Friday, May 23, 2008

Travel Blog Challenges

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.

I've made matters even worse for myself by creating a home page ( which has some content on it that need to be updated with a bit of JavaScript code and some snooping around on Google Maps. I'm sure I'll get better at it, but right now each time I do it I'm amazed that the whole mess holds together.

Despite all these challenges its still fun to be able to keep in touch with friends, and so I still end up typing rambling posts late at night in Istanbul. Playing with JavaScript in Turkey also brings me back to my roots; I've had a 25 year love affair with technology and I am still excited by new developments. Email and blogs sure beats the days of $6.00 a minute phone calls and one month postal service.


Anonymous said...

Keep at it, it's working ok and looks like you know how to overcome or find away around the challenges. It's great to read your stories. The first photos are nice too! Looking forward to more. Gerrie

Mark said...

I have encountered the same thing in Finland, with almost every webpage being smart enough to present things to me in Finnish... very frustrating. However, from what I ghave heard, Turkish is one of the toughest from a computer standpoint, there is even the Turkey-Test to check that you have done internationalization of your app correctly, because its the most likely to cause problems. glad to see you are back at it Taco.
Mark McElhinney