Yakutsk 2012

When I was about five years old, I saw a map of the world on the wall of my Moscow home. I noticed that the USSR is very, very big. And that it has a lot of rivers, like Ob, Yenisey, and Lena. “Lena”, I thought, “How nice. Like a name of a girl.”

On the Lena river I saw a city called Yakutsk. The name sounded a bit funny to me, but I became curious about it somehow.

And last month I went there.

Yakutsk is the capital of the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia – the largest administrative region in the world that is not a country. The largest native ethnic group of Sakha, after which the republic is named, speak a Turkic language of the same name, although it is also frequently called “Yakut”. Even though I spent almost all of my Soviet life in Moscow, I was always very curious about all the other regions and languages of the USSR, so when I discovered Wikipedia, I devoted a lot of time to reading about them and to visiting Wikipedias in these languages, even though I cannot really read them.

A request to start a Wikipeda in Sakha was filed in 2006, and I was quick to support it. After a few months of preparations it was opened. It is now one of the relatively more active Wikipedias in languages of Russia – it has over 8,000 articles, and for a minority language, most speakers of which are bilingual in another major language, this is a good number.

I kept constant and positive contact with Nikolai Pavlov – the founder and the unofficial leader of the Sakha Wikipedia – since the very start of this Wikipedia. It was great to give these people technical and organizational advice: how to write articles effectively, how to choose topics, how to organize meet-ups of Wikipedians. For a long time I dreamt of meeting them in person, but because Yakutsk is so far away from practically any other imaginable place, I didn’t think that it will ever happen. But in April 2012 I met Nikolai at the Turkic Wikimedia Conference in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

A few days after that conference Nikolai suggested that I submit a talk for an IT conference in the North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk. At first I thought that I’m not really related to it, but after reading the description, I decided to give it a try and wrote a talk proposal about my favorite topics: MediaWiki and Software Localization. Somewhat surprisingly, the talks were accepted and I received an invitation to present at that conference.

With Nikolai Pavlov, also known as Halan Tul. The unofficial leader of the Sakha Wikipedia and the excellent organizer of my trip to Yakutsk.
With Nikolai Pavlov, also known as Halan Tul. The unofficial leader of the Sakha Wikipedia and the excellent organizer of my trip to Yakutsk.

I flew from Tel-Aviv to Moscow, and then six more hours from Moscow to Yakutsk. Yakutsk is apparently a modern, bustling and developed city, but with interesting twists. Most notably, because it is in the permafrost area, all the houses are built on piles and all the pipelines are above ground. But actually this is just a small detail, because the general feeling is that it was a whole different country from the European part of Russia, to which I was used, and in a very good way.

I am standing on a new bridge being built
I am standing on a new bridge being built

I was most pleasantly surprised by the liveliness of the Sakha language: practically all people there know Russian, but the Sakha speech is frequently heard on the streets, Sakha writing is frequently seen on advertising and store signs, and Sakha songs are played from many passing cars.

Myself standing in front of a classroom, speaking about MediaWiki
Speaking about MediaWiki in Yakutsk

The conference was very varied – with presenters from South Korea, China, Bulgaria, Switzerland and major Russian cities – Moscow, St. Petersburg and others. The topics were very varied, too, but the central topic was using computer technologies for education and human development, so I felt that my talks about Wikipedia and software localization were fitting.

I am standing holding a microphone in front of an audience in a university auditorium. Behind me - a screen with a GNU head, the logo of the Free Software Foundation.
Presenting my main plenary lecture about software localization. One of my main points is that using Free Software, represented by the GNU head, is very easy to internationalize.

Except participating in the conference itself, I also attended many meetings that Nikolai organized for me. It was fascinating to meet all these people.

Meeting the manager of Bichik, the national book publisher. On the wall - portraits of notable Sakha writers.
Meeting the manager of Bichik, the national book publisher. On the wall – portraits of notable Sakha writers.

I spoke to the editor and the manager of the republic’s largest book publishing company – they told me that the local literature has great artistic value, but since less than half a million people speak this language, it’s hard to earn a lot of profit from it and to develop it. They also complained that some authors – as well as some deceased authors’ families – are too harsh about copyrights. I suggested them to try to talk with authors and release some works under the Creative Commons license and see whether it gets them more exposure, and they promised to read Lawrence Lessig’s “Free Culture” book.

