On the Use of She as a Generic Pronoun

When reading the August 2017 issue of Communications of the ACM, I have been continually distracted by the use of she as a generic pronoun:

Instead of a field engineer constantly traveling between locations, she could troubleshoot machinery and refine product designs in real time . . .

There were times when one person had to be in charge while she captured the organization of the emerging article . . .

. . . we can let the user specify how much precision she wants . . .

A mathematician using “brute force” is a kind of barbaric monster, is she not?

I am not sure whether this is just my personal problem, but I find this usage obtrusive and annoying. I was reading something supposed to be objective and scientific, but the images of women kept surfacing. The last case was especially so, as I could not help envisioning a female mathematician (er, how many female mathematicians have there been?) who was also a barbaric monster, oops, how bad it was!

I dug around for a while for related resources. Before long, I realized one thing: my view is at least partly shaped by my education, which taught me that he be used as the third-person singular pronoun when the gender is unknown, for both English and Chinese. My unscientific survey shows that while many of my female friends are uncomfortable with either he or she used generically, most Chinese female friends actually prefer he to she! According to an online discussion, at least some peoples in Continental Europe still use the masculine pronoun when the gender is unknown, say, hij in Dutch and il/ils in French.1 I think the French example is quite interesting to Chinese speakers, as neither French nor Chinese has a gender-neutral third-person plural pronoun: the generic forms ils and 他们 are actually masculine forms. Unlike the English they, we never had a nice and simple way to escape the problem.

Talking about they, one fact during the search surprised me. My favourite English author, Jane Austen, apparently preferred they/their in her novels.2 Examples (emphasis is mine):

You wanted me, I know, to say ‘Yes,’ that you might have the pleasure of despising my taste; but I always delight in overthrowing those kind of schemes, and cheating a person of their premeditated contempt.

To be sure, you knew no actual good of me—but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love.

Digging deeper, it is revealed that they has been used after words like each, everybody, nobody, etc. since the Middle Ages. The entries everybody and their in the Oxford English Dictionary are nearly a demonstration of such usages, with a note in the latter entry that writes ‘Not favoured by grammarians’.3 Professor Steven Pinker also argues that using they/their/them after everyone is not only correct, but logical as well.4 Oops to the prescriptivist grammarians and my English education!

Accidentally, I encountered an old article by Douglas R. Hofstadter,5 author of the famous book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (also known as GEB). It is vastly satirical, and it attacks most points I have for supporting the use of man and he (go read it; it is highly recommended even though I do not fully agree). It influenced my thinking, even though it ignored the etymology of man. The Oxford Dictionary of English has this usage note:6

Traditionally the word man has been used to refer not only to adult males but also to human beings in general, regardless of sex. There is a historical explanation for this: in Old English the principal sense of man was ‘a human being’, and the words wer and wif were used to refer specifically to ‘a male person’ and ‘a female person’ respectively. Subsequently, man replaced wer as the normal term for ‘a male person’, but at the same time the older sense ‘a human being’ remained in use. In the second half of the twentieth century the generic use of man to refer to ‘human beings in general’ (as in ‘reptiles were here long before man appeared on the earth’) became problematic; the use is now often regarded as sexist or at best old-fashioned.

Etymology is not a good representation of word meaning, but I want to point out that Hofstadter had a logical fallacy in comparing man/woman with white/black. Man did include woman at one point of time; one probably cannot say the same for white and black.

This said, the war for continued use of -man is already lost. Once aware of this issue, I do not think I want to use words like policeman again when the gender is unknown. I still do not think words like mankind, manhole, actress, or mother tongue are bad.7 The society and culture are probably a much bigger headache for women facing inequalities. . . .8

I started being angry, but ended up more understanding. And I also reached a different conclusion than I had expected. It is apparent that somebody will be offended, whether I use he, she, he or she, or they after a noun of unknown gender. I think offending grammarians would now probably be my default choice.

P.S. I have also found Professor Ellen Spertus’s article ‘Why are There so Few Female Computer Scientists?’ worth reading.9 Recommended.

