Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

You Can't Get There From Here

It is rare that I find myself traveling over a weekend, unless it's for vacation. Sometimes, it's unavoidable. So here I find myself in Hsinchu, Taiwan over a weekend. Taiwan is a wonderful country. The people are nice and most days you can't beat the weather. It's 84 degrees F and sunny right now. Perfect for a lazy day at the beach. Oh, and the tea is incredibly good. Even the stuff in the hotel.

To me it seemed a perfect day for some urban exploration. Hsinchu is a medium sized city of about 419,000 people according to the city's website. Like many mid-sized and fairly new cities, it is not a tourist place. There are a handful of museums and cultural sites spread throughout the city sprawl. It's mostly a place of regular people doing the regular activities of a regular life. There are some really nice restaurants if you go with someone who speaks Manadarin Chinese and know what to order.

I'm not one for sightseeing alone. I view sightseeing as a team sport, best played with others. I was also feeling lazy. Not wanting to haul myself up to Taipei, I settled on some urban exploration. This is where the limitations of technology slapped me in the face. Having missed breakfast at the hotel (which ended at the impossibly early hour of 10am on a Sunday!) I went in search of a cup of coffee. Since this is a tea drinking nation, I figured I would be safest with a Starbucks. I know, ugly American, but I really need my coffee and the freeze dried stuff in the hotel room was not going to cut it. And there are Starbucks everywhere.

So, I did what any intelligent, American does these days - I checked out Google Earth to get the lay of the land. That's when I stepped in the first steaming pile of technology poop. People in China and Taiwan write in (imagine this) Chinese! Well, I can read names written in any language of the Western world because I can understand the characters. I know that Rue Madeline means Rue Madeline. Whether I know what that translates to or not, I can locate that on a map. Despite the fact that my query was in English and I was working from a computer that was configured entirely for English, my results came back with all th street names in Chinese characters. Pretty useless.

Now, to make matters worse, when I entered in the location of my hotel (in English) it sent me to some other place entirely. You could tell that the software was really struggling. That's when I stepped into the other steaming pile. There is no standard way to translate Chinese words into Western writing systems. In some cases, it's just that some sounds are not even in Western language. Or maybe it's that's nobody has tried to come to an agreement on how Chinese translates. Perhaps it's something else entirely. What matters to me is that Google Earth didn't know that Chung-hwa Road and Junghua Road were the same thing. If you say them, or especially hear a Chinese speaker say them, you get it. The software clearly doesn't.

Google maps was even worse. It couldn't find Taiwan at first. I had to (talk about irony) google "Google Maps Taiwan" before I could find the right version. And that version liberally mixed English and Chinese. Go to the American version of Google Maps, type in a non-US address, and it tries to find you something in the US that's similar. I got pointed at San Diego for some reason. Starbucks had embedded Microsoft Virtual Earth into their store locator which seemed to have a better handle on translations but still couldn't give me directions from my hotel to the store. Other map services faired no better.

As technology permeates our lives we come to depend on it. Google and Mapquest have become verbs and we rely on them to help us find were we are and where we are going. When the system breaks down, we are lost - figuratively and literally.

We also have to figure out this language thing. Asia, especially the Chinese parts of Asia, is growing rapidly. Everyone is doing business here. While it's great that there are more websites in Asian languages, there needs to be agreement on how to translate these languages into Western ones. Otherwise, many other business people will find themselves experienceing the old New England wag of "You can't there from here". Next time I'll buy myself an old fashioned map before coming over for a weekend.