Friday, July 20, 2012

Automatic Dutch text translation

Most days, I take at least a half hour to read a Dutch newspaper or magazine:  they fill waiting rooms and are accessible online.  The stories are about familiar things and are pitched close to my reading level.  I keep my Prisma-miniwoordenboek handy and drill down into unfamiliar sentences after a first pass.

But online translation tools are getting better and becoming integrated into everyday applications.  Google Chrome has started pitching up web page translations, and my recent computer upgrade brought me in contact with Microsoft’s tools.  They haven’t replaced my wordbooks but they are improving fast.

So, ‘my quick overview and comparison.

Google 2

Chrome bases its tool on Google Translate,  my first choice for quick text translation.  The browser senses the language and repaints a fully translated page: original text appears as I mouse over passages.  There are options to see alternative translations or to offer a corrected phrasing to improve the engine.

InterglotBabylon and Interglot have free plug-in extensions for Chrome, but they don’t seem to bring any extended function or accuracy.  Similar tools are available for Firefox and IE, but I don’t use the browsers daily.


BabylonBabylon is the best pop-up dictionary since you can add all three van Dale handbooks.  Version 9 offers an improved text translation window,  but you have to cut and paste content.

MicrosoftMicrosoft Word has a translator built-in: I didn’t realize it until I read a tutorial at How-to-geek.  The tools are found in the Review tab and include a full translator and a mini-popup translator for individual words.  Microsoft uses it’s own Translator by default, although you can change it to use WorldLingo.

Word’s Dutch Language Pack is a 23 euro add-on, available for download through the Microsoft Store. I purchased a copy: it does a good job of correcting spelling but lacks thesaurus, grammar, and proofing tools, so is very underpowered compared to the English toolset.

To compare the four offerings, I gave each the  same short paragraph from De Dagblad Limburger about construction progress on the A2: Onteigenen van flats bij A2 mag.

A2 MaastrichtDe rechtbank is akkoord met het onteigenen van de laatste 23 flats aan het A2-tracé, nodig voor de ondertunneling van de autoweg door Maastricht-Oost. Het algemene belang van de Nederlandse staat en de gemeente weegt zwaarder dan dat van de eigenaren.

The four results:

Google Translate: The court agrees with the expropriation of the last 23 flats on the A2 route, necessary for tunneling under the highway through Maastricht East. The general interest of the Dutch state and the municipality outweighs that of the owners.

Babylon 9: The Court agreed with the expropriate platform flats of the last 23 in the A2-trace, necessary for the tunnelling of motorway Maastricht-Oost. The general interest of the Dutch state and the municipality weighs heavier than that of the owners.

WorldLingo: The court is agreed with expropriating the last 23 flats to A2-tracé, necessary for the ondertunneling of the motorway by Maastricht-Oost. The public interest of weighs the Dutch state and the municipality more heavily than that of the owner eigenaren.

Microsoft Translator:  The Court is in agreement with the expropriate of the last 23 flats to the A2-tracé, needed for the tunnelling from the motorway through Maastricht-East. The general interest of the Dutch state and the municipality weighs heavier than that of the owners.

Google Translate and the Microsoft Translator produced the most readable English, although all were able to extract the main ideas. Difficult vocabulary, tenses, and grammar all compromise accuracy, and detailed semantics are easy to lose as a result.

These tools can be useful, but obviously can get in the way of learning a language yourself.  I use them optionally, to check what I think I understand or to make a pass over Dutch that I’ve written.

Otherwise (and especially in the waiting rooms), it’s my well-thumbed Prism.

Disclaimer:  I have purchased and used all products mentioned in this article; I have neither been asked nor incented to make any comments.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Hangin’ at Heineken

I don’t know how I missed this before.

Friends came into town to celebrate their 35th anniversary: they are taking a Baltic cruise departing Amsterdam for two weeks of city-gazing.

Their plane arrived at 6 am from Atlanta, so I stayed at the Citizen M the night before, still a funky delight at a reasonable price and great position.  There’s something about taking tube showers under purple lighting that makes the day okay.

