Lost And Found In Translation

Google announced a large-scale update of the Google Translate service: the basis of the translator will be driven by neural networks. For some languages, neural translation began to be used from November 2016 while others, including Russian, will switch to new technology in the near future. The developers argue that neural networks significantly improve the quality of translation, because machines can analyze not merely individual words and phrases but complete sentences and context.

How the new technology differs from the previous one? How to measure the quality of translation, and whether the machines can translate from one language to another as well as people?

Konstantin Benyumov, the journalist of Russian online publication Medusa, spoke with Barak Turovsky, Product Lead of Google Translate.Barak Turowski has been with Google since 2012, for the last three years managing Google Translate, including user interaction algorithms and design. Barak Turowsky was born in the USSR, lived and worked in Israel before moving to the United States.  At his request, the conversation was conducted in English, but during the interview Mr. Turowsky frequently switched to Russian.

Since I read the interview in Russian, the translation of an excerpt of the interview below is mine, not Google Translate. Although Turowsky’s words are given in quotes, these might not be the exact verbiage he used when he spoke in English. The likelihood that Mr. Turovsky will check my translation for accuracy is rather small. Should it happen, however, I can always put a blame on… Google Translate. So there.

– What is the weight of Google Translate in the company?

“The Translator is a very important product for us, and Google allocated significant resources to its development. The main reason for this is that almost 50% of the Internet content is in English. However, only about 20% of the people proficient in English. This is a very serious obstacle for effective use of the Internet. In fact, there are two obstacles. First, there is an infrastructure barrier: a huge number of people, for example in China and India, do not have access to the Internet at all. But this situation is gradually changing, thanks to the development of mobile Internet and smartphones. Thus nowadays people in these countries often go directly to the mobile Internet. However, they immediately encounter a language barrier, and this effectively limits their usage of the Internet.

Therefore, Google Translate is a priority product for us. The Translator is an immensely popular product — nearly a half billion people per month use it, we translate about 140 billion words per day.”

– Is Google Translate main goal mostly ideological — to unite the world, or mostly commercial — to attract more users?

“For our users, the Translator is free.  My main task as the Product Lead is to provide services to as many people as possible. Another important goal is to simplify access to the Internet, remove barriers that hinder its effective use. Personally, I’m not concerned about monetization whatsoever.

– Let’s talk about the design for which you are also responsible. Design in Google Translate clearly does not play a leading role. At least, it looks rather simple and over the years the project has undergone a minimum of changes. Is is so?

“You are absolutely right. Google Translator is a tool, its task is to be useful and convenient, and the design should therefore be minimalistic in order not to interfere with its effective use. But we constantly introduce new mechanisms and ways of interaction with the Translator, for example, using a mobile phone or camera. There is the Word Lens — a function that allows to use the technology of augmented reality to aim the camera at the text and translate it.”

– Has the translator learned to work with pairs of languages directly, bypassing English?

“Not quite yet. The popularity of English on the Internet means that the vast majority of training data is a translation from English into other languages and back. And if a user needs to translate from Russian into Japanese, in most cases we have to translate first from Russian into English and then into Japanese. Of course, direct translation would be better, but we support translation from 103 languages, that is, the number of their combinations is 103 square, it is more than ten thousand language pairs. For training it is very difficult.

But neural translation allows machines to learn to work with multiple languages at the same time. For example, languages can be combined into related groups, which greatly simplifies our work. In addition, within the related groups, we can create working models that do not need English language as an intermediary.”

Further in the interview, Turovsky answers questions about putting a Neural Machine Translation into action. Instead of me competing with Google Translator, I suggest you to read Barak Turovsky’s related blog articles  Google’s new translation software is powered by brainlike artificial intelligence and Found in translation: More accurate, fluent sentences in Google Translate.



Profoundly Perplexing Cyberspace

Tomasz Setowski

Tomasz Setowski

Tom Standage, a British science writer, the digital editor at The Economist and the author of such unorthodox chronicles as “A History of the World in 6 Glasses” and “The Victorian Internet,” a steampunk classic about the rise of the telegraph — makes a convincing case.

