Volume 30, No.3 - Fall 1984
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright 1984 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

 An Introduction


Over the last several years, the computer has evolved from a specialized device used only by those trained in the field to an expanded use in homes, schools and businesses. This has been made possible by the technological advancement of microcomputers which has made their use by the general public an economic possibility. Just as the use of these machines has grown in the general market, it is starting to be applied to the activities of the ethnic communities.

This article will introduce some of the special needs of computer systems as they apply to ethnic communities. It will review some of the applications that have been implemented, raise the challenges that these systems have presented, and touch upon the future areas that need to be developed. This specific concentration on ethnic needs is not prompted by lack of technical capability in the currently available products. Certainly these requirements are well within the current state-of-the-art in available equipment. It is mainly the question of priorities of topics such as special character sets, language requirements and educational needs that differentiates these applications. By way of example, I will use the activities in the Lithuanian community and specifically the system implemented at LITUANUS.

There are several computer systems that are installed in the Lithuanian organizations. The Lithuanian Institute of Education has had a personal computer installed for several years. The major application has been the automation of the library and book catalogs. A new system is being installed that will accommodate multiple user terminals to one central facility. The Lithuanian Foundation acquired a computer system to manage its member lists. A different application prompted the use of a computer by the Lithuanian Catholic Religious Aid. One of their services is the English translation of the "Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania," where reference requests on specific people, places, parishes, etc. needed to be answered. A computer system with full text search capability has been installed to eliminate the manual indexing of this information and to facilitate the retrieval process.

The publication of a periodical like LITUANUS requires all the administrative support that is found in any business venture with special emphasis on subscriber information. The process requires maintaining a reproducible image of the list for mailings, a well as payment and invoice information. In the manual process, this required keeping three separate updated lists. The coming of the ten digit zip code would force a major effort in updating the lists. Discussions on reducing the administrative effort led to the review of computer systems to perform these functions. The needs of the system centered around a database that would maintain a single subscriber list for all the publication functions, but would allow rapid access to any subscriber by name, zip or other criteria. The system had to have hardware capacity and software offering fast response for files that contained several thousands of entries.

Besides these basic requirements, the system had to have the flexibility to accommodate a Lithuanian character set. The system selected was a Corona computer, an IBM clone, with a 10 mb disk, and an Okidata dot matrix printer. The system was obtained in the spring of 1983, and the first computer printed labels came out with the fall issue. Since that time over thirty programs have been written to satisfy the various administrative duties of the publication. The use of the machine has not only reduced the work that was previously required, but it has opened up the possibility for additional activities that were exceedingly cumbersome under the manual system. Now individualized messages could be included on invoices; separate bill to accounts could be accommodated automatically; and mailing lists could be exchanged with other organizations and merged into the existing database.

LITUANUS and the other organizations that have automated their operations follow a similar evolutionary process of applying their existing processes to automated solutions, and then expanding them to additional functions. Invariably there are surprises. Certain functions that once seemed difficult are now performed very quickly. Other items that may have been assumed to be trivial are difficult to implement. An illustrative example is the elimination of duplicates when merging name and address lists. Techniques for this process that take into consideration the variety of ways that an individual may write his name and address abound in the computer industry. The basic assumption in all these techniques is that the last name, no matter what its position, will always be spelled the same way. This assumption does not apply in the case of a Lithuanian list. It was found to be a common occurrence for females to be in the list using the English form of the name, which corresponds to the Lithuanian male gender form, and again in the Lithuanian familial form. Families may appear in the Lithuanian singular and plural form. This is certainly a solvable situation, but it forms a twist to the common techniques and programs from the computer industry that requires special handling when applied to the ethnic community.

Perhaps the first and major incompatibility that is encountered when applying personal computers and software systems to applications like LITUANUS is that of the Lithuanian alphabet. Obviously the computers that are provided for the U.S. marketplace have only the English alphabet. The Lithuanian alphabet requires an addition of nine Latin letters with diacritical marks, with the assumption that the full English alphabet is preserved.

