World Savvy: Outlets for frustration

The world is awash in standards or lack thereof. There’s the gold standard, Eastern Standard Time and standard operating procedures. And there are constant economic battles going on to get a product or technology to become the standard. I remember when different speed records vied to be the one standard, or the battle between eight-track tapes versus cassettes, Betamax versus VCR, IBM versus Apple, digital versus analog, the various widths of railroad tracks and of course the metric versus imperial system. Oh yes, please remember there are three standards for tons: US ton or “short” ton (2,000 pounds), metric ton (1,000 kilograms or 2,204.6 pounds) and long ton (2,240 pounds). Car manufacturers cannot agree whether to put the gas tank cap on either the right or left side of the car. In 1967, someone split the difference and put it in the back of the car behind the license plate, where my 1967 Mustang convertible has it.

When I was a director of an economic development firm that bid on World Bank projects, I was always amazed at the mental stamina of some Israeli firms that would attend the most boring meetings on setting standards for procuring this or that piece of equipment. What they were hoping to do, of course, was to establish the technical speciation for their goods as the procurement standard, thereby eliminating competition from other countries that had different standards.

In the localization business, there are multiple efforts underway to develop localization standards. Why? According to Smith Yewell of Welocalize, “the demand side of our industry has evolved faster than the supply side, and lack of interoperability between the two and among themselves is restricting the growth of our industry. We need a set of interoperability standards that will gain adoption because they add value.”

Proper rendering and practical input methods for multilingual text on a computer system are essential if efforts to make software available in multiple languages are to be successful. Standards are needed for things such as character code tables and character encoding methods. There are probably at least 100 standards you can identify in the localization and globalization industry, so we don’t suffer from the lack of standards as much as interoperability. Arle Lommel of GALA recounts in an interview with Don DePalma of Common Sense Advisory that one particular company reported that they lose about 30% of their content when moving between their two most common tool sets. That’s looking only at the translation memory component, not the entire content life cycle, where even more changes can occur.

But it is not the lack of standards in the localization industry that drives me crazy when I travel around the world; it’s the lack of standards in electrical outlets, plugs and electrical cords. The reason we are now confronted with more than a dozen different styles and outlets around the world is because many countries decided to develop a plug of their own. Trying to make sense of the many standards feels impossible. Read this gem I gleaned from a paper on electrical plugs: “Switzerland has its own standards, which are described in section 1011. This plug is similar to C except it has the addition of a grounding pin. Type J looks very much like the Brazilian type N standard but it is incompatible with it since type J has the earth pin further away from the centre line than type N (5mm instead of 3mm).” Did you get all that?

It goes on to say that Swiss type J plugs are the most dangerous in the world since the prongs are not insulated, which means that if a type J plug is pulled halfway out, its prongs are still connected to the socket. Little children run the risk of electrocuting themselves when pulling such a plug out and putting their fingers around it.

I asked a number of people for their plug/socket/current stories. Lyra Spratt-Manning of Interverbum volunteered this: ”My favorite is curling irons! Try using a US curling iron in Europe or Asia. The converters either blow the circuits at the little hotels or will not heat because they draw too much current. I was in Switzerland and using the approved converter to plug in my curling iron and blew the entire building’s power grid.”

Lionel Mellet of Telelingua recalls when he moved his family to Brussels, Belgium, from the United States. He brought every electrical appliance known to man at the time and bought transformers for the different plugs, outlets and currents. His 16-year-old son, trying to be helpful, plugged every appliance in at their new home but forgot to plug in the transformer. Needless to say, everything got fried.

But you have to give it to the Italians for coming up with their own unique standard, unmatched anywhere else in the world as far as I could ascertain. In Italy, old houses still have two standard plugs and outlets because up until the latter half of the twentieth century, the electric power used for lamps and the one used for all other appliances were sold at different rates, charged with different taxes, registered on separate meters, and sent along different power lines connecting to the power grid.

So, what’s a traveling person to do? Here are some basic rules a world-savvy traveler should keep in mind.

Plug adapters. Please remember that they do not convert electricity, as Mellet’s son found out. They simply allow a dual voltage appliance or transformer to be plugged into the wall outlet of another country. My friend Bill Hinchberger says: “I carry a multiple jack with me and generally do not have problems.”

Converters. These should only be used with electric products such as heating devices with simple motors, hairdryers, steam irons, shavers, toothbrushes and small fans. Converters are not designed for long use and should only be on for one or two hours. They should be unplugged from the wall when not in use.

Transformers are to be used with electronic products that have a chip or a circuit — radios, CD or DVD players, computers, fax machines, televisions and so on. We are lucky that most laptops are now dual voltage so they often can be used with only a plug adapter for the country you are visiting. However, it gets a little more complicated when you have to pay attention to the wattage ratings of the electronics that are plugged into the transformer.

So, when you are tired and alone in that hotel room after a day of business, just take a moment to think before you try to plug anything into that socket.