Sunshine was in sort supply so we swung into plan B and worked some covered strategies for seeing the city.  The Anne Frank Huis, the canal boat tour, lunch met poffertjes, koffie, en appletaart, avondmaal at the Five Flies.  Not typically Dutch, but kind of typical for me.

I demurred on the Coffeeshops, the Red Light district (too rainy for either, really), so the remaining sin was biertje.  And that means Heineken.

The brewery tour comes highly recommended, and it was a cut above most.  There’s a small museum with history and hammering home the tenants of the Brand before getting down to the serious business of brewing.  First there is a lecture on making beer, with samples of roasted barley and hops.  Then there are brewing vats and ore tasting of hops and barley.  Then an interactive ride through the brewing process.  I was becoming an expert in when and how much Yeast “A” to add during the process.

Finally, to the tasting.  I’ve been through a lot of tours in Milwaukee, England and Ireland, and the Heineken tasting tops them all.  First there was a tasting room with questions about the brewing process: we were rewarded with glasses of beer (2 glasses).  Then a small bar where we traded tokens for beer (2 more glasses).  Then interactive games for a chance to win more beer.  And, finally, a shuttle boat back into the city and another round of beer (this time to appreciate the new plastic bottles: 1 beer).

By the time we rolled off the boat, I had Heineken stamped firmly onto my bubbled brain.  It’s a fun tour and a good diversion for a rainy afternoon – allow two hours to see everything and a couple of more before attempting to operate heavy equipment.

Disclaimer: We purchased lodging and tickets ourselves throughout – I was neither asked nor incented to write this.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Travel in brief

‘busy day today (and no Internet connections), so I’ll clear a few travel stories and pictures ahead of a day off in Amsterdam.

Taking the car back to England, the customs officials, a usual, searched the trunk for stowaways.  This time I had nice Low Country tomatoes headed back – they took a moment to appreciate my choices and complement me for smuggling something other than wine.

EasyJet always instructs passengers how to assume the crash position when they hear the warning “Brace-Brace”.  The problem is threefold:  Can anyone tuck into this position, really?  Won’t it end up breaking my neck when my head hits the seat in front of me? And, looking at the space to that seat, is there any room to get my head and torso there anyway?


The waters are rising in England as well as on the continent (two of three roads to the village were flooded). The difference is that the British bring out practical cars able to clear the rivers.


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Threatening performance

Mijn nieuwe auto heeft een groene motor en hemelsblauw lichaam.

My teacher frowned.  Groene motor?


Ah, en het ‘lichaam’?

I groped for the right word for a “body” that wasn’t made of living tissue as lichaam was.  I sketched a car and we went around the parts, naming each in turn.  But “body”…

Het is maar een blauwe auto.  Maar u spreekt beter.

I was distracted, drawing the car, naming the parts, getting the articles right.  And that may have been just enough to improve my Dutch performance.

Let me typisch digress.

stereotype threatI was listening to a piece on NPR last week: the issue was “Why are the sciences male-dominated?”  A researcher taped thousands of interactions of male and female scientists and found that women sounded less confident talking about their research with men.  It didn’t happen with women, nor with non-research topics with men.  There was no difference in how men addressed colleagues of either sex.

The psychologists attribute the cause to stereotype threat: that women believe that they are being judged as less capable by male colleagues.  They reserve a small portion of their attention to monitor and second-guess their own conversation, decreasing their performance. 

The worry becomes a self-fulfilling outcome.

Stereotype threat process (2)

Back to Dutch.  I know that I become self-conscious when I try to speak Dutch: I watch what I do more carefully, speak more slowly, certainly appear less capable.  A couple of weeks ago, I joined Jules for dinner: she has been making great progress towards completing her NT2 while I am still plodding forward. Ordering dessert, I wanted mine without whipped cream.  I thought about it and offered geen slagroom: she and the waitress both corrected zonder slagroom.  Of course it is, but I talked myself out of it by over-thinking it.

Stereotype threat.