  1. StackExchange discussion: Is using “he” for a gender-neutral third-person correct? Retrieved on 21 October 2017. 
  2. Henry Churchyard: Singular “their” in Jane Austen and elsewhere: Anti-pedantry page. 1999. Internet Archive. 
  3. Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 1989. 
  4. Steven Pinker: On the English singular “their” construction—from The Language Instinct. 1994. Internet Archive. 
  5. Douglas R. Hofstadter: A Person Paper on Purity in Language. 1985. Internet Archive. 
  6. Oxford Dictionary of English. Oxford University Press, macOS built-in edition, 2016. This is different from the famous OED
  7. These words are already banned in some places. See entry sexist language in R. W. Burchfield: Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press, revised 3rd edition, 2004. 
  8. Henry Etzkowitz et al.: Barriers to Women in Academic Science and Engineering. 1994. Internet Archive. 
  9. Ellen Spertus: Why are There so Few Female Computer Scientists? 1991. Internet Archive. 

Performance of My Line Readers

After I wrote the article about Python yield and C++ Coroutines, I felt that I needed to test the performance of istream_line_reader. The immediate result was both good and bad: good in that there was no actual difference between the straightforward std::getline and my istream_line_reader (as anticipated), and bad in that neither version performed well (a surprise to me). I vaguely remember that sync_with_stdio(false) may affect the performance, so I also tested calling this function in the beginning. However, it did not seem to matter. By the way, my favourite compiler has always been Clang recently (and I use a Mac).

Seeing that istream_line_reader had a performance problem, I tried other approaches. One thing I tried was using the traditional C I/O functions. I wrote another file_line_reader, which used either fgets or fread to read the data, depending what the delimiter is. (fgets could only use ‘\n’ as the delimiter, but it performed better than fread, for I could fgets into the final line buffer, but had to fread into a temporary buffer first.) I also added a switch on whether to strip the delimiter, something not possible with the getline function. The result achieved a more than 10x performance improvement (from about 28 MB/s to 430 MB/s). I was happy, and presented this on the last slide of my presentation on C++ and Functional Programming in the 2016 C++ and System Software Summit (China).

Until C++11, modifying the character array accessed through string::data() has undefined behaviour. To be on the safe side, I implemented a self-expanding character buffer on my own, which complicated the implementation a little bit. It also made the interface slightly different from istream_line_reader, which can be demonstrated in the following code snippets.

Iteration with istream_line_reader:

for (auto& line : istream_line_reader(cin)) {

Iteration with file_line_reader:

for (auto& line : file_line_reader(stdin)) {

I.e. each iteration with file_line_reader returns a char* instead of a string. This should be OK, as a raw character pointer is often enough. One can always construct a string from char* easily, anyway.

After the presentation, I turned to implementing a small enhancement—iterating over the lines with mmap. This proved interesting work. Not only did it improved the line reading performance, but the code was simplified as well. As I could access the file content directly with a pointer, I was able to copy the lines to a string simply with string::assign. As I used string again, there was no need to define a custom copy constructor, copy assignment operator, move constructor, and move assignment operator as well. The performance was, of course, also good: the throughput rate reached 650 MB/s, a 50% improvement! The only negative side was that it could not work on stdin, so testing it required more lines. Apart from that, I was quite satisfied. And I had three different line readers that could take an istream&, FILE*, or file descriptor as the input source. So all situations were dealt with. Not bad!

One thing of note about the implementation. I tried copying (a character at a time) while searching, before adopting the current method of searching first before assigning to the string. The latter proved faster when dealing with long lines. I can see two reasons:

  1. Strings are normally (and required to be since C++11) null-terminated, so copying one character at a time has a big overhead of zeroing the next byte. I confirmed the case from the libc++ source code of Clang.
  2. Assignment can use memcpy or memmove internally, which normally has a fast platform-specific implementation. In the case of string::assign(const char*, size_t), I verified that libc++ used memmove indeed.

If you are interested, this is the assembly code I finally traced into on my Mac (comments are my analysis; you may need to scroll horizontally to see them all):

