Archive for the 'education' Category

Beggar Old

A strange little childhood memory about Percy Bysshe Shelley and me.

It was 1990 or so. I lived in Moscow and studied in the fifth or six grade in a special school with deepened learning of English, which means that English is taught from the second grade, almost every day, and by good teachers. In case it isn’t clear, it’s very good.

The English teacher asked everyone to choose an English poem, to learn it by heart and to recite it in class. I didn’t quite know what to choose, and my parents suggested I phone a relative who knew English well. He suggested Summer And Winter by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

It was a bright and cheerful afternoon,
Towards the end of the sunny month of June,
When the north wind congregates in crowds
The floating mountains of the silver clouds
From the horizon—and the stainless sky
Opens beyond them like eternity.
All things rejoiced beneath the sun; the weeds,
The river, and the cornfields, and the reeds;
The willow leaves that glanced in the light breeze,
And the firm foliage of the larger trees.

It was a winter such as when birds die
In the deep forests; and the fishes lie
Stiffened in the translucent ice, which makes
Even the mud and slime of the warm lakes
A wrinkled clod as hard as brick; and when,
Among their children, comfortable men
Gather about great fires, and yet feel cold:
Alas, then, for the homeless beggar old!

If it looks very difficult and bleak for a ten year old elementary schools student, then it’s because it is, indeed, difficult and bleak.

I don’t remember how exactly did he get the poem’s text to me. He lived in another neighborhood of Moscow, quite far away. It was 1990, so he didn’t email it, of course. He didn’t photocopy it, either. I remember that it was handwritten. Maybe he sent it as a letter or maybe my parents met him and he gave it to them after manually copying from a book.

I don’t have the slightest idea why did that relative choose this poem. He spoke to me on the phone and explained all the difficult words, but he didn’t explain what’s special about it. Is it famous? Does he love it dearly for some personal reason? Does it have a relevant social message? Maybe—just maybe—we were supposed to choose something related to seasons or weather?

A day later I showed this to my English teacher and she was shocked by the difficulty and offered something much simpler. I don’t remember what it was, but I followed her advice. I did, however, remembered the last line with “alas”, and “beggar old”.

I’d love to speak to this relative some day and ask him what was he thinking.


Disease of Familiarity, the Flaw of Wikipedia

Originally written as an answer to the question What are some major flaws in Wikipedia? on Quora. Republished here with some changes.

Wikipedia has a whole lot of flaws, and its basic meta-flaw is the disease of familiarity.

It does not mean what you think it means. The disease of familiarity is knowing so much about something that you don’t understand what it is like to not understand it.

I recognized this phenomenon in 2011 or so, and called it The Software Localization Paradox. I later realized that it has a lot of other aspects beyond software localization, so I thought a lot about it and struggled for years with giving it a name. I learned about the term “disease of familiarity” from Richard Saul Wurman, best known as the creator of the TED conference (see a note about it at the end of this post). Some other names for this phenomenon are “curse of knowledge” and “mind blindness”. See also Is there a name for “knowing so much about something that you don’t understand what is it like not to know it”?

Unfortunately, none of these terms is very famous, and their meaning is not obvious without some explanation. What’s even worse, the phenomenon is in general hard to explain because of its very nature. But I’ll try to give a few examples.

Wikipedia doesn’t make it easy for people to understand its jargon.

Wikipedia calls itself “The Free encyclopedia”; what does it mean that it’s “free”? I wrote Wikipedia:The Free Encyclopedia, one of the essays on this topic (there are others), but it’s not official or authoritative, and more importantly, the fact that this essay exists doesn’t mean that everybody who starts writing for Wikipedia reads it and understands the ideology behind it, and its implications. An important implication of this ideology is that according to the ideology of the Free Culture movement, of which Wikipedia is a part, is that some images and pieces of text can be copied from other sites into Wikipedia, and some cannot. The main reason for this is copyright law. People often copy text or images that are not compatible with the policies, and since this is heavily enforced by experienced Wikipedia editors, this causes misunderstandings. Wikipedia’s interface could communicate these policies better, but experienced Wikipedians, who already know them, rarely think about this problem. Disease of familiarity.

