The (Google) wave of the (messaging) future?

So after a week of travelling (to MAAWG in Amsterdam, which was a thought-provoking experience) and several being busybusybusy all around, I finally managed to watch the Google I/O 2009 presentation about the upcoming Google Wave messaging and collaboration platform.

There are three thoughts that this video inspired:

  1. When I first heard about Wave, despite the positive noises from people I trust, I was sceptical: it sounded like something I’d very much enjoy using myself, but as a successor of email for a great number of people? Email may be antiquated, as internet technologies go, yet it is the primary means of addressing messages to those connected to the net — a great number of whom aren’t collaborating on documents or even using IM very much. After watching the presentation, I think this judgment was premature.

    To step back a little… Email right now comes in three forms: first, spam; second, what has come to be called “bacn” by some, ie automated but legitimate messages (from post-signup confirmations, via notifications of activities on social networks, to marketing messages and newsletters we opted to receive or that are addressed to us at work); and finally the prototypical email: conversations between real people. The first, we can discount for the moment — no one wants those. For the second, the added value from Google Wave is limited; at most, I might want to annotate such a message for my own use, or link it to my calendar or to-do list (“deadline for signing up to benefit X”, “interesting exhibition at museum Y”). The third is different. If, and from the demo it looks as if Google could pull this off, the user interface is seamless enough, I could indeed see regular people conversing in waves instead of cumbersome email threads. Even better, if, say, Facebook (replace with social platform of choice) messaging threads could be conducted through a Wave client, we’d probably have a winner.

  2. Second thought, if we do think if Google Wave as a potential successor for email, the one central problem that the protocol should be solving is that of spam and abuse. From the limited time I’ve spend with the documents, it seems that the danger of spamming an existing wave is reduced, as each wave carries a globally unique wave id, and messages are transmitted encrypted. What about starting a new wave though? How would one wave provider authenticate with other wave providers? Maybe someone could point me to the relevant section in the protocol, that woud be great. Then there’s the problem of compromised wave accounts, especially if desktop clients appear on the scene. Last, if Wave accounts with Google are free and tied to Google accounts, there’s a need to become more efficient preventing automated account creation for abusive purposes: Nearly all of the Eggcorn Forum‘s spam problems came from accounts registering with a Gmail address, who managed to navigate the confirmed registration process just fine and were without doubt created by bots.

  3. Two short segments in the video particularly piqued my interest: automated translation — on the fly — between 40 languages? Google Translate has become much better over the last two years or so, and it would be great to run some large-scale quality checks on translation features. Oh and that spellchecker, which is the first I’ve ever seen to take context into account. Maybe Google would be interested in throwing eggcorns into the spellcheck-heuristics mix? [My own spellchecker, untrained and brand-new, just complained about “aren” … in “aren’t”. Sigh.]

A construction the likes of which I’ve never been able to let go

So an Air France Airbus A330 disappeared over the Atlantic last night. It’s a frightening event, and the quasi-certainty that 228 people died, maybe without a trace, in a cataclysmic accident, is terribly sad.

BBC news quotes the French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s public address: “It is a catastrophe the likes of which Air France has never seen.” The wording of the quote made me think. It sounds a bit overly convoluted to my ear, but then, this may very well express a level of pathos appropriate to the situation. Sarkozy, of course, spoke French. Interestingly, this exact wording is all over the English-language press. It must have come from an early press release: it’s doubtful there are official English translations of the pronouncements of the French president.

What is the French original? The paper Libération’s habit of publishing such things verbatim — though cleaned up — helps us out. Here is the first bit of Sarkozy’s public declaration:

Cette nuit nous avons perdu la trace d’un avion d’Air France avec 228 personnes à bord, passagers et personnels d’équipage. Nous n’avons aucun élément précis sur ce qui s’est passé. C’est une catastrophe comme jamais la compagnie Air France n’en avait connue.

The French construction employed by Sarkozy, which has no one-to-one correspondence in English, goes a long way to explain the translator’s choice. Ne … jamais can mean “never” or “ever”, depending of polarity, and there’s the partitive pronoun en, which refers back to une catastrophe. We could gloss the French as “This is a catastrophe like never the airline Air France [of it] had known,” or, using the more idiomatic present perfect, substituting seen for known, and cleaning up the word order, “This is a catastrophe like the airline Air France has never seen.”

The translator’s thought process now becomes clearer:

  • They aimed at preserving the comparison “like”, but getting rid of the informal aspect
  • They were quite happy to preserve the partitive en, somehow

“Like” therefore becomes nominalized as “the likes of which”.

In order to to get input from other English speakers, I asked around on Twitter and Facebook, provocatively, whether “the likes of which Air France had never seen” sounded clumsy. Several people were kind enough to reply:

  • Some found nothing remotely remarkable about the formulation, or even consider it the preferred way of rendering the original French
  • Some came out close to my gloss, with “a catastrophe such as Air France has never seen” or even “a catastrophe like Air France has never seen”
  • Some preferred turning “never” into “ever” (or left it out) and “like” into “unlike”, and even managed to slip the en back in in the form of “any”: “a catastrophe unlike any Air France has (ever) seen”
  • Some, including myself, went for a bold recasting: “an unprecedented catastrophe for Air France”
  • Finally, the linguist John Lawler came out in favour of “a catastrophe like Air France hasn’t never seen”, but implicitly admitted this version was really quite impossible, adding: “Alas, English Negative Concord was lost with the Dative case, and has been replaced with Negative Polarity.”

Quite a cornucopia of choices here.