   0x7fff9291fcbd:  pushq  %rbp
   0x7fff9291fcbe:  movq   %rsp, %rbp
   0x7fff9291fcc1:  movq   %rdi, %r11           ; save dest
   0x7fff9291fcc4:  movq   %rdi, %rax
   0x7fff9291fcc7:  subq   %rsi, %rax           ; dest - src
   0x7fff9291fcca:  cmpq   %rdx, %rax
   0x7fff9291fccd:  jb     0x7fff9291fd04       ; dest in (src, src + len)?
   ; Entry condition: dest <= src or dest >= src + len; copy starts from front
   0x7fff9291fccf:  cmpq   $80, %rdx
   0x7fff9291fcd3:  ja     0x7fff9291fd09       ; len > 128?
   ; Entry condition: len <= 128
   0x7fff9291fcd5:  movl   %edx, %ecx
   0x7fff9291fcd7:  shrl   $2, %ecx             ; len / 4
   0x7fff9291fcda:  je     0x7fff9291fcec       ; len < 4?
   0x7fff9291fcdc:  movl   (%rsi), %eax         ; 4-byte read
   0x7fff9291fcde:  addq   $4, %rsi             ; src <- src + 4
   0x7fff9291fce2:  movl   %eax, (%rdi)         ; 4-byte write
   0x7fff9291fce4:  addq   $4, %rdi             ; dest <- dest + 4
   0x7fff9291fce8:  decl   %ecx
   0x7fff9291fcea:  jne    0x7fff9291fcdc       ; more 4-byte blocks?
   ; Entry condition: len < 4
   0x7fff9291fcec:  andl   $3, %edx
   0x7fff9291fcef:  je     0x7fff9291fcff       ; len == 0?
   0x7fff9291fcf1:  movb   (%rsi), %al          ; 1-byte read
   0x7fff9291fcf3:  incq   %rsi                 ; src <- src + 1
   0x7fff9291fcf6:  movb   %al, (%rdi)          ; 1-byte write
   0x7fff9291fcf8:  incq   %rdi                 ; dest <- dest + 1
   0x7fff9291fcfb:  decl   %edx
   0x7fff9291fcfd:  jne    0x7fff9291fcf1       ; more bytes?
   0x7fff9291fcff:  movq   %r11, %rax           ; restore dest
   0x7fff9291fd02:  popq   %rbp
   0x7fff9291fd03:  ret
   0x7fff9291fd04:  jmpq   0x7fff9291fdb9
   ; Entry condition: len > 128
   0x7fff9291fd09:  movl   %edi, %ecx
   0x7fff9291fd0b:  negl   %ecx
   0x7fff9291fd0d:  andl   $15, %ecx            ; 16 - dest % 16
   0x7fff9291fd10:  je     0x7fff9291fd22       ; dest 16-byte aligned?
   0x7fff9291fd12:  subl   %ecx, %edx           ; adjust len
   0x7fff9291fd14:  movb   (%rsi), %al          ; one-byte read
   0x7fff9291fd16:  incq   %rsi                 ; src <- src + 1
   0x7fff9291fd19:  movb   %al, (%rdi)          ; one-byte write
   0x7fff9291fd1b:  incq   %rdi                 ; dest <- dest + 1
   0x7fff9291fd1e:  decl   %ecx
   0x7fff9291fd20:  jne    0x7fff9291fd14       ; until dest is aligned
   ; Entry condition: dest is 16-byte aligned
   0x7fff9291fd22:  movq   %rdx, %rcx           ; len
   0x7fff9291fd25:  andl   $63, %edx            ; len % 64
   0x7fff9291fd28:  andq   $-64, %rcx           ; len <- align64(len)
   0x7fff9291fd2c:  addq   %rcx, %rsi           ; src <- src + len
   0x7fff9291fd2f:  addq   %rcx, %rdi           ; src <- dest + len
   0x7fff9291fd32:  negq   %rcx                 ; len <- -len
   0x7fff9291fd35:  testl  $15, %esi
   0x7fff9291fd3b:  jne    0x7fff9291fd80       ; src not 16-byte aligned?
   0x7fff9291fd3d:  jmp    0x7fff9291fd40
   0x7fff9291fd3f:  nop
   ; Entry condition: both src and dest are 16-byte aligned
   0x7fff9291fd40:  movdqa (%rsi,%rcx), %xmm0   ; aligned 16-byte read
   0x7fff9291fd45:  movdqa 16(%rsi,%rcx), %xmm1
   0x7fff9291fd4b:  movdqa 32(%rsi,%rcx), %xmm2
   0x7fff9291fd51:  movdqa 48(%rsi,%rcx), %xmm3
   0x7fff9291fd57:  movdqa %xmm0, (%rdi,%rcx)   ; aligned 16-byte write
   0x7fff9291fd5c:  movdqa %xmm1, 16(%rdi,%rcx)
   0x7fff9291fd62:  movdqa %xmm2, 32(%rdi,%rcx)
   0x7fff9291fd68:  movdqa %xmm3, 48(%rdi,%rcx)
   0x7fff9291fd6e:  addq   $64, %rcx
   0x7fff9291fd72:  jne    0x7fff9291fd40       ; more 64-byte blocks?
   0x7fff9291fd74:  jmpq   0x7fff9291fcd5
   0x7fff9291fd79:  nopl   (%rax)               ; 7-byte nop
   ; Entry condition: src is NOT 16-byte aligned but dest is
   0x7fff9291fd80:  movdqu (%rsi,%rcx), %xmm0   ; unaligned 16-byte read
   0x7fff9291fd85:  movdqu 16(%rsi,%rcx), %xmm1
   0x7fff9291fd8b:  movdqu 32(%rsi,%rcx), %xmm2
   0x7fff9291fd91:  movdqu 48(%rsi,%rcx), %xmm3
   0x7fff9291fd97:  movdqa %xmm0, (%rdi,%rcx)   ; aligned 16-byte write
   0x7fff9291fd9c:  movdqa %xmm1, 16(%rdi,%rcx)
