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A couple of years ago when Facebook was still using me, a person whose opinion I respect very much wrote words of praise to a certain musician I didn’t know as a Facebook status. The description made me think that I may like the music, but I didn’t have time to check it back then, so I made a browser bookmark to remind myself to do it.

Today I finally did it… and found out that it’s just a pop singer of the kind that doesn’t interest me very much. At least now I have one bookmark less, which is a good thing.

I still respect that person very much.

I Deleted My Facebook Account

I used Facebook quite a lot. I posted lots of things, I got to know a lot of people, I learned about things that I wouldn’t learn anywhere else, I shared experiences.

But the feeling that I am the product and Facebook is the user got stronger and stronger as time passed. It happens with many other companies and products, but with Facebook it’s especially strong.

In February 2015 I stopped posting, sharing and liking, and I deleted Facebook apps from all my other devices. I continued occasionally reading and exchanging private messages in a private browser window.

Then I noticed that a few times things were shared in my name, and people liked them and commented on them. I am sure that I didn’t share them, and I am also quite sure that it wasn’t a virus (are there viruses that do such things on GNU/Linux?). Also, a few people told me that they received messages from me, and I’m sure that I didn’t send them; It’s possible that they saw something else under my name and thought that it’s a message even though it was something else, but in any case, nobody is supposed to think such a thing. That’s not how people are supposed to interact.

I am not a bug, not an A/B test, not a robot, not an integer in a database. I am Amir Aharoni and from today Facebook doesn’t use me. There are other and better ways to communicate with people.

Stop saying that “everybody is on Facebook”. I am not. I don’t feel exceptionally proud or special. I am not the only one who does this; a few of my friends did the same and didn’t write any blog posts or make any fuss about it.

You should delete your Facebook account, too.

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, 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.

The Case for Localizing Names

I often help my friends and family members open email accounts. Sometimes they are starting to use the Internet and sometimes they move from old email services (Yahoo, Walla!, ISP) to something modern (like it or not, GMail).

At some point they have to fill their name, which will appear in the “from” field. And then I have to suggest them to write it in Latin characters, even though most of them speak languages that aren’t written in Latin characters – mostly Hebrew and Russian. Chances are that some day they will send an email to somebody who cannot read Russian or Hebrew, and Latin is relatively better known.

Only relatively, though. It may seem obvious to you that everybody knows the Latin script, but in fact, a lot of people are not comfortable with it at all. There are also other complications: lossy and inconsistent transliteration rules (is Amir אמיר or עמיר?), potential right-to-left rendering problems, and more. And of course, all people are happy to see their name in their language.

And people are also happy to see their friends’ names in their own language and not in a foreign or a neutral language. I have, for example, a lot of friends in India. Most of them write their names in English, but some write it in Marathi or in Malayalam. It’s certainly good for them, but in practice it’s much harder for me to find them this way, so English would be better – but Hebrew or Russian would be better yet.

Finally, there are a lot of people in the world who have more than one linguistic background. Mine are Russian, Hebrew and English, and I am really not such a special case. There are many millions of immigrants who have mixed backgrounds: Punjabi-Hindi-Urdu-English, Kurdish-Turkish-German, Kazakh-Russian-Norwegian, and others, and others and others. From each of these backgrounds they have friends, co-workers and family members, with whom they would love to communicate in the respective language. In each of these backgrounds they have friends who would want to find them using the name under which they know them there and using the appropriate language and writing system.

And sometimes people change their names, too. I did once, and so have many other people.

All this means that people’s names should be translatable, just like books, articles and software interfaces. Facebook and Google+ allow me to add a very limited number of names in foreign languages. Why wouldn’t they let me write my name in four, five, ten languages? This would make it easier for people who speak these languages to find me and to communicate with me. I would go even further and allow people who speak languages that I don’t know well to write my name as their hear it in their language and to add it to my details. Yet again, this would make me easier to find to even more people.

Some degree of automation can be possible. A lot of names are, after all, repetitive, so social networks would be able to suggest people with common names how their name would be written in other languages.

Wikipedia is actually quite good in this regard: Usually people have the same username across projects, and this username is not necessarily written in Latin letters, but people can customize the appearance of their signature in each project. I did it in a few languages, and people who speak those languages appreciate it.

I can only hope that social networks and email systems will allow as much flexibility as possible with this.

Facebook, give me my RLM back, please

Facebook doesn’t allow typing LRM and RLM characters in the status field. These are the Unicode characters “Left-to-right marker” and “Right-to-left marker”. People who type in right-to-left languages such as Arabic, Persian, Urdu or Hebrew need these characters to make their status updates appear properly aligned. If i try to type any of these characters, they are deleted when i save the message. There is no reason to do this. Facebook engineers, please allow your users to use these characters. Thank you.


Looking at this Facebook ad makes me think: Was the Orange Revolution in Ukraine a failure or a success?

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Russian Immersion in Kiev

The Orange Revolution is presented in the Western Media mostly as an uprising against election fraud and for democracy and freedom. But to Eastern Europeans it was mostly about Ukraine’s relationship with Russia: Will Ukraine develop its own independent identity or will it remain little but Russia’s twin? The questions of nationality, language and identity were far more important than the questions of democracy vs. authoritarianism.

Yuschenko won the Orange Revolution, but lost the last election. Ukrainians, even those who supported his nationalist ideas, were disappointed: he seemed to do little but talk about how important it is to speak and write Ukrainian instead of Russian, proclaimed controversial figures such as Roman Shukhevych national heroes and promoted the Holodomor narrative, also rather controversial.

The Ukrainian language is going rather strong – it is the preferred language for many young people, it has an excellent music scene and it’s flourishing online. But it is not yet the language of an overwhelming majority – millions of people in Ukraine speak Russian for various reasons. As this advertisement testifies, Russian, the “occupier’s language”, is strong enough in Kiev to be used for marketing the city.

So, the nationalistic element of the Orange Revolution may have been somewhat of a failure, which can’t be too bad, but its democratic element is probably doing well. The government can, and probably should, force Ukrainian in documents and education, but it cannot stifle other languages in commerce. Yuschenko may hate it, but that’s the beauty of democracy.

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.)