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The Chinese typewriter: a history
By Thom Holwerda on 2018-08-09 21:26:16

Nominally a book that covers the rough century between the invention of the telegraph in the 1840s and that of computing in the 1950s, The Chinese Typewriter is secretly a history of translation and empire, written language and modernity, misguided struggle and brutal intellectual defeat. The Chinese typewriter is 'one of the most important and illustrative domains of Chinese techno-linguistic innovation in the 19th and 20th centuries ... one of the most significant and misunderstood inventions in the history of modern information technology', and 'a historical lens of remarkable clarity through which to examine the social construction of technology, the technological construction of the social, and the fraught relationship between Chinese writing and global modernity'. It was where empires met.

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A nice glimpse
By r_a_trip on 2018-08-10 08:40:51
What a delightful intriguing piece and food for thought. It highlights large cultural differences. Where the west went with roughly 26 inherently meaningless symbols and deriving meaning out of the combination of those symbols, the far east went with defining meaning through representing concepts with a unique attached character.

It's curious to realise that we build representations of reality with only 26 building blocks and expanding the total canon of what we know by coming up with a new combined string of symbols selected out of those 26.
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RE: A nice glimpse
By dhaen on 2018-08-10 10:14:43
Yes, rather like RISC vs CISC.
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RE[2]: A nice glimpse
By r_a_trip on 2018-08-10 10:23:33
That is a good metaphore and a good find.
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RE: A nice glimpse
By Bill Shooter of Bul on 2018-08-10 20:20:09
Well, except for math...
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Comment by kurkosdr
By kurkosdr on 2018-08-10 21:38:14
This article re-enforced my perception that Chinese scripts are basically glorified Pictionary pages. If we Greeks were brave enough to get rid of Greek numerals (which are like Roman numerals but worse), the Chinese can get rid of their writing system. When a computer has to try and predict as much as possible, not as a convenience but to make typing possible, and a simple typewriter is impossible to make, something has gone wrong...

Edited 2018-08-10 21:39 UTC
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who needs a typewriter
By cybergorf on 2018-08-10 21:56:20
or a computer-keyboard ... they will soon vanish.
Chinese people just draw a character on the touchscreen of their phone - or start to draw it, and the KI suggest a few likely symbols and you pick one.

that is not limited to phones of course, but works with all kinds of touch-interfaces...
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RE: A nice glimpse
By Treza on 2018-08-11 00:30:56
And then emoji conquered the world...

Remarkably, Emoji came from Japan, a country which mixes ideographic and syllabic alphabets (kanji & kana).
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RE: A nice glimpse
By gus3 on 2018-08-11 02:22:11
Your comment gave me an idea: what about UTF-8? Specifically, the storage requirements for UTF-8 octets?

The Lord's Prayer takes 338 octets in English (basic ASCII), 372 octets in simplified Chinese, 492 in modern Russian Cyrillic, and 702 octets in Greek, after stripping out extra spaces and verse numbers.

To express the same concepts, Chinese uses roughly 10% more storage than English to express broad speech. For a Unicode code-point that takes 3 or 4 octets in UTF-8 space, I'd say that's a remarkably efficient computer transcription of written ideograms.

Greek is stuck with being multi-byte, alphabetic, case-based and inflected (verbs), along with liberal use of direct articles; that's why it's 208% the size of English in storage. Russian has no articles at all, so it's 30% smaller than Greek, but it still has pervasive noun cases & verb inflections, so it's 46% larger than English.

Oh, I think I just found my next project: how do a language's characteristics affect its storage in UTF-8? Navajo, Hungarian, and Tibetan might be a good place to start.
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RE: Comment by kurkosdr
By kwan_e on 2018-08-11 06:56:28
> the Chinese can get rid of their writing system.

No they really can't. There are too many homophones for completely different words to be expressed by a limited alphabet, and is really the best way to write Chinese due to co-evolution.

> When a computer has to try and predict as much as possible, not as a convenience but to make typing possible, and a simple typewriter is impossible to make, something has gone wrong...

Sorry, is "typewriterable" now a measure of worth of a language? It's much faster to read Chinese than other languages (assuming you learnt it), and because of the whole one character per word thing, you can fit a whole lot more information in the same space. So you read faster in both senses: words over time, and ideas conveyed over time.

I wonder if the rapid development of mechanical writing is partly due to the fact that it is cumbersome to deal with alphabet-like language in hand writing. If you have an inefficient written language, of course you'd want computers to do the hard stuff. If you have a written language optimized for hand writing, you'd be less inclined to want mechanical help.
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RE[2]: A nice glimpse
By Vanders on 2018-08-11 07:10:31
That is one of the nerdiest things I have read in a while. God speed!

Edited 2018-08-11 07:10 UTC
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