   0x7fff9291fda2:  movdqa %xmm2, 32(%rdi,%rcx)
   0x7fff9291fda8:  movdqa %xmm3, 48(%rdi,%rcx)
   0x7fff9291fdae:  addq   $64, %rcx
   0x7fff9291fdb2:  jne    0x7fff9291fd80       ; more 64-byte blocks?
   0x7fff9291fdb4:  jmpq   0x7fff9291fcd5
   ; Entry condition: dest > src and dest < src + len; copy starts from back
   0x7fff9291fdb9:  addq   %rdx, %rsi           ; src <- src + len
   0x7fff9291fdbc:  addq   %rdx, %rdi           ; dest <- dest + len
   0x7fff9291fdbf:  cmpq   $80, %rdx
   0x7fff9291fdc3:  ja     0x7fff9291fdf6       ; len > 128?
   ; Entry condition: len < 128
   0x7fff9291fdc5:  movl   %edx, %ecx
   0x7fff9291fdc7:  shrl   $3, %ecx             ; len / 8
   0x7fff9291fdca:  je     0x7fff9291fdde       ; len < 8?
   ; Entry condition: len >= 8
   0x7fff9291fdcc:  subq   $8, %rsi             ; src <- src - 8
   0x7fff9291fdd0:  movq   (%rsi), %rax         ; 8-byte read
   0x7fff9291fdd3:  subq   $8, %rdi             ; dest <- dest - 8
   0x7fff9291fdd7:  movq   %rax, (%rdi)         ; 8-byte write
   0x7fff9291fdda:  decl   %ecx
   0x7fff9291fddc:  jne    0x7fff9291fdcc       ; until len < 8
   ; Entry condition: len < 8
   0x7fff9291fdde:  andl   $7, %edx
   0x7fff9291fde1:  je     0x7fff9291fdf1       ; len == 0?
   0x7fff9291fde3:  decq   %rsi                 ; src <- src - 1
   0x7fff9291fde6:  movb   (%rsi), %al          ; 1-byte read
   0x7fff9291fde8:  decq   %rdi                 ; dest <- dest - 1
   0x7fff9291fdeb:  movb   %al, (%rdi)          ; 1-byte write
   0x7fff9291fded:  decl   %edx
   0x7fff9291fdef:  jne    0x7fff9291fde3       ; more bytes?
   0x7fff9291fdf1:  movq   %r11, %rax           ; restore dest
   0x7fff9291fdf4:  popq   %rbp
   0x7fff9291fdf5:  ret
   ; Entry condition: len > 128
   0x7fff9291fdf6:  movl   %edi, %ecx
   0x7fff9291fdf8:  andl   $15, %ecx
   0x7fff9291fdfb:  je     0x7fff9291fe0e       ; dest 16-byte aligned?
   0x7fff9291fdfd:  subq   %rcx, %rdx           ; adjust len
   0x7fff9291fe00:  decq   %rsi                 ; src <- src - 1
   0x7fff9291fe03:  movb   (%rsi), %al          ; one-byte read
   0x7fff9291fe05:  decq   %rdi                 ; dest <- dest - 1
   0x7fff9291fe08:  movb   %al, (%rdi)          ; one-byte write
   0x7fff9291fe0a:  decl   %ecx
   0x7fff9291fe0c:  jne    0x7fff9291fe00       ; until dest is aligned
   ; Entry condition: dest is 16-byte aligned
   0x7fff9291fe0e:  movq   %rdx, %rcx           ; len
   0x7fff9291fe11:  andl   $63, %edx            ; len % 64
   0x7fff9291fe14:  andq   $-64, %rcx           ; len <- align64(len)
   0x7fff9291fe18:  subq   %rcx, %rsi           ; src <- src - len
   0x7fff9291fe1b:  subq   %rcx, %rdi           ; dest <- dest - len
   0x7fff9291fe1e:  testl  $15, %esi
   0x7fff9291fe24:  jne    0x7fff9291fe61       ; src 16-byte aligned?
   ; Entry condition: both src and dest are 16-byte aligned
   0x7fff9291fe26:  movdqa -16(%rsi,%rcx), %xmm0; aligned 16-byte read
   0x7fff9291fe2c:  movdqa -32(%rsi,%rcx), %xmm1
   0x7fff9291fe32:  movdqa -48(%rsi,%rcx), %xmm2
   0x7fff9291fe38:  movdqa -64(%rsi,%rcx), %xmm3
   0x7fff9291fe3e:  movdqa %xmm0, -16(%rdi,%rcx); aligned 16-byte write
   0x7fff9291fe44:  movdqa %xmm1, -32(%rdi,%rcx)
   0x7fff9291fe4a:  movdqa %xmm2, -48(%rdi,%rcx)
   0x7fff9291fe50:  movdqa %xmm3, -64(%rdi,%rcx)
   0x7fff9291fe56:  subq   $64, %rcx
   0x7fff9291fe5a:  jne    0x7fff9291fe26       ; more 64-byte blocks?
   0x7fff9291fe5c:  jmpq   0x7fff9291fdc5
   ; Entry condition: src is NOT 16-byte aligned but dest is
   0x7fff9291fe61:  movdqu -16(%rsi,%rcx), %xmm0; unaligned 16-byte read
   0x7fff9291fe67:  movdqu -32(%rsi,%rcx), %xmm1
   0x7fff9291fe6d:  movdqu -48(%rsi,%rcx), %xmm2
   0x7fff9291fe73:  movdqu -64(%rsi,%rcx), %xmm3
   0x7fff9291fe79:  movdqa %xmm0, -16(%rdi,%rcx); aligned 16-byte write
   0x7fff9291fe7f:  movdqa %xmm1, -32(%rdi,%rcx)
   0x7fff9291fe85:  movdqa %xmm2, -48(%rdi,%rcx)
   0x7fff9291fe8b:  movdqa %xmm3, -64(%rdi,%rcx)
   0x7fff9291fe91:  subq   $64, %rcx
   0x7fff9291fe95:  jne    0x7fff9291fe61       ; more 64-byte blocks?
   0x7fff9291fe97:  jmpq   0x7fff9291fdc5

