Thursday, April 24, 2014

Stupid With Honors

A college diploma isn't a perfect indicator of intelligence, at least according to my own personal belief. There are some graduates of big-name colleges who basically got in on the family name and just wait for the world to come to them. There are people who got in on an athletic scholarship and had a simple path laid out for them so they would be eligible to play. Conversely, there are small-college graduates that bust their butt harder than any Ivy Leaguer, and there are people who drop out- or never even go to college at all- not because college was too difficult but rather because they've progressed far enough already and had enough early success in their chosen life path that college would actually be a hindrance, the class and homework time taking unacceptably large chunks of time away from their job.

But what I am concurring with is that a degree is a reasonably reliable certification that you've at least done something to earn it, that you've done your share of scratching and clawing in order to get your hands on a sheepskin. That is, of course, assuming that you actually attended that college. Honorary diplomas are another matter entirely, and treated as such. While theoretically a college would hand an honorary diploma to someone otherwise unconnected to the college that has accomplished something in their life that has done the college proud anyway- discovered something, invented something, rose to a certain position, something or other that's very meritorious- in practice, sometimes they get handed to whoever it is that showed up to give the commencement speech, or somebody who has met the high academic standards of giving the college ginormous sums of money. You will note an example of this kind of degree on The Colbert Report, via Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, DFA. Colbert has an honorary doctorate in Fine Arts from Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois... a byproduct of being their 2006 commencement speaker. (It is considered bad form to actually call yourself by the doctorate you're given with an honorary degree.)

For a more extreme example, though, let us examine Elena Ceausescu, wife of Romanian dictator Nicolae, who ruled from 1965 until their overthrow in 1989. Elena was born in 1919 to a rural peasant family, barely finished elementary school, got a laboratory post solely due to her brother already working there (it wasn't a very good lab), and was in the middle of bouncing around low-level jobs when Nicolae rose to power. She was the Romanian equivalent of someone in America who'd dropped out of the Mississippi K-12 system, got a poor homeschooling, and wound up working at half the businesses in town for about two weeks each. That changed, on paper at least, when Nicolae took over, and Elena suddenly got delusions of grandeur that Nicolae was happy to feed into. It will sometimes happen that dictators, or the immediate family members of same, will bulk up their personal title to outrageous ends.

Elena was no different. In her case, she started racking up academic titles, on the theory that maybe that would change her image for the better. She took some night classes, eventually being expelled for cheating, but wheedled a doctorate out of it anyway due to the time-tested tactic of locking the doors to the oral examination room, giving potential witnesses the wrong time for the exam, and having Elena send her thesis defense on tape so she didn't have to actually show up.

She took every opportunity to add another accolade to her collection, which included not merely honorary degrees- something that was demanded of every foreign nation she visited as a condition of her deigning to show up- but also an assortment of other titles and positions, and even citations on genuine scientific literature that, in reality, she almost assuredly couldn't even read, her thesis paper among them. On her 60th birthday, a two-day celebration was held in which she was bestowed a variety of titles such as "Prestigious Contribution to the Evolution of Romanian Science, to the Cause for Peace and International Cooperation" and "Leading Fighter of the Party for the Glorious Destiny of Romania".

The United States was not immune from this, though steps were taken to limit the damage. When Elena arrived in the US in 1978, as per her way, she demanded a degree from not just a university, but specifically a university located in Washington DC. That, she was told, she wasn't going to get. She was made an offer, but it was an honorary membership in the Illinois State Academy of Science. They were the only ones in the country willing to go through with it; nobody else would even recognize her. Elena wasn't happy, and not just because she couldn't even pronounce "Illinois". Her response was, "Come off it! You can't sell me the idea that Mr. Peanut [then-President Jimmy Carter] can give me an Illiwhatsis diploma but not any from Washington. I will not go to Iiillllliiii whatever it is. I will not!"

