Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Steve Jobs, Language Technology and Taste

Dear tech geek:

This is why Steve Jobs is a genius and you’re a dinkus.

  The clip is taken from the final minutes of a documentary entitled Triumph of the Nerds, from 1996. This is a transcription with emphasis added by me:

The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste. They have absolutely no taste, and what that means is… I don't mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way: in the sense that they don't think of original ideas, and they don't bring much culture into their product. And you say 'why is that important?' Well, you know, proportionally spaced fonts come from typesetting and beautiful books, that's where one gets the idea. If it weren't for the Mac, they would never have that in their products.

So I guess I am saddened, not by Microsoft's success. I have no problem with their success. They've earned their success, for the most part. I have a problem with the fact that they just make really third rate products.

When this interview took place, Jobs was the disgraced boy genius who was ignominiously ousted from the company he founded. These words could easily have been taken as sour grapes from the loser in the great PC battles of the 1980s. Now, however, they are not as easy to dismiss after what has been called the “greatest second act” in corporate history, which began the following year and led to the iPod and now the iPad.

So now you have to pay attention. Because the triumph of Apple over Microsoft is not a story of victory through efficiency, but rather a trouncing of corporate competitors through design excellence and conceptual elegance. In a word, taste. Over vulgarity.

Indeed, the Apple story is a ubiquitous counterexample to a lot of faddish Silicon Valley nostrums broadcast by Wired.

While midgets dream of taking cultural processes and hacking them into assembly lines, the real giants of our times are thinking of ways to break the mind-forged manacles of the twentieth century.

Most research and discussion on machine translation comes from relatively uncultured technicians who look at translation and say “hey, that looks pretty simple, a computer could probably do that.” Over half a century later, the pilgrimage to the Holy Land remains bogged down in the outskirts of London. It is not the Crusade itself that raises hackles but the fanaticized or duplicitous leaders who tell us that the spires of Jerusalem are visible from Southwark if you stand on your tippy-toes. It turns out that a message in one language will never be 100% identical to the message in another language. That information is conveyed differently in different languages. That information encoded in language is hard to quantify.

A lot of the evangelicalism about language technology is marred by intellectual laziness. Whether you’re discussing Lady Gaga or red-shifting galaxies, whether you are an engineer or a computer designer or a poet, you should have the basic courtesy of using words with care. Some very aggressive discussions about the future of the translation industry appear to be undertaken by people who have never written a sentence in their life.

And I’m not asking for holographic Vladimir Nabokov to come down from the Cloud and expostulate on the wonders of the future while chasing butterflies. You don’t have to be a wooly trilingual professional who blogs about hemp cloth in his spare time to appreciate language.

In the clip, the founder of Apple is speaking about how early computers had fonts in which every letter was allotted the same amount of space. An “f” and a “t” placed together looked like “f t” instead of our current “ft,” in which the serif of the “t” elbows its way into the space below the swinging upwards loop of the “f” to form a pleasing whole. That sort of minute attention to aesthetic detail can only come from a profound appreciation of early printing and the artisans who produced incunabula. It is an eloquent example of how humanistic culture should inform technology.

That is sadly missing from current discussions about language and technology. The debate is visibly monopolized by people who are not translators and remind you of the Burt Lancaster character in Elmer Gantry. Or when it is former translators, it is people long on salesy pizzazz and not much in the old noggin. Or people who think translation is a commodity. These people probably don’t read a lot of literature and think any sentence is equivalent to any other. Well, they’re not. Different sentences are not equivalent because of a little thing called style. And if you can’t perceive it, you probably never will. And that is what Jobs was talking about.

Miguel Llorens is a freelance financial translator based in Madrid who works from Spanish into English. He is specialized in equity research, economics, accounting, and investment strategy. He has worked as a translator for Goldman Sachs, the US Government's Open Source Center and H.B.O. International, as well as many small-and-medium-sized brokerages and asset management companies operating in SpainTo contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. Feel free to join his LinkedIn network or to follow him on Twitter.


Jordi Balcells said...

When I think about Apple, I remember that 1984 clip with the runner with her hammer, the Big Brother, and all those sheep. Then I see the current Apple and I weep at the irony. And then I laugh. And I weep some more, for good measure.

Also, those pesky ligatures are a pest when it comes to OCRing text. They may look very nice to humans, but they are a true embuggarance to machines. I know it's probably our fault for not developing better algorithms that can cope with them. Call me a geek, but I still prefer a good old monospace font. We never needed a fancier font while at the CLI back in the day.

Miguel Llorens M. said...

Interesting contribution. When did you lose your soul, exactly? ;0)

Jordi Balcells said...

I'm not sure I follow you, Miguel.

Do you mean my not caring about Steve's death? I am 100% antiApple, and I have refrained from giving nasty replies to posts in Facebook & Twitter pretty much asking for his canonisation. I don't know what else I can(not) do.

Or do you mean my going out of my way not to give trouble to my computer? I understand computers, I am not sure I can say the same about people. If something can be done to avoid spending too much time on repetitive tasks, such as OCRing, I'm all for it. And it is true that I prefer monospace fonts. I commonly use Courier New in every program that allows such customisation. The Terminal font is too hardcore, though.

And regarding my soul… I am afraid I am far too analythical for that.

Finally, I misspelled "embuggerance". What a kerfuffle! :D

Miguel Llorens M. said...

Not accusing you of insensitivity. It was a joke. But why not aim for OCR that can read proportionally spaced fonts? Why do we have to lower our expectations of technology? I think that is the point I was trying to get at.

Jordi Balcells said...

OK, I was not sure. That smiley looked like a happy one, but… These past few days I have seen people being accused of being insensitive just because they did not care about Steve's death. The whole thing reminds me of Kurt Cobain's death.

Yes, I agree about OCR software. As I said, "I know it's probably our fault for not developing better algorithms that can cope with them."

Anonymous said...

This video clip is a treasure. I recently had the opportunity to actually hold in my hands some of the books in the portable octavo produced by Aldus and a few others like him from early 16th century, and to enjoy the beauty of the fonts, the harmony of layout, the quality of the paper. What a treat. So many things nowadays, books as much as anything else, are simply made to sell, sell quickly and in large numbers. It's really obscene.

Gueibor said...

This awkward, but I sort of agree with both of you:

1- While I certainly appreciate the innovationd and the painstaking attention to detail and aesthetics in Apple products, the associated iHype annoys me to no end. Plus, I'm admittedly one cheap bastard.

2- My eyeballs would probably melt from boredom if the world suddenly turned into Courier New. OCR is still far from perfect, but who cares as long as I get to charge for "humanizing" its output (I'm also a greedy bastard, mind you).