I am happy that I can take advantage of such optimizations, but do not need to write such code on my own—there are so many different cases to deal with!

Of couse, nothing is simple regarding performance. More tests revealed more facts that are interesting and/or surprising:

  • While libc++ (it is the library, but not the compiler, that matters here) seems to completely ignore sync_with_stdio, it makes a big difference in libstdc++. The same function call gets a more than 10x performance improvement when the istream_line_reader test program is compiled with GCC (which uses libstdc++), from ~28 MB/s to ~390 MB/s. It shows that I made a wrong assumption! Interestingly, reading from stdin (piped from the pv tool) is slightly faster than reading from a file on my Mac (when compiled with GCC).
  • On a CentOS 6.5 Linux system, sync_with_stdio(false) has a bigger performance win (~23 MB/s vs. ~800 MB /s). Reading from a file directly is even faster at 1100 MB/s. That totally beats my file_line_reader (~550 MB/s reading a file directly) and mmap_line_reader (~600 MB/s reading a file directly) on the same machine. I was stunned when first seeing this performance difference of nearly 40 times!

So, apart from the slight difference in versatility, the first and simplest form of my line readers is also the best on Linux, while the mmap-based version may be a better implementation on OS X—though your mileage may vary depending on the different combinations of OS versions, compilers, and hardware. Should I be happy, or sad?

