Category Archives: Numbers

Google Translating Numbers

I am came across a post on reddit recently (in the wonderful subreddit “mildlyinteresting“, I’d recommend it if you like your internet entertainment mild) in which someone had put some numbers into the Google Translate engine, and got some interesting results. It turns out, that when you write a list of numbers, each with a full stop after them, and tell google you’re translating from Spanish to English, that some odd things happen.

1. translates as 1., but then 2. translates and Two. (the same happens for 3./Three.) but then, and here’s where things get really mildly interesting, 4. translates as April, as do the next four months.

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Go home Google Translate, you’re drunk etc. The interesting thing about this is the settings that are required to make this happen. There have to be dots after every number, without them google is boring and translates the numbers to numbers. This tells us something about why google is treating “5.” as May. Google has learnt (through user feedback and various algorithms) that when there’s a dot after a number, it’s likely to be a date. BUT JUST IN SPANISH. When you set the source language to things other than Spanish, google now decides that 4. is 4. Why on earth should this be the case for just Spanish text? I do not know the answer, do you?

Other languages do produce interesting results, translating from Armenian causes semicolons and parentheses to appear all over the place (link here). Then there are those that mix and match when words or digits are used. When translated in Catalan, the first five numbers translate as “First. Two. Three. Four. 5.”. A translation in Romanian will have the first 9 numbers translated as months apart from 3.

A Belarusian translation makes all the numbers ordinal, and rather cryptically translates 3. as “The Third”. (WHAT IS SO SPECIAL ABOUT 3?!) Is this a result of Kings and Queens in Belarusian history? A quick look at the wikipedia article shows there are indeed some people who are “the third” but there are equally some “the seconds” and “the fourths” out there. Mysterious.

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This translation quirk highlights the fact that a single digit can represent a whole range of things, depending on context. It is only because these numbers have been taken out of context that it seems odd to us. In the date today 20.8.13, it’s obvious that 8 stands for August, and that 20 should be read as twentieth (if you’re reading the date in the UK). When we see a digit, we see a whole range of different things. And this, dear readers, is one of the reasons that studying number entry is cool and interesting and a reason to be friends with me.

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Controlling Number Entry Using Sifteo Cubes

As you have probably gathered, I am really interested in Number Entry. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we enter numbers – whether we think of them as a series of digits, or as full numbers. This has implications for the way we might ask people to enter numbers on an interface.

I was given an opportunity to test this out recently at the CHI+MED interface hack day. Last Friday (9/8/13) a group from CHI+MED came together at Swansea university to hack some interfaces to investigate novel number entry methods.

I got a chance to play with some Sifteo Cubes. Sifteo Cubes are fun little blocks with screens that are aware of which other blocks they are next to. This allows for some fun physical interaction, with the user picking up and moving the blocks around.

At a previous idea generation session, we came up with the idea that you might want to let a user enter numbers on the sifteo blocks using both a digit and number strategy. The difference between the two meaning that you could either control the number digit-by-digit (that is, incrementing the digit 9 in the number 659 would result in 650) or by controlling the whole number (that is incrementing the digit 9 in 659 would result in 660).

Using one Sifteo block as the “controller” and the other two as the numbers, I created a system to allow the user to enter numbers using any strategy they like. See the video for an example. You can see that they can control each block separately. When the blocks are joined, the entire number can be incremented (by placing the control block to the left or right) or just the digit can be changed (by placing the control block above or below).

Programming the Sifteo blocks was an interesting challenge. You need to program in C++ (a language I haven’t looked at for a few years) and at first, reading the example code was a bit daunting. But after a while I managed to hack it together. The really strange thing about doing this was working with images. Unlike many programs where you can directly write text (or numbers) to the screen, when programming for the Sifteo cubes you are dealing with lots of static images, and swapping them in and out as you need. Meaning in my application in the video, I have 10 different image files, one for each digit.

I enjoyed the experience of hacking and playing with the blocks. I think there are some interesting questions that could be explored using them. We will see!

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Distribution of dates

Once more, Randall (from xkcd.com) and I are on the same wavelength.

In his latest comic, he analyses the frequency of dates used throughout all of the internet. Go and look at the comic now.

In months other than September, the 11th is mentioned substantially less often than any other date. It's been that way since long before 9/11 and I have no idea why.

It is very similar to my work on the distribution of numbers and digits used to program infusion pumps. See the poster here, full journal paper, and amusing web comic to follow.

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