It was intuitively thought that a solution to this question may already be solved in Lithuania, which has several computer installations, and the language is used in its school system. In 1981, I had the opportunity to visit several industries and educational institutions in Lithuania. Of particular interest was the Institute of Mathematics and Cybernetics in Vilnius. We were shown a large computer facility that is mainly concerned with research into probability and statistics. All the equipment that I saw, with a few minor exceptions, were models of American made machines. This seemed the perfect environment to ask about the implementation of the Lithuanian alphabet: certainly the experts were here and their experiences would be directly applicable to our situation because of the similarity in equipment. I was shown a terminal and keyboard which had the capital letters of the English and Cyrillic alphabets in what are normally the upper and lower case positions of the keyboard. There were no Lithuanian diacriticals. When I inquired about the use of diacritical marks, the response was that there was no implementation of them on their computer systems. The reason given was that ". . . Lithuanian diacriticals are not important since the meaning of the words can be understood without them . . .".

At the Institute of Language and Literature, there was a different attitude. Great interest was expressed in the language, typography, automatic syllabification for hyphenation and similar subjects. This Institute had no access to computers.

The general impression was that there was no work being done in the area of text and word processing. Furthermore, even the basic issues of alphabet input and output have not been addressed. Others, who have had a more extensive encounter with computer technology in Lithuania, formed a similar viewpoint.

The result of this encounter was, that if there was any implementation of Lithuanian on computers, it would have to be done outside of Lithuania. With that premise, I started working on implementing a Lithuanian alphabet on the LITUANUS computer.

The implementation of an alphabet on a computer system must consider" the four components where the characters are used: printer, display screen, keyboard and software.

Examining the output first, there are two basic techniques of printing the image. A commonly used device is a daisy wheel printer which prints from a disk containing all the letters. A hammer strikes when the appropriate letter rotates into the print position. The other technique is the formation of the letter form from a series of dots. A common device is a dot matrix printer which forms the letter by electronically pulsing appropriate wires that print a dot pattern for each letter. The intelligence of the letter form is stored in the printer. In general the daisy wheel is slower but has better quality when compared to the dot matrix printer. However, recent models of dot matrix printers using higher dot densities have become available and the differences between the dot matrix and daisywheel are difficult to distinguish. The most recent addition to this arena of imaging devices attached to personal computers is a laser driven xerographic process that, using the dot pattern for letter forms, produces near to print quality output.

The creation of foreign characters requires modification of the mechanism that generates the image. In the case of the daisywheel, this requires mechanical dies of the letters to be created from which the wheel can be manufactured, a process that requires a significant initial investment. The dot matrix approach seems to have an advantage in that area, since the image of the letter is formed from the memory of the printer. It is quite common to find dot matrix printers that, in addition to its standard characters, will accept any special characters, created on the computer, to be loaded into its memory for printing.

The latter technique of creating and loading Lithuanian characters into a dot matrix printer was used by the author on the LITUANUS computer. This resulted in what likely is the first Lithuanian text created on a computer. (Your LITUANUS mailing label is the product of this system).

The computer screen representation of the characters follows a similar technique of dot patterns as in the dot matrix printer. The ability to modify or expand the native character set of the computer on the screen is highly dependent on the architecture of the computer. Certain machines allow the user to expand the native character by program control. For other machines, the electronic memory chip that holds the dot pattern of the character may have to be added or replaced.

The standard keyboard poses a particularly difficult constraint, specifically for a language like Lithuanian, which requires nine additional characters to be accessed from the keyboard. One method would be the design of a special keyboard, however, this again is one of those solutions that requires a large initial investment. Most standard keyboards have, in addition to the shift mode, other modes, like control and alternate, which could potentially be used to input the required special characters. This may be a satisfactory solution for software environments that are created explicitly for such an application. But computers are usually used with programs that are provided by a variety of vendors and these additional modes are usually taken for other computer functions. Thus, in using standard keyboards, one way of adding the necessary characters is to replace the less frequently used punctuation. If removal of the existing punctuation is not desirable, then unique two stroke sequences can be used.