Social Media

What is media today? Conglomerates and moguls, of course: Time Warner, Viacom, Rupert Murdoch. What was media the “day before yesterday”? It may have been Cic­ero and other upper-class Romans, passing from person to person papyrus rolls with latest news. They copied, annotated and passed them around.

Speeches, books, even personal letters were read aloud by slaves and sent on to friends and acquaintances. This distribution system made early media social; by sharing in this fashion, people were able to do what people do in such situations: signal their interests, define their personas and strengthen their ties with others.

Fourth style fresco painting of Sappho holding a stylus

A fresco painting from Pompeii of Sappho holding a stylus.

Graffiti in Pompeii were nothing less than “wall posts”. Even content reads like yesterday’s posts:Graffiti from PompeiiWax tablets were used for sending messages are the iPads of their day (flat objects from across the ages are going to look similar).

wax tabletThe Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences were written by Martin Luther in 1517.  On 31 October 1517, Luther posted them on the door of the church in Wittenberg. They “went viral” and thus widely regarded as the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation. Thomas Paine‘s revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense was a “media hit,” as well.

Every time in history such things happen due to changes in technology, there were disdainful commentators lamenting blasphemous advancement of humanity toward havoc, destruction, moral degradation.

socrates_out_on_a_drink_by_maladjustSocrates argued that, exposed to writing, people would become “hearers of many things, and will have learned nothing; they will appear omniscient and will generally know nothing”.

In 1641, The Worshipful Company of Stationers worried that “every ignorant person that takes advantage of a lose presse may publish the fancies of every idle brain”.

Thomas Fuller, a 17th-century clergyman, argued that pamphlets “cast dirt on the faces of many innocent persons, which dried on by continuance of time can never be washed off”.

Then, now, again, and after the morrow people believed, believe and very likely will believe that technology is able to alter humanfolks fundamentally. To do so is to fall into the trap of thinking that machines are somehow alien. They are human creations that reflect our needs and desire, Tom Standage argues.

Then, is there also a “need and desire” to drown in a sea of misinformation and, while at it, part with our privacy?

Charles Seife, an American author and journalist, a professor at New York University, wrote Virtual Unreality, a seriously entertaining book with a built-in warning: beware, be skeptical of what you read, view and watch online.

Mr. Seife cites an appalling example of dangerously misleading Internet: President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa was persuaded, largely by HIV-denialist websites, to try to thwart the distribution of drugs that could treat the disease in his nation. Mr. Mbeki’s campaign resulted in the deaths of over 300,000 South Africans between 2000 and 2005.

Charles Seife is an American author and journalist, a professor at New York University. He has written extensively on scientific and mathematical topics.

Charles Seife (Credit: Sigrid Estrada). Charles Seife has written extensively on scientific and mathematical topics.

Internet groupthink is creating a new kind of reality, Mr. Seife says, reality in which privacy is not merely endangered, but nears extinction. “[Free information] is a double-edged sword because when information is out there for everyone to manipulate, for everyone to alter, for everyone to broadcast, unfortunately, you get a huge amount of nonsense as more and more people put their stuff out there. You get noise to the signal.”

Q:  Looking to the future a little bit, do you think we’re going to keep cruising along with the way things are happening, where we have less and less control over our private information or do you think we’re going to be entering some kind of a different realm? I’m wondering if this is a transition stage and if we’re going to have more control and if people are going to become more and more aware of how their information is being used.

A: I definitely think we’re in a transition phase. But I hate to say it, I think we may be entering a post-privacy society. I teach journalists, and one of the things that keeps journalists in check is a sense of privacy, a sense of boundaries, and the understanding that you are imposing upon the people you interview and there are certain things that may not be worth exposing even though they’re juicy. In trying to talk about journalistic ethics, the students today are actually studying with the understanding in a way students even seven or eight years ago weren’t. And I wonder, these are people who are used to sharing everything online and so it’s really much harder to understand the value of why others would not want that, would not behave in the same way.

