What means this? By the skin of our teeth?

Fascinating NY Times article dictionaries and sidebar on Google’s efforts to improve language translation and some examples pitting machine translation versus a human translator (the gold standard). The participants were Google Translate, Yahoo Babel Fish via Systran and Microsoft Bing Translator. Google seems to have the others beat by a large margin and is about 80 to 90 % of a human translator.

This made me think of my time when I was on assignment for a US company in Italy and ended up having the de facto responsibility of helping my Italian colleagues with their English. In particular, I remember my good friend Elena asking me in exasperation one day What means this? By the skin of our teeth?” (see the second item on Yahoo Answers for a comprehensive answer).

So in the spirit of checking out Google Translate, I decided to plug in the above phrase and also use Jonathan Feinberg’s babelizer utility. The translation English to Italian to English works quite well.

Google Translate (input) What means this? By the skin of our teeth?
Google Translate (output) What does this mean? The skin of our teeth?
Babelizer (input) What means this? By the skin of our teeth?
Babelizer  (output) What means this? From the skin our teeth

However when we get English to Japanese to English it is a little more problematic for the babelizer although a bit more amusing.

Google Translate (input) What means this? By the skin of our teeth?
Google Translate (output) What this means? The skin of our teeth?
Babelizer (input) What means this? By the skin of our teeth?
Babelizer  (output) Something means this? Using the skin of our teeth

The moral of the story is machine translation is getting better and better but isn’t quite there yet and there may well be unintentional consequences for the unwary.

Why is it so hard to like the US cell phone industry

Last Thursday in the New York Times, David Pogue had a long article titled The Irksome Telephone Company. In it he pointed out that the US public would be better served by their elected officials if they did not spend so much effort on handset exclusivity (or why does AT&T have exclusive rights to the iPhone?) but concentrated on those areas where the US consumer was being short changed. He identified five areas and I have added one of my own for good measure.

  1. Text messaging fees – now sitting at $0.20 per message (as he points out roughly 61 million times the cost of sending an e-mail over their data network).
  2. Two sided billing – a mobile to mobile call is billed to both the caller and sender. Typically in the rest of the world, only the caller pays.
  3. Subsidy game – most phones are subsidized by long term contracts and consumers pay off the subsidy through their monthly charge. Trouble is the overall bill remains the same even after the subsidy on the phone is paid off.* (see note)
  4. International Roaming – he was talking more about the rip off rates charged for international dialing from the USA, rather than international roaming rates which are also usurious. This is a very profitable part of the mobile operator’s business (it used to be 5% of revenues 20% of profits)
  5. 15 second instructions – why can’t we go straight to voicemail rather than listen to 15 seconds of irrelevant instructions. As he points out when was the last time anyone pressed ‘5’ to page someone.
  6. The never-ending contract – Why is it that you can sign up for service any day of the month and it takes effect almost immediately, yet if you want to make a change to your contract it can only happen at the start of the next month and your contract start date resets to zero?

All these issues seem to have a common thread, that while typically there are workarounds, you have to be quite cell-phone-savvy to work them out. They punish the occasional user, the very ones you would expect the cell phone companies to be cultivating to grow their business.

Collectively, these give rise to the awful brand image of most mobile operators when it comes to their customers, which is why I guess they all sell on the basis of technology and price.

(note) It may be that the subsidy falls victim to the green revolution, the present setup encourages the replacement of phones based purely on timing not on need. We can only hope….


iPanic small Yesterday’s New York Times had a brilliant parody linking the hype around iPhone applications with the economic recession. Titled, iPanic it has the following header: -

Helping you deal with the loss of your life savings, one app at a time.

The footer is even more biting: -

The fetish that is a phone on the only network that’s an option gets even more practical, with apps for navigating your newfound destitution.

The article is well worth a read, my personal favourite app is

4merly Hot

Tired of economizing alone? Upload a picture of yourself when you had money, then use your iPhone to meet other singles pretending they still have money, too.