Matt Zencey
Matt Zencey

The Weird Week in Review

Matt Zencey
Matt Zencey

Bad Review from 1863 Finally Retracted

This newspaper retraction took 150 years to see print, but like they say, better late than never. The Patriot News of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, published a bad review of a local speech which they referred to as "silly remarks" that "deserved the veil of oblivion." That speech was later known as the Gettysburg Address, delivered by President Abraham Lincoln at the dedication of the new Soldier's National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Yesterday, the newspaper published an apology for its earlier review, even going so far as to use the style of the Address as a framework for its own mea culpa. The paper could be forgiven the original remarks: after all, the president himself said that "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here," which also turned out to be wrong.

Batman Suparman on the Wrong Side of the Law

Batman bin Suparman changed his name legally to reflect two comic book superheroes a few years ago. Now it appears that the crime-fighting moniker has had little influence on his life. A judge in Singapore sentenced the 23-year-old Suparman to two years and nine months on charges of breaking and entering, theft, and heroin use. It all started when his older brother reported $650 missing from the bank account behind his ATM card. An investigation led to the arrest of Suparman after he was observed on a surveillance video taking money from GF Billiards & Marketing during a break-in. He was arrested on August 19th, at which time the heroin charge was added. If he had taken some inspiration from his name, he might have tried wearing a mask or at least using a secret identity.

Police Respond to IKEA Assembly

If you thought the confusion one confronts when assembling IKEA furniture was because the instructions are Swedish, this story should reassure you that they are just as baffling to Swedes as to the rest of the world. A family in Strömstad, Sweden, on the country's western coast, were assembling furniture at 1AM. The banging, or possibly the swearing, woke their baby, who began screaming. The neighbors, alarmed at the commotion, called the local police.

When officers arrived on the scene, they found the couple was engaged in that most Swedish of activities, assembling Ikea furniture, and that the crying did indeed come from an infant child. It remains unclear if the baby was simply crying in need of attention, or whether it too was frustrated by the complexity of the Ikea instructions.

The police understood completely.

Executives Watching Porn Is a Leading Cause of Corporate Malware

Ah, the perks that come from being the boss! Surfing for porn on the internet is a fireable offense for most employees, but who is going to report a CEO? A survey of security analysts at 200 firms finds that 40 percent of the respondents have had to remove malware from a senior executive's computer or mobile device after they perused porn. Senior executives who open spam emails were also a significant cause of malware in the workplace. However, the IT department is wary of reporting such incidents: 57% of data breaches are not publicly reported.

Impersonating a Police Officer to Get Discounted Donuts

From Florida comes the story of 48-year-old Charles Barry, who apparently has a habit of demanding a discount on donuts from his local Dunkin' Donuts outlet in Pasco County. Employees say that Barry had presented himself as a U.S. Marshal on several occasions, in order to receive a discount. When he came in on a weekend and demanded a discount for his whole family, the management rescinded his privileges. But Barry kept demanding his "police discount," and even showed a badge and flashed a gun at the drive-through window a week ago. By then, police had set up a surveillance operation to catch Barry in the act, and he was arrested as he left the donut shop. Barry has been charged with impersonating an officer and improper exhibition of a firearm.

Deer Leaps Through Trailer Wall

An unnamed woman from Las Vegas was driving through Utah when she felt as if her vehicle had hit an animal or something, although she didn't see anything. She called the local sheriff's office, which sent Conservation Officer Micah Evans to investigate. He found the trailer with a hole torn in the front of it -about four feet off the ground. There was no blood visible on the trailer. Evans went inside the trailer, half expecting to find a scene of carnage. Instead, there was a deer standing there, seemingly uninjured!

"I can hear the jaw moving, and I can hear the tongue working," Evans said. "It was either licking its front leg or licking something that spilled on the floor. And as I'm looking at this animal, I'm thinking, 'Man, how the heck am I going to get this thing out of the trailer?'"

Standing in the doorway, Evans took a picture with his camera of the buck. The flash went off and the buck sprang toward the doorway, Evans jumped out of the way, then the buck leapt over a barbed wire fence and ran away, according to the sheriff's office.

The deer, a three-point buck, declined to tell his side of the story.

