Saturday, May 20, 2006

Lost in Translation

A couple of weeks ago, I built a new computer. You probably don't save any money by ordering the parts and building one yourself instead of just buying one somewhere, but it's arguably more fun (as long as your idea of fun includes things like building computers).

So I put the thing together. It took a little longer than I expected, but I still got it done in an afternoon. And when it was all assembled, I turned on the power and nothing happened.

Well, that's not entirely true. The fans started spinning, and the LED on the motherboard lit up -- so I knew it was getting power -- but the computer wouldn't boot.

Interestingly, the last time I built a computer, which was about five years ago, the same thing happened. That time, I just reseated the CPU in the socket and everything worked fine.

But when I tried it this time, it didn't do any good. So I basically ended up taking the whole thing apart and putting it back together again, making sure that every connection was secure. And when I powered it up again...nothing.

At that point, nobody could have convinced me that putting together a computer is even remotely fun, and I swore to myself that I'd never build one again. It's fine when you get the thing to work, but when it just sits there like a worthless pile of expensive electronics, it's more frustrating than fun.

The problem was, I had no way to diagnose what was wrong. It could have been a bad CPU, or a bad motherboard, or any number of things, but I had no way of knowing. So I took it to a local PC shop and asked them to take a look at it. It turned out that a lot of motherboards these days have two power connectors -- the big 24-pin connector as well as a little 4-pin connector. I didn't know that, since five years ago motherboards only had the one power connector. So I left the little one unplugged. I admit, that's kind of a dumb mistake, but it's not as dumb as frying your CPU or breaking your motherboard in two.

The thing is, you'd think that somewhere in the motherboard documentation or the power supply documentation, they'd mention that you have to use both connectors. But they didn't. The documentation for the motherboard was more like an advertisement, with page after page describing all the wonderful features that the board supports. But nothing about that little power plug.

Of course, as everyone knows, anytime you buy anything, chances are it was assembled in a foreign country and the instructions for that product were originally written in a foreign language and then translated into English. Since just about everything is built in China these days, I assume the documentation I got was originally written in Chinese.

And that brings me to the next subject of this post. Recall that not too long ago, I discussed the great American tradition of leaving trash behind in movie theaters. Well, another great American tradition is making fun of the mistakes made by non-native English speakers. It's not as popular a tradition today as it was in the past -- in the '60s, comedian Bill Dana rose to fame by doing that and nothing else. Today, we're a little more sensitive about that sort of thing, and rightly so, but that isn't going to stop me from quoting some of the text from the hardware documentation. And if you think it's insensitive of me to make fun of how some Chinese people speak English, well, maybe it is, but just to be fair, if any Chinese people want to make fun of the way I speak Chinese, they're more than welcome to.

Having said all that, I have to admit that from a grammatical standpoint, the documentation was actually pretty good. Of course, I also have to admit that I didn't read it very thoroughly, since a lot of it is pointless and redundant, such as the statement "The USB 2.0 ports are available for connecting USB 2.0 devices."

So I don't have a lot of humorous examples of what can happen when you try to translate something into English. I've only got two, and neither of them is particularly humorous.

I'll start with the instructions for installing the motherboard in the case. Step 2, in its entirety, is: "Lay the chassis." It's not too hard to figure out what this means -- I think we all realize that it's short for "Lay the chassis on its side," but that's only because it's such an obvious thing to do that we don't need instructions to tell us to do it.

There's nothing really wrong with the next example, but it does show the importance of putting your sentences in the right order: "Doing so will damage the device. Never connect a 1394 cable to the USB connector." Once again, we can figure out the intent of this instruction, but we should also be smart enough to know better than to plug a 1394 cable into a USB connector. If we aren't smart enough, then we shouldn't be building computers.

Okay, that's it. I know it was hardly worth taking the time to read, but I warned you in advance that it wasn't going to be particularly funny. It's nowhere near as entertaining as a lot of similar stuff you can read about on the web, such as the once-famous "Bite the wax tadpole" incident (which wasn't even completely true, but that didn't stop it from being repeated over and over).

So the real problem wasn't that the instructions were poorly translated -- it was that they contained a lot of useless information and were missing some important information.

Okay, that's enough about that. By the way, in case you're wondering, there was nothing really wrong with my old computer, except that it was too slow. The new computer is a lot faster. The new one has a dual-core 3 GHz CPU and the old one only has a 933 MHz CPU. That doesn't mean the new machine is actually six times faster, but there is quite a performance increase. For example, I've noticed that I can write these blog entries a lot faster now -- perhaps you've noticed it as well.

Of course, when I built the old machine, it was pretty close to the fastest thing around -- for a little while at least. Today, it's more like a dinosaur, if you believe in such things. So I'm fully aware that this new computer I so carefully selected the components for and so lovingly put together will be a piece of junk in a few years.

By the way, don't confuse this tendency toward rapid obsolescence with the great American tradition of "built-in obsolescence." And if you're not familiar with that term, don't worry about it. I don't even know if anyone even uses it anymore, which could either mean that the tradition has faded away or it's become so fully incorporated into our zeitgeist that we don't need to refer to it anymore. But just as a side note, a google search returned 44,900 hits for "built-in obsolescence" and 63,100 hits for "bite the wax tadpole."

But as I said, the term doesn't really apply to computers. With computers, you don't have to deliberately build in the obsolescence -- it's more like you can't avoid building it in. I'm not complaining about it -- that's just the way things go.