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Machine translation, social media and talking like a pirate

Today, as you most likely know, is Talk Like a Pirate Day. Of all the holidays on the silly side of the spectrum, this is surely one of the most famous – the amount of websites and blogs dedicated to the day is mind-boggling, and it even features regularly in the news.

Thanks to smartphones, social media and machine translation, pirate-speak rules the cyber seas for a day.
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My personal theory on the popularity of the day is that it is all thanks to technology, and more specifically machine translation and social media. Thanks to advances in machine translation there are numerous translators available on the web and downloadable as smartphone apps, allowing you to enter a sentence or phrase in English, and instantly get some pirate-speak version of the phrase spat back at you.

And thanks to social media, every poster and tweeter becomes a foul-mouthed pirate for a day, filling up cyberspace with their pirate-speak wisdom.

While many of these pirate-speak translators only perform the most basic word substitutions, with perhaps a small set of additional linguistic rules, the fact remains that machine translation – not long ago still only the subject of science fiction and academic research – has well and truly become part of our daily lives.

Machine translation can be done using a range of different techniques, including rule-based, statistical and example-based translation – different approaches work best in different applications. While no systems have yet achieved the ultimate goal of fully automated, high-quality machine translation of general text, massive progress are still being made, and excellent results have been achieved when applying machine translation within limited, well defined domains, for example weather reports or legal documents. The technology also deals effective with short phrases, making it very useful in search engines, social media sites and the like.

Getting back to Talk like a Pirate Day, here’s the results from a few web-based pirate-speak translators, using as our input the classic opening line from Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952), “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”

“Blimey! He was an barnacle-covered scurvy dog who fished alone in a skiff in thee Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” (

“He be an old man who fished alone in a skiff in th’ Gulf Stream an’ he had gone eighty-four days now without takin’ a fish.”

“The orrrnerrry cuss werrre bein’ an barrrnacle-coverrr’d swashbucklerrr who fish’d like an isle in a skiff in th’ Gulf Strrream and he had gone eighty-fourrr days now without takin’ a fish, and a bottle of rum!.”

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in t’ Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without takin’ a fish.”

Well there you have it – conclusive prove that not all translators are created equal!  Whichever dialect you opt for, have fun and enjoy all the seafaring silliness. 🙂

Celebrating IBM PC Day

This day marks the release, 31 years ago in 1981, of the very first IBM Personal Computer (PC) model 5150.

The original IBM PC. (R de Rijcke, Wikimedia Commons)

Developed in less than a year, using existing off-the-shelf components, it proved a runaway success in the small business market, and launched the era of the personal computer. The IBM PC used an operating system developed by Microsoft, helping to establish Microsoft’s dominance in the in the PC market.

Specifications of the original IBM PC included an Intel 8080 processor with a processing speed of 4.77 MHz, 16-64K memory and data storage consisting of 5.25″ floppy drives, cassette tape and (later on) a hard disk.

Even though the term “personal computer” wasn’t first coined by IBM (it was used as early as 1972 in reference to the Xerox PARC Alto), the success and prevalence of the IBM product resulted in the term PC referring specifically to computers and components compatible to the IBM PC. This led to peripherals and components being advertised as ‘IBM format’, further cementing IBM as the industry standard.

The IBM Blue Gene/P system (2008), capable of 14 trillion individual calculations per second. Yep, it’s a bit faster than the IBM PC model 5150!
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As a result of it’s amazing longevity (many IBM PCs have remained in use well into the 21st century), and the fact that it represents the first true personal computer, the original IBM PC have become popular among collectors of vintage PCs.

So, if you happen to still have an old model 5150 sitting in a cupboard somewhere, treasure it – depending on it’s condition it can be worth almost $5000, and unlike just about all other electronic equipment in your house, it’s value may actually increase!

Love your camera on Camera Day

Me and my camera; my camera and me.

The photographer and his camera – where does one start and the other end? How much of what you see in an image is down to the brilliance of the photographer, and how much can be attributed to the technical abilities of his photographic tools?

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I am, generally speaking, a supporter of the school of thinking that a great artist will produce great art irrespective of his tools. I have seen photos taken on mobile phone cameras that are significant artistic achievements, and there are movements in photography who go to great lengths to show how great art can be produced by technically “bad” equipment. The Lomographic Society International, for example, owns galleries, etc, showcasing photographs taken with very low-tech LOMO cameras. LOMO, a former Russian state-owned camera manufacturer, produced 35mm compact cameras that have become iconic for producing unique, sometimes blurry images, at times with light leakage, and various other “faults”.

On the other hand, particularly in technical fields of photography, the camera plays a critical role in enabling the photographer – think about fields like macro photography, for example. In some ways the camera also dictates the photographers’ approach to the subject. For instance, the time and effort required to set up a large format view camera to photograph a landscape, will almost by default result in a different stylistic approach to the subject compared to, say, a photo snapped with a mobile phone.

Given my current context (photographing science, technology and industry) my “weapon of choice” is my Nikon D3 DSLR, with a range of lenses for different applications, and I have to admit I love this bulky machine – its reassuring weight, ever willing, ever ready for anything I may throw at it.

That is not to say I am not eagerly eyeing the D4 and even the D800, not to mention the wonderful, iconic Leica M9. And don’t even get me started on some of the glorious medium format cameras out there, just waiting for me to take them in my arms!

On the other end of the technology scale, I’ve recently started playing around with pinhole photography again – in a sense this still remains to me the most magical, wonderfully rewarding field of photography. But more on that in a future post.

Whether you photograph with a mobile phone or a Hasselblad, today is Camera Day – the day to show some special appreciation for your camera, and to take it out and capture the world around you. Wherever you may be – have fun.