You can find the implementation of istream_line_reader among my example code for the ‘C++ and Functional Programming’ presentation, and the implementations of file_line_reader and mmap_line_reader in the Nvwa repository. And the test code is as follows:


#include <fstream>
#include <iostream>
#include <string>
#include <getopt.h>
#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include "istream_line_reader.h"

using namespace std;

int main(int argc, char* argv[])
    char optch;
    while ( (optch = getopt(argc, argv, "s")) != EOF) {
        switch (optch) {
        case 's':
    if (!(optind == argc || optind == argc - 1)) {
                "Only one file name can be specified\n");

    istream* is = nullptr;
    ifstream ifs;
    if (optind == argc) {
        is = &cin;
    } else {
        if (!ifs) {
                    "Cannot open file '%s'\n",
        is = &ifs;

    for (auto& line : istream_line_reader(*is)) {


#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <nvwa/file_line_reader.h>

using nvwa::file_line_reader;

int main(int argc, char* argv[])
    FILE* fp = stdin;
    if (argc == 2) {
        fp = fopen(argv[1], "r");
        if (!fp) {
                    "Cannot open file '%s'\n",

        reader(fp, '\n',
    for (auto& line : reader) {
        fputs(line, stdout);


#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <stdexcept>
#include <nvwa/mmap_line_reader.h>

using nvwa::mmap_line_reader;

int main(int argc, char* argv[])
    if (argc != 2) {
                "A file name shall be provided\n");

    try {
            reader(argv[1], '\n',

        for (auto& str : reader) {
            fputs(str.c_str(), stdout);
    catch (std::runtime_error& e) {

Universal Force of LOVE

A purported letter of Albert Einstein to his daughter Lieserl has been circulating in the WeChat Moments recently. It can be summarized as: ‘The universal force is LOVE.’ I was sceptical immediately—as a physics major, I could hardly imagine that our grand master could utter such nonsense (sorry to folks who happen to like the letter). He made mistakes, he could be sentimental, but it was beyond my imagination to assume that he had generated this kind of ‘chicken soup for the soul’.

I am slightly comforted to see my search results indicate that the letter did not originate in China. It could be found here and here. People have already been discussing it, and it was quite obvious to me that the letter was a fake. A conclusive article appeared on The Huffington Post web site. Katharine Rose discussed the letter, and mentioned that she could not find anything in the online Albert Einstein archives. She also got a response from Diana Kormos-Buchwald, director and editor of the Einstein Papers Project, who clearly stated:

This document is not by Einstein. The family letters donated to the Hebrew University—referred to in this rumor—were not given by Lieserl. They were given by Margot Einstein, who was Albert Einstein’s stepdaughter. Many of those letters were published in Volume 10 of The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein in 2006 and in subsequent volumes, in chronological order.

Interestingly, Katharine Rose thought the letter was ‘seemingly written by Albert Einstein’, and thought it was ‘a beautiful read, offering a universal message that speaks to the essence of the human condition and our incessant yearning to believe in love’s conquering force’. I definitely could not agree. Fortunately, she was rational enough to investigate further. She said it was most important that ‘we always remember and strive to seek the truth in all things’, that ‘we not shy away from asking questions and challenging notions’, and that ‘we remain curious’.—I could not agree more.

The same cannot be said about some other bloggers and commentators. People have used the fake letter to strengthen their faith. Even when challenged about the truthfulness of the letter, one blogger said:

The message is powerful and I believe it to be true. Whether Einstein wrote it or not, some Genius did and I would think that Genius would have shown him/herself by now to claim this letter as theirs.

The faith is stronger than reason. They simply ignored the fact that the message could not have circulated that much, if no one claimed it had been written by Einstein. And I think it is naïve to suppose love can solve problem automatically (unlike Ms Rose, I could not concur with the sentiments). Hey, maybe I should agree that the author is a genius, not of writing, but of psychology. I even think the letter could be a bait, considering that the author used the name Lieserl, who never grew up …

Anyway, it is amazing to see so many people enjoy the chicken soup:

In awe of Mr. Einstein’s brilliance which is just as relative today as it was when he wrote the letter. No question that his words will have the same wonderful ‘light’ decades in the future as well. Thanks for sharing, Sue. Light and love to you.

How wonderful, “God is love and love is God”. The great scientist concluded this! Love is a powerful force that unites and i [sic] think Love alone will bring Peace upon the planet.

Amen. Men of science will come to know what men of faith have always known.

I do not see that anybody contest the value of this massage [sic], because it is uncontestable.

Some people may read into this sentimentality, but I think that Einstein was onto something much more profound. I’m thinking that this universal force, when focused on loving others, is what can eventually overcome all obstacles in one’s own mind (soul) and others. How do we develop pure love? Worth contemplating.