I think that the Dutch encourage this problem: their language is not as difficult as many, but they constantly remind you how hard it can be to learn.  I think it reinforces a bias away from trying: when I need to conduct business I have to communicate and I know that they will understand my English better than I can express ideas in Dutch.

I think this is why mu Dutch Buddy arrangement is working so well. Every day that I am in Maastricht, we spend an hour talking.  Most nights when I’m out of town, I write her a letter.  And I don’t worry about getting it wrong, the little voice shuts down, and I perform better.

Stereotype Threat is a defense that probably crops up in many guises for most expats.  Recommended interventions include raising awareness of the effect, convincing people that effort leads to success, thinking about a positive aspect of yourself before engaging, and building a sense of belonging barbie carthrough other means.  A shot of whisky may also help.

And, a day later, my teacher and I both confirmed that an auto body is de carrosserie.  Unfortunately, both of us found that only our male vrienden knew that.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Windshield time

DSC00058“Windshield time” is the time spent lost with amidst thoughts while winding along the highways.   Sometimes there’s music on the radio (podcasts on the player), sometimes conversations, sometimes wind to stir thoughts along.

This weekend, I ended up logging articles that I wanted to read and short thoughts I needed to complete, all the way between Maastricht and Calais.


In summer, when restaurant terraces can be a nice way to enjoy the sun, why do theyKlout have to be overrun with smokers?  (10 km)

And why is my Klout score headed south?  Is it a reflection on my life? (5 km)


I’ve been reading The Mechanical Mind, philosophical musings on the differences between machine and human intelligence.  I used to read a lot of cognitive science and re-engaged after seeing IBM’s  Watson.  It strikes me as as a powerful search engine, not true AI: the manipulation of symbols based on categoriesThinking machines is different than manipulation based on understanding.

David Auerbach explores this in his essay The Stupidity of Computers in n+1 magazine, noting that computers manipulate structured knowledge organized into hierarchical categories.  Thus, they excel at answering questions about things in a store (where there are departments with features, brands, and prices) but not in newspaper articles (also in departments, but without consistent tags).

Human and machine thought converges only if men think using structures computers can understand, or if computers augment, rather than replace, human thought.  The latter implies that thinking requires abilities that computers by their nature can never have.  Interesting to speculate on that (110 km)


Cookie MonsterAre you an Order Muppet or a Chaos Muppet, Bert or Cookie Monster?  What happens if you partner with your opposite; what sort of children do combinations produce (Elmo?).  It’s always fun to play with stereotypes and metaphors, and I enjoyed this riff from Slate.  (20 km)


busy calendarI don’t know how I missed The Busy Trap, a New York Times op-ed piece from late June.  Tim Krieder asserts that “being busy” has become an end in itself, driven by ambition or drive or anxiety, simply because we’re addicted to busyness and guilty or afraid of idleness.  Guilty as charged: life is filled with opportunities that come around once, rarely, and I make the most of them.  But it was this alternative life that caught me:

Not long ago I  Skyped with a friend who was driven out of the city by high rent and now has an artist’s residency in a small town in the south of France. She described herself as happy and relaxed for the first time in years. She still gets her work done, but it doesn’t consume her entire day and brain. She says it feels like college — she has a big circle of friends who all go out to the cafe together every night.

Europe is not the negation of ambition, as many suspect: it’s the achievement of balance and connection.  The stores close on off hours and the trains run off to interesting places. Busyness is something we collectively force one another to do.  Windshield time is the cure (100 km).


PatriarchyExtended families have elders: patriarchs and matriarchs who wield authority and pass judgments, affirming choices and granting acceptance.  I went online to see if there was theory to support the role.  Wikipedia acknowledged the definition of “patriarch”, but then ran off into a screed that male authority presumes female subjugation.

It’s not clear to me that granting authority to one person automatically diminishes the rest.  Authority may be limited and balanced in many ways, and it would be unusual for a despot to routinely emerge.  It’s unfortunate that feminist theorists take such a solipsistic view rather than a symbiotic one  (although I understand the motivations)  (35 km)