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AI Is Decoding the Vatican Secret Archives, One Pen Stroke at a Time
Tiziana Fabi, AFP/Getty Image
Tiziana Fabi, AFP/Getty Image

The Vatican Secret Archives comprise 600 collections of texts spanning 12 centuries, most of which are nearly impossible to access. The Atlantic reports that a team of scientists is hoping to change that with help from some high school students and artificial intelligence software.

In Codice Ratio is a new research project dedicated to analyzing the vast majority of Vatican manuscripts that have never been digitized. When other libraries wish to make a digital archive of their inventory, they often use optical-character-recognition (OCR) software. Such programs can be trained to recognize the letters in a certain alphabet, pick them out of hard-copy manuscripts, and convert them to searchable text. This technology posed a challenge for the Vatican, however: The many older texts in its collections are written by hand in a cursive-like script. With no spaces between the characters, it's impossible for OCR to determine what's a letter and what isn't.

To get around this, the research team at In Codice Radio tweaked OCR software so that it could recognize pen strokes instead of letters. The OCR can identify the pen strokes that make up letters in an alphabet by looking for spots in the text where the ink narrows rather than presents full gaps between characters. The strokes aren't very useful on their own, but the software can combine the pieces to form possible letters.

To help the software perform even better, researchers recruited students from 24 Italian high schools to check its work. As the researchers explain in their paper, the students were shown a list of acceptable versions of a real letter, such as the letter A, and were then given a list of characters the software had guessed might be the real letter. By selecting the characters that matched the acceptable versions, they were able to slowly teach the software the medieval Latin alphabet.

All this information, plus a database of 1.5 million Latin words that had already been digitized, eventually brought the OCR to a place where it could use artificial intelligence to identify real letters on its own. The final results aren't perfect—a good portion of the words transcribed so far contain typos—but Vatican archivists are a lot better off than they were before: The software can identify individual handwritten letters with 96 percent accuracy, and misspelled words can still provide important context to readers. The goal is to eventually use the software to digitize every document in the Vatican Secret Archives.

[h/t The Atlantic]

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Can You Decipher the Playful 1817 Letter Jane Austen Sent to Her Niece in Code?
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iStock

Jane Austen—homebrewer, musician, and, oh, one of the most famous novelists in the English language—didn’t limit her prose to the fictional world. She was a prolific correspondent, sending missives to friends and relatives (and occasionally soliciting feedback on her work). Some of these were quite playful, as a letter highlighted recently on the Two Nerdy History Girls blog shows.

Austen’s 1817 letter to her young niece, Cassandra Esten Austen, is a bit hard to read even if you are an expert in 19th century handwriting styles. That’s because all the words are spelled backwards. Instead of signing off with “Good bye my dear Cassy,” for instance, Austen wrote “Doog eyb ym raed Yssac.” The letter served as both a New Year’s greeting and a puzzle for the 8-year-old to solve.

A close-up of a handwritten letter with words written backwards
The Morgan Library & Museum, MA 1034.6. Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

The letter is currently on view at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City as part of the museum’s "Treasures From the Vault" exhibition, having been donated to the institution in 1975 by a Jane Austen collector and Morgan Library regular named Alberta Burke.

While any of Austen’s communications would be of interest to fans and literary scholars, this one is particularly unique as a historical object. In it, Austen wishes Cassandra a happy new year and writes about a visit she received from six of Cassandra’s cousins the day before, telling her about the cake they ate, feeding robins, Frank’s Latin studies, and Sally’s new green dress.

A handwritten letter from Jane Austen
The Morgan Library & Museum, MA 1034.6. Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

“Those simple details give a sense of the texture of Austen’s everyday life—and that she thinks to communicate them to her young niece makes clear that ‘Aunt Jane’ knew just the kinds of tidbits a child of that age would relish,” Christine Nelson, the Morgan’s literary and historic manuscripts curator, tells Mental Floss.

Austen would die just six months later, making it a valuable look at the end of her life. As far as we know, no other backwards-written letters like the one sent to Cassandra have survived in Austen’s archives, according to Nelson, but she says she wouldn’t be surprised if the famous author wrote more. “Given her love of riddles and linguistic games (which comes through, of course, in her novels), I have to believe that other family members were the recipients of similarly playful epistolary gifts,” Nelson says.

If you make it to New York City, you can go decode the letter yourself in person. It will be on display at the Morgan Library until March 11, 2018.

[h/t Two Nerdy History Girls]

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