Having performed the required modifications to the keyboard, printer and screen, one needs to have programs that utilize the new character set. Obviously, programs can be written on a general purpose personal computer to use this new functionality. However, development of programs that may already exist in the marketplace is more costly than the purchase of existing packages. Any of the techniques that may be selected for the implementation of the alphabet must be considered in relation to the software that will be used in conjunction with the alphabet. Some areas of concern are that characters that have been removed may be necessary for the program execution; special memory chips may not be accessible from the program; the program may be incapable of using special printer functions. Most off-the-shelf software is sold in a form that is difficult to modify in order to protect the software producer from unauthorized usage. If modification of purchased software is necessary, it may be possible to induce the software producer to make the necessary changes. This type of special request is not usually greeted with enthusiasm when there exists a small market for the modification. These types of modifications are mostly successful with software houses that have a small market segment and are thus more interested in any type of expanded use of their product. The makers of most popular packages will typically not respond positively to such modifications. Some software packages are written in an open ended manner where some level of user modification is allowed and this may offer the necessary control to the implementer.

In using the Lithuanian alphabet on personal computers, several working products have been developed. They are a compilation of components and techniques described above that are worthy of mention as specific examples of the first ventures into this new field. The LITUANUS computer has been already mentioned. The Lithuanian alphabet is loaded into an Okidata 92 dot matrix printer that accepts additional program defined characters into its memory for printing. Two purchased software packages are used on this system, dBase II and Multimate. The dBase data base system is used as the basic system for all subscriber information. Since keyboard modifications could not be done, an ad hoc method was devised to input diacritical characters. One of two special characters, indicating an upper or lower diacritical mark, must be input following the standard English character. This package does allow user written programs and thus a filter to convert this letter combination to the proper output character which is applied prior to printing. Lithuanian is also implemented on the Multimate word processing program. Multimate itself could not be modified, but it allows the user to define the particular printer command codes for special formatting like bold, expand, underline, etc. This facility was used to change the underline function to be the selector of the expanded Lithuanian character set.

The existence of machines that allow the modification of its native screen character set by programming was mentioned earlier. For two such machines, the Commodore and the Lobo, a full Lithuanian character set has been developed on the display screen.

The elements of screen, printer, keyboard have been combined to use Lithuanian on most software packages that run on the Apple computer. The screen representation is controlled by a specially programmed memory chip that has been added to the main circuit board of the computer. An external switch allows the user to change from the Lithuanian alphabet to the standard Apple character set. The keyboard positions for the additional characters are in the locations of the punctuation that has a low frequency of use. The Okidata printer is used as the output device. This systems approach for the Lithuanian alphabet is being used for a Latvian and Polish version.

Computer use in the educational environment is becoming more commonplace. It is no longer an exception that high school students have had an exposure to computers. In some school districts computers are being introduced in the primary grades. Plans are being completed in some universities where all students, regardless of curriculum, must purchase a personal computer as a requirement of registration.

Computer aided instruction techniques are being applied in both schools and in industry training programs. The use of computers for education exhibits some of the characteristics of optimal learning techniques: the immediate feedback that can be achieved with the interaction of an individual and the computer; ability to progress at the pace of the individual; method of ensuring that the material is covered and understood before proceeding to advanced topics; and an ability to measure performance and progress.

Computer aided instruction has never been intended as a replacement to the traditional school system, since nothing can replace the learning experience of interaction with an instructor in a classroom. It can, however, be a significant additional tool to the school experience. But with the increased mobility of the ethnic population away from highly concentrated centers, and the scarcity of teachers and schools, in many cases the computer may be the only method available for instruction in the language and heritage of our ethnic background.

Some preliminary work has been done in this area as well. Several programs have been written that show and quiz the user on Lithuanian declensions and history facts. These are just the initial kernels that need to be incorporated into complete programmed instruction systems.

The computer use in the home is both a tool and toy. The game aspect of the machine should not be overlooked as another area of education. Games with language, historical and heritage themes can be a very effective method of transmitting the ethnic culture in an indirect way.

The current computer use in the Lithuanian community has been reviewed. The technical issues that have surfaced in these applications have been discussed at some depth to both assist and encourage the further expansion of this field.