Column: This Week's Web Picks: translate this!; those bad old ads; word populations; the world in a Tube
Editor’s note: This is the next installment of a weekly column by Paul Wiener designed to point readers to cool or useful websites.
Google's web-based translation app has been out there for years, linked from the bar (click "more") at the top of the basic search page. It's there but who remembers? Who thinks of it or what it can do? This dream communication tool lies hidden in the voiceless silence of a massive search engine.
It doesn't only translate words and phrases. It translates paragraphs and, as the illustration shows, web pages. Those pages could be yours, or a blog, a newspaper, a legal document, a musician's bio. Google also provides translation tools for businesses. And it doesn't just do English. It translates 64 languages, back and forth, and if you don't know what you're reading, it detects the language for you. Want to have fun with a Facebook posting? Let Google do the work, then post your latest escapade in Bulgarian or Bengali. And you can listen to how the translation sounds! How do they do it? They say it's by compiling and reassembling previously recorded translations, but it's all magic to me. Someday soon we'll be doing this face to face. Anyway, if you don't believe me, Bu kendiniz denemek iÃ§in iyi bir zaman!
Nostalgia does strange things to people: it can make you miss a song or a teacher you once hated, or a girlfriend, or a broken down car that stranded you 30 miles from nowhere. And it can make you miss ads. No matter how annoying or trivial they were, most of the products at least were common enough: soap, cooking oil, mouthwash, coffee. And seen in retrospect, the ads appear to have artistic merit, humor, innocence. A picture can sing a dirge for a disappearing brand: Chase & Sanborn. So how to explain nostalgia for cigarette ads? Do you remember when they were ubiquitous in magazines like Woman's Day and Good Housekeeping? Do you even remember magazines before they became a staple of waiting rooms? On Mad Men too, great design often puts reason in its place. This site contains hundreds of old cigarette ads, from the days of Luckies, Old Golds, Chesterfields and the extravagant claims made for them. Doctors smoked in ads and on TV. Little people in funny hats hawked them. Persuasive ads didn't just use sex appeal; they used copy that could run to 100-200 words. In The Gallery thousands of old ads from 1930 to 1969 can be searched by product and even by illustrator, the mad men themselves. Remember Old Dutch Cleanser? Why this site exists at all remains a mystery. But all those quiet, detailed, earnest ads remind us that cigarettes weren't all we fell for.
Digitization has put millions of books from five centuries online. Since digitizing inputs every word and guarantees it is indexed and searchable, it has now become possible to do much more than read books online. We can now study them and their text in ways never before possible. Counting becomes a new way of reading, making scholarship out of algorithms. For instance, we can now compare how much the word moon was used, between 1830 and 1950 compared to the words sun and earth. The answer is always statistical, and expressed in thousandths, but it tells you what you want to know: in this case, earth rules, but increasingly less. Google Books created this program using several large databases - corpuses - of digitized books. It was a complicated undertaking. Scholars are overjoyed to have it, though few know just what to do with it. The most reliable numbers, so far, come from books published in English between 1800 and 2000. But not all the books used are in English: you can choose to analyze those in six other languages as well. Scanning isn’t perfect yet, and measurements aren’t exact, but with a sample of 300 million words, smoothing out the analytics seems to make people happy. What do these ngrams mean? Someone for sure will tell us. Only in 1970 did you begin to read more about mother than about father (but dad still commands more space than mom). In 1830 who got better press - the devil or angels? Which of the four elements still gets top billing? It gets easier every day to draw false conclusions.
YouTube, really? Isn’t this a site everyone has had enough of? Well, yes and no. So many people have made YouTube into a cliche, a verb, a meme, a scourge, a joke, a prime symbol of egomania, that I worry its broader, unmatched, invaluable uses are often overlooked. Quite simply, YouTube is possibly the greatest source we have for historic music performances, archival news footage, lectures, speeches and documentaries, not to mention its emerging role as a "channel" for original programming. I'm only reminding you. Forget videos of someone’s cat playing ping pong, teenage giggling fits and midget league hockey highlights. How about Billy Holiday singing "My Man"?
How about Einstein speaking? Or Richard Feynman explaining how atoms jiggle. A refresher on the Bataan death march? Or maybe the Casals Quartet playing Haydn. Bob Marley? Sometimes an ad precedes a video, but you already know how to ignore those. It’s not that easy to think of someone who lived in the age of moving image recording that’s not represented on YouTube. For students at all levels, YouTube is often neglected, and unmatched, as a fount of primary source material. You can now browse topical "channels" on YouTube, or subscribe to them, but I don’t see the point. Why browse at all when you can see history sing? If history isn't enough for you, you might try digesting some of YouTube's amazing statistics. Sometimes our greatest treasures lie hidden in plain sight. This is one of them. Use it while it’s still free: it’s owned by Google.