Technology has allowed us to do some remarkable things while we travel. Here I sit, at a cheap hotel in Istanbul, writing a blog entry that will hopefully be read either by my friends at home, or maybe by me in my old age when I am no longer able to travel. One could argue whether this is in itself a good thing (after all, I could be out seeing the city), but it is something I enjoy doing.
Unfortunately the type of things I am doing are becoming increasingly challenging largely due to the very design decisions that are supposed to make computers easier to use.
Generally when we design a computer interface we try to avoid asking the user any questions if the computer itself can determine the answer. Hopefully the result of this is that your Grandma doesn't have to phone you up to ask whether she should install the latest security update to the operating system. As a counterpart to this we bury the complex parts of the system deep down where a novice user won't accidentally stumble into them and do harm.
The unfortunate counterpoint is that sometimes the computer makes the wrong decision on your behalf. And when you are travelling, the computer almost always makes the wrong decision for anything to do with language. The consequences are really annoying.
The first problem you run into on a foreign computer is the keyboard layout. Every country has a different keyboard and it can be an incredible hassle to search an entire keyboard looking for the @ key. To make matters worse many computers will have a physical US keyboard that is mapped to their local language. Generally every punctuation mark is in a completely new location and you have to explore the keyboard until you find it. Luckily there is sometimes a handy little menu in the bottom right to change the keyboard layout, but unfortunately there is some arcane magic needed to make it show up, and you have to reset the layout every time you open an new program.
The second problem is the language itself. In Turkey, most machines are, not suprisingly, in Turkish. You can change the language if you burrow far enough into the inards of Windows. Unfortunately, all of this stuff is in Turkish. Do I select Denemit Massasi from Baslat, or do I select Yaziki fe Fakslar? The only thing I know is that I haven't been able to find the language setting yet.
The third problem is that even if you change the language on the keyboard and the computer, you might still run into a web-page (Google for example) that tries to be too clever and gives you a local language version even when you try to get into the English version. Google's mail used to do this even when you log into a Canadian email address, but they seem to have fixed this recently.
The final problem is simply one of software. Uploading photos for example, doesn't work very well if you don't have the right software. And downloading the software is a hassle when all the confirmation dialogs are in another language, the link is slow, and the computer may be locked down.