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Pencils Down: Scantron Inventor Michael Sokolski Has Died

(Modern Scantron test sheet; photo by Josh Davis, used under CC license.)

We learned this week that Michael Sokolski, a soldier, engineer, and inventor of the Scantron, died on June 13. Sokolski was an immigrant to the US from Poland, and later an engineer and inventor best known for his work with Scantron. Today, we dig into some Scantron trivia -- please make sure your trivia bubbles are completely filled or the machine may not give you credit.

How Does the Scantron Work?

The original Scantron tests were a form of Optical Mark Recognition (OMR) system, in which a scanning machine beamed light through your test paper and examined the back of the paper, noting which areas were dark using phototubes. The notion was that wherever you'd made a dark mark (using a No. 2 pencil, of course!), the graphite laid down by the pencil would block the light, causing it to bounce off the paper. The machine noted the position of that dark mark detected by the phototubes, compared that position to a master answer key, and tabulated the results. Because of this through-the-paper technique, early Scantron sheets had to be one-sided.

More modern Scantron testing machines use imaging sensors capable of recognizing marks other than those made by No. 2 pencils (hence my Oregon vote-by-mail ballot allowing and even encouraging the use of ink pens on the sheet). These sensors act more like digital cameras, taking a digital picture of the sheet and determining the darkest area. These systems have additional advantages, as their software can (within reason) ignore stray marks and even determine the darkest area in a given region. (You'll know why this is important if you've ever tried to erase your ultra-dark Scantron bubble and left behind a smudgy ghost. Teachers will also be aware of this phenomenon, as those "unscorable" rows had to be examined manually.)

Why a No. 2 Pencil?

Pencils come in different grades depending on the composition of the graphite mixture used within them. The "lead" in a typical pencil is actually graphite powder mixed with clay; the ratio of graphite-to-lead determines the hardness of that lead, which has a lot to do with the darkness of the mark made, as well as how the pencil holds up to repeated use before you have to sharpen it again. The American numbering system is a bit arbitrary, but effectively #2 is moderately soft and #4 is very hard. The #2 pencil (also known as "HB" in the European nomenclature) makes a dark enough mark, but doesn't suffer from the extreme smudging and breakability you can get with harder pencils.

When Scantron systems were first invented, in order to block that light beaming through the paper, the system needed the user to lay down a nice sheet of reflective graphite. The #2 pencil was deemed the right fit for that application -- and it didn't hurt that it was already a very common pencil anyway. You can read way more about pencil grading from Wikipedia, if you're into that kind of thing.

What Made Scantron Special?

OMR systems of various types had been around for decades when Scantron was founded in 1972. Some of the earliest OMR systems (invented in the 1930s and deployed by IBM) used even weirder techniques than the through-the-page light system -- some brushed the page with wires, testing for electrical conductivity (the graphite marks have a markedly different conductivity signature than plain paper). Although Scantron's optical system was patented, the Scantron corporation's other crucial innovation was its business model: by getting inexpensive Scantron test-scoring machines into schools, the company could later make a profit by selling the proprietary test sheets. This is a variant of the classic "razor blade" business model in which you effectively give away the handle but sell the blades, and it worked well for Scantron.

It's important to note that there are lots of players in the standardized test business, so it's likely that many test forms we call "Scantrons" are not the real Scantron-brand item. "Scantron" is one of those trademarked terms like "Xerox" and "Kleenex" that has become partly genericized through common use and overwhelming popularity, despite its valid trademark status.

The College Prep Pro Tip

I flirted with the idea of being a college prep tutor, until I learned about the pay scale involved. But before I gave up on that weekend-long dream, I picked up one pro tip: test-takers should bring slightly blunt pencils to tests. The logic is that if you use a very sharp pencil, it takes longer to fill in the oval completely and you run the risk of breaking the tip; a slightly dulled point gets you to a filled-in oval faster.

If you really do want a sharp pencil, I must refer you to the instant classic How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants; a book that is, no kidding, the definitive resource on pencil sharpening techniques -- written by David Rees, the world's "Number One No. 2 Pencil Sharpener."

The Scantron Test-Taking Machine

Artist/engineer Christian Croft made a Scantron test-taking robot as part of an art installation. Here's a photo of the machine by Kevin Slavin, used under CC license:

Scantron Test-Taking Machine

A Crazy Scantron/TRON Crossover

And finally, a Light Cycle scene from TRON done using Scantrons. The animators are clearly not using No. 2 pencils.

What are Your Scantron Memories?

If you're like me, you have a lot of memories of the Scantron from school, including "Christmas-treeing" a test (drawing a Christmas tree or other image using the bubbles, because you knew you'd fail the test anyway), the common lore that "C" is the most common answer on A-D tests, and a bunch of (bogus) notions that things like Chapstick can help you ace a Scantron test. Share your Scantron memories in the comments.