I am sitting in a classroom and speaking to a group of about ten people.
Meeting Yakutsk linguists and explaining them how putting their works on Wikipedia will make them much more accessible to the whole world.

I also met with linguists from the university, who work on researching and documenting the Sakha language and other languages of the region, such as Evenki and Yukagir. I suggested them to use Wikimedia resources for storage and documentation of the works they gather, and they liked the idea; I am definitely going to follow up with them on that.

In the offices of Ykt.ru, with the manager of the company - and a Kanban board in the background.
In the offices of Ykt.ru, with the manager of the company – and a Kanban board in the background.

Another great meeting I had was with local tech people – a community of proud local IT geeks, who had lots of ideas for promoting Wikipedias in regional languages, and also the management and the employees of the local Internet portal ykt.ru. Their offices look just like a building of a hi-tech company in the Silicon Valley or in Israel – with cozy rooms and lounges, and a Kanban board. The people made an excellent impression on me, too: we had a very professional and engaging conversation about developing web applications and agile management methodologies.

I am sitting on a couch and the TV crew prepare my microphone for the interview
Preparing for an interview at NVK, the national TV station

I also spoke to several journalists and to the local TV and radio stations, inviting people to read Wikipedia in their own language and to contribute to it. I felt a bit like a celebrity, and well, I hope that it made somebody realize how effective can the Internet be in promoting local cultures and how proud should people be about their own languages.

One last comment is about the Sakha literature, which I mentioned earlier. I return from almost all my trips abroad with a lot of books about the local languages and cultures. And I actually read them. It happened in this trip, too, except this time most of the books were given to me as gifts by all those very nice people that I met. Sakha prose and Olonkho poetry in translation to Russian are simply wonderful. In all honesty. This is beautiful world-class literature and it deserves more exposure. If this little blog post made you curious about it, then it’s the most important thing that it could achieve.

(All photos were taken by Nikolai Pavlov, except the one in which he appears.)

Turkic Wikimedia Conference 2012, Almaty – intro

The first Turkic Wikimedia Conference in Almaty, the largest city of Kazakhstan was held last weekend.

Turkic Wikimedia Conference 2012 logo by Batyr Hamzauly. The design of the "TWC" letters is based on Old Turkic runes. licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0.
Turkic Wikimedia Conference 2012 logo by Batyr Hamzauly. The design of the "TWC" letters is based on Old Turkic runes. licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0.


“Turkic” refers to Turkic languages. The most prominent Turkic language, in terms of number of speakers and international awareness of its existence is Turkish, the main language of Turkey. There are, however, many more such languages; Most of them are spoken in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union, and a few are spoken in China, Afghanistan and other countries.

There first sign of this conference was given in Jimmy Wales’ closing speech of Wikimania 2011 in Haifa. By coincidence, in the same speech Jimmy’s pointer broke down, so I came up on the stage to push the button that moves the slides for him. At some point he asked me not to go too fast, and then he praised Rauan Kenzhekhanuly – the head of WikiBilim, a Kazakh association of people who contribute to Wikipedia, which expanded the Kazakh Wikipedia by many thousands of articles. He was so impressed by their activities that he promised his support for holding a regional Wikimedia conference, and now it happened.

Even though Russian is not a Turkic language, it is the most common language for the majority of the conference participants. As I am one of the few Wikimedia Foundation who speaks it, I was invited there.

Why and how to write Wikipedia in your language

At the conference I delivered several talks. The first was one of the opening keynote speeches – “Why you should write Wikipedia in your language”. In the talk I repeated my usual thesis – writing content and developing software in your native language rather than in a major language is important not just because of nationalism, politics or ideology, but simply because many people don’t know major international languages and thus they cannot access information if it’s written only in a language they don’t know. Before this talk I was told that even in Kazakhstan, where most people know Russian, native Kazakh language speakers often find it easier and more natural to read in Kazakh, especially when it comes to textbooks in schools and universities, and this went along perfectly with what I tried to present.

In that talk I also mentioned practical things that can help people to write in their languages and to join the global Wikimedia community – our mailing lists and our language support tools.