Wikipedia calls itself “a wiki”. A lot of people think that it’s just a meaningless catchy brand name, like “Kodak”. Some others think that it refers to the markup language in which the site is written. Yet others think that it’s an acronym that means “what I know is”. None of these interpretations is correct. The actual meaning of “wiki” is “a website that anyone can edit”. The people who are experienced with editing Wikipedia know this, and assume that everybody else does, but the truth is that a lot of new people don’t understand it and are afraid of editing pages that others had written, or freak out when somebody edits what they had written. Disease of familiarity.

The most common, built-in way for communication between the different Wikipedians is the talk page. Only Wikipedia and other sites that use the MediaWiki software use the term “talk page”. Other sites call such a thing “forum”, “comments”, or “discussion”. (To make things more confusing, Wikipedia itself occasionally calls it “discussion”.) Furthermore, talk pages, which started on Wikipedia in 2001, before commenting systems like Disqus, phpBB, Facebook, or Reddit were common, work in a very weird way: you need to manually indent each of your posts, you need to manually sign your name, and you need to use a lot of obscure markup and templates (“what are templates?!”, every new user must wonder). Experienced editors are so accustomed to doing this that they assume that everybody knows this. Disease of familiarity.

A lot of pages in Wikipedia in English and in many other languages have infoboxes. For example, in articles about cities and towns there’s an infobox that shows a photo, the name of the mayor, the population, etc. When you’re writing an article about your town, you’ll want to insert an infobox. Which button do you use to do this? There’s no “Infobox” button, and even if there were, you wouldn’t know that you need to look for it because “Infobox” is a word in Wikipedia’s internal jargon. What you actually have to do is Insert → Template → type “Infobox settlement”, and fill a form. Every step here is non-intuitive, especially the part where you have to type the template’s name. Where are you supposed to know it from? Also, these steps are how it works on the English Wikipedia, and in other languages it works differently. Disease of familiarity.

And this brings us to the next big topic: Language.

You see, when I talk about Wikipedia, I talk about Wikipedia in all languages at once. Otherwise, I talk about the English Wikipedia, the Japanese Wikipedia, the Arabic Wikipedia, and so on. Most people are not like me: when they talk about Wikipedia, they talk about the one in the language in which they read most often. Quite often it’s not their first language; for example, a whole lot of people read the Wikipedia in English even though English is their second language and they don’t even know that there is a Wikipedia in their own language. When these people say “Wikipedia” they actually mean “the English Wikipedia”.

There’s nothing bad in it by itself. It’s usually natural to read in a language that you know best and not to care very much about other languages.

But here’s where it gets complicated: Technically, there are editions of Wikipedia in about 300 languages. This number is pretty meaningless, however: There are about 7,000 languages in the world, so not the whole world is covered, and only in 100 languages or so there is a Wikipedia in which there is actually some continuous writing activity. In the other 200 the activity is only sporadic, or there is no activity at all—somebody just started writing something in that language, and a domain was created, but then the first people who started it lost interest and nobody else came to continue their work.

This is pretty sad because it’s frequently forgotten that a whole lot of people cannot read what they want in Wikipedia because they don’t know a language in which there is an article about what they want to learn. If you are reading this post, you have the privilege of knowing English, and it’s hard for you to imagine how does a person who doesn’t know English feel. Disease of familiarity: You think you can tell everybody “if you want to know something, read about it in Wikipedia”, but you cannot actually tell this to most people because most people don’t know English.

