Writing, part 0 – Optimus Popularis keyboard

In 2008 the Russian design firm Art.Lebedev Studio released a groundbreaking product: The Optimus Maximus keyboard. It’s a keyboard in which every key is a display that changes according to its function – for example, it shows “QWERTY” if the Shift key is pressed and “qwerty” otherwise. Of course, it also shows completely different letters if a different language is selected, for example “ןוטארק” for Hebrew.

The Optimus was quite hot in the gadget lovers’ circles, which is rather strange, because gadget lovers think that they are too cool for any languages except English, and i can hardly imagine this keyboard being really useful to anybody except linguists. Unfortunately, it costs over $2,000, and that’s the kind of money that linguists usually don’t have.

I thought that since the tablet computers with on-screen keyboards are the hottest thing in the world now, there won’t be a new version of the Optimus keyboard. Apparently, i was wrong: Art.Lebedev is taking pre-orders for the “Optimus Popularis“, a cheaper version of “Optimus Maximus”. It is cheaper, because it has less display keys.

Relatively cheaper – it still costs over a thousand dollars, for which one could buy two good tablets or three netbooks. But what’s much worse is that it doesn’t have PageUp, PageDown, Home and End keys.

Quite possibly the designers of Optimus Popularis conducted a research and found that few people actually use these keys. Quite possibly it’s even true. But i use them all the time, and will be absolutely unable to use a keyboard that doesn’t have them for more than a minute.

That’s because these keys are an essential part of my writing experience. I need quick ways to go back and forth, to the beginning and to the end of the document and of the line. Otherwise i am unable to write.

So no, i don’t want an Optimus Popularis keyboard, even for much less money. I just won’t use it. I can hardly imagine anyone who will use it seriously.

This was the first in a series of posts about writing in computers.

Keyboards, Firefox, Chrome and Privacy

I hardly ever used Google Chrome because of a bug that made the Ctrl-arrow keyboard shortcut work incorrectly in right-to-left languages. This shortcut works makes the cursor jump a word to the left or to the right. In Hebrew and Arabic it would jump to the left when the right arrow was be pressed. It works well in most other programs, but since Chrome doesn’t use the operating system’s text editing capabilities, this worked incorrectly.

I write a lot of email, blog posts and Wikipedia articles and this keyboard shortcut is essential for me, so if it doesn’t work correctly in a program, i simply cannot use it and will use the competitor, in my case Firefox. Since i love Firefox anyway, it was not really a problem for me.

It took more than two years to do it, but this bug is more or less solved now and the fix will probably be released soon. I am now trying a preliminary version and the Ctrl-arrow shortcut seems to work correctly. However, as i expected, i quickly found other problems because of which i cannot use Google Chrome. Long story short, i cannot write Russian there. It’s not that it’s impossible – it’s just way too hard for me.

I could enable the Russian keyboard layout in my operating system, but it would be very hard to use for me. Keyboards sold in my country usually come with Latin and Hebrew letters printed on the keys and not Russian. It’s possible to buy a keyboard with Russian letters on it, and i did it once, but it didn’t help me much. You see, i write Russian several times a day, but less often than i write Hebrew or English, and the Russian layout is very different from the Latin layout, so i type in it very slowly even if i have the letters in front of my eyes.

Since 2006 my solution for this issue was the Transliterator add-on for Firefox, created by Alex Benenson (thank you so much, Alex). It was first called “ToCyrillic”, because it only helped with the Cyrillic alphabet, but later it was adapted to many other languages. It allows me to type Russian phonetically, so the Latin ‘b’ is automatically converted to Cyrillic ‘б’, ‘sh’ becomes ‘ш’ etc. It works everywhere in Firefox – websites’ input fields, the address bar, the dialog windows etc.

I couldn’t find anything like it for Chrome. It’s possible that i didn’t look well enough, but the add-ons i did find that claimed to do transliteration, phonetic typing or keyboard emulation either did something completely different or asked me to allow the add-on access my data on all websites and my tabs and browsing activity. I don’t understand why such an add-on would need access to my data and browsing activity – it is only supposed to translate the characters i type into other characters and forget it.

