Thursday, August 11, 2005

It‘s appearance beautify

I've always been a fan of what used to be called "Janglish" - the type of English found in the instruction books of Oriental products. (Nowadays it's more often called "Chinglish", which probably reflects an improvement in English language instruction in Japan.)
One of my favourite examples came from a Panasonic portable radio sold in the 1960s. Clearly, the translator had studied Shakespeare. In describing the transparent plastic case, he or she wrote:
"The cabinet is painted on the within, to shine beauteously on the without."
What a difference 40 years makes! Yesterday I saw a little round pocket-size USB plug converter in a local computer parts store. No Shakespeare here - this translator must have used a service like AltaVista's Babelfish or to get a result like this:
"When you are traveling. Do you bring the very more USB cable? Is it very trable? Now, you have the flying savcer[sic] No 1, the door is throw wide open to your.”
Update 2010-02-11: We just bought some mandarin oranges individually wrapped in clear plastic pockets, each printed with the message below, spelled, punctuated and formatted exactly as shown:
MingHua mandarin is Orange,contain
of protein,sugar,vitamin and inorganic
salts etc,sorts of composition,especia
lly contains rich maize element, Vc,Vp,
and carotene,Resistant to cancet,he-
alth spleen,moisten lung,relieve a co-
ugh,it‘s appearance beautify,juice sa-
vory,flesh delicious,Not only is nouri-
shing product,but also is preserve yo-
ur health.It is good foodsfor health.
They are delicious!

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The "dark continent" is now invisible

How does an entire continent remain invisible?

Check out any ad where a corporation claims to be "world-wide". See if they include Africa. For example, lets you click your region to go to its web page, but there's no button on Africa. I've also seen countless print ads where companies wanting to impress me claimed a worldwide presence, but left Africa out of their world. The last US company I worked for, which did have an office in Africa, divided the world into four regions including one called "EMEA" -- Europe, the Middle East, and oh yes, Africa. Now there's as unlikely a grouping of customers as I can imagine.

Despite Africa's huge size, its roughly forty countries together have only about a third of the population of a major nonwestern country like India or China. And with around 20% of all Africans HIV-positive, that number may well go down. So numbers are part of the problem.

Blame the rest on corruption -- though, as we've been finding out, there's plenty of that to go around, including the UN Oil-For-Food scandal in Iraq, Canada's sponsorship scandal (see the Gomery inquiry), and recent claims that top Israeli politicians leading the drive to hand Gaza over to the Palestinian Authority have foreign business partners who are already licensed by the PA to develop casinos on that land as soon as the homes there are bulldozed. Still, when most people think of Africa, their first thought is of corrupt leadership and chaos on the scale of Rwanda, Somalia and Zimbabwe.

Africa has a very small class of potential investors. I recently read that, not counting the top dogs with their numbered accounts overseas, the 100,000 wealthiest Africans have an average net worth of US$8-million, but there's a big gap between them and the average village dweller, whose entire possessions could be purchased with the average Canadian income tax refund.

Thirty years ago, countries in Africa and Asia had much the same GNP per capita as each other. Today, those Asian countries have 30 times the GNP per capita of the African countries. What did Asia do right, that Africa should have learned from? And how can Africa catch up now? There are enough resources in Africa that it ought to be wealthy. How can we achieve that in one generation or less?

Saturday, August 06, 2005

You get what you pay for

For the past few weeks I've been trying to choose a PC for a small charity I volunteer with. I drew up a specification and began checking prices.

Option 1: buy the parts locally and build the computer at home. That way I'd know the quality of all the parts and warranty service would be local. Cost: $1,000.

Option 2: buy the "house brand" PC from a local retailer. This is like Option 1 except the retailer chooses and assembles the parts. Warranty service would be local. Cost: $1,000.

Option 3: buy a "name brand" PC. Their large turnover lets them buy parts cheaper. I finally found a Compaq that exactly meets our spec. Cost: $800.

It's obvious that Option 3 is cheaper, right? But to get warranty service we must ship the computer halfway across North America at our expense. If we want local service we'll have to add an "extended warranty". Cost: $200, bringing the total to $1,000. Can't get away from that number!

And if I choose the Compaq, before I can install the software this charity uses, I must spend up to two hours uninstalling all the unwanted "wrapware" (promotions, demos, games and low-end applications) preinstalled by Compaq. This factor alone would make Compaq last choice if I was being paid.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Watch your language!