FacebookQ: Is that something that will just go away as older generations go away? The worries about over-sharing, sharing private information…

A: I see through my students’ eyes a world without privacy that is completely normal. It’s something that’s completely foreign to me but I understand others can live with it. The future is not going to be up to us; it’s going to be up to them.

How to Rent a Negro

Rent-a-NegroThere was once a website…

“Rent-a-negro is a state-of-the-arts service that allows you the chance to promote your connection with a creative, articulate, friendly, attractive, and pleasing African American person. This service comes without the commitment of learning about racism, challenging your own white privilege, or being labeled “radical.” In fact, rent-a-negro allows you to use your money and status to your advantage! In addition, your dollars go to support the development of African American culture…everyone benefits!

Supporting multiculturalism is an important part of building social clout. These days, it’s on everyone’s agenda. But how to start? Where do you find the people to diversify your life? What if you don’t know any black people? You want to appear up to date, but just don’t have the human resources. One public lunch with rent-a-negro and you’ll be on your way to being seen as the most cutting edge member of your circle.

How do I start?
Simply fill out the Rental Request and start renting today!”

It was created by damali ayo, conceptual artist who prefers not to capitalize her name.wide eyed

From damali ayo’s website www.damaliayo.com

Curiously, rent-a-negro.com  attracted plenty of attention. Many seriously thought it was a legit site, not realizing it was a satirical prank with a purpose.

Complete with professionally sounding sales pitches, a service founder’s tongue-in-cheek bio, comments by satisfied customers, rates, order questionnaire and payment information the site accepted all major credit cards.

There were people who sent e-mails with resumes, seeking employment as “rentals”.


How to Rent a Negro front book cover

From one of the forums about now-defunct rent-a-negro.com website:

Is this a serious website??? I can’t tell if it’s supposed to be a joke or not……the prices and fact that some white would actually pay for this is ludicrous but…I don’t know I just saw a white NAACP President on the TV…

I learned of it only recently, long after the site outlived its purpose and damali ayo has shut it down. Based on her experience with the site, damali ayo  had written a book. She had a lot of material to cover.


Her mock site and her life experience served her well. She is generally unhappy about the state of racial diversity and virtual absence of inter-racial dialogue in our US of A.

As I mentioned, I haven’t seen the site when it was functional, and haven’t heard of it until I read an article about it in — what else? — Russian media. Give and take, I’m generally happy about the level of diversity in my life, that’s why.

Touch Her Hair: $25 each time;
Touch Her Skin: $35 each touch. (from the rent-a-negro.com price-list)

Hilarious. No?


But still hilarious.

5 Rings Around The Collar

(Photo by Alexis Boichard/Agence Zoom/Getty Images) | Getty

Photo by Alexis Boichard/Agence Zoom/Getty Images) | Getty

Russia gets quite a beating for their handling of much coveted Winter Olympics 2014 across nearly every channel of mass media .

The celebration of sportsmanship, the spirit of, well, you know, like, you love everyone in every country and everyone in every country loves you and we all proud for who we are and our skill and the Olympic flame reaches to the stars… the Olympic coverage is not that much. The whole world seems to see the 5 Olympic rings as the “rings around the collar” — an utter admonishment of Russia.  Must suit Putin well, he-he-he. Utter embarrassment, yes, sir.

But then again, when mass media goes too far in a wrong direction, it’ll eventually backfire. Here is — and not a moment too late — signs of a backlash.

V. Solovyov, commentator of Russian channel NTV has this to say:

Amazing that everywhere you turn [in Sochi], foreign colleagues scramble to photograph any imperfection they can find, and they do it with glee. They climb fences, report standing against a backdrop of garbage piles, happy like kids, whenever and wherever they find any such rubbish. I hope their readers and viewers will love the Olympics.

And some of the more inquisitive consumers of mass info have done some digging. And — surprise! — have a few items of Olympics 2014, Sochi, mythology debunked. Deflowered, so to say, of its innocence.

I‘m sure nearly everyone have seen, read or heard about the “piss colored” water,  spouting from the showers and flushed into the toilet bowls of the Olympic Village.