To make it more entertaining and memorable, I said a few words in Hebrew to give the audience the feeling of bewilderment when encountering a foreign language, and told people to stand up and sit down if they know this or that language. Beyond having fun, this little game also had a practical purpose: I delivered most of this talk in Russian and I wanted to make sure that everybody understands me. People from Turkey and other non-Russian-speaking countries were present in the audience and even though there was simultaneous translation into English, I wasn’t completely sure that they understand me. People laughed and applauded, so I guess that it worked.

My answer to the question “will Wikipedia ever carry advertising” was “NO”. This also received thunderous applause.

To be continued…

Unbearable Lightness

I was invited to the 10th anniversary celebration of the Catalan Wikipedia in Perpignan. Perpignan is a city in France, but from the Catalan point of view, it’s in Northern Catalonia – a rather large territory, also known as Roussillon, that was a part of Catalonia, but passed under French rule in 1659. Catalan is still spoken by many people there; how many exactly – i’ll have to see. I hope that it’s spoken by many people for a purely practical reason – my Catalan is much better than my French.

The Catalan Wikipedia is one of the first two Wikipedias created after the English one. The English Wikipedia was created on the 15th of January 2001; German and Catalan were created on the 16th of March 2001. Catalans love to tell that although their Wikipedia was created a few minutes after the German, it was the first one to have an actual article.

Since the Catalan Wikipedia is the oldest and the largest version of Wikipedia in a language which isn’t official in any big country (sorry, Andorra), the people behind it want to share their experiences promoting their language with other regional and minorized languages and this will be discussed in the event. More details on that later.

Direct El-Al flight from Tel-Aviv to Barcelona – 582 USD. Alitalia via Rome, 2 hours wait for connection – 460 USD. Czech Airlines (ČSA) via Prague, 11 hours wait for connection – 367 USD. Guess which one i picked. ČSA, of course – i pay less and i get to spend a day in Prague! Sorry, El-Al.

If you call Czech Airlines office in Tel-Aviv, you can choose one of the following languages, in that order: English, Russian, German, Czech, French, Spanish, Italian. No Hebrew or Arabic. Except that, however, the service is excellent. I spoke in Russian with the service people and they were very polite, helpful and efficient. They were Czech; They spoke Russian with a slight accent, but it was completely correct and easy to understand. I’ll have to wait for the flight itself to see how it is, but until now my impression is very good.

P.S. Typing the word “Czech” is surprisingly hard.


This is not a post about Obama.

Here is a little comparison based on my short visits to a few North American cities. The hobos in Vancouver introduce themselves to tourists, ask them where do they live, say that they have relatives in that country and then ask for change so that they could pay for gas, pizza or a stay in YMCA – that is, they do much the same thing as the hobos in Haifa, Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv, Rome, Moscow and many other touristic cities. They were also the most annoying, but except that the city is very charming.

The hobos in San Francisco are quite similar, except they hold lovely honest signs such as “Need weed” and “Why lie? I want a beer!”

The hobos in Seattle didn’t try to harass me. In fact they all looked very intelligent, even in their rags. They actually seemed to develop intelligent conversations with the passers by. I didn’t talk to any of them.

Now, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the hobos and the weirdos of all the above cities are nowhere near those in New York City. I visited Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan below Central Park; i’ve seen the most interesting guys around Washington square. What’s really curious, though, is that the New York guys are also the ones that bothered me the least – they are very weird, but they mind their own business.

San Francisco 2010

Science fiction: A few minutes before midnight i found a hotel in San Francisco. And the parking is free. And it is within walking distance from the rental company where i return the car. And it is within walking distance from where i have business meetings tomorrow. And there are no junkies outside. And not only it is reasonably priced, the receptionist also gave me a “$10 per night discount for Jewish people”. We the Jews do rule the world – it’s not a myth.

Fighting Antisemitism

I helped two nice Italian tourists find their way in Jerusalem today. They knew English, but how could i miss an opportunity to practice my Italian? I barely touched any Italian for two years, so i spoke slowly, but managed to say complete sentences and didn’t mix in any Catalan words. They were pleasantly surprised, of course, and said that my Italian pronunciation was correct.

Now there’s a little less antisemitism in the world. But not just because of my Italian skills, but because the bus they needed to take arrived quickly, which, for Israel, is a miracle. So, Egged: Fight antisemitism, improve the Israeli bus services!