Friday link dispatch 01

On one of my blogs, there used to be automatically generated link posts via The method was never very reliable, and I abandoned it as it was never updated from its rather basic functionality. In particular, every single link I saved on was re-posted (instead of, say, just the links marked with a “post-me” tag). But I miss the link roundups. So let’s bring them back.

How to choose appropriate terminology when writing a historical novel. Which of the following words would you expect were not being used at all in the early 19th century, or had a markedly different sense than in today’s English: manipulate, blink, looped, conversationalist, knowledgeable, traipsing? The writer Marie Robinette Kowal, author of (among other works), Glamour in Glass, which is set in 1815, presents her anachronism-busting method. It involves extracting a word list from Jane Austen’s oeuvre and looking up each non-Austen word in the OED.  (Via Language Hat.)

Earliest know uses of some (many) of the words of mathematics and earliest known uses of some mathematical symbols:

FRACTAL. According to Franceschetti (p. 357):

In the winter of 1975, while he was preparing the manuscript of his first book, Mandelbrot thought about a name for his shapes. Looking into his son’s Latin dictionary, he came across the adjective fractus, from the verb frangere, meaning “to break.” He decided to name his shapes “fractals.”

Fractal appears in 1975 in Les Objets fractals: Forme, hasard, et dimension by Benoit Mandelbrot (1924- ). The title was translated as Fractals: Form, Chance, and Dimension (1977).

These pages, which must have been around for some time, are the work of Jeff Miller. Full of historical, lexical and typographical information and rich in references.

Tai, Chen-To: A historical study of vector analysis. I’m reviewing some of the maths I knew 15 years ago (gracious, am I rusty!) and came across this 1995 paper (available as a PDF file),which is even geekier (and certainly more specialized) than the pages in the previous link. It presumes familiarity with the subject of vector analysis as taught to math, physics or engineering students in their first years and covers historical texts mostly from mathematics and electromagnetism with respect to the notation of the derivatives (gradient, divergence, curl), with or without the Nabla operator ∇ (also called del). The author is opinionated and also has a second text, A Survey of the Improper Uses of ∇ in Vector Analysis.

Personal names around the world. A short but useful page from the World Wide Web Consortium.

People who create web forms, databases, or ontologies are often unaware how different people’s names can be in other countries. They build their forms or databases in a way that assumes too much on the part of foreign users. This article will first introduce you to some of the different styles used for personal names, and then some of the possible implications for handling those on the Web.

(Hat tip: Pat Hall on Facebook.)

Welcome Unicode 6.0 and your crazy stable of symbols

Yesterday, the a new major version of the Unicode Standard was published in Unicode 6.0, a year after version 5.2 and more than four after the last major upgrade to 5.0.

There is of course a slew of new stuff in it, and I’m sure I’ll spend a good while digesting at least some of it. The most visible effect of a Unicode Standard revision are the new characters — 2,088 of them, bringing the total to 109,449. Most of them are added to the Supplementary Planes, outside the Basic Multilingual Plane, and therefore require surrogate pairs in UTF-16. (In other words, they are encoded in UTF-16 using two 16-bit code units, unlike the BMP characters, which use only one.)

But enough initialisms: what’s in it? New scripts for languages of course:  Brāhmī, an abugida — an alphasyllabary based on consonants with secondary but required vowel notation — which is a historical script from India and of interest to archaeologists and historical linguists; the Mandaic alphabet for a variant of Aramaic that has a classical (liturgical Christian) and a vernacular form used by small communities in Iran and Iraq; and Batak, another abugida used to write an Austronesian language spoken by millions of people in northern Sumatra. In addition, of course, numerous updates, additions and improvements to existing scripts.

More striking is the number of new symbols and pictograms, including entirely new blocks. Emoticons (including Western ones, emoji, and also for example U+1F648 SEE-NO-EVIL MONKEY, U+1F649 HEAR-NO-EVIL MONKEY and U+1F64A SPEAK-NO-EVIL MONKEY). Useful transport and map symbols. Alchemical symbols certain to be welcomed by historians and fortune-tellers. Playing cards. And the catch-all block “Miscellaneous Symbols And Pictographs”, which brings us hundreds of animals, vegetables, fruit, tools, office symbols, communication symbols etc. pp. down to stuff like U+1F4A9, useful if you need to represent a pile of dog poop in a comic-book style.

Some have joked the date was a-propos: in the US, it was National Coming-Out Day, so fittingly we now have U+1F46C and U+1F46D: TWO MEN HOLDING HANDS and TWO WOMEN HOLDING HANDS.

But to get those new characters on paper or screen, we need fonts. Unfortunately, fonts are often many versions behind, and usually only implement specific ranges or blocks of the standard, depending on the font’s purpose. I opened Google to search for what’s out there already, and thanks to Hacker News found an impressively up-to-date font called Symbola by George Douros, third from the top on this collection of fonts for Ancient scripts.

It downloaded and installed fine on my Mac (running OS X Snow Leopard), but the OS X Character Viewer application is clearly not updated (I ran System Update just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything): As the highlighted areas show, neither the character names nor the Unicode blocks are known to OS X just yet.