It’s possible that the message that tells me about these privacy implications is over-zealous and the add-ons in question don’t actually breach my privacy, but it is still weird to see them, so i didn’t install them.

So there – i still have a strong reason not to move to Google Chrome. It’s not really Google’s fault. In fact, i could myself develop an extension that does something that i want – the source and the API are open and it’s probably not a lot of work. But why would i waste even a minute of my time doing such a thing if i already have Firefox and its Transliterator add-on that work perfectly well? You could say that Google Chrome is faster and uses less memory; it is not quite true in the first place, and even if it would be true, i wouldn’t care about it, because being able to write the language i want is far more important than minor differences in performance.

As a side note, in some Google websites it’s possible to type in transliteration. However, it works only on these particular sites and needs the machine to be online, because it uses a web service to translate every word. That is weird software design and has rather unacceptable privacy implications.

Wikipedia already has phonetic typing support in Malayalam, Tamil and other languages and soon it is going to be deployed to other languages. It works in-place – it translates the text immediately in the browser letter by letter. Of course, it only works in one website; it would be better to help people to enable their native keyboard layouts rather than do it in only one website, but apparently doing it this way helps people start writing and searching immediately. More details on that soon.

MozCamp Berlin 2011, part 3 – Hackasaurus

One especially awesome project i learned about at MozCamp Berlin is Hackasaurus. (Big thanks to Alina for convincing me to attend the talk about it.)

The Hackasaurus mascot - a girl with a dinosaur tale wearing goggles and holding a laptop
The Hackasaurus mascot

Hackasaurus is a set of software tools and workflows to teach young people web programming. Its technical centerpiece, the “X-Ray Goggles”, is a tool that works similarly to Firebug and Google Chrome Developer tools: it helps the user examine and change, or “remix”, the inner workings of a web page – the structure of HTML elements and CSS styles. It has less features than the above tools, but it is designed to have just enough to get average people started with understanding web technologies. It is also laughably easy to install: it’s not even an add-on – you only need to add a bookmark.

According to the Hackasaurus creators Jess Klein and Atul Varma, even though the tool was intended for children, it is being used for learning about web technologies by people of all ages who were curious about web development, but found other HTML tutorials too hard.

And it works not just in Firefox, but in other browsers, too. That is one more example of how the Mozilla movement is not just about Firefox, but about Loving the web.

Hackasaurus can be easily translated to other languages using Pootle. I already translated most of it to Hebrew. Special thanks to Atul for creating the page dev.hksr.us which is frequently updated with the translations in progress – it is essential for testing the localized version. For example, i can see that the right-to-left directionality of Hackasaurus in Hebrew must still be fixed – i hope to find the time to do it myself as soon as possible.

And most importantly, i am thinking of using the tool to start teaching web development in a fun way in the schools in my area. This has been done successfully in Barcelona, New York, Brighton, Nairobi and other places and i plan to add Jerusalem and Haifa to this list soon.

MozCamp Berlin 2011, part 2

Except the general topic of Loving the Web, there was another important topic present in almost every time slot of MozCamp Berlin 2011, a topic that interest me more than anything else in software: localization. I attended most of the localization talks and gave one myself.

MozCamp Berlin 2011 WorldReady
MozCamp Berlin 2011 WorldReady
  • Vito Smolej from Slovenia gave two important talks about Translation Memory, especially in OmegaT. Translation Memory is barely used in Mozilla localization projects, even though it could make things much more efficient and Vito showed some ways in which it could be employed.
  • Jean-Bernard Marcon from France talked about the state of the BabelZilla site, which is used to translate Mozilla add-ons. Gladly, i didn’t have to tell him that despite the impressive amount of localizations that are done at that site, it is very problematic because of numerous technical issues – he said himself that he’s well aware of them and is going to replace the software completely Real Soon Now. I found it a little strange, however, that Jean-Bernard is happy about using the site for translating only Mozilla add-ons and doesn’t want to extend it to any other projects – say, Firefox itself. Oh well, as long as he maintains the add-ons site well, i’m happy.
  • Chris Hofmann and Jeff Beatty gave a great presentation about the present and the future of organizing localization groups and communicating about it. Frankly, it’s not all that i hoped to hear, but i’m really happy just to know that Mozilla, like Wikimedia, now has a guy whose job is to communicate about localization.