She went to Illiwhateveritis. She could take that or she could take nothing. She was similarly rebuffed in the United Kingdom earlier in the decade when, instead of the Oxford and Cambridge degrees she wanted (as well a a Fellowship of the Royal Society), she instead had to settle for Central London Polytechnic and the Royal Institute of Chemistry. The countries willing to give her the degrees she was originally requesting tended to be the nations Romania was politically aligned with in the first place.

This obsession with academic credentials extended even to the, let's be honest here, kangaroo court that served as a pretext to Nicolae and Elena's execution in the 1989 revolution. According to A Treasury of Deception by Michael Farquhar, when the most serious charges of genocide and corruption and living in gross inequality to the rest of the nation were read to the Ceausescus, they weren't even responded to, but when the prosecution went after Elena's academic titles, that's when they got frisky. One utterance of "the so-called academician Elena Ceausescu" was enough to set her off. "So-called! So-called! Now they have even taken away our titles!" Nicolae protested, "Her academic papers were published abroad!", to which the prosecutor asked, yeah, I'm so sure, who was your ghostwriter. Elena exploded again. "Such impudence! I am a member and chairwoman of the Academy of Sciences. You cannot talk to me in such a way!"

Elena was failing the final test of her life. They're about to take you out back and put a bullet in your head, thereby, among other things, putting an abrupt end to your days in the Academy of Sciences, and there isn't a whole hell of a lot you can do about it. Oh, yes, they CAN talk to you in such a way.

You'd almost have to be a job-hopping rural peasant that barely graduated elementary school not to realize that.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Rapid-Fire Book Club, Chicken Teriyaki Edition

Today was another day of running Dad up for treatment, and on the way home we stopped for lunch at East Towne Mall in Madison. As per my usual routine when there, chicken teriyaki at Sarku Japan was had, and since Barnes and Noble was right across from the food court, hey, why not.

Two books later, we have the following additions to my reading list:

*Carmichael, Mary; Hattikudur, Mangesh; Pearson, Will- Mental Floss: In The Beginning
*Mass, AJ- Yes, It's Hot In Here: Adventures in the Weird, Woolly World of Sports Mascots

The former is a book of origins of various things, and Mental Floss really hasn't steered me wrong yet. The latter's title is pretty self-explanatory, what with Mr. Met right there with his back to the cover.

He is likely ashamed at the fact that he is a Met. And the fact that he is a soul born with a gigantic baseball for a head that the Mets cruelly parade around as some sort of circus freak for cheap amusement. His brain is made of rolled-up twine. Doctors have yet to find a cure.

I don't know where exactly I'm going with this.

Monday, April 21, 2014

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, Switch

It's one of those 'cancer' days on my end, specifically one in which I am quickly going mad, in more than one sense of the word, regarding attempting to get my family leave application approved by the company Walmart uses for worker claims, Sedgwick. (Link provided to their homepage in case you've never heard of them.) Suffice to say I have had to jump through more hoops with Sedgwick than your average dog show, and I've already had them deny one claim on me when my knees started popping and cracking (they claimed that my doctor, who had diagnosed osteoarthritis, aka something you normally get in your 50's or 60's as opposed to your 20's, had not specified enough types of treatment of the condition), meaning I'm already rather distrustful of them.

If you would like to experience madness like mine, here is an article about how 51% of Americans are either 'not too confident' or 'not at all confident' that the Big Bang is a thing that happened. You will also see 42% say the same about evolution, 37% about global warming, 36% express doubt that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, 15% express distrust of childhood vaccines, 8% doubt that DNA is a thing, and 4% of people that are skeptical that smoking causes cancer.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Majoring In Supervillainy

There are people in Central Florida and the University of Arizona that want to make a laser beam that they can shoot into the clouds and cause lightning.

These are only early-stage plans, but nonetheless, let us either stop them with egregious amounts of violence, or, failing that, let us pay them vast tribute so that they might spare us.

Friday, April 18, 2014



16 facts about Peeps!

...but Peeps!

Look! Peeps!

