This is not related to software localization, where a pre-defined set of strings is translated. It is something to be translated by the users of Mifos itself. The particular reason why Mifos needs such a feature comes from its nature as microfinance software: financial documents must be filled in the language of each country for legal purposes. Therefore, a Mifos user in the Indian state of Karnataka may need to have her name written in the software in English, Hindi, and Kannada – different languages, which are needed in different documents.

A simple sketch of database structure for storing names in multiple languages

A simple sketch of database structure for storing names in multiple languages

Such a feature is quite simple to implement. In the backend this means that the name must be stored in a separate table that will hold names in different languages; see the sketch I made with Nayan above. On the frontend it will need a widget for adding names in different languages, similar to the one that Wikidata has; see the screenshot below.

The name of Steven Spielberg in many languages in Wikidata, with an option to add more languages

The name of Steven Spielberg in many languages in Wikidata, with an option to add more languages

Of course, there’s also the famous problem of falsehoods that programmers believe about names, but this would be a good first step that can provide a good example to other programs.


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