Last month I read a newspaper article that referred to a handsome movie star riding a motorcycle with "a beautiful model hanging onto his waste." Yuk! Thanks to spelling checkers we no longer see many spelling errors, but more than ever we are seeing the wrong homonym used. Here are a few examples I saw just in the last month:
  • "School stationary" -- on the cover of a stationery catalog intended for, of all people, educators. [Should be stationery = that which comes from a stationer, whose original job was chaining expensive books to their station to prevent theft.]
  • "This will please your pallet" -- on an elaborate glossy flyer explaining in upscale terms why Papa John's pizza is so much better than its competition. [Should be palate = part of the mouth.]
  • "We don't have a special rate per say" -- in an e-mail from an upscale arts organization. [Should be per se = (Latin) "as such".]
  • "[the car] careered round the harepin bends...and plunged over the cliff." -- from a famous newspaper columnist. [Should be hairpin = mountain road made up of long straight sections joined by sharp corners and thus resembling hairpins.]
  • "Ron's Restaurant, formally Joe's and Flo's" -- expensively-painted sign outside local restaurant. [Should be formerly = in former (previous) times.*]
Some words that people confuse don't even sound the same. I often see "except" where "accept" is intended, such as "We don't except cheques." And I've lost track of how many times I see "affect" and "effect" used interchangeably, even by well-educated people.

The church I currently attend has abandoned hymnbooks in favour of a digital projector, and those who type the words into the computer sometimes seem to be cobbling together a brand-new theology. One song said "I'm excepted by God", which brought to mind the ancient practice of selling indulgences. Another song confused nudity with infertility, asking God to cure our "spiritual bareness". After calling up I was able to persuade the operator to let me correct the spelling to "barrenness".

In fact, the hardest job these days is persuading people that errors like these even matter. Yet just go back and read that first paragraph again -- all the romance goes out of the mental image when that last, awful word arrives to wreck the sentence. And the yuppie intentions of the pizza flyer were completely deflated by the mental image of a fork-lift truck moving bulk pizza ingredients stacked on the wooden platforms they mistook for their customers' taste buds.

And when an error changes the entire meaning of the sentence it's in, it's no longer just embarassing but could be an expensive business problem. Of course, one could always put a disclaimer on every document; how about this one, which I've actually seen on a document: "errors and omissions accepted"?

* 2008 update: perhaps Ron reads my blog; "formally" has now changed to "formerly" on his sign.

The Incredible Shrinking Brain

Around 1959 I read an exciting Dell* paperback about everything that was newest and best in the world of science. The only chapter I remember today was the one about computers, which said that it was now possible to think about building a computer that would duplicate the functions of the human brain. The only catch was that the computer would be as big as the planet Jupiter.

As a bit of a solar system buff, I never forgot that claim, which is why I was startled about 11 years later (1970) to read that if a computer was built that would duplicate the functions of the human brain, it would cover all of North America and be several storeys tall. What had changed in the meantime? Vacuum tubes had been replaced by transistors, and transistors were just beginning to be replaced by the late Jack Kilby's invention, the integrated circuit.

Over the years since then, I've occasionally seen in the press further references to the size of the hypothetical computer that duplicates the functions of the human brain, and each one is smaller than the one before. As big as a city - as big as the Empire State Building - as big as a house - and a couple of years ago, the announcement that pretty soon it would be possible to build this computer and make it the same size as the human brain. Now that's progress!

But a few weeks ago, turning the pages of InfoWorld, I did a double-take at the implications of a headline there: "IBM to simulate accurate model of human brain with Blue Gene/L". Did you catch that? We no longer need to "build" an electronic human brain - we'll just write one as software and run it on an existing computer!

Mind you, Blue Gene/L isn't the sort of thing you buy at your local PC store for $499.95. No, Blue Gene/L is a supercomputer that will run (when completed) at 360 Teraflops. Nor is it the size of a human brain. But the significant point is the fact that the functionality of the human brain is going to be delivered as software. Once that is achieved, the software can be moved to successive generations of smaller and smaller hardware until it reaches any desired physical size. The day may come within the lifetime of some of my readers when you will be able to own a "brain" smarter than your own, the same size and price as a good Swiss watch.

How will our lives change when we're surrounded by "digital assistants" smarter than we are? Perhaps the best advice came from the late comedian and recording artist Allan Sherman at the end of his 1963 parody song Automation:

"When it sidled over and gave me a hug, dear, that's when I pulled out its plug!"

(* That's the Dell Publishing Company, not Dell Computers which didn't exist until 1984.)