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Idiot vs. Moron: What's the Difference?

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The Dilemma: You want to assail someone's intelligence, but you don't know quite what word to use, which calls into question your own intellect.

Materials Needed: An IQ test would be helpful, but you can get by on just your wits—provided you have enough of them.

People You Can Impress: Well, idiots and morons both, for starters. But also psychologists. And you really, really need to impress psychologists, because—as you'll see—you really don't want them to think you're an idiot.

Quick Trick: These days, the words are completely synonymous. But back in the dark days of psychology (which is to say until about 30 years ago), there was a difference, and here's the quick trick psychologists used: Ask a question. If your subject answers, they're a moron at worst. If they don't answer, you might have an idiot on your hands.

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The Reason: Anyone who says that political correctness never accomplished anything worthwhile should take a long, hard look at the lot of the idiot. In 1911, French psychologists Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon created the first modern intelligence test, which calculated IQ based on whether children could accomplish tasks like pointing to their nose (honestly) and counting pennies. The concept of "IQ" followed soon after, and psychologists fell so deeply in love with the scientific nature of the tests that they created classification systems. Any child with an IQ of above 70 was considered "normal," while kids above 130 were considered "gifted." To deal with kids below 70, psychologists invented a nomenclature of retardation. Those with IQs between 51 and 70 were called morons. Morons had adequate learning skills to complete menial tasks and communicate. Imbeciles, with IQs between 26 and 50, never progressed past a mental age of about six. And the lowest of all were the idiots, with IQs between 0 and 24, who were characterized by poor motor skill, extremely limited communication, and little response to stimulus.

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The moron/imbecile/idiot classification remained popular, amazingly, until the early 1970s, when people started to note that the developmentally disabled have enough difficulties without being saddled with condescending labels. The 70s saw the move away from institutionalizing the developmentally disabled, and it has since been shown that the majority of people with IQs below 70 can lead productive and independent lives. Not to sound like Tom Cruise or anything, but the real morons in this story were the psychologists. Today, the classification system is one category broader—moron, imbecile, and idiot have been replaced with mild, moderate, severe, and profound retardation—and diagnostic factors other than IQ are considered in making a diagnosis.

Also Good to Know: The doubly offensive term "Mongolian Idiot," which in the 19th and early 20th centuries was an actual, literal diagnosis, derives from people's belief that individuals with Down Syndrome—with their wide-set eyes and round faces—resembled Mongolians. In fact, before the British physician JHL Down (1829-1896) lent his name to the chromosomal syndrome, Down Syndrome was known merely as "Mongolism."

And there you have it. Now you know whether you're working with idiots or morons. Need more clarification in your life? Check out What's the Difference, a mental_floss book written by John Green, Chris Connolly, Christopher Smith, and (yours truly) Maggie Koerth-Baker.

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“Dissension” by Tobias Rothe. Original image courtesy Fondazione Federico Zeri/Università di Bologna // CC-BY 3.0
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Get Your GIFs Ready for This International Public Domain GIF-Making Competition
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“Dissension” by Tobias Rothe. Original image courtesy Fondazione Federico Zeri/Università di Bologna // CC-BY 3.0

Excellent GIF-making skills can serve you beyond material for your clever tweets. Each year, a group of four digital libraries from across the world hosts GIF IT UP, a competition to find the best animated image sourced from public domain images from their archives.

The competition is sponsored by Europeana, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), New Zealand’s DigitalNZ, and the National Library of Australia’s Trove, all of which host millions of public domain works. The requirements are that the source material must be in the public domain, have a 'no known copyright restrictions' statement, or have a Creative Commons license that allows its reuse. The material must also come from one of the sponsored sources. Oh, and judging by the past winners, it helps if it’s a little whimsical.

The image above won the grand prize in 2015. And this was a runner-up in 2016:

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This year’s prizes haven’t been announced yet (although Europeana says there will be a new one for first-time GIF makers), but last year’s grand prize winner got their own Giphoscope, and runners-up got $20 gift cards. (Turns out, there’s not a lot of money in public domain art.)

Not an expert GIFer yet? You can always revisit the audio version of DPLA’s advanced GIF-making tutorial from last year.

The fourth-annual GIF IT UP contest opens to submissions October 1.

Update: GIF IT UP has announced that this year’s grand prize winner will receive an Electric Object, a digital art frame. The winner of the people’s choice category will get a Giphoscope, while runners-up for the general competition and the winner of the first-time GIF-maker category will get gift cards. There will also be special prizes for several themed categories, including transportation, holidays, Christmas cards, and animals.

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The Library of Congress Wants Your Help Identifying World War I-Era Political Cartoons
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Alex Wong/Getty Images

The U.S. government’s official library wants your help. And it involves cartoons.

The Library of Congress just debuted its new digital innovation lab, an initiative that aims to improve upon its massive archives and use them in creative ways. Its first project is Beyond Words, a digitization effort designed to make the research library’s historical newspaper collection more search-friendly. It aims to classify and tag historical images from World War I-era newspapers, identifying political cartoons, comics, illustrations, and photos within old news archives. The images come from newspapers included in Chronicling America, the library’s existing newspaper digitization project.

The tasks involved in Beyond Words are simple, even if you know nothing about the illustrations involved going into it. The Library of Congress just needs people to help mark all the illustrations and cartoons in the scanned newspaper pages, a task that only involves drawing boxes to differentiate the image from the articles around it.

Then there’s transcription, involving typing in the title of the image, the caption, the author, and whether it’s an editorial cartoon, an illustration, a photo, a map, or a comic. The library also needs people to verify the work of others, since it’s a crowd-sourced effort—you just need to make sure the images have been transcribed consistently and accurately.

A pop-up window below an early 20th century newspaper illustration prompts the user to pick the most accurate caption.

Screenshot via labs.loc.gov

The data will eventually be available for download by researchers, and you can explore the already-transcribed images on the Beyond Words site. Everything is in the public domain, so you can remix and use it however you want.

With the new labs.loc.gov, “we are inviting explorers to help crack open digital discoveries and share the collections in new and innovative ways,” Carla Hayden, the library’s head, said in a press release.

Other government archives regularly look to ordinary people to help with the monstrous task of digitizing and categorizing their collections. The National Archives and Records Administration, for instance, has recently crowd-sourced data entry and transcription for vintage photos of life on Native American reservations and declassified government documents to help make their collections more accessible online.

Want to contribute to the Library of Congress’s latest effort? Visit labs.loc.gov.

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