Monday, December 07, 2020

The Incredible Difficulty Of Writing Chinese Characters On A Computer

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This is Radiolab to start things off today.

A couple months ago, we also got to a small community in America in that magical, forgotten time before the coronavirus, our reporter Simon Adler somewhat mysteriously walked me a few blocks from our office making hand to a coffee shop.

OK, with our coffee purchased. Let's go stand in the corner where it's maybe a little less loud. Sort of a fancy one. Exposed brick bear Eddison bulbs.

So let let's gaze out upon the hipsters of Lower Manhattan in the survey and count the number of laptops. Yeah. So how many laptops do you think are here. I get a kick starting from the left. We're going to circle around. We got one, two, three, four, five, six, two more on the four more on the bar.

And they're all typing the same way. Right. Or they're all using a quirky keyboard.

Yeah. Yes.

And the reason he dragged me there as I now know it now let's imagine we're in Shenzhen in a Chinese Starbucks was to point out a massive cultural difference hidden in plain sight and to propose a bit of a reporting trip.

Are you going to send somebody to to Starbucks in Shenzhen?

Well, that's my hope, that I will be the one sent to a Starbucks in Shenzhen, Wellfleet, Adler.

Now, you did not bite on that reporting trip. No. Plus, pretty soon thereafter, traveling to China became a lot more difficult.

So, OK, I'm in this big Starbucks shop here in Hong Kong to play out this comparison I had in mind.

Instead, we hired and sent local reporter Yangyang to scope it out for us.

There are about 50 people here, maybe 30 laptops or tablets open because and here is where we get to the point.

Everyone in this Starbucks, you know, typing and writing and browsing on the Internet, we're all using their keyboards in a different way.

What do you mean? So using it in different ways and in the way that they use the keyboard or that the keyboard that they're using themselves are different, the physical keyboard is going to be the exact same thing there. QWERTY keyboards, just like here in New York. Oh, okay. I didn't know that.

But like, even if everybody in this Chinese Starbucks was really into dogs, it was a dog convention. And so they were all typing the word going, which is dog in Mandarin. No two people would be typing the word dog the same way. That's right.

There could be 50 different ways that that keyboard is being used to type the Chinese language

This is Professor Tom Tambellini. I'm professor of Chinese history at Stanford University.

OK, and this is the the doorway into the grand mystery, it would seem.

Yeah, because, I mean, in theory, there are an infinite number of different ways to type Chinese with the Cordie keyboard. I don't even know what that means. How would how is that possible?

Well, it turns out that figuring out how to type in Chinese on a keyboard was one of the most complex engineering, linguistic and conceptual puzzles of its time.

It's a puzzle that threaten to erase an entire culture, merely prevented China from becoming the technological superpower that it is today, and says a whole lot about where all of our communication is headed

All right, so before we get into why typing in Chinese is such a crazy difficult problem to solve, let me introduce you to one of the guys who who actually set out to solve it.

Hello. What was that?

Hello, Simon. Hi. Hello.

Is everybody here? Can you all hear us? Professor Wang Young Men.

Yes. Professor Wong is here to talk to him. My interpreter, fixer and really co reporter on the China side of this, Yangyang and I spoke with him a couple of months back

Professor Wang, I think of you as sort of almost like the Chinese Steve Jobs.

Is that a fair way to think of you in the sense that you intend to juggle?

He says that he is nowhere close to the wealth. Steve Jobs had a famous.

But in terms of his fame and reputation. Yes, it's it's a fair comparison.

Professor Wang was born in the 1940s in a small rural village, modest, modest.

Growing up in this village. They had wheat and corn in the countryside, his family farm and his dad was also a carpenter.

But it was a hardscrabble existence

His family was so poor that he they couldn't afford any clothes for him. And because they were dirt poor, he just stood at a very young age that going to school was not a small thing. So he studied extremely hard to do what he told you.

He said that from the first grade, all the way to university, you only had no one.

Always did. No. OK, I am always the number one and all that hard work paid off.

He was selected to attend the University of Science and Technology of China, which is basically the equivalent to MIT.