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Ratholes

I work at a technology company, and we frequently use the term 'rathole' to describe a topic (generally one brought up in a meeting) that's a tangent. And when I say I we use it frequently, I mean the term came up five times today, including in the verb form: "I don't mean to rathole here, but [insert marginally germane discussion here]...." So it was a surprise to me that this term is not particularly well-known.

43 Folders has an article on ratholes, including an official Rathole Jingle (MP3), and this snippet from Wikipedia's entry on Ratholing:

Ratholing is a term used to describe a conversation or process that has deviated from its original productive purpose into a generally unproductive but long and winding detour that eventually comes to a dead end. The original discussion purpose may be to agree on a course of action. However, if one or more people rathole into a specific point of the discussion then the discussion stalls with no actionable outcome. This term is frequently used on the Macbreak Weekly podcast, resulting in the eventual creation of the “Rathole!” jingle[1] and subsequent full-length song.[2]

Terminology note: "RAT" is also the term for the Rock Abrasion Tool on the Mars rovers, which can dig holes in things. Makes for some interesting Google Image searching. See? That was kind of a rathole, just now.

So what about you -- do you rathole? Or do you "take it offline?" (Blech.)

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science
Researchers Claim to Crack the Voynich Manuscript Using AI, But Experts Are Skeptical

Computing scientists at the University of Alberta recently made a bold claim: They say they’ve identified the source language of the baffling Voynich Manuscript, and they did so using artificial intelligence.

Their study, published in Transactions of the Association of Computational Linguistics [PDF], basically states that an AI algorithm trained to recognize hundreds of languages determined the Voynich Manuscript to be encoded Hebrew. On the surface, this looks like a huge breakthrough: Since it was rediscovered a century ago, the Voynich Manuscript’s indecipherable text has stumped everyone from World War II codebreakers to computer programmers. But experts are hesitant to give credence to the news. “I have very little faith in it,” cryptographer Elonka Dunin tells Mental Floss. “Hebrew, and dozens of other languages have been identified before. Everyone sees what they want to see.”

Anyone who’s familiar with the Voynich Manuscript should understand the skepticism. The book, which contains 246 pages of illustrations and apparent words written in an unknown script, is obscured by mystery. It’s named for Wilfrid Voynich, the Polish book dealer who purchased it in 1912, but experts believe it was written 600 years ago. Nothing is known about the person who authored it or the book’s purpose.

Many cryptologists suspect the text is a cipher, or a coded pattern of letters that must be unscrambled to make sense. But no code has been identified even after decades of the world’s best cryptographers testing countless combinations. With their study, the researchers at the University of Alberta claim to have done something different. Instead of relying on human linguists and codebreakers, they developed an AI program capable of identifying the source languages of text. They fed the technology 380 versions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, each one translated into a different language and enciphered. After learning to recognize codes in various languages, the AI was given some pages of the Voynich Manuscript. Based on what it had seen already, it named Hebrew as the book’s original language—a surprise to the researchers, who were expecting Arabic.

The researchers then devised an algorithm that rearranged the letters into real words. They were able to make actual Hebrew out of 80 percent of the encoded words in the manuscript. Next, they needed to find an ancient Hebrew scholar to look at the words and determine if they fit together coherently.

But the researchers claim they were unable to get in touch with any scholars, and instead used Google Translate to make sense of the first sentence of the manuscript. In English, the decoded words they came up with read, “She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people." Study co-author Greg Kondrak said in a release, “It’s a kind of strange sentence to start a manuscript but it definitely makes sense.”

Dunin is less optimistic. According to her, naming a possible cipher and source language without actually translating more of the text is no cause for celebration. “They identify a method without decrypting a paragraph,” she says. Even their method is questionable. Dunin points out the AI program was trained using ciphers that the researchers themselves wrote, not ciphers from real life. “They scrambled the texts using their own system, then they used their own software to de-scramble those. Then they used it on the manuscript and said, ‘Oh look, it’s Hebrew!’ So it’s a big, big leap.”

The University of Alberta researchers aren’t the first to claim they’ve identified the language of the Voynich Manuscript, and they won’t be the last. But unless they’re able the decode the full text into a meaningful language, the manuscript remains as mysterious today as it did 100 years ago. And if you agree with cryptographers like Dunin who think the book might be a constructed language, a detailed hoax, or even a product of mental illness, it’s a mystery without a satisfying explanation.

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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crime
Linguistic Analysis Finds that Two Famous Jack the Ripper Letters Were Fake
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Despite many new leads and theories that have surfaced in the Jack the Ripper case over the past several decades, the identity of the legendary serial killer remains unconfirmed. Now, Gizmodo reports that researchers are able to rule out much of the evidence that helped shaped the killer's public identity. A new study, published in Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, supports the theory that two of the most famous letters supposedly penned by Jack the Ripper were fabricated.

The Whitechapel murders of 1888 were already gruesome enough to rivet the public's attention. A flood of letters claiming to come from the murderer, some of which included bits of human viscera, were sent to London police and news agencies. When newspapers decided to publish them, the horror of the crimes was amplified to mythical proportions. The first of these missives, the "Dear Boss," "From Hell," and "Saucy Jacky" letters, gave the criminal a personality and his now-iconic nickname. More than 200 copycat letters followed.

Because of the sheer number of Jack the Ripper letters, it's long been assumed that most of them were fake, either written by bored members of the public or journalists looking to stoke the story. There are many Ripper experts who believe all of the letters were hoaxes, but the validity of the original three is still a source of debate. Using linguistic analysis, Andrea Nini of the University of Manchester was able to confirm that two of these letters, "Dear Boss" and "Saucy Jacky," were written by the same person, and that person likely worked for the media.

Letter written in red ink
Jack the Ripper's "Dear Boss" letter
National Archives, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The forensic linguist came to this conclusion after poring over dozens of letters looking for similarities in language usage. The wording of these two letters, the second of which was written before the first was made public, are close enough to suggest they were written by one author. According to Nini, other letters written after these two were made public are merely trying to mimic their style.

But there is one exception Nini found in his research. "Dear Boss" and "Saucy Jacky" are both linguistic matches with the "Moab and Midian" letter. The latter was never seen in its original form, only as a transcription taken by someone working for the Central News Agency, which suggests it was faked. The similarities between these letters could mean they were all written by one journalist looking to sell papers rather than the actual perpetrator of the Whitechapel murders.

While Nini's research doesn't officially exonerate or condemn any suspects, it does add weight to the theory that the majority of the Jack the Ripper letters are fake, on which most experts agree. Modern-day Ripperologists will just have to look elsewhere when investigating the 130-year-old crimes.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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