And i gave a talk that compares the localization of Mozilla and MediaWiki, the software behind Wikipedia. The slides are here. Many people who attended it said that it was bold of me to say these rather negative things about Mozilla. It is somewhat true – it is quite bold of me to use the first major Mozilla event i attend as a bully pulpit to promote my other project, but the talk was generally well-received. I believe that i succeeded at making my point: Both Mozilla and MediaWiki are leaders in the world of massively localized Free Software and both projects have things to learn from each other – Mozilla can simplify its translation workflow and consider converging its currently sprawling tools and procedures, as it is in MediaWiki, and MediaWiki can learn a lot from Mozilla about building the localization teams as communities of people and about quality control.

Finally, i was very glad to meet Dwayne Bailey and Alexandru Szasz – developers of Pootle and Narro, two localization tools used in the Mozilla world. Talking to them was very interesting and inspiring – they both understand well the importance of localization and the shortcomings of the current tools, including the ones that they are developing, and they are keen on fixing them. As a result of this excellent meeting i completed the translation of Pootle itself into Hebrew. And there is more to come.

MozCamp Berlin 2011, part 1

On November 12–13 i participated in MozCamp Berlin. (I’m writing this late-ish, because a day after that i went to India to participate in a Wikimedia conference and not one, but two hackathons. That was a crazy month.)

In the past i participated in small events of the Israeli Mozilla community, but this was my first major Mozilla-centric event.

MozCamp Berlin 2011 group photo
MozCamp Berlin 2011 group photo. Notice the fox on the left and yours truly on the right.

The biggest thing that i take from this event is the understanding that i belong to this community of people who love the web. I never properly realized it earlier; i somehow thought that loving the web is a given. It is not.

Johnathan Nightingale, director of Firefox Engineering repeated the phrase “we <3 the web” several times in his keynote speech. And this is the thing that makes the Mozilla community special.

Firefox is not the only good web browser. Opera and Google Chrome are reasonably good, too. Frankly, they are even better than Firefox in some features, though i find them less essential.

Firefox is not the only web browser that strives to implement web standards. Opera, Google Chrome and even recent versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer try to do that, too.

Firefox is not even the only web browser that is Free Software. So is Chromium.

But Firefox and the Mozilla community around it love the web. I don’t really have a solid way to explain it – it’s mostly a feeling. And with other browsers i just don’t have it. They help people surf the web, but they aren’t in the business of loving it.

And this is important, because the Internet is not just a piece of technical infrastructure that helps people communicate, do business and find information and entertainment. The Internet is a culture in itself – worthy of appreciation in itself and worthy of love in itself – and the Mozilla community is there to make it happen.

Some people would understand from this that Firefox is for the nerds who care about the technology more than they care about going out every once in a while. It isn’t. It’s not, in fact, just about a browser. It’s about the web – more and more Mozilla is not just developing a great browser, but also technologies and trends that affect all users of all browsers, rather than target markets. By using Firefox you get as close as you can to the cutting edge, not just of cool new features, but of openness and equality. Some people may find this ideology boring and pointless; i find it important, because without it the Internet would not be where it is today. Imagine an Internet in which the main sites you visit every day are not Facebook, Wikipedia, Google and your favorite blogs, but msn.com… and nothing but msn.com. Without Mozilla that’s how the Internet would probably look today. Without Mozilla something like this may well happen in the future.

Thanks a lot to William Quiviger, Pierros Papadeas, Greg Jost and all the other hard-working people who produced this great event.

More about it in the next couple of posts very soon.