Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Using Australian and German computers at the same time

At work, I unsurprisingly use an Australian desktop PC. When traveling, I carry with me a cheap Australian netbook. At home, however, I still have a clunky old German laptop (now with broken monitor hinge, hooray) that I bought at the beginning of my second postdoc. It can sometimes be trying to move between the first two and the last of these.

One fairly obvious problem is the different arrangement of some letters. To those who do not know, Y and Z are switched around, and I don't have the foggiest idea why. This results in many a Skype chat message, e-mail or even manuscript draft containing words like "sorrz", "mz" or similar. Luckily, my brain seems to have cerebellum routines for both arrangements so that it usually does not take more than three or so mistypings to start getting it right again.

A bit more problematic is that virtually everything but the numbers and remaining letters is also rearranged between the two countries. Be it slash or backslash, brackets or hyphen, plus or colon, everything is in a different place on my home laptop than at work. Again, why? Pure sadism?

Even worse: several characters familiar to the user of German keyboards are quite simply missing on Australian ones. Of course I don't expect Ä, Ö or Ü on an Anglo-Saxon machine*. But why is the degree symbol ° also missing? Surely Australians have often reason to write about degrees Celsius, latitudes or longitudes? (Yes, I know that MS Word has a key combination for that, but Word is not the alpha and the omega of software. This, for example, I am typing directly into the browser.)

Still, all that would be tolerable if not for the synergistic meeting of two other problems. First, Germans write 1,5 and 1.492 where Anglo-Saxons write 1.5 and 1,492. Again, please don't ask me why, it is not my fault. Second, MS Excel automatically interprets nearly every number that it does not easily understand as a date, and every date that it misunderstands as a number. Without asking. And of course you cannot get the original data back when it does that.

And that is what "inspired" me to write this rant. (Sorry.) Yesterday evening I entered some specimen data into an Excel sheet at home, including some dates of collection, and today I open it at work and find a quarter of the dates have miraculously turned into numbers around 34,000. At least I noticed that immediately; two years ago I was working on a sheet with more than 100,000 lines and only noticed that thousands of geographic coordinates had been turned into nonsensical dates after I had already sunk a few days into the next steps of my work pipeline, all of which I consequently had to repeat.

If you ever transfer your spreadsheets onto a foreign computer, beware.


*) Although it could be mentioned that the German keyboard generously provides keys for diacritical marks like Á despite their irrelevance for written German. Perhaps we are such good friends with the French...

No comments:

Post a Comment