The missed opportunity becomes even more horrific when you realize that the people who would have the most appropriate skills for breaking out of this paradox are the people who are least likely to notice it, and the people who are hurt by it the most are the least capable of fixing it themselves. Think about it:

  • If you know, for example, Russian and English, and you need to read about a topic on which there is an article in the English Wikipedia, but not in Russian, you can read the English Wikipedia, and it’s possible that you won’t even notice that an article in Russian doesn’t exist. Unless you exercise mindfulness about the issue, you won’t empathize with people who don’t know English. To break out of this cycle, one can practice the following:
    • Always look for articles in Russian first.
    • Dedicate some time every week to translating articles. (See How does Wikipedia handle page translation?)
    • When you talk to people in your language, don’t assume that they know English.
  • A person who doesn’t know English is just stuck without an article, and there’s not much to do. It’s possible that you don’t even know that the article you need exists in another language. And maybe you cannot even read the user manual that teaches you how to edit. What can you do?
    • Try to be bold and ask your friends who do know English to translate it for you and publish the translation for the benefit of all the people who speak your language.
    • (Of course, there’s the solution of learning English, but we can’t assume that it works. Evidently, there are billions of people who don’t know English, and they won’t all learn English any time soon.)

(In case it isn’t clear, you can replace “English” and “Russian” in the example above with any other pair of languages.)

It’s particularly painful in countries where English, French, or Portuguese is the dominant language of government and education, even though a lot of the people, often the majority, don’t actually know it. This is true for many countries in Africa, as well as for Philippines, and to a certain extent also in India and Pakistan.

People who know English have a very useful aid for their school studies in the form of Wikipedia. People who don’t know English are left behind: the teachers don’t have Wikipedia to get help with planning the lessons and the students don’t have Wikipedia to get help with homework. The people who know English and study in English-medium schools have these things and don’t even notice how the other people—often their friends!—are left behind. Disease of familiarity.

Finally, most of the people who write in the 70 or so most successful Wikipedias don’t quite realize that the reason the Wikipedia in their language is successful is that before they had a Wikipedia, they had had another printed or digital encyclopedia, possibly more than one; and they had public libraries, and schools, and universities, and all those other things, which allowed them to imagine quite easily how would a free encyclopedia look like. A lot of languages have never had these things, and a Wikipedia would be the first major collection of educational materials in them. This would be pretty awesome, but this develops very slowly. People who write in the successful Wikipedia projects don’t realize that they just had to take the same concepts they already knew well and rebuild them in cyberspace, without having to jump through any conceptual epistemological hoops.

Disease of familiarity.

It’s hard to explain this.

I unfortunately suspect that very few, if any, people will understand this boring, long, and conceptually difficult post. If you disagree, please comment. If you think that you understand what I’m trying to say, but you have a simpler or shorter way to say it, please comment or suggest an edit (and tell your friends). If you have more examples of the disease of familiarity in Wikipedia and elsewhere, please speak up.

Thank you.

(As promised above, a note about Richard Saul Wurman. I heard him introduce the “disease of familiarity” concept in an interview with Debbie Millman on her podcast Design Matters, at about 23 minutes in. That interview was one of this podcast’s weirdest episodes: you can clearly hear that he’s making Millman uncomfortable, and she also mentioned it on Twitter. This, in turn, makes me uncomfortable to discuss something I learned from that interview, but I am just unable to find any better terminology for the phenomenon in question. If you have suggestions, please send them my way.)

Disclaimer: I’m a contractor working with the Wikimedia Foundation, but this post, as well as all my other posts on the topic of Wikimedia, Wikipedia, and related projects, are my own opinions and do not represent the Wikimedia Foundation.

Language teacher

If you search Google for “language teacher” (מורה ללשון) in Hebrew, the autocompletion suggests “language teacher killed herself” (מורה ללשון התאבדה). The word “teacher” is spelled the same for both genders, but the verb is feminine. I don’t know why does it happen, because actually searching for it doesn’t yield anything significant.

In Israeli schools where Hebrew is the medium of teaching, “Language” is the class where the grammar of Hebrew is taught… badly.

Japanese, Germans and Israelis of the world

Through i-iter i came upon this interesting post: Tamil, Kannada and the middle path. Tamil and Kannada are two important languages spoken in the south of India and their speakers are quite proud of their identity.