The picture to go with it usually either 2 clear plastic cups filled with urine or this:

The above picture is real. It was reused, re-posted, shared and enjoyed by folks of every creed and nation.  Except that this photo wasn’t taken in Sochi. Below is the same image used on October 9, 2012 to illustrate the quality of drinking water in Ukraine. If you are versed in Ukrainian,  read Доказательство. I am, but bad drinking water in Ukraine isn’t  the topic of this post. To those who embarrassed themselves by posting fraudulent image:  Why not use your own urine in a cup to illustrate the Olympic “piss water”? Works every time and you don’t have to scavenge the internet for old pictures.
aThis picture — or many others of world Olympic aspirants astride twin toilets nestled in a single stall — so close their users could reach over and kiss one another — has become an Olympic showpiece of the web. The images are no fake. The maintenance workers neglected to post a sign as they started to dismantle the two adjoining stalls. The bowls were swapped out for a row of filing cabinets. Boneheadedness? Yes. Stinking “failure of macho Putin’s Winter Olympic Village”? No.

 Actually, the Sochi Olympics Does Not Have a ‘Double Toilet’ has some scalding words for those who rushed to judgment on Russia’s private quirks:

The toilet was held up by news organizations around the world as evidence of bizarre bathroom behavior on the part of the crazy Russians. The ease with which people were happy to re-run that line, without checking or following up, borders on latent racism….

This image below, shouldn’t have become an illustration of Olympic Village either. Regardless of how much the French-tweeting tweeter wants us to continue being surprised.

o5 Too bad people are so easily deceived, retweeting and favoring the post. The image showed up on Reddit 6 month ago.  Whether fake or a real accident of construction project, this half-toilet is nowhere to be found in Sochi.
o6The same is true of this one:
o8 It certainly exists somewhere in the world. The picture was posted on Dec. 20, 2013.  The important thing is that it doesn’t reside in Sochi, since the picture of it was floating in the internet long before the word Sochi has become known to the world at large.
o9 Or horror! We all going to die!  Another hoax, having nothing to do with Sochi. I wonder if the people who post this REALLY think Russians are THAT stupid to post this sign in close proximity of the Olympic complex? Well, I suppose they may… Check statistics, guys. They aren’t.

This picture has become a fixture in a collection of most bizarre road signs. It is being used in the areas close to the military bases.

o92Below is yet another imaginary “Putiniana”. There seem to be a certain obsession of  internet opinionators with Sochi’s Olympic toilets.  This immaculately clean facilities could easily promote international friendship or team spirit. Or is this a toilet designed for one group-spy-camera to observe team-happy-shitting? The answer is neither. Because there is no such communal toilet in Sochi.
o93The photo was made at the University of Kazan’s Summer Universiade — a student affair where college music bands perform and compete. Too bad Sochi didn’t borrow this great great idea.
o94There seem to be no escape from grim reality. This picture was taken in Sochi indeed… But long before the Olympics began. A year before the Olympics, to be precise.
o95Kai Pfaffenbach took the picture, starting Countdown to Sochi a bit hastily.
o96Good job, Kai Pfaffenbach from cozy Frankfurt. I’m about to grab my camera and run under the bridge over the overpass to take a few pictures.  We’ll compare our shots… You’d show me Sochi — the same spot, please! — and I’ll show you Boulder, Colorado. You’d be surprised. I’d understand. Boulder is no Frankfurt. Sochi is neither Boulder nor Frankfurt. It is Sochi. Welcome.

And lastly: There wasn’t enough money for repairs. All the money has been stolen by the greedy Russian officials to fight the unprecedented wave of opposition. That’s why all the doorknobs in hotels fall off when you touch them. American journalist Barry Petchesky  tried to open his hotel room, but the door stayed closed while the handle remained in his hand.

Such was Mr. Petchesky doorknob karma:
o97Two days later, Petchesky shyly admitted that this photo was not taken in Sochi. And then he went on and said this:

I see his point. Still, there is something faintly — and not so faintly — malicious floating in the web-sphere.

