Monthly Archives: April 2006

More on machine translation

I suspect I’ll stop being amused by this soon, but I clicked on my translation widget to see how it would render my previous post in Italian. My sentence, “I agree with Miller and Baker…”, comes out: “Sono d’accordo con Mugnaio ed il panettiere“. You don’t need to know much Italian to see that it has changed Miller to il mugnaio and Baker to il panettiere. Curiously, in French (but not German, Spanish or Portuguese) their names remain in English. Clearly a better algorithm.

(The French translation also makes “newbies” Internautes novices, while all other languages just use “newbies”. In its origin, Davos Newbies wasn’t aimed at newbies in that French sense, but at people new to Davos. So the seemingly superior translation gets it wrong in this case.)

Could there be a better group of conversationalists?

The latest issue of The New York Review of Books has an enjoyable review by Russell Baker of Stephen Miller’s new book, Conversation: A History of a Declining Art. I agree with Miller and Baker that conversation is declining, although I think the blogosphere is, in parts, a valiant bulwark against the tide (Baker disagrees).

But to see how far we have fallen, consider the club that Samuel Johnson founded:

In 1764 Dr. Johnson founded the Literary Club for the sole purpose of “solid conversations” while eating and drinking. Its members included the poet Oliver Goldsmith; Sir Joshua Reynolds, the leading painter of his generation; David Garrick, the most popular actor the day; Edward Gibbon, the historian of the Roman Empire; the economist Adam Smith; the playwright Richard Sheridan; and the politicians Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox.

Update John Crowley, the author of Little, Big and a new blogger, also picks up Baker’s review. His comment:

Well it seems to me that if there is a venue for conversation it’s right here. Virginia Woolf: “there must be talk, and it must be general, and it must be about everything…It must not go too deep, and it must not be too clever…” I think this is the modern salon, and the magic of how the salon itself is assembled means that it could be the high civilized mode of the present and future.

The joys and limits of machine translation

I’ve just added a clever widget to my sidebar that enables readers to “translate” Davos Newbies into a variety of languages, courtesy of Google’s automated translation algorithms (the widget was devised by Trevor Creech). For the languages I know reasonably well, Italian and French, it does a slightly comical but minimally serviceable job. I don’t expect there will be enormous demand for the service, at least on Davos Newbies, but it’s enjoyable to explore the still-mythical kingdom of machine translation.

The triumph of the blog-created book

Glenn Greenwald: “In just one day, before it has been released, and with literally nothing more in the way of marketing and publicity than a handful of bloggers discussing it and a very committed and passionate blog readership here, How Would a Patriot Act? went to #1 on the Amazon Top Sellers List last night, and it sits there currently.”

Given the excellence of his blog, I’ll certainly be a purchaser and reader.

Can Google really be the world's biggest user of electricity?

Martin Varsavsky: “It turns out that Google is by now the largest owner of computers in the world and that computers are consuming more and more of the electricity that is used in the world. Therefore Google has the largest utility bill in the planet.”

Sounds like the kind of urban myth that Google can usefully debunk. I couldn’t find a counter example quickly, but I find it difficult to believe that the world’s largest manufacturers, like GE, Toyota and GM, or the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, don’t use far more electricity than Google, however many server farms it may have.

The dead tree reactionaries

It’s rare that my interests in media democracy and tennis coincide, but a recent post on a tennis blog truly raised alarm bells.

Peter Bodo reports that many of the members of the International Tennis Writers Association are fighting plans by the Association of Tennis Professionals to provide live video feeds to websites from press interview rooms. To add to the absurdity of this rear-guard action, ITWA also advocates a policy of keeping press conference transcripts from being posts for at least 24 hours. Bodo, who is a leading professional tennis writer as well as a blogger, comments: “This is an attempt by the dead-tree media to keep a proprietary stake in the information dissemination business.”
He goes further:

I am adamantly and deeply opposed to these protectionist practices, and to the underlying premise that the news media can or should be in the business of controlling the flow of information or news in order to mollify a part or all of its constituency. There is a huge ethical issue at the root of this, and I think it makes the press in general and the ITWA in this case look deeply conflicted. It’s too bad, because ITWA does a great job in many other ways that I may no longer experience if I get kicked out for being a whistle-blower.

The bottom line is that nothing should impede the flow of information to the public in any way whatsoever (at least in this broad context of sports journalism). Sure, I’m an internet guy now (actually I also write for Tennis, a monthly, which is a pretty schizoid combo). But I’m new to the web, and I like to think I know print, inside and out.

I like and respect print. But I don’t think I’ve ever read anything because I know the reporter had access to embargoed information. I read for one or both of two reasons: I want the news (facts) of a specific story, and/or I really like the voice, style, point-of-view, or opinions of the writer.

Bodo is of course right. What he doesn’t mention is that restrictive attempts like this are bound to fail. It is plainly in the interests of tournaments to give as many people as possible access to their information. Why do they need mediation?

The public parts of the ITWA site don’t have any word of these policies.

Press nullification

Jay Rosen: “The era of news management lasted 40 years – from 1963, when the networks first began their 30-minute nightly broadcasts, to 2003, when McClellan, Bush, Cheney, and Rove proved there were other ways. Replace news management with press nullification. Drop the persuasion model, in favor of the politics of assent. Choose non-communication to demonstrate that you ought not to be questioned (it only helps our enemies).”

More not flat

I recently responded at length to a comment on my criticism of Tom Friedman’s The World is Flat. But I’m particularly eager to pursue one of the connections mentioned in that response. Suzanne Berger’s new book, How We Compete, sounds unmissable. From John Gray’s review in the current New York Review of Books, it sounds like a definitive refutation of the notion that there is one true path to success (which was peddled by Friedman in his earlier book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, as well).

From Gray’s review:

Standard models assume that globalization means that one way of doing business will be imposed on everyone, but this is not supported by Suzanne Berger’s research on many companies in different parts of the world. She writes that the common belief is that “globalization forces everyone onto the same track. But that’s not what our team found.” Drawing on a five-year study by the MIT Industrial Performance Center, Berger presents a wealth of evidence about the different strategies adopted by five hundred international companies to survive and prosper in the global market. The result is a consistently enlightening analysis that explores the many different ways in which companies respond successfully to global competition. The computer company Dell is strongly focused on distribution and outsources all manufacturing of components overseas, for example in India, while Samsung makes almost everything itself; but both are rapidly growing, profitable businesses. General Motors is finding it difficult to adjust to high-wage labor, while Toyota—which has kept production at home or in other advanced countries—is doing well. Faced with similar challenges, companies can thrive or fail in different ways.

Devoting a significant part of her analysis to the dilemmas surrounding outsourcing, Berger concludes that the threat of continuing job losses in the US is at least partly real. Many economists insist that as old jobs are lost, new technologies and industries will appear to replace them. Berger does not entirely reject this view, but suggests that the experience of those who have been laid off and cannot find jobs without accepting large reductions in pay may point to a trend that mainstream economics has missed: “After crying wolf so often, perhaps this time the pessimists about technological advance and employment have really spotted one.” Outsourcing poses a real risk to employees; but Berger believes a “race to the bottom” can be avoided if companies accept that employing cheap labor is not the most effective way of responding to global competition. The activities that succeed over time are those that involve conditions —such as long-term working relations with customers and suppliers and specialized skills—which companies whose main asset is cheap labor cannot match. A company policy of forcing wages down is not a recipe for long-term corporate success.