The article complains that not enough is being done for the linguistic normalization of non-Hindi languages in India. It was very interesting to read it and, being Israeli, i was surprised to see the compliments to “Japanese, Germans and Israelis of the world who aren’t wasting time tom-toming about antiquity, beauty or originality, but are instead investing their time, money and energy in using their languages for almost all known purposes”.

I was curious – why did they choose these three? Why not Russians and French, who use their languages for everything because many of them openly consider them to be better than all the others? Why not Catalans, whose language is in a political situation which is much more similar to that of Tamil and Kannada?

And why Israelis? Sure, we use Hebrew a lot; Hebrew Wikipedia, for example, is our pride. But i don’t think that we use Hebrew enough. For example, a lot of people (not all) write email in English. They write email in English even if they don’t know English well. They write email in English even though practically all the technical problems with encoding and bi-directionality were solved years ago. And they write email in English even if the email is about a topic for which Hebrew is perfectly suitable: one could argue that English is more convenient for writing about software or physics, but quite a lot of people write email in English just to to tell recent family news or to make an appointment.

I used to do that, too, but i made a conscious decision to stop writing email in English unless it is absolutely necessary. I tell all my friends about it. Some of them are indifferent and some of them – especially those in the software industry – say that Israel should have adopted English and not Hebrew as its language. Shame on them. Students think that i know English well, so they often ask me what is the most polite way to make an appointment with their professors in English, and i always tell them: “If your professor can read Hebrew, just write the email in Hebrew!”

Of course, there’s also the matter of university papers. In physics, for example, even though Hebrew is used in classroom, it goes for granted that papers at M.A.-level and higher are written only in English. The need for an English version is understandable, because in the world scale very few people would be able to read a paper in Hebrew, but i would imagine that it’s much better to write the paper in Hebrew and translate it. Yes, it would take time and probably money, but it is nevertheless useful and not just for the honor of the Hebrew language: it would actually advance science and education, because this way people would express themselves in their own language and think about physics instead of thinking about English.

Finally, there’s Facebook. For some reason many Israelis still use Facebook with the English interface – again, even though they don’t know English well, and even though they never read or write anything in English there. The translation of Facebook into Hebrew is terrible, and what’s especially frustrating is that i would gladly fix it, but i can’t, because the interface for submitting translation corrections is absolutely unusable. I nevertheless use Facebook in Hebrew, because it solves the bi-directionality problems – for example, the notorious problem with the punctuation marks appearing at the wrong end of the sentence. There was a newspaper report saying that Facebook influences Israeli children so much that they got used to writing the question mark at the beginning of the sentence – and that’s how they submit their homework! Some Israelis develop weird tricks to make the punctuation appear on the correct side of the sentence, for example by adding a letter after the period – compare “אתה בא לכדורגל בערב?י” and “אתה בא לכדורגל בערב?” – notice the placement of the question mark and the redundant letter in the first sentence. But they could simply switch to Hebrew. (And one day i will write an email to Facebook offices and tell them that they really should improve the translation.)

It’s quite pleasing to see that speakers of Kannada look up to us, but it doesn’t mean that we already did all we could to normalize Hebrew.

(And why am i writing this in English? Because i started writing it as a comment for that blog and it grew into a post by itself.)

Kas buvo tai nebus

In the last couple of years i fell in love with Israeli literature, especially poetry – from Y. L. Gordon, H. N. Bialik and S. Chernihovski, through N. Alterman and J. Amihay all the way to the present days’ M. Arad and D. Manor. Because of this – among some other things – i decided to study for a minor degree in Hebrew and not in Chinese.

In school i learned about Israel’s poetry like this: There was a literature teacher. We started to study Bialik. She said: “There are common meters – amphibrach, anapaest, iambus, dactyl, and so on, and according to the program you are supposed to study them now, but it is hard for you, and i am not in the mood, so we won’t do it.” She hardly even mentioned Chernihovsky, Shlonsky, Alterman and Avidan – they are, according to her, also “hard, and you can do fine without them”. And so i received the reasonable 75 grade in the matriculation exam in literature in an Israeli high school, but in fact hardly studied any Hebrew literature at all, and for nearly ten years after the school didn’t read a single Israeli book, and not much foreign ones, either.