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The Unexpected Word That Shows Up on Every Hacked-Password List
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Every year, security-focused companies like SplashData release lists of the year's most hacked passwords, inevitably prompting us to ask, "Why would you make your password password?" In 2017, the most popular passwords list included longtime mainstays like 123456, qwerty, and, of course, password.

We get it, people aren't creative when they're coming up with their thousandth password. But WIRED (warning: paywall ahead) alerts us to one mainstay password that stands out from the pack, one that appears regularly on hacked password lists but has none of the obvious origins of passwords like hello or login. People love to make their password—drum roll, please—dragon.

WIRED investigated just why so many internet users use dragon to unlock their accounts, taking the question to password experts and security researchers.

Part of the reason, the magazine found, might just be related to the biases of these lists. They pull from leaked data from hacked sites, a dataset that doesn't always represent everyone on the internet. Depending on the user base of those hacked sites, the passwords also might represent specific groups (say, young dudes) who have more of a tendency to shout their love of fantastical winged reptiles from the rooftops.

The sites that get hacked and have their password data leaked to the world may not have had great security controls in the first place, either. Users might not have had to come up with extra numbers and special characters when generating a password. And the single-word dragon isn't as difficult for hackers to decode as some other passwords, so it's liable to be leaked. According to Keeper Security, many hackers can break a seven-digit password made up of upper- and lower-case letters and numbers in 10 seconds. Since dragon has already proved itself to be so popular, a hacker will probably go ahead and test that one out early.

Several people told WIRED they have used dragon as a password for years, just because, you know, they liked dragons. If you're a fan of Dungeons and Dragons, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, or, maybe even How to Train Your Dragon, dragon might be a super simple password to remember. And, because most people don't change their passwords as often as they should, you probably use it over and over again.

A similar reason might explain why words like football, monkey, and starwars often appear on these lists [PDF] year after year as well. People love football, monkeys, and Star Wars. Unfortunately, so do hackers.

Read the full rundown of why people love dragon—and why it's not a great way to protect the pile of gold that is your online data—here. As always, we will leave you with this reminder: Get a password manager. You don't want to end up as an embarrassing statistic on a password-shaming list.

[h/t WIRED]

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Why Browsing in Incognito Mode Isn’t as Private as You Think
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There are plenty of reasons to try to shield your web activity from prying eyes. You might not want your internet provider to know you’re illegally downloading Game of Thrones. You might not want your employer to see that you’re looking at job boards. Unfortunately, private browsing mode won't help you there, contrary to what many internet users think. Although what you do in private mode doesn’t save in your browser history, it isn't entirely hidden, either, and your activity can still be tracked, according to The Independent’s Indy100.

The site highlights research recently presented at a web privacy conference in Lyon, France, which shows that many people have significant misconceptions about what private browsing really means and how it can shield your information. The survey of 460 people, conducted by researchers from the University of Chicago and Germany’s Leibniz Universität Hannover, found that even when browsers warn users that all their data won’t be hidden when using private browsing mode, most people still come away with major misunderstandings about what will and won’t be hidden about their activity. According to the paper [PDF]:

"These misconceptions included beliefs that private browsing mode would prevent geolocation, advertisements, viruses, and tracking by both the websites visited and the network provider. Furthermore, participants who saw certain disclosures were more likely to have misconceptions about private browsing’s impact on targeted advertising, the persistence of lists of downloaded files and bookmarks, and tracking by ISPs, employers, and governments."

While incognito mode doesn’t store your browsing history, temporary files, or cookies from session to session, it can’t shield you from everything. Your internet service provider (ISP) can see your activity. If you’re logged into your company or school’s Wi-Fi, your boss or school administrators can still see what you’re doing on that network. And if you’re on a site that isn’t secure, incognito mode won’t keep other users on your network from tracking you, either.

According to Chrome developer Darin Fisher, Google tried to make this fairly clear from the outset with incognito mode. In 2017, Fisher told Thrillist that the Chrome team intentionally decided to steer clear of the word “private” so that people would understand that their activity wasn’t totally invisible to others.

Using a VPN along with incognito mode can help anonymize your browsing, but your ISP will still be able to tell when you connect and disconnect, and the VPN company may log some information on your activity, depending on its terms. Overall, it’s just very hard to hide your online activity completely.

Private browsing is useful if you’re using someone else’s computer and don’t want to deal with logging out of their email or social media accounts. It can help you shield your significant other from seeing all the engagement rings you’ve been browsing online. And yeah, sometimes—though we don’t condone this!—you can use it to get around a site’s paywall. But it’s never going to completely hide what you do online.

[h/t Indy100]

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