Google Translate Auto-Detect Sucks!

TranslateI am hopelessly mono-language. But I find I am constantly dealing with other languages, so I always have my Latin, Spanish, and French dictionaries close by. And, of course, I use Google Translate because it is one of the very greatest things about the internet. Often, it is so good that I don’t even have to use the books. About the only time it isn’t enough is when I’m translating very old Spanish or French, which is more common than you might think.

But I am constantly amazed at just how terrible Google Translate is at detecting languages. It basically never gets it right. I understand that it has a lot of languages, and if I entered large chunks of text, it would doubtless do a better job. But it really is pathetic.

I took a little bit of Horce’s famous Ode iii.2, “solvat phaselon; saepe Diespiter.” I don’t think you have to be a genius to realize that this is Latin. But what did Google Translate think it was? Afrikaans. Really. And not only that! It translated it into English as, “solvat phaselon; saepe Diespiter.” That is to say: it didn’t recognize a single word as Afrikaans, but it still said it was an Afrikaans phrase. If I go in and manually select “Latin,” it translates the phrase correctly, “pay to the boat; often Jupiter.”

Now if we put that English phrase into Google Translate and ask it to translate into Afrikaans, we get, “skenk aan die boot; dikwels Jupiter.” If you are really drunk and you squint really hard, that kind of looks like the original Latin. So I’m willing to admit that the Google Translate auto-detection is as good as a drunk squinter.

The system is just as bad with obvious phrases. Put in “cri de coeur” and Google announces, “Romanian.” And again, it translates it into English as, “cri de coeur”! But this time the English, “cry of heart” gets translated into Romanian as, “strigăt de inimă.” That doesn’t look anything like it, although it does have the same “de,” so there’s that.

I suspect what is really going on is that the program to do auto-detect just doesn’t work very hard. But you would think that for default English speakers, it would try French and German first. I get that Latin might be the last thing it checks. But not getting “cri de coeur” is really amazing.

Winning at Rock, Paper, Scissors

Rock-Paper-ScissorsI like to think that I don’t lose perspective on things. Despite my rants and ravings, I know what is important and what is not. And yesterday, a really important article flashed across my screen. It was by Joseph Stromberg over at Vox, How to Use Science to Win at Rock-Paper-Scissors. You may be one of those ignorant people who think that the game is random. But I know from years of experience that people are very poor random rock-paper-scissors generators. Bad players (which in practice means most players) repeat the same kinds of patterns over and over again.

There was one bit of news in the article that blew me away: there is an official league for rock-paper-scissors competitors. It is called the US Association of Rock, Paper, Scissors. I’m sure that these people would crush me like a pair of scissors. After all, I don’t take this stuff any more seriously than I do any of the hundreds of other odd fascinations I suffer from. And clearly, these are very serious people because some of them have actually systematized the game.

The only absolute rule that I knew, was the first one they mentioned: throw paper first. Actually, they say that you should throw paper first against guys. This is because guys tend to subconsciously think that nothing is as strong as the rock. This is not my thinking at all. Rock is the default throw. The first time that people go, they are kind of disoriented. There’s the whole counting thing (1-2-3…) and then you have to change the shape of your hand. It isn’t natural. So a lot of people panic and do nothing, which is the same as throwing rock.

The second rule is quite clever, although they do a bad job of explaining it. The essence of this rule is that people predict the future by looking at the past—but it works differently for winners and losers.If they just lost to rock, they will assume (without knowing it) that they are going to get rock again; so they throw paper. But if they just won with rock, they will go with it again because they assume their opponent will throw the same thing. So if you just lost to rock, throw paper; if you just won with rock, through scissors. And when you win, laugh maniacally. (Of course, if you both do this, the last winner will win again.)

The third rule is a classic from statistics. If you toss a quarter a hundred times, there is a very good chance that it will come up heads six times in a row. People’s ideas about randomness do not brook much actual randomness. The truth is that three heads in a row will happen one out of eight times when you toss a coin three times. So it isn’t surprising that most people won’t, for example, throw scissors three times in a row. So if you opponent has thrown scissors twice, they are very unlikely to throw scissors a third time.

The article provides a fourth rule, but I think it’s a pass: close your eyes. This is based upon one study, so make of it what you will. There is a related issue, however: decide what you are going to throw before you start! Not doing that is what makes most players bad.

Of course, all of these rules will only improve your chances. I haven’t been able to find any competition results, but I assume that players aren’t doