Tea Has Charms to Sooth the Savage Breast

October 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

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East Asian tea ceremonies. Chai in India. Iced tea in the US. North African mint tea. Tea time in the UK.

Tea is a cherished part of cultures around the globe. But why?

One reason is its standing as a stress reliever.

“Would you like to join me for a cup of tea?” Just the invitation itself sounds soothing. Though science can’t explain all the whys, researchers have been able to bolster tea’s reputation as a cure for stress.

One study, published in the journal Psychopharmacology in 2006 shows the effects of black tea on stress. In it, researchers from University College London removed tea, coffee, and caffeinated beverages from the diets of 75 men. They then gave them caffeinated fruit mixtures to drink four times a day for six weeks. For some, the drink was a placebo, but for others, it contained the active ingredients of black tea.

After subjecting the groups to stress-inducing situations, the researchers found that the “tea” drinking group, when compared to the placebo group, had lower levels of the stress-hormone cortisol. Those participants also reported higher levels of relaxation during the recovery period and showed lower levels of blood platelet activation, which is associated with the risk of heart attacks.

Andrew Steptoe of UCL says,

We do not know what ingredients of tea were responsible for these effects on stress recovery and relaxation. Tea is chemically very complex, with many different ingredients. Ingredients such as catechins, polyphenols, flavonoids and amino acids have been found to have effects on neurotransmitters in the brain, but we cannot tell from this research which ones produced the differences.

Nevertheless, our study suggests that drinking black tea may speed up our recovery from the daily stresses in life. Although it does not appear to reduce the actual levels of stress we experience, tea does seem to have a greater effect in bringing stress hormone levels back to normal. This has important health implications, because slow recovery following acute stress has been associated with a greater risk of chronic illnesses such as coronary heart disease.

Nada Milosavljevic, of the Harvard Medical School, writing at The Daily Tea, describes two possible ingredients that could lead to stress reduction. One is L-theanine, an amino acid found only in tea, which can decrease one’s heart rate and lessen the sympathetic response to stressors. It also increases the brain’s levels of dopamine and serotonin.

And there are polyphenol antioxidant catechins. Polyphenols, Milosavljevic writes, “positively affect neurotransmitters in the brain, making it easier to maintain mental balance.”

Psychologists Malcolm Cross and Rita Michaels, of City University London, say that tea’s calming effects are not just chemical, but cultural as well. In their study, commissioned by Direct Line insurance, they gave 42 individuals a stress-inducing task, then served half of them a cup of tea and half of them a glass of water. While the water group reported elevated stress levels, the tea group’s levels of stress were even lower than before the stress activity.

Some in the tea group said that they saw drinking the tea as something relaxing that marked a break from their anxiety. Some reported feeling “cared for” by those who prepared the tea for them. And the group as a whole conversed with the tea maker and fellow tea drinkers—while the water group drank in silence.

Cross tells The Telegraph,

This study shows that the social psychological aspects of tea enhance the effects of its chemical make-up on our bodies and brains. It’s possible that this culturally rooted, symbiotic function between mind and body explains why Britons instinctively turn to tea in times of need.

Put simply, the findings illustrate what most mothers would tell us: if you’re stressed, anxious or just feeling blue, make yourself a nice calming brew.

(Andrew Steptoe, et al., “The Effects of Tea on Psychophysiological Stress Responsivity and Post-Stress Recovery: A randomized Double-Blind Trial,” Psychopharmacology, January 2007; “Black Tea Soothes Away Stress,” University College London, July 16, 2010; Nada Milosavljevic, “An Antidote to Stress: Calming Teas & Tisanes,” The Daily Tea, August 5 2014; Malcolm Cross and Rita Michaels, “The Social Psychological Effects of Tea Consumption on Stress: Executive Summary,” 2009; Richard Alleyne, “A Cup of Tea Really Can Help Reduce Stress at Times of Crisis, Claim Scientists,” The Telegraph, August 13, 2009)

[photo: “Tea Time,” by Taidoh, used under a Creative Commons license]

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Sprechen Sie Facebook? “Cyber Seniors” Learn a New Language

May 22, 2014 § 1 Comment

They are people worlds apart, speaking different languages, living out cultures foreign to each other, coming together in an unlikely place—in the assisted-living center across town.

Cyber Seniors is the story of teenagers who introduce a group of senior citizens to the internet: to YouTube, Skype, and that “Face something,” you know, the one with the friends.

In her new documentary, Canadian director Saffron Cassaday presents a great picture of learning, communicating, expanding horizons—and culture shock. It’s what crossing cultures is all about.

It’s so much fun to watch, and it’s got to be a lot of fun to join in.

How’s this for cross-cultural communication? It’s hard to ask questions when you’re not bilingual.

And here we see that you really are never too old—or too young—to learn a thing or two. Hallelujah!

These clips leave me with the question, When the two groups go “home,” what does reverse culture shock look like?

The World’s Largest Ships: Hauling Our Stuff around the Globe

March 27, 2014 § 2 Comments

I can still see the container delivering our furniture and household goods as it shuddered around the street corner on the back of a truck in our Taipei neighborhood. It looked so very, very big, and in a single moment, we had become the rich Americans that we didn’t want to be.

If we were to move to Taipei again, we’d plan on buying most things there, since, through the years, we ended up replacing most of what we took over anyway. But this isn’t a post about what was in our container. Rather it’s about the containers themselves. In fact, it’s about 18,000 of them.

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Triple-E vessel Majestic Mærsk visits Copenhagen

Containers look a lot smaller when they’re stacked up at a dock or on a ship—like multi-colored Lego blocks locked neatly together. And nowhere do they seem smaller than when they’re sitting atop a Triple-E.

18,000. That’s how many 20-foot containers that a Triple-E, the world’s largest ship, can hold. The Triple-E is class of container ships built in Korea by Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering for the Danish company Maersk. When production is finished, there will be 20 of these giant ships in service.

Just how big is the Triple-E? It is 400 meters (nearly a quarter of a mile) long, 59 meters (194 feet) wide, and 73 meters (240 feet) tall. Not counting ballast and cargo, it weighs about 55,000 tons. According to The Telegraph, it has enough space to carry 36,000 cars or 111 million pairs of shoes. It’s too big for the Panama Canal and no US port is large enough to receive it.

While the Triple-E is the largest ship in service, it’s not the largest ever built. The Maersk website World’s Largest Ship states that that title goes to the Knock Nevis, a super tanker that measured 458 meters (1,500 feet) before it was scrapped in 2010. And the Triple-E won’t hold the “biggest” distinction for long. Scheduled to begin service in 2017, the Prelude is being built by Samsung Heavy Industries for Shell. This “ship” won’t travel under its own power but will be towed to a location off the coast of Australia where it will be anchored, serving as a “floating liquefied natural gas platform.” The Prelude will be 488 meters (1,600 feet) long and will weigh over 600,000 metric tons.

But for the next few years, the Triple-E will reign supreme. Here’s a clip from Discovery’s series on the ship.

And this video is a time lapse of the Triple-E being built.

And, oh yeah, remember that comparison to Legos? Here’s another time lapse. This one is of someone putting together Lego’s version of the Triple-E (which can be yours for $149.99)

(Paul Kendall, “The Biggest Ship in the World,” The Telegraph, July 30, 2013; “The World’s Largest Ship,” World’s Largest Ship (Maersk); “Shell’s Record-Breaking Prelude Takes to the Water,” BBC News, December 4, 2013)

[photo courtesy of Maersk]

If You Could Talk to the Animals . . . You’d Know They Have Accents, Too

February 11, 2014 § 4 Comments

3256530575_3b4016287d_nLooks like my See ‘n Say needs a regional update.

When a woman from Nevada asked the folks at How to Do Everything, “How would a person moo in a British accent?” the hosts of the podcast looked to none other than Sir Patrick Stewart (of Star Trek and X-Men fame). He turned out to be a good choice, as discerning between cattle accents seems to be one of his areas of expertise. “In England,” he says, “we’re dominated by class, by social status, and by location.” And, according to Stewart, it’s the same for cows, too.

But while Stewart’s imitations of cows from West Oxfordshire, cows from Yorkshire, Cockney cows, urban cows, and well-bred cows were done with a mock earnestness, animal accents is a legitimate field of study. And there are no shortage of specialists—particularly in Great Britain—who take animal accents very seriously. Seriously indeed:

Goats say . . .

[Researchers] found that a goats’ “accent” changed as they grew older and moved in different groups, disproving claims that their voices were entirely genetic.

The team, from Queen Mary University of London, said their findings are the first to suggest that most mammals can develop an accent from their surroundings.

The findings have caused great excitement in the science community amid suggestions that “if goats can do it, maybe all mammals accents can be affected by their surroundings.”

(“Goats ‘Can Develop Their Own Accents,’” The Telegraph, February 16, 2012)

Dogs say . . .

The woof guide found Scouse and Scottish pets have the most distinctive growl—but there were differences in tone and pitch across the country.

Tracey Gudgeon, of the Canine Behaviour Centre in Cumbria, said: “It seems dogs are more able to imitate stronger, more distinctive accents than softer ones. It’s one of the ways they bond with their owner.” Idea for the research came with today’s re-release of 1955 Disney classic Lady and The Tramp on a special edition DVD.

The study even found some dogs have “posh” accents—just like Lady in the animated film. A delighted Disney spokesman said: ‘It seems we were right all along.”

(“Exclusive: Experts Say Dogs Growl with Regional Accents,” Mirror, February 13, 2006)

Cows say . . .

Cows have regional accents like humans, language specialists have suggested.

They decided to examine the issue after dairy farmers noticed their cows had slightly different moos, depending on which herd they came from.

Farmer Lloyd Green, from Glastonbury, said: “I spend a lot of time with my ones and they definitely moo with a Somerset drawl.

“I’ve spoken to the other farmers in the West Country group and they have noticed a similar development in their own herds.”

(“Cows Also ‘Have Regional Accents,'” BBC News, August 23, 2006)

Apes say . . .

Gibbons have regional accents, a new study suggests. While not a sexy Southern drawl, these accents can help scientists identify the species of gibbon singing and where they are from.

“Each gibbon has its own variable song but, much like people, there is a regional similarity between gibbons within the same location,” lead researcher Van Ngoc Thinh, from the Primate Genetics Laboratory at the German Primate Center, said in a statement.

(Jennifer Welsh, “Singing in the Rain Forest: Gibbons Have Accents,” LiveScience, February 7, 2011)

Bats say . . .

Researcher Brad Law of the Forest Science Center found that bats living in the forests along the east coast of the state of New South Wales had different calls.

He said scientists had long suspected bats had distinctive regional calls—as studies have shown with some other animals—but this was the first time it had been proven in the field.

(“Australian Scientists Find Bats Have Regional Accents,” Reuters, September 13, 2010)

Whales say . . .

Dalhousie Ph.D. student Shane Gero has recently returned from a seven-week visit to Dominica. He has been traveling to the Caribbean island since 2005 to study families of sperm whales, usually spending two to four months of each year working on the Dominica Sperm Whale Project. One of the goals of this project is to record and compare whale calls over time, examining the various phrases and dialects of sperm whale communities.

When they dive together, sperm whales make patterns of clicks to each other known as “codas.” Recent findings suggest that not only do different codas mean different things, but that whales can also tell which member of their community is speaking based on the sound properties of the codas. Just as we can tell our friends apart by the sounds of their voices and the way they pronounce their words, different sperm whales make the same pattern of clicks, but with different accents.