OS X Character Viewer with new Unicode 6.0 pictogram characters
OS X Character Viewer with new Unicode 6.0 pictogram characters

This doesn’t prevent us from using the font, though, but in the end, whether the characters are displayed depends on the application. My browser, unfortunately, seems to be stuck on Unicode 5.2. But still, here I bring you U+1F427 PENGUIN, in the hope it will automagically appear on this page as soon as the application stack has caught up:


Update: I can see it in Firefox! But not in Chrome or Safari, so it may be a Webkit problem.

Twitter’s American Airlines i18n mystery

In the Twitter client Tweetdeck, and on my Twitter page itself, I run a search for “i18n”: the frequently used abbreviated form of “internationalization” (or “internationalisation” in BrE). A while ago, I noticed that this search feed contained some odd posts that seemed to have nothing to do with the topic, but originated from accounts belonging to the company American Airlines or from other Twitter users retweeting such posts. Here is a sample screenshot from Tweetdeck:

Odd tweet out: American Airlines in the i18n Twitter search
Odd tweet out: American Airlines in the i18n Twitter search

While all the other tweets have to do with multi-lingual software in some sense, the highlighted one doesn’t. It comes from the user PointsAdvisor and re-posts an American Airlines special offer posted by the corporate account AAirwaves.

I noticed such posts about two weeks ago, both in Tweetdeck and on the Twitter web page, but was stumped until I clicked by chance (or rather, by mistake) on the shortened link inside one of these posts. The AAirwaves account uses the URL (better: URI) shortener, and Tweetdeck will show the original long URI for me to click on (it’s a configurable option, which helps prevent accessing malicious pages). Here is the Tweetdeck link preview for the link in the highlighted tweet above, using data from

Tweetdeck link preview for AA link
Tweetdeck link preview for AA link

And highlighted, there’s the solution of the riddle: American Airlines uses in the URIs of a path segment (some text enclosed by / characters after the host name) that reads “i18n” — and the Twitter search picks up on this component.

Now on the one hand, this is quite bad URI design on the part of American Airlines, but what’s more interesting is that Twitter’s search engine resolves shortened links and includes the target URIs into the search. I didn’t expect this, as the shortened URIs are posted to Twitter as-is. It could be that the search inclusion is a by-product of resolving and storing the full links for security reasons: to protect against malicious code obscured by a link shortener.

In any event, the effect may be ephemeral. For the last two days, there haven’t been any new AA tweets in my “i18n” search feed on Tweetdeck (which uses the Twitter API). And on the Twitter page, they seem to have disappeared even from the history. I imagine that the Twitter people have to maintain a number of manually created rules to keep search feeds free of accidental spill-over.

This still does not even begin to address the problem of genuinely ambiguous search terms. Wikipedia lists over 20 senses for “FAI” for example, from Fairbanks International Airport to the French term for “ISP” via the Football Association of Ireland, but a Twitter search for the term is overrun by the extremely common Italian verb phrase “fai”. One thing we can expect is for Twitter and similar services to come up with prioritisation and disambiguation options, which, I’d expect, will introduce problems of their own.

Google’s h mystery

A few days ago, my friend Melinda Shore, who knows I’m interested in internationalization, sent me a screenshot from the search bar of her Safari browser. It is a drop-down list of search suggestions provided by Google just after typing the letter h:

Safari search bar Google suggestions
Safari search bar Google suggestions

The top suggestion is a mess:

  1. What does it mean?
  2. Why is it a legitimate search suggestion for the letter h? (If it is.)

Regarding 1., the search suggestion in Firefox is nearly identical, but I cannot reproduce the effect in Google’s own browser Chrome or on the search page directly. In the Safari example, we’re dealing with an odd mix of regular character strings (6.626068, 10, sup, -34), numeric HTML (or XML) entities (×) and raw Unicode-escaped characters that you might find in Python, C or Java source code (\u003C, \u003E). Let’s decode the second and third type of components:

  • \u003C and \u003E simply represent the Unicode code points U+003C and U+003E: the less-than and the greater-than signs < and >.
  • &#215; is U+00D7 MULTIPLICATION SIGN: ×

Putting it together, we get the already much more user-friendly form

6.626068 × 10<sup>-34

or, completing and resolving the HTML: 6.626068 × 10-34.

Once I realized this, my physics training kicked in and the answer to 2. became clearer – Planck’s constant, abbreviated as h,  has the value of 6.62606889 × 10-34 J s (or m2 kg / s). This is not the result of injecting broken text into the search engine results, but a feature of Google’s calculator. Typing “G” into the browser’s search bar also yields similar semi-numeric character salad, while the results for “c“, “e” or “pi” are much more legible.

Still, the entire story raises questions about intent and execution. This is not really an internationalization issue because the form of those physical and mathematical constants is largely invariant by convention. Yet, the tools of internationalization — HTML entities, Unicode code point escapes — have leaked into scientific character display, too. Internationalization is a user interface (usability, user experience) issue [1].