Noooooo don't be mean to the Peeeeeeeeeps

you mean man you made the Peeps sad and deflated and oh no


...I apologize. Anytime Peeps show up in a store I go a little Peep-crazy. At least you learned how many Peeps it would take to stop a bullet?

The Only Time Montreal and Riga Finished 1-2 In Anything

Monopoly boards are myriad, but at the end of the day, the classic Atlantic City streets are the ones everyone concentrates on. This doesn't stop Parker Brothers- and these days Hasbro- from continuing to tweak the board in any number of ways, endlessly trying to fix what, fundamentally, is a pretty damned broken game that is most commonly played in ways that break it even further.

Perhaps no Monopoly board, though, was broken in quite such a spectacular fashion as that of Here and Now: The World Edition, released in 2008. The idea from Hasbro was to create a board in which people purchased major world cities, about the most you could crank up the stakes of real estate commerce while still remaining on Earth. The obvious problem, though, was what cities go where. And more importantly, who gets on the board at all, and who gets the honor of being the Park Place and Boardwalk equivalents, which of course everyone is going to be looking for.

Hasbro's solution was to let the fans decide it for themselves. They opened 20 of the 22 spaces up to a battery of select cities, with the public asked to determine who should get on the board. The final rankings in that vote would determine who got in and who got placed where. The final two spots- the Mediterranean and Baltic equivalents- were decided via write-in votes, with the spaces going to the top two cities not among the main battery.

Of course, everyone, including probably Hasbro, expected the likes of New York, London, Paris and Tokyo to be battling it out at the top, and the board overall to be a fairly good representation of global eminence among world cities. So imagine the surprise when the coveted Boardwalk space went to none other than Montreal, Canada, and when Park Place was awarded to Riga, Latvia, which caught attention for being on the board at all, much less in the dark blues. And the rest of the board looked no more sane. The full list of the cities in the main battery read, in rank order:

Dark blues: Montreal, Riga
Greens: Cape Town, Belgrade, Paris
Yellows: Jerusalem, Hong Kong, Beijing
Reds: London, New York, Sydney
Oranges: Vancouver, Shanghai, Rome
Light purples: Toronto, Kiev, Istanbul
Light blues: Athens, Barcelona, Tokyo

Far from competing for the top spots, Tokyo had barely made it onto the board at all, having to settle for Oriental Avenue and being happy just to be included. South America completely struck out. The reds looked far more glamorous than the dark blues-- but then, at least people actually land on the reds more often. They fared better than the cities in the main battery that missed out, all of which had to be satisfied with a graphic for each of them on the interior of the board:

Amsterdam, Berlin, Bogota, Boston, Bratislava, Brussels, Bucharest, Budapest, Buenos Aires, Cairo, Caracas, Cardiff, Chicago, Copenhagen, Dubai, Dublin, Edinburgh, Frankfurt, Helsinki, Kuala Lumpur, Las Vegas, Lisbon, Ljubljana, Los Angeles, Lyon, Madrid, Mexico City, Moscow, Mumbai, Munich, Oslo, Prague, Queenstown (New Zealand), Rio de Janeiro, Santiago, Seoul, Singapore, Sofia, St. Petersburg, Stockholm, Tallinn, Vienna, Vilnius, Warsaw, Washington DC, Zagreb, Zurich.

The last city out, for the record, was Queenstown. Because of course it was. New Zealand voters basically just used it as a substitute for Auckland, which wasn't in the main battery.

As for the dark purples, the wild cards, being forced to go outside the main battery, there are still a lot of fine options. My two picks might have been San Francisco and Nairobi. But there's also Auckland, as well as Denver, Dallas, Miami, Ottawa, Kingston, Quito, Sao Paulo, Accra, Lagos, Tunis, Johannesburg, Marseilles, Monaco, Milan, Florence, Vatican City, Bern, Stuttgart, Tehran, New Delhi, Kathmandu, Kyoto, Osaka, Sapporo, Taipei, Manila, Bangkok, Melbourne, Papeete. You can probably come up with some others.

