Of Duct Tape and Hovercraft

It’s About Bloody Time:
Thoughts on the Living Dictionary

I discovered the Living Dictionary in the summer of 2010. It took me a few months longer to start poking around in its innards. When I did, it became obvious that the Dictionary has some serious problems. Some are visible to the casual user; others are lurking in the code. I don’t speak Java, so I can’t detail the solutions. I can only talk about what I see.

ᖃᐅᔨᔾᔪᑎᑦ: You are reading the public version. This one has no alarming links to places you should never have been able to get to.

The ghost of Asuilaak past:

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I wasn’t around for the Great Unveiling. Apparently the Dictionary won zillions of awards for its under-the-hood brilliance. The earliest attestation I can find is this job listing from Yahoo! Groups, dated February 4, 2003.

Project Manager—Living Dictionary
Department of Culture, Language, Elders & Youth
Iqaluit, Nunavut

Reporting to the Director of Official Languages and Services, the Project Manager for the Living Dictionary works with the Language Bureau to provide technical support for the Living Dictionary program.

Right away you see the problem. Do they want a Project Manager or a Technical Support Specialist? The listing implies that the Living Dictionary program is a separate and free-standing entity—but if it’s got any independent existence, I’ve yet to find it.

The Living Dictionary is a computerized database of terms in Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun

CLEY logo

Well, one out of two isn’t bad. The only trace of Inuinnaqtun I’ve found to date is in the CLEY logo at the bottom of the sidebar—the one that says “Pithohillkioui” because the person who cleaned up the graphic couldn’t be bothered to check whether they’d got the right pixels in the right places.

that includes translations in French and English. The interactive database is intended to be a useful, thoroughly researched dictionary

. . . but in the meantime, we’ll pad it out with a string of citations. We can’t tell you what this word means, but we’ve got rock-solid evidence that someone before you has used it. Not so helpful, of course, if you’re looking at the same passage yourself and want to know what it means, not simply that it exists.

with on-line accessibility to all members of the public and government requiring information on the proper spelling, usage and pronunciation of Inuktitut/Inuinnaqtun words.

Pronunciation? Where? I guess they must mean the sound files that go with the names of body parts. The ones that currently don’t play in any browser but Opera, and then only on alternate Tuesdays. Possibly not even then, now that Opera has gone all webkit on us. Oh, and possibly some versions of MSIE. You never can tell. I haven’t found anything addressing usage, either, let alone spelling. But that may be just as well. Trying to canonicalize spelling will only start fights—and the language languages hasn’t haven’t got enough speakers to handle further splits.

The Dictionary is intended to help preserve Inuit languages at a time when their usage is in decline in some parts of the territory, and will serve as the final and most comprehensive repository for Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun terminology.

A pessimist might remark that if the final and most comprehensive repository of anything is a web site that hasn’t been updated in fifteen years, we’re all in trouble. But let’s not belabor the obvious.

The ideal candidate must have a college diploma in the field of Information Technology and related experience. You must have very strong computer skills with the ability to use database management and web page software. You must have experience in information systems project management

Can you say “Balderdash!” in Inuktitut? This description applies to the people who originally designed and programmed the site. Keeping it running calls for little more know-how than administering your average php/bb forum.

as well as knowledge of language issues as they relate to Nunavut.

Oh yes. Those. Definite sense of afterthought there. You ask me, it should have been the other way around. If you’ve got a choice between a language expert backed up by a technical support specialist, and a computer expert backed up with a linguistic advisor, go with the language person.

Equivalencies that consist of a combination of education, knowledge, skills and abilities equal in worth to the formal education and experience requirements will be considered.

Frankly, we’ll take anyone who applies.

Salary starts at $61,289.00 plus a Northern Allowance of $11,303.00 per annum.

Closing Date: February 21,2003

Doesn’t leave a lot of time, does it? Sure hope they had an inside candidate.