I do not think I stand a chance of persuading them the other way.

I cannot help thinking about one famous quote attributed to Einstein, which is probably false, but more like what he might have said:

Two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I am not yet completely sure about the universe.

A Complaint of ODF’s Asian Language Support

I have recently read about news about better support for ODF from Google. The author then went on to complain that neither Google nor Microsoft makes ‘it easy to use ODF as part of a workflow’. This reminds me that maybe I should write down a long-time complaint I have for ODF.

I have always loved open standards. However, there are not only open and proprietary standards, there are also good and bad standards. ODF looks pretty bad regarding Asian language support. It can be powerfully demonstrated by this image:

ODF Issue

If you are interested in it, you can download the document yourself. It simply contains four lines:

  • The first line has a left quotation mark, the English word ‘Test’, and the corresponding Chinese word. It looks OK.
  • The second line is a duplication of the first line, with an additional colon added at the beginning. It immediately changes the font of the left quotation mark.
  • The third line is a duplication of the second line, with the Chinese word removed. Both quotation marks are now using the default Western font ‘Times New Roman’.
  • The fourth line is a duplication of the third line, with the leading colon removed. Weirdly enough, the left quotation mark now uses the Chinese font. (This may be related to my using the Chinese OpenOffice version or Chinese Windows OS.)

Is it ridiculous that adding or removing a character can change how other characters are rendered? Still, I would not blog about it, if it had only been a bug in OpenOffice (actually I filed three bug reports back in 2006—more ancient than I thought—and this bug remains unfixed ). It actually seems a problem in the ODF standard. After extracting the content from the .ODT file (as a zip file), I can shrink the content of the document to these XML lines (content.xml with irrelevant contents removed and the result reformatted):

    style:name="Times New Roman"
    fo:font-size="12pt" fo:language="en" fo:country="GB"
    style:language-asian="zh" style:country-asian="CN"/>
<text:p text:style-name="P1">“Test测试”</text:p>
<text:p text:style-name="P1">:“Test测试”</text:p>
<text:p text:style-name="P1">:“Test”</text:p>
<text:p text:style-name="P1">“Test”</text:p>

The problem is that instead of specifying a single language on any text, it specifies both a ‘fo:language’ and a ‘style:language-asian’. The designer of this feature definitely did not think carefully about the fact that many symbols exist in both Asian and non-Asian contexts and can often be rendered differently!

When I repeated the same process in Microsoft Word (on Windows), all text appeared correctly—Microsoft applications recognize which keyboard I use and which language it represents. Pasting as plain text introduced one error (as no language information is present). Even in that case, fixing the problem is easier. In OpenOffice I have to change the font manually, but in Microsoft Word I only need to specify the correct language (‘Office, this is English, not Chinese’). It is much more intuitive and natural.

I also analysed the XML in the resulting .DOCX file. Its styles.xml contained this:

<w:lang w:val="en-US" w:eastAsia="zh-CN" w:bidi="ar-SA"/>

So these are default languages. I had to use UK English and Traditional Chinese to force Word to specify the languages in the document explicitly. The embedded document.xml now contains content like the following:

<w:rFonts w:eastAsia="PMingLiU" w:hint="eastAsia"/>
<w:lang w:eastAsia="zh-TW"/>
<w:rFonts w:eastAsia="PMingLiU"/>
<w:lang w:val="en-GB" w:eastAsia="zh-TW"/>
<w:rFonts w:eastAsia="PMingLiU" w:hint="eastAsia"/>
<w:lang w:eastAsia="zh-TW"/>
<w:rFonts w:eastAsia="PMingLiU"/>
<w:lang w:val="en-GB" w:eastAsia="zh-TW"/>

We can argue the structure is somewhat similar (compare ‘w:val’ in <w:lang> with ‘fo:language’ and ‘fo:country’, and ‘w:eastAsia’ with ‘style:language-asian’ and ‘style:country-asian’), but the semantics are obviously different, and text of different languages is not mixed together. The English text has the language attribute <w:lang w:val="en-GB" w:eastAsia="zh-TW"/>, and the Chinese text has only <w:lang w:eastAsia="zh-TW"/>. It looks to me a more robust approach to processing mixed text.

Although it might be true that Microsoft lobbied strongly to get OOXML approved as an international standard, I do not think ODF’s openness alone is enough to make people truly adopt it.