And to be fair, one of those places, Taipei, did claim Baltic Avenue. But then there's the matter of Mediterranean. The problem- which Hasbro openly advertised as not a bug but a feature- was that any city, ANY city, could take those wild card spots. The top 20 nominees got a spot on a playoff ballot.

Gdynia, Poland decided that it wanted to be Any City. So did Adelaide, Auckland, Bern, Brisbane, Cancun, Chennai (India), Cork (Ireland), Izmir (Turkey), Johannesburg, Lviv (Ukraine), Novi Sad (Serbia), Quebec, San Francisco, Szczecin (Poland), Tamworth (England), Volendam (Netherlands), Waterford (Ireland), and Winnipeg, the other 18 cities on the ballot that Gdynia wound up defeating. And so a place that isn't even the largest town in its own metropolitan area- Gdynia is the St. Paul to Gdansk's Minneapolis; the Long Beach to its Los Angeles, the 12th largest city in Poland to Gdansk's 6th (and Szczecin's 7th) and what are any of them doing in this discussion anyway when #2 is Krakow and what business does IT have being in this discussion either- made it onto the board to the widespread derision of every city on the planet that thought it had more business being on the board than Gdynia did, which turned out to be one hell of a lot of cities, particularly San Francisco, because seriously? (I don't have the final results past that, but with one day to go in the balloting, San Francisco was actually polling all the way back in 7th, with Szczecin sitting in 3rd.)

And that's to say nothing of the cities in the main battery that missed out. If you lived in Los Angeles, and you were told that San Francisco got into a board celebrating the world's most famous cities and you didn't, you'd be a bit bitter, because San Francisco's your rival, but if the board looked otherwise pretty reasonable, you could get past it. If you're told that Gdynia, Poland got in and you didn't, you are going to laugh and laugh and dismiss the entire project as a victim of Internet derp. It's bad enough getting relegated to the yellows on the earlier edition specific to the United States, but at least there Hasbro pre-selected the cities and guaranteed you a spot. Plus LAX scored the spot reserved for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

And that's basically what happened. Hasbro was left with a board that couldn't really be taken seriously, even after putting up with a controversy in which, in response to political pressure from Palestine, they removed the national identifier 'Israel' from Jerusalem's entry on the ballot, a move that just ended up making Israel angry too. It was doomed to be simply one more board in a long line of niche projects, shuffling off store shelves far more quietly than it arrived.

Maybe they just should have picked the cities themselves.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Oh, Craptcha

Surely, you have at some point or other run into a Captcha image, the distorted word (or other alphanumeric combination) that's meant to be a guard against bots gaining access to somewhere. The idea, of course, is that while these distortions are no problem for a human to decipher (though I've had occasions where I've had to refresh quite a few times before I got something readable enough to confidently punch in), a computer has trouble reading anything even slightly altered, and thus could be stopped just by putting a little bend in the letters and running a line through them, or photocopying a word out of a book or a house number from Google Street View, or something like that. In the process, as people enter in what the book or the house number is saying, that actually helps computers record the contents of those books or images.

There's just one small issue with this, which has just been realized by Google: if you tell a computer what enough distorted images are saying, eventually the computer will become able to read them itself, and then the game is up. Google has created a program that has shown itself capable of 90% accuracy when presented with a Street View house number, and 99.8% accuracy when given "the hardest category" (PDF) of distorted text. This opens up a big ol' security flaw, and Lord knows we've about heard enough of online security risks lately, what with Heartbleed and all.

This is not to say Captcha is going away. Google believes it can patch up the way it works so as to better thwart a bot, which to a degree one would think comes down to taking the images it did miss and doing more of that, but because the percentage is just so high, product manager Vinay Shet is also hinting that it may be less text-based altogether in the future. Perhaps audio makes more of an appearance.

Which will work fine, until Siri learns to actually understand human speech. Then the mental arms race will begin again.