The ghost of Asuilaak present:

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As far as I can tell, nothing at the Dictionary has been touched since 2004. I’m guessing that’s when it moved to its present server, so all the files had to be copied over. At the very least, I think it is safe to say that the person in charge has not physically looked at the Dictionary since before October 2010.

Just to drive home the point: Recently, when the Dictionary needed some urgent work done, the Person in Charge was nowhere to be found. They had to appeal to the site’s original coders—who must have been happily thinking they’d seen the last of the place back around 2001.

Oh, all right. The 2004 part was an exaggeration. As recently as late January 2009—only seven years ago—someone swung by to install Google Analytics in the footer shared by all pages. I don’t know who, if anyone, keeps track. But here are some basics, using data from about September 2011-October 2012:

The site averages around 50-100 visitors a day, most of them during business hours (Eastern time). The number climbs a bit when the Legislative Assembly is in session; the people in Iqaluit definitely make use of the Dictionary.

The overwhelming majority of visitors, at least 95%, use the English interface. 2-3% French, 1-2% percent Roman Inuktitut, generally less than 1% syllabic. This may be because if you already know Inuktitut you don’t need a dictionary. But it may also be because the site’s file-encoding problems make syllabic searches next to impossible. Better to stick with Roman Inuktitut; you’ll also be spared spelling quirks like the ubiquitous ᖅᕿ.

A scattering of users specify Syllabic Inuktitut as the search language. This ought to mean that they’re using a legacy font, though it may simply mean they’re not familiar with the site. If you’re in Unicode, you don’t have to set a language. An abiding mystery to me is why so many people with mobile devices specify syllabic search. The iPad and iPhone can’t type syllabics natively, can’t change the browser’s encoding (necessary not only for syllabics but for accented French) and can’t install fonts. I’d suspect a glitch in the way the site sets cookies, except that nobody arrives with the preference pre-set. It always shows up after the first search.

Speaking of syllabics: As of late 2012, about 20% of users had no syllabic font available, not even legacy fonts. Most of those were Windows XP users outside of Iqaluit; a few were mobiles. Around 65% and climbing—call it two-thirds—had either Euphemia or some full-spectrum Unicode font that includes syllabics. 20% or so had Pigiarniq. Apart from the font junkies, most of those were people in Iqaluit offices using elderly computers that didn’t come with Euphemia. Finally, about 2% of users don’t seem to have anything but legacy fonts—but I’ve seen no evidence that they use them in Dictionary searches.

That Pigiarniq figure means that only about a fifth of Dictionary users can see the inuksuk character ᐀ when it’s shown as text. How sad! Here’s a series of them for the other 80% of you:

line of inuksuit

The ghost of Asuilaak yet to come:

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From where I’m sitting, three people are needed. Or one person wearing three hats—but let’s not make things more complicated than they need to be. This isn’t Toronto.

ᐊᑕᐅᓯ: Director of Living Dictionary Project (permanent, full time)

The Dictionary needs someone whose strengths are in language and organization. Both. Much of the job can be handled by one person, sitting at a computer and pulling books off shelves. But some parts involve calling on a pool of experts. The Director needs to know whom to ask—and how to persuade them to give up their time, without any compensation besides the honor of the thing.

In the short term, this may be a more-than-fulltime job. There’s a fifteen-year backlog of comments and suggestions to catch up on—assuming they’ve been waiting patiently in the database all this time. Once things are up to speed, the workload will drop. But with any luck it should soon pick up again. When people discover that their input is being responded to and acted on, they’ll start contributing, as they did in the early years.

Ongoing tasks are straightforward: handle user comments; deal with suggestions for new terms and definitions; fill in missing definitions where possible. None of this requires any particular technical expertise. The site was designed that way. You don’t need to delve into the innards of the database; it’s all up front, with buttons to click and boxes to fill in. Technically, managing the dictionary is not much harder than using it.