So now i am replenishing this. At the university i was quickly taught the basics of poetic meters and devices, and suddenly realized what a terrible crime that teacher committed. Without understanding these mostly simple rules it is very hard to read poetry. And he who learns them a little, becomes more educated and opens for himself a new exciting world.

The complete collected works of David Avidan are being released these days. I saw the book in the shop and thought – to buy or not buy? Previously, Avidan seemed very hard for me. I looked through a few pages and understood – now i’ll be able to enjoy it. I looked at the table of contents and all of a sudden saw a title of a poem in Latin letters, and not in English – “Kas buvo tai nebus”. It seemed familiar, i thought that it was Latin, but no, obviously not Latin. And after a moment i realized that it was in Lithuanian: “What was, shall not be”. Here is an attempt in translation:

Two Lithuanians, remembering their mother tongue
Less than they remember
Their mother, meet in a cool evening
In an open coffee house and begin
Remembering. How does one say
The past in Lithuanian? Really, how does one say
The past in Lithuanian? Very awkward, indeed
Very uncomfortable. Maybe there is
Someone here in this nice environment, within a radius of a
Kilometer or two who will be able to fix
This depressing linguistic short circuit? But
The time is very late, and all
The Lithuanians, who arentdeadyet are already asleep.

How does one say sleep in Lithuanian?


(The poem may have been already translated into English, maybe even by Avidan himself. As for “arentdeadyet” – Avidan often stuck words together as a literary device.)

I don’t know what prompted Avidan to write such an unusual poem. Lithuanians, as far as i know, preserved their language much better than did most peoples of the USSR. But perhaps he spoke of the Lithuanians in America or in Israel.

But i bought the book, of course.

Regular expressions

I love regular expressions. I cannot live without regular expressions. I cannot understand how people can go on with their lives without using at least one regular expression every couple of hours. I don’t understand why schools teach algebra instead of regular expressions. I didn’t use any algebra in my life, ever. I used a lot of regular expressions and it is not less mathematical.

is perl still worth learning

Someone entered “is perl still worth learning” into a search engine and found my blog.

The answer is Yes.

Python and Ruby are not inherently bad, but Perl is at least as useful and modern as them, it has – arguably – a wonderful community of programmers, it has an amazing library of reusable modules called CPAN.

My wife Hadar is starting serious work on her PhD in physics in the Technion. The guys in the lab in which she will be working wrote some calculations software in Fortran on Windows. The first thing that Hadar is doing is deciphering this Fortran code. She asked me for some help, and i couldn’t provide much, because i don’t really know Fortran. I suggested that she will advise those lab guys to consider porting their software, at least for the future, to Perl, because it is portable and because it is quite possible that it has the same capabilities for mathematical and scientific work as Fortran has. She told it to one of the researchers there and he replied that it should not be done, because “Perl is just a language for network servers.”

Saying that “Perl is just a language for network servers” is pretty much like saying that all Russian women are prostitutes. It’s a sad and silly prejudice. Here’s an article that dispels it: Ten Perl Myths.

So Hadar learned a little Perl and PDL – the Perl library for advanced mathematics. She picked up the basics very quickly. I was pleasantly surprised that she found that Perl’s main data types are scalars ($drug = 'caffeine') and arrays (@drugs = ('marijuana', 'quaalude', 'paracetamol')), because in math it works the same way (we didn’t discuss hashes yet). I was even more surprised to learn that it seemed perfectly fine to her that @drugs is an array, but to access ‘quaalude’ you need to write $drugs[2] and not @drugs[2]. We tried searching CPAN for various mathematical functions, such as eigenvalue, matrix diagonal and linear algebra, and found everything.

So she’s gonna try that.

If she can’t convince them to migrate to Perl, i’ll have to learn Fortran and try to help them migrate from a Windows version of Fortran to GNU Fortran.