Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Microcredit Conference

Existing microcredit programs cover more than 100 million people. To get to full coverage of 4 billion poor people requires a 40-fold expansion. Microcredit is vital to getting ICT into villages. Several billion dollars will be needed as seed capital. Then as the initial loans are repaid with interest, programs will be able to expand and fund further development.

"The Asia/Pacific Regional Microcredit Summit Meeting of Councils will be held February 16-19, 2004 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The regional summit will be preceded on February 14 and 15 by optional two-day field visits to either ASA, BRAC, Grameen Bank, PKSF, or Padakhep (an institution serving street children). Submission of a 2003 Institutional Action Plan will be a prerequisite for attending. Additional details including hotel and registration information will be forwarded when they become available."

Monday, December 15, 2003

American Jewish World Service

The only hope for eventual peace in Israel and Palestine is for people to come together and build trust. However, powerful forces on both sides go to great lengths to prevent contact between Israelis and Palestinians. Nevertheless, there are Jewish charities operating in Palestine as well as many other trouble spots around the world.

The American Jewish World Service, for example, has a program in cooeration with other NGOs to provide loans to women in the Gaza Strip to provide economic opportunity. More than a million dollars has been loaned out, under very difficult circumstances. Not least of the difficulties is finding economic opportunities to take advantage of, when most business between Israel and the Palestinian territories has been cut off, and neither side can visit the other.

Now I wonder whether AJWS would be interested in a program to put Simputers into Palestinian schools and refugee camps...

Friday, December 05, 2003


World AIDS Day was held on December 1, 2003, with events in many countries focused on how to expand treatment and prevention around the world.

The odds for AIDS sufferers are slowly getting better, after unconscionable delays. About three million people died of AIDS in 2002, and there were about five million new cases. In 2003, AIDS medication started to become available to many developing countries at about $300 per person per year. For the estimated 30-40 million sufferers worldwide, that means we need about $10 billion annually for the medicines, and something more for health workers and the rest of the delivery system. Several governments, notably including the U.S., Brazil, and South Africa, have pledged substantial amounts, so that we are about halfway there. There seems to be a chance of reaching the needed llevel of funding in 2004, but more effort is needed to see that it happes as quickly as possible.

The Simputer's part in helping with AIDS is enabling improved health services in villages and other poor communities through information and communications technology. Getting the medicine is the big step, but unless we can get it to the right people at the right time, we will still lose many of them.

For an excellent statement of the nature of the problem of delivering health services to the poor and what can be done about it, I recommend Tracy Kidder's recent book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, which details Dr. Paul Farmer's work on similar problems in tuberculosis treatment. This should be the model for every AIDS program worldwide, and for tackling many other health problems.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

More Languages

In order to use Simputers everywhere in the world, we need good support for many languages and writing systems. Support for a writing system consists of the following.

For simple writing systems the minimum is just a font containing a glyph (visible form) for each Unicode character, so that information can be displayed as plain text.

Arabic and the alphabets of India and other Asian countries require special rendering software, because the shapes of letters change in combination with others (multiple glyphs for each character), and some combinations have shapes that are not made from the shapes of the separate letters (ligature glyphs). Every writing system requires rendering software to go beyond minimal text display. Among the functions of rendering software are placing accents on letters, letter spacing, word spacing, line breaking, and justification. Mathematics also has special rendering requirements including two-dimensional layout.

Fonts and rendering take care of the output. Keyboards and IMEs handle input. There are two kinds of keys in a keyboard layout, character keys and modifier keys. Pressing a character key inserts a character into the text stream. Modifier keys (shift, alt, ctrl, and possibly others) temporarily change the assignment of characters to keys. Standard keyboards have 47 keys for visible characters, plus Space, Tab, Back Space, and Enter. IMEs are used for languages with character sets too large for a keyboard layout, mainly Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. The Korean Hangul alphabet and the Japanese kana syllabaries map easily to keyboards. However, entering the thousands of Chinese characters used in each language requires other techniques, including phonetic conversion, code-based systems, and shape-based systems. In phonetic conversion the user types the words in the appropriate alphabet or syllabary, and the IME software looks up the words in a dicitionary to find the right characters. Code-based systems require the user to memorize or look up the character codes and type them numerically. Shape-based systems have rules for dividing characters into pieces, and assign the various pieces to a regular keyboard layout. One key typically represents several related shapes, as in the Cangjie IME for Chinese.

Support for a language requires support for one or more writing systems used to write that language. Many languages are written in more than one writing system. Croats write their language in the Latin alphabet, and Serbs write the same language in Cyrillic. Turkish was written in the Arabic alphabet for centuries, but is now written in the Latin alphabet. The Soviet Union mandated Cyrillic for almost all languages. The newly independent republics have in many cases gone back to their traditiional writing system, as in Mongolia (Mongolian) and Azerbaijan (Alrabic), or to the Latin alphabet. In each writing system, there are further requirements.