The original designers seem to have assumed that the person in charge would have English as their primary language. That “Administrator View” label up there is an image, not text. Otherwise you’d be able to edit it, as you can edit everything else in the interface. Here shown with non-functional links for illustrative purposes:

Key English French Roman Inuktitut Syllabic Inuktitut
editDefinition Edit Definition Modifier une définition aarqiktirlugu nalunairsiut ᐋᕐᕿᒃᑎᕐᓗᒍ ᓇᓗᓇᐃᕐᓯᐅᑦ
editInfo Change my personal information Modifier mon information personelle ajjigijunniir­tilauruk unikkausilik uvannik ᐊᔾᔨᒋᔪᓐᓃᕐᑎᓚᐅᕈᒃ ᐅᓂᒃᑲᐅᓯᓕᒃ ᐅᕙᓐᓂᒃ
editMisc Edit information Modifier l’information Edit Information[SI] Edit Information[RI]
editTerm Edit term Modifier un terme aarqiktirlugu uqausiq ᐋᕐᕿᒃᑎᕐᓗᒍ ᐅᖃᐅᓯᖅ
editUI Edit UI strings Modifier le text de l’interface usager Edit UI strings Edit UI strings
email Email Couriel Email Email

. . . and so on, petering out at

taskDefinition­Done Reviewed Révisé Reviewed-RI reviewed-SI
taskDefinition­Pending In review En révision In review-RI In review-SI
taskDefinition­Type Definition Définition Definition-RI Definition-SI
taskTermDone Reviewed Révisé Reviewed-RI reviewed-SI
taskTermPending In review En révision In review-RI In review-SI
taskTermType   Terme Term-RI Term-SI
term Term Terme uqausiq ᐅᖃᐅᓯᖅ
termNotExisting The term does not exist Le terme n’existe pas uqausiq piqasiutisima­nngittuq ᐅᖃᐅᓯᖅ ᐱᖃᓯᐅᑎᓯᒪᙱᑦᑐᖅ

That last line about sums it up. N’existe pas. I guess they figured nobody would notice the missing parts. Maybe nobody ever has.

In late-breaking news, the People In Charge have craftily renamed the viewDictionary and viewTerm pages until they can get the access restrictions sorted out. But thanks to the file-encoding issue, the text was never in any real danger. Working in this area is simply too unnerving. Edits can be made to work—but there’s a discongruity between the encoding of the edit area and that of the rest of the page, so you can never be sure of the result. You would think this is physically impossible, wouldn’t you?

ᒪᕐᕉᒃ: Programmer (temporary, full time)

Time to drag the site kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Don’t tell me it’s been there all along; the HTML has a distinctly mid-’90’s look to it. Conceptually it breaks down to User Interface, Coding and Administration. But behind the scenes almost everything is code.

Fix the user interface:
Clean up the code:
Boring administrative stuff:

Would you believe there are sixteen Living Dictionaries?

You can do the math. In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find thirty-two: all of the above, multiplied by two for http and https. Instead, you get a “the connection was refused” error on any https request. The same happens if you try to get creative with port numbers.

The eight domains are scattered among three registrants and three registrars, with two physical servers corresponding to two domain name servers. This would be fine if one of the two acted as a mirror. But it’s used strictly for parking, so there’s no point. Three names redirect to two of the others, leaving five different ways to reach the Dictionary. Ten, if you toss the www. option back into the mix.

Let’s clean that up, shall we?

ᐱᖓᓱ: Technical Support Specialist (permanent, part time)

It takes less expertise to maintain a system than to design it. It also calls for a different personality type. What it doesn’t call for is a major time commitment. A few hours a week should do it. Keep the databases up-to-date, add sound files as they come in, fix typos and bad links, deal with technical problems, make sure the Project Manager hasn’t broken anything—that’s about it. In the beginning, this will probably have to be done by someone from outside. Higher-grade computer skills don’t seem to fall within the parameters of Multiple Options and Achievable Career Goals. ᐊᔪᕐᓇᖅᑐᖅ.

Philosophical Speculation

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. . . On second thought, let’s stop here.

one inuksuk going to meet another

And that was all she wrote.