(“Whales Have Accents and Regional Dialects: Biologists Interpret the Language of Sperm Whales,” May 12, 2011)

Dolphins say . . .

Dolphins on the east and west coasts of Scotland have different “accents.”

White-beaked dolphins use a complex system of tail slaps, whistles and clicks which were believed to be common among the species. But expert Olivia Harries said: “They use different clicks on the east coast than those on the west coast.”

(“Study Reveals Dolphins on Scotland’s East and West Coasts Have Different ‘Accents,'” Daily Record, November 9, 2013)

Birds say . . .

The [yellowhammer’s] song differs in terms of pitch and tone, especially in the final part, depending on where an individual bird is found. Birds can also add in various “phrases” to their song, according to their dialect.

Experts believe that dialects can be so thick they may hinder the chances of birds breeding with partners from other areas.

(Jasper Copping, “Britain’s Birds Boast a Colourful Array of Regional Accents,” The Telegraph, May 19, 2013)

City Birds say . . .

A group of scientists from Aberystwyth University studying the great tit’s dulcet tones have discovered that the birds sing their songs at a higher pitch in built-up areas to help them travel further. . . .

Researchers from the West Wales university, working alongside colleagues in Copenhagen, have found that it is the buildings that are changing the way birds sing in cities. . . .

“Our cities are packed with reflective surfaces, open spaces and narrow channels, which you just don’t get in woodland,” said researcher Emily Mockford. . . . “The higher notes mean the echoes disappear faster and the next note is clearer.”

(“Urban Birds Find Their Voice with a New Kind of Twitter,” Wales Online, December 13, 2011)

and Ducks say . . .

“Cockney” ducks from London make a rougher sound, not unlike their human counterparts, so their fellow quackers can hear them above the city’s hubbub. But their Cornish cousins communicate with a softer, more relaxed sound, the team from Middlesex University found.

(“Ducks ‘Quack in Regional Accents,’” BBC News, June 4, 2004)

So, what are the practical ramifications of all these findings? I’m not quite sure, but I have come up with one thing: Whenever you’re faced with that crucial question of our time, “What does the fox say?” you should reply, “That depends on where the fox is from.”

[photo: “See ‘N Say,” by Chris Murphy, used under a Creative Commons license]

International Students—They Come to Study but Do They Stay?

January 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

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Moscow State University’s main building

Russia wants its future scientists, teachers, engineers, and medical personnel to attend the world’s top graduate schools. In fact, reports the Russian-language Begin, they want it so much that the government is offering to subsidize the cost. The program, recently signed into effect by President Vladimir Putin, aims to send out about 1,000 students a year, each with an average yearly grant of 1.5 million rubles (about US$44,000).

But there’s a catch. The students must return and work in Russia for three years, or they will have to pay back the grant plus a 200% fine.

This is just one salvo in the battle for bright young minds that’s going on around the globe. Sending countries, like Russia, are worried about “brain drain,” so they want their citizens to come back with their new-found knowledge and training. And their worries aren’t unfounded, as host countries are striving to increase “stay rates,” wanting the visiting students to make themselves at home and stick around for good.

No Need to Rush Off

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), made up of 34 countries, the average stay rate for international students is 25%. Here, “staying” is defined as foreign nationals’ changing their visa status to something other than “student,” as opposed to not renewing their student permits and leaving.

Using data from 2008 and 2009, OECD further reports that in most member countries, over 20% of visiting students remain in their host countries. In Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, and France, the stay rate is over 30%.

In the US, an OECD-member country, the rates among those receiving doctorates in science and technology is much higher. Michael Finn, of the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, writes that in 2007, the one-year stay rate (counting 2006 graduates) for those in this group was 73%. The two-year stay rate was 67%; the five-year rate was 62%; and the 10-year rate was 60%. Finn’s study shows that the five sending countries with the highest five-year stay rates were China, India, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Ukraine.

