Weird Processing:

The Collision of Computers and Cultures at the Voice of America


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A Revolutionary System

We experienced a different kind of adverse reaction to the input method in the Chinese Service.  Chinese is an unusually difficult language to type.  A reasonable vocabulary for news broadcasting requires the use of 4000-6000 discrete Chinese characters, or ideograms.  All of these represent individual words and they may also be combined to form compound words.  To type Chinese in the Xerox document editor, the user entered the words phonetically with the Roman alphabet, using a method called Pinyin to represent the sounds of the standard dialect of Chinese, Mandarin.  Of course, that only worked if the typist spoke standard Chinese rather than one of the many distinctive regional dialects.  But that was no problem in the VOA Chinese Branch, where speaking Mandarin was a job requirement.

However, Pinyin had been adopted on the Chinese mainland as part of an effort to standardize pronunciation, and some of our Chinese broadcasters who had emigrated from Taiwan denounced the Xerox typing method for its “communist” origin.  Their indignation was compounded by a decision to print all radio scripts in the simplified Chinese characters used on the mainland rather than using the more ornate traditional characters used on Taiwan.  The new Chinese Service chief, a young foreign service officer named Tony Sariti, had just returned from a diplomatic tour of duty in Beijing.  Tony, a fluent Chinese speaker, was concerned that VOA’s Chinese programs sounded odd to a mainland audience because of the outdated vocabulary of our émigré broadcasters.  He was determined to recruit broadcasters from the mainland to modernize they way VOA sounded in Chinese—and since it was difficult for people from the mainland to adapt to the traditional characters but easy for those from Taiwan to read the simplified ones, he opted for the latter.

The reaction probably wouldn’t have been much more intense if we had issued every Chinese broadcaster a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book.  Some members of the staff, mostly middle-aged and older men, boycotted the computer altogether, insisting that they would continue to write their scripts by hand.  Their resistance began to dissipate, however, when Tony hired an extremely attractive young female contractor who was an expert Chinese typist, and announced that she was available to tutor any member of the Chinese Service who was interested.  I knew we had turned the corner when Tony came running into my office one afternoon and announced with a big grin that “the guys who were the worst holdouts are lined up three-deep waiting for their computer typing lessons.”  And, of course, producing Chinese scripts on the computer had distinct advantages over writing them by hand that no one in the service could deny.  Among other things, with clean copy to read in the studio, the broadcasters could speak at a normal rate on the air instead of the artificially slow pace they had been forced to adopt while trying to decipher the handwriting of the writers and editors.


Writing Right

In some other language services, there was no objection to the software, per se, but adoption of this new method of preparing radio scripts was slow.  Arabic, for example, seemed like a perfect candidate for word processing.  The Xerox software could write from right to left, and was able to automagically perform the required transformations in the shapes of Arabic letters depending on their initial, medial or final positions within a word.  But many of the Arabic broadcasters were accustomed to writing by hand, then turning over their copy to a professional typist to produce a finished script.  Learning to type was difficult, especially for the older members of the staff.  Eventually, though, most were able to do it.

What actually turned out to be a more serious problem for the Arabic broadcasters was the appearance of the text.  It was readable enough for use in a radio studio, they told me, but they wanted to create an audience newsletter and a program guide, and couldn’t use the existing font in printed materials.  I phoned Joe Becker of Xerox at his office in Northern California and asked his reaction to the Arabic Service’s complaints.  To my surprise, he emphatically agreed with the broadcasters.  “That font is really ugly,” he explained.  “You can think of it as the equivalent of dot matrix printing.  Don’t inflict it on your audience.  The product manager is trying to license a professional Arabic typeface.  Wait for that.”

We did.  It took about a year to materialize, if memory serves, and while it never looked as nice as the type in the books and magazines the Arabic broadcasters showed me as examples, even to my uneducated eye, it was presentable enough for our purposes.  Meanwhile, I had learned a useful lesson about the difference between my native language and those with a more deeply-rooted calligraphic tradition.  Even at its best, modern English text can best be described as utilitarian.  It is optimized for readability, not beauty.  But the appearance of the written word was as important as readability for the graceful, cursive languages of the Middle East and Asia.  Since most of the VOA broadcast services wanted to distribute written text to their listeners in the form of program schedules or audience newsletters, we needed to consider paying extra for presentation-quality fonts.

The Code War

Although Xerox had most of VOA’s major languages bundled into the Star product or available in prototype by the time we signed the contract, technical issues developed as we moved into some of the more “exotic” languages.  Internally, each letter or other component of a language needed to be represented by a code.  Although our broadcasters would never see the codes, the internal representation of each language needed to match the existing character-encoding standard in the area of the world where the language was spoken if it was going to be possible to exchange text electronically.  But different countries, and even different regions within a country, sometimes had strongly-held opinions about the proper way to code the same language.  These had to be evaluated before a choice could be made about which was the best multinational fit.*

A few languages required functionality that did not exist in the software we began deploying in 1986.  The ligatures that connect the letters of some South Asian and East Asian languages, for example, had features that differed from the ligatures already supported by the software in the commercial product.  In addition, diacritic markings in several East Asian languages were more complex than those of European languages.  Surprisingly, even Vietnamese—written in the Latin alphabet—required a significant redesign of the rendering software to accommodate its elaborate diacritics.  Typing languages with a “virtual keyboard” on the computer monitor also proved too difficult for many broadcasters and slowed up the work flow for most of the others.  We had to contract for physical keycaps to be designed, printed, and inserted on the standard Xerox keyboards.

Détente Before the Storm

Thought we hadn’t been able to anticipate all the details, we had known from the beginning of the project that some languages would be difficult to implement, and had developed a priority list for language deployments based on two criteria: the maturity of the Xerox language package and the importance of the language to the Voice of America.  The central newsroom and worldwide English service went first.  The big VOA Russian and Ukrainian Services, both working in the Cyrillic alphabet, were the obvious choices for the initial foreign language installations.  By the time we tackled Russian and Ukrainian, Xerox had wrung out the initial bugs in the operating system software for the new workstation hardware which had caused the debacle in the newsroom.  Cyrillic script was no more complicated than English to input or render.  All the Russian and Ukrainian broadcasters were accustomed to typing their scripts.  We expected the deployment to go without a hitch.

And so it did—at first.  The Russian broadcasters in particular had no difficulty adapting to the computer, and quickly exploited the Xerox network file service to develop a sophisticated copy flow regime.  Managers and staff alike immediately took to electronic mail—still a novelty in the middle 1980s—and the on-air talent appreciated being able to carry “clean copy,” unmarked by handwritten edits, into the broadcast studio.  After I was selected to manage the VOA Computer Services Division in 1986, I had lured a veteran editor named Al Riddick away from the central newsroom to serve as the head of my customer support operation, figuring a journalist would have both credibility with the broadcasters and the ability to help them figure out how best to adapt the technology to a news environment.  Al had developed an interest in the integration of computing technology into the editorial process, and he worked closely with the Russian broadcasters to get their operation running as smoothly as possible before moving on to the next set of language services.  Then all hell broke loose.

* This problem was soon to be solved with the invention of the Unicode standard by Joe Becker of Xerox and Lee Collins of Apple, although securing international consensus would take several years.

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