Several languages are used in more than one country. Typically, they require separate locale support, dictionaries, and style checkers for each country.

Although these needs have been obvious for many years, commercial software platform vendors (Microsoft, Apple, Sun) have been slow to provide support for the writing systems and languages of developing countries. We are in sight of the goal of complete support, however, through several Free Software projects.

Pango (Greeki παν, pan, all; Japanese 語 go, language) comes from the Linux world, where it has been integrated into The GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program), and the gedit text editor. Graphite began on Windows, but a Linux version is well under way. The SILA browser is a version of Mozilla for Windows with Graphite built in. There is some discussion going on about merging the Pango and Graphite projects, but no definite plans. Linux User Groups in several countries are working on Unicode fonts for their writing systems, and there are other Unicode font projects.

Mandrake Linux, the version I use on the desktop, comes with some support for the following writing systems. I have supplied a few random characters for each. You will need appropriate fonts and a browser that can display them in order to see them correctly. Mozilla, SILA, Opera, and MS Internet Explorer all have moderately good Unicode support, but none is complete.

The writing systems in the current version of Unicode still missing from Mandrake Linux are

Thaana, Ethiopic, and Cherokee present no rendering problems and could be added quickly. Linguists at SIL and Evertype are working on the others. There are also lots of historical Chinese characters in Unicode that are not provided in readily available Unicode fonts.

You can take a look at the full set of characters for each writing system and find out where it is used in Unicode in PDFs at the Code Charts page of the Unicode site. One of the best browser tests, also available in PDF format, is the Compelling Unicode Examples page, which gives names of famous people from around the world, both in Latin alphabet versions, and also the way they write them at home.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Son of Gutenberg Rides Again

The first Information Age, the Age of Oral Tradition, began with gesture, speech, painting, dancing, and song in a time from which no record survives, long before the few cave paintings and bits of jewelry that we know about.

The second Information Age, the Age of Writing, began with clay tokens pressed into clay balls and tablets, perhaps 6000 years ago. Dozens of manual writing technologies developed over the millenia without changing the basic economics of writing. They include carving in stone, scratching on bark, writing with brush on silk or quill pen on parchment and later paper, and so on.

In 1450 Johannes Gutenberg started setting type for what we now call the Gutenberg Bible, and Aldus Manutius was born. The beginning of the Renaissance in Europe is often dated to the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks. Greeks fled in all directions, and those who could took their books with them. A multitude of these Greeks landed in Italy, where Aldus Manutius created the first font for printing Greek in the 1490s. The rest, as they say, is history.

With printing, nothing could stop the spread of new ideas, such as the Protestant Reformation. A century and a half later we got Shakespeare and Galileo, born in the same year. Printing was a key element in Luther's Reformation in the fifteenth century, and in the American Revolution in the eighteenth, and in just about everything else.

Printing with movable metal type has turned out to be the most important invention of the last millenium, and the last 500 years or so can rightly be called the third Information Age..

The fourth age of information begins with radio and movies, and continues on through TV, CDs, and DVDs, in overlap with the rise of the computer.

Now we have in the Internet another technology of comparable importance. Gutenberg's invention resulted in the production of many more copies of millions of books and other publications, but the Web already has billions of pages.

In particular, Project Gutenberg has made more than six thousand public-domain works of literature in English available to the world at essentially no cost. Similar collections are appearing in many other ancient and modern languages. Here are just a few.

Iran Virtual Library
The Digital Mirror, Welsh
South Asia Literary Resource Access on the Internet
The Buddhist scriptures in Pali
The Electronic Buddhist Text Initiative in Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and more.
The Unbound Bible in English, Greek, Hebrew, and other languages.
The Internet Classics Archive in Latin, Greek, and Chinese
The Perseus Digital Library in Greek and Latin

As in the Renaissance, much effort has gone into republishing existing works with the new technology, even as a flood of new publishing is enabled. The consequences for education and public discourse cannot now be fairly estimated. We can imagine some of them, such as a radical decrease in the cost of education, particularly in developing countries, or the gradual shift, visible even today, to online publishing of scientific and technical journals at no cost to the reader, and to Open Source textbooks, built by a public collaborative process and again free to the reader. Gutenberg and Aldus Manutius could not have imagined Shakespeare or Galileo, much less the New Yorker or E. F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful: Economics as though People Mattered.

The Simputer can give many more people access to these free collections of literature either on-line or on CD-ROM. We really don't know what the impact will be, but we are talking about a lot more material than the Greeks brought from Constantinople to Italy being made available to many times more people than lived in all of Europe. If the Renaissance was big, this could be bigger than big.

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