Why are countries striving to increase their stay rates? One reason is economics. The ICEF Monitor reports on a study from the Netherlands showing that if 20% of their international student population (more than 58,000, compared to 819,000 in the US) stays, it would help the economy by about €740 million (approximately US$1 billion). But the immigration of foreign graduates also helps in “the development of competitive knowledge economies.” This is especially important in developed countries, which have mismatches of jobs and skills and where low birth rates are producing aging populations.

Brain Drain vs Brain Gain

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Harvard’s Memorial Hall

As the competition to attract and keep the world’s scholars heats up, countries around the globe are loosening immigration restrictions to allow more international students to stay after graduation. This is especially true for graduates in the highly prized STEM fields: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

The US is no exception, with plans to attract foreign-born STEM graduates as a significant factor in several current immigration-reform proposals. For instance, President Barack Obama’s plan calls for giving a green card to PhD and master’s degree graduates in STEM fields who find work in the US. He calls it “stapling” green cards to their diplomas. In January of last year, the president described the goal this way:

If you’re a foreign student who wants to pursue a career in science or technology, or a foreign entrepreneur who wants to start a business with the backing of American investors, we should help you do that here. Because if you succeed, you’ll create American businesses and American jobs. You’ll help us grow our economy. You’ll help us strengthen our middle class.

Sounds like one more thing for Putin and Obama to spar over.

(Sergey Titov and Gregory Milov, [Google translation of Russian article] “The State Is Ready to Pay for Training Russians in Foreign Universities,” Begin, January 14, 2014; “How Is International Student Mobility Shaping Up,” Education Indicators in Focus, OECD, July, 2013; Michael G. Finn, “Stay Rates of Foreign Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities, 2007,” Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, January 2010; “Increasing the ‘Stay Rate’ of International Students,” ICEF Monitor, May 30, 2013; “Creating an Immigration System for the 21st Century,” The White House)

[photos: “Moscow State University,” by Steve Jurvetson, used under a Creative Commons license; “Harvard University – Memorial Hall,” by Chen Yen Lai, used under a Creative Commons license]

From Fukushima to Costa Rica: A Rocket Scientist’s Quest for World Peace

November 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

Next month, my son Peter will graduate from Missouri Southern State University. As part of his education, this past summer he attended the Summer Peace Institute at the UN-mandated University for Peace in San José, Costa Rica. As a recipient of MSSU’s McCaleb Initiative for Peace, he reported on his experience for the university’s student-run newspaper, The Chart. Following is one of the eight articles he wrote for the paper. I will post another of his articles on Tuesday.

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Satoshi Miyatani, from Japan, takes a break from classes at this year’s UPEACE Summer Peace Institute in Costa Rica.

Most of the students at the UPEACE-Berkeley summer program came from backgrounds in subjects like peace and conflict studies, economics, politics, sociology, law and anthropology.

Satoshi Miyatani, a rocket scientist, was one of the exceptions.

A recent graduate of aerospace engineering at the University of Tokyo, Miyatani now hopes to attend graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But why did Miyatani choose to attend a program focused on peace?

Miyatani’s reasoning goes back two years to an event that was significant for him and for Japan.

On the afternoon of March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the coast of Fukushima, Japan.

Miyatani was staying at a hotel in Fukushima at the time of the earthquake.

“I have never experienced such a big earthquake,” he says. “The ground was shaking. Everything was shaking.”

Tsunami waves caused by the earthquake battered Fukushima’s coast, even reaching Miyatani’s hotel. The hotel owner drove Miyatani to safety. Thirty minutes after they left the hotel, it was destroyed by the tsunami.

“I almost lost my life,” recalls Miyatani.

For the next week, he slept on a gymnasium floor made cold by the Japanese winter and ate only dry, tasteless cookies.

Before this near-death experience, Miyatani was only interested in developing machines, as most of his fellow engineering students still are. After this experience, he wanted to help victims of natural disasters such as he had endured. He resolved to study the environment and contribute to peace by applying his specialty in aerospace engineering.

Miyatani speaks humbly about his 100-page bachelor’s thesis, which addresses his change of thinking. He describes how satellites can be used to monitor the effects of natural disasters and inform disaster response.

His thesis focuses on the use of many satellites to maximize the information gathered and minimize the time of response.

For the first portion of the UPEACE-Berkeley program, Miyatani says, “Every day I can get a new idea from the lecture.”

His favorite lecture was given by Dr. Bryan Down-Uribe about the environment and climate change. Down-Uribe employed a more scientific approach than previous lecturers, using more statistics, graphs and charts. Miyatani says he was “used to this type of lecture.”

During the field work portion of the UPEACE-Berkeley program, Miyatani went with four other students to work with an indigenous Costa Rican family in Kéköldi.

After a long bus ride toward the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, he and his group hiked an hour into the jungle to reach the research center where they stayed during the field work.

Miyatani says the group worked hard every day— digging and building trails, counting frogs and repairing a bird observation tower.

They also had no electricity during the day time, but “we could survive,” Miyatani says, chuckling.

Drawing a larger lesson from his experience in Kéköldi, Miyatani says, “In the city, there are a lot of things such as supermarkets, Internet, electricity. Everything is useful, but, actually, I don’t think we need to use it.”

Miyatani feels the tension between what he is learning in Japan and what he has learned in Costa Rica: “My major is aerospace engineering, so every day I also study about technology, but there is no technology in Kéköldi.”

“I have no idea how to apply the idea to my life. I have to think more,” he says.

While he is thinking about how to apply his experience in Costa Rica to his life, Miyatani is also planning to commemorate the experience with his work.

As a rocket scientist, Miyatani has launched a satellite into a space and talks excitedly about launching more, proudly declaring what the name of the next satellite will be: Kéköldi.

Monolinguals Unite: You Can Translate, Too

November 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Luis von Ahn, computer-science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has a goal. It’s to translate the entire Web into every major language, for free. Sound impossible? Not to von Ahn. But he does see two obstacles: not enough bilinguals and not enough translator motivation.

So when it comes to translation, what can turn those obstacles from mountains into molehills? Von Ahn is working on an answer, and so is Chang Hu.

It Takes a Crowd

The Guatemalan-born von Ahn is best known for helping to invent CAPTCHAs. If you don’t know what a CAPTCHA is, it’s that image of distorted letters you see on a lot of Website forms. You’re required to type in those letters to prove that you’re a human, which keeps computer programs from fooling the system.

As he told the crowd at a TEDx Talk in 2011 (embedded below), Von Ahn estimates that each day, about 200 million CAPTCHAs are typed around the globe. With every CAPTCHA taking about 10 seconds to key in, that’s around 500,000 hours a day. Von Ahn wondered how he could redeem this “wasted” time and came up with reCAPTCHA.

Now owned by Google, reCAPTCHA replaces the often random characters of a CAPTCHA with actual words from books that are being digitized. The reason this is a good thing is because the text-scanning software used to digitize printed text can’t recognize every word, especially when dealing with books over 50 years old. But these hard-for-computers-to-read words aren’t hard for human’s at all. So when you’re typing in a CAPTCHA on one of over 350,000 sites using reCAPTCHA—including Facebook, Twitter, and Ticketmaster—you’re helping digitize books.

So what does this have to do with translation? Well, another of von Ahn’s projects, based on the same kind of crowd-sourced “human computing” as reCAPTCHA, is Duolingo. It’s a free language-learning site, currently teaching six languages. What makes Duolingo unique is that while you’re learning a language, you’re joining 10 million other users in translating text on the Web, because the phrases used by Duolingo come from real Websites.

For instance, after you learn some basic Spanish vocabulary, you’ll be able to test your skills by translating simple phrases to and from Spanish. And as you do so, you’ll be helping translate some English Websites into Spanish, or vice versa. Success earns you “skill points,” unlocking new lessons, while mistakes take away one of your hearts. Lose all of your hearts and you have to redo the level. As you learn more, you translate more-complex sentences, and, as your attempts are compared with those of others, useful, accurate translations are produced.

According to von Ahn, two great things about Duolingo are, “People really can learn a language with it, and they learn it about as well as the leading language-learning software,” and, “The translations that we get from people using the site, even though they’re just beginners . . . are as accurate as those of professional language translators.”

Oh, yeah, and did I mention it’s free? That’s possible because the sites that submit their text for translation are paying the tab—sites like Buzzfeed and CNN, which, von Ahn announced just a couple weeks ago, are the first to come on board.

https://ted.com/talks/view/id/1295

Of course, even when there’s no monetary cost, not everyone wants to invest his time into the hours that are required for learning a language. If there could be a way for monolinguals to help out with just a few seconds—kind of like with the reCAPTCHAs—that might bring more people in.

Enter MonoTrans.

The Power of Widgets

MonoTrans (named MonoTrans2 in its newer version) is a process that combines machine translation with help from monolingual humans to produce accurate translations. A team from the University of Maryland’s Department of Computer Science, led by Chang Hu—a PhD candidate at UMD—proposed the process in 2010 to overcome the problem of not having enough bilingual translators to work on (a) texts in rare languages, and (b) huge amounts of text that would require enormous amounts of human effort.

MonoTrans starts with a computer translation of a passage, which is notorious for producing flawed (and often humorous) results. The output is then passed on to a person who speaks the target language. She then makes a guess as to the correct meaning and phrasing of the sentence, and her efforts are back-translated into the source language. Then a speaker of that language compares the results to the original passage, and the process between the two speakers is repeated until a satisfactory translation is produced. Along the way, the two monolinguals can help each other by including annotations, such as images and Web links, and multiple participants can vote on results.

While the process doesn’t necessarily take a large number of steps, it can be complicated and time consuming. MonoTrans2 addresses this problem by breaking the process into smaller, individual “microtasks,” so that many more people will take part in a translation, with each one handling only a small part of the whole process.

This new method was tested using children’s books at the International Children’s Digital Library. Visitors to the Website were presented with “widgets,” windows on a page that run a simple program. These widgets allowed users to edit or paraphrase a sentence, identify errors, or vote for the sentence they think is best.

The results of the trial show that using the MonoTrans Widgets in conjunction with Google Translate is a significant improvement over using Google Translate alone. And while this method also introduced some inherent problems, it indicates that the future of crowd-based computation by monolingual humans is very promising.

A Match Made in Cyberspace

Luis von Ahn coined the term human computation to describe using people to accomplish tasks that computers usually perform. Hu, in a blog post, sums up the relationship of human computation to translation in this way:

[H]uman computation presents a unique opportunity to significantly lower the threshold to do translation. At the same time, translation provides a set of interesting problems for human computation.

It sounds as if the relationship is something like a dance, with the dancers figuring out the steps as they go. Or maybe it’s more like a marriage, where both partners aid and challenge each other at the same time.

It’s a good union, and I’m glad there are people like von Ahn and Hu to serve as matchmakers.

(Luis von Ahn, “3,2,1 Takeoff! And We’re Translating the Web!Official Duolingo Blog, October 14, 2013; Chang Hu et al., “Translation by Iterative Collaboration between Monolingual Users,” University of Maryland Department of Computer Science, July 25, 2010; Chang Hu et al., “Deploying MonoTrans Widgets in the Wild,” University of Maryland, May 2012) 

[photo: “Crowd,” by James Cridland, used under a Creative Commons license]

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