On the execution side, Google got it wrong on several counts, and Apple and Mozilla share some of the blame. Browser search bar drop-down lists don’t allow for superscripts and aren’t sophisticated enough to strip markup, so they display ugly raw HTML. Choosing a numeric entity instead of the character × probably led to its display breaking. And < and > are even in ASCII, so they should display fine, but probably security concerns and their status as reserved HTML characters led to the odd choice of escaping method. All in all, at least one decoding step was not carried out.

More fundamentally, should Google suggest “6.626068 × 10-34 m2 kg / s” when you type a lowercase h? There was a time in my life when I used Planck’s constant daily, and I do use Google’s handy calculator via my browser’s search bar for quick arithmetic and unit conversions. But I think just spitting out the value with no label is going a little too far, and will for more than 99% of users be entirely unexpected: too different from the genuinely useful (for Americans) “hotmail”, “hulu” and “home depot”. Especially considering that for most letters of the alphabet, you could possibly find a scientific constant, function or theorem that starts with it.

Though maybe it is a ploy to spread more science among the people.

[1] It is also a design issue. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.

Google search result for "h"
Google search result for "h" - very different from the broken suggestion

EDIT (2010-08-02): Commenters inside Facebook’s walled garden have remarked that if you actually take up the suggestion and search for it, you get to Planck’s constant. Currently this is partially right, but these things are constantly shifting: In my tests this morning, whether you use the Safari/Firefox  search field or Google’s search page directly, you get a mix of results, the first of which are people wondering about the odd string on SEO forums. A little further down you do get collections of scientific constants, but you have to attentively read the result. Right now, this post is (after less than 12h) number 7 on the results page. None of the pages looks like what you get if you do a Google search for “h” (and hit return) — which is nice and helpful.

Another commenter remarks that for her, the suggestion is now prefaced with “Planck’s constant”, which is a vast improvement.

Votes on Facebook

The polling stations for the UK General Election 2010 have closed, the exit poll predicts a hung (some call it “balanced”) parliament, a loss of seats of the Liberal Democrats, and a Conservative party only a few seats away from a majority. The first MP has been announced — Sunderland South, a safe Labour seat, but with a swing to the the Conservative party that, if extrapolated to all of England, would probably translate into an outright Conservative majority. As-is, I’m listening to the usual speculations in the absence of hard data, about alliances of the Lib Dems with Labour, or maybe the Tories with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionists. It’ll be a long night.

Meanwhile, a different titbit. All day, my Facebook page has had this box right above my “Wall”:

The number on the right has been going up in real-time all day. It is the number of Facebook members that have hit the “I voted” button. This is, apparently, a Facebook feature that is switched on for users from a country during elections in that country, as I learnt after clicking on “What’s this?”.

The first interesting point about this is the figure. It’ll probably go up a little further during the evening, and I’ll be curious to see where it ends up. The number of registered voters is given in the press as 44 Mio. If the turnout ends up at about 75%, that means that 33 Mio. people will actually vote. Out of those, nearly 2 Mio. will not just be on Facebook, but engaged enough with this site (or product) to click on “I voted” on election day. That’s about 6%. Not at all negligible.

The second point that comes to mind is the surprise that I’m only discovering the feature today, even though it was visible to, and presumably being used by, friends of mine when there were elections in their countries. I may even have voted in at least one of those (the last German Bundestag election). It would be interesting if Facebook managed to publicise at least the results elections internationally through such a tool.

As for me, I clicked “I voted”, even though in reality I only voted in the local election that’s taking place today in my borough as well: Being an EU citizen, I am not allowed to vote for UK parliament. Strangely, if I were a UK resident from a Commonwealth country, it would be much harder to live and work here, but I would be allowed to vote.

How would you like your temperatures today? French or imperial?

In late October last year, I travelled to North America. One leg of the trip was a flight from San Francisco (think sun, palm trees, T-shirt weather) to Toronto. This was my second trip to Toronto, and the first had taken place during the coldest week of 2007, so this time I wasn’t going to be caught unprepared: I consulted the weather forecast beforehand. Online, of course.

I used two services, and Yahoo! Weather.

Online weather services have to deal with the problem that some visitors will prefer temperatures displayed in degrees Fahrenheit while others are used to thinking in degrees Celsius. Weather sites typically make an initial guess, maybe based on the visitor’s IP address, and then provide a little link with a bit of Javascript behind it, so that the temperature scale can be changed with one click. [There are better ways than going by IP address, but that’s for another post.]

Here is how Yahoo! handles this internationalization task:

Temperature scale selection on Yahoo! Weather
Temperature scale selection on Yahoo! Weather

Nothing special about this, though I’d maybe have expected °C and °F. The surprise was’s temperature selector:

Temperature scale selection on
Temperature scale selection on

English vs metric? Huh. Turns out, “metric” is not entirely off-base: We may be thinking of units of length, area, volume, mass and weight, but degrees Celsius is indeed part of the original metric system. But it’s not the SI temperature scale: that would be Kelvin (not “degrees Kelvin”, btw). But there’s simply no justification for “English”. Maybe they originally used “imperial”, and someone pointed out that degrees Fahrenheit aren’t considered imperial units either.

The bottom line: don’t complicate matters when simple does just fine.