Russians, too, in greater numbers than ever are skeptical, angry, spiteful and reveal these precious feeling to the world to see. To be seen as obsessively unpatriotic and show off this admirable quality has become cool as of late.  While at the same time, they try to do their absolute best to please the world with the show and the spectacle…

Weird, no?

I was prompted to think about all of this after reading a short blogpost by Boris Akunin. Read original in Russian here  ОЛИМПИЙСКОЕ. Addressing his fellow Russians, the writer says roughly this: (the following is interpretation rather than literal translation from Russian) 

Our Facebook masochism about how shamefully ridiculous, boorish and god-awful everything is organized in Sochi is becoming terribly annoying.

Why are we so lustfully raveling in it?  Is everything, indeed, so utterly horrific? Is there absolutely nothing  beautiful, intelligent and creative? Nothing? Zilch? After pouring all that money and effort, was everything stolen and plundered with nothing to show for it? Really?

Perhaps, we should separate these two topics. Lets talk about thievery and plundering separately from celebration, sport and achievement. Personally, I don’t care all that much which team scores more medals. All I really want from the Sochi Olympics is that:

1) there were no terrorist attacks ;
2) there would be a lot of outstanding, beautiful sport;
3) there would be a record number of  records.
4) and all of this would not translate into a national disgrace.

Honestly, I’m not willing to live by the principle “What is bad for Putin is good for us.”

OLY-2014-OPENING-CEREMONY Fireworks explode over the Fisht Olympic Stadium at the begining of the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 7, 2014 in Sochi. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Fireworks explode over the Fisht Olympic Stadium at the begining of the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 7, 2014 in Sochi. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)

There is nothing I am “for” here.  What I’m against should be obvious from the post. If it isn’t, then I wasn’t quite as clear and obvious in stating my point as I hoped to be.

Of Numbers Big and Small

150 trillion bits of info

150 billion

is the number of bits if information that human brain (perhaps even mine!) is capable of storing during average lifetime.

Numbers. Cock18,631,409,000

is the number of poultry chickens in the world, according to  FAOSTAT, which is roughly 2.7 birds per the inhabitant of the planet. 

$20.2 billion is the amount the U.S. military has been spending annually on air conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan according to a former Pentagon official, as reported by NPR. That’s more than NASA’s budget.


is the number of  China Mobile’s  subscribers as of July 2013.  China Mobile Limited  中国移动通信 is the world’s largest telecommunication company and mobile phone operator in the world.


is a number of spam messages needed to sell  $100 worth of Viagra. The determination  was made by the scientists from the University of California at San Diego, researching spam marketing.

Numners. Assyrian Dictionary


is the number of years it took to the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (CAD) to compile multi-volume Assyrian Dictionary — the dictionary of Akkadian (Assyrian) language.

Numbers. Дупель


hours non-stop flight time, covering over 4,200 mi at average speed of up to 60 miles per hour. This record belongs to the Great Snipe (Gallinago media), a small stocky wader bird.


years (since 1973) is as long as Sadhu Amar Bharati, an Indian holy man, claims that he has had his right hand raised in the air  in devotion to god Shiva.

numbers. Bee Contest             26

kilogram of bees were covering the body of  42-year-old beekeeper Wang Dalin,  in Longhui County of Shaoyang City, central China’s Hunan Province, on  July 17, 2011 when he was declared a winner of the  hour-long contest.  (Xinhua/Lu Jianshe reporting)

Numbers. Mugabe10

days in jail was a punishment Police Sergeant Alois Mabhunu received for using the President’s of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe’s private bathroom.


is the number of  zettabytes that annual global IP traffic will surpass by the end of 2017. In 2017, global IP traffic will reach 1.4 zettabytes per year, or 120.6 exabytes per month. Global IP traffic will reach 1.0 zettabytes per year or 83.8 exabytes per month in 2015. (Cisco Visual Networking Index: Forecast and Methodology, 2012–2017)



year in Neptune years or 164.79 Earth years  have passed since its discovery. Neptune was mathematically predicted before it was first telescopically observed on 24 September 1846.

Anon Book Sculpture

1 (one)

is the number of copies of the novel Shift (In Russian, Сдвиг) by the Russian writer Maxim Aleshin was published. It was bound in his own skin — such was the writer’s dying wish.

Absurdist Parody Or What?

To be multilingual is a mixed blessing. It’s even more so in the age of  internet. You read something  unsettling in one language, and then find the same repeated in every other language you can read and understand. Can be tough on your nerves.

Not long ago, Ru-net (Russian internet) went all crazy about — get this! —  Snowden’s revelation about an oncoming global cataclysm. The site of origin is in English. It took about 2 month before the Russian translation spread and made people wonder.  “Snowden’s testimony” — note the quotes! — goes as follows:

“The highest levels of government don’t know what to do about UFOs, and the official story that they are all merely weather balloons or natural phenomena has been clearly dismissed. If anything, these documents speak about UFOs as if they are surely guided by an intelligence beyond our own.

As it turns out, the most credible and inexplicable sightings are of vehicles that have been spotted leaving the sea floor at hydrothermal vents and directly entering solar orbit…”


Russians — like most people this day and age should — have a high tolerance for all things absurd.  Evaluate your own by reading some more:

 …Because ballistic missile tracking systems and deep-sea sonar are kept as state secrets, scientists don’t have access to data about these objects. However, most of the contractors at DARPA are sure that there is a species more intelligent than homo sapiens living in the mantle of the Earth.

It makes sense, if you think about it, because that is the only place where conditions have been more or less stable for billions of years. Extremophiles may live at different temperatures than us, but they have been able to thrive and develop intelligence at a seemingly accelerated rate. That’s not true, because they’ve simply evolved at the same rate, but without many of the vicissitudes which set back surface life . . .

…The president receives daily briefings about their activities. Analysts believe their technology to be so far advanced that we stand little chance of survival in any potential war… 

Ridiculous?  An absurdist parody? A cross between The Onion  and some extreme conspiracy theory?

Based upon a domain name, chronicle.su, I have a suspicion the site was developed by a bunch of Russians with aspirations to be seen as super-cool.  

I choose not to hyperlink the site for fear that those who follow the link will never come back the same.  

Well, perhaps I was too harsh on the guys. I find this one below simply hilarious… in a darkly-satirical sense. On the other hand, being multilingual, I might’ve mistaken a tastelessly ludicrous stuff for a humorous parody.


Error 404

Texas-based The Global Language Monitor (GLM) reported the results of its annual research of  the most commonly used words, phrases and names across the whole of the web throughout English-speaking countries.

GLM’s NarrativeTracker technology scans blogs, social media and news sites from the leading 275,000 print and electronic worldwide magazines and newspapers.

To make the list, a word had to have been used a minimum of 25,000 times, appeared in various forms of media, and were not specific to a particular country, profession or social group.

In the 14th annual global survey, GLM listed the error code ‘404’, which refers to an online technical error code as the top word. This number appears when a user clicks a link or tries to access a site that is not available. 


The word FAIL came in second place, following by words including SURVEILLANCE, DRONE and DEFICIT. The rest of the top 20 list was dominated by tech-based words including ‘hashtag’ and ‘@pontifex’- the Twitter handle for the Pope.

Other common tech words included ‘Nano’, referring to nanotechnology, or technology that works with items on an atomic and molecular level, and ‘Meme’, the word relating to internet memes such as Grumpy Cat. The term ‘The Cloud’ came in at 18th and refers to the location where online data is stored.

Top Words

Another Error 404:

Error 404

The top phrase of 2013 was ‘Toxic Politics’ – a term used for political campaigns that attempt to ‘scorch and burn’ the opponents.

Other political phrases, including Federal Shutdown and Federal Deficit, also made the top 15 phrases. These popular terms related to the recent shutdown of the federal government in the U.S which happened because Congress failed to pass a budget before the start of the financial year on 1 October. It led to the shutdown of many government and state-funded businesses.

Generally, linguistically and politically, the internet wasn’t a happy place.

The least offensive and scabrous caricature to illustrate the Sochi Olympics name (#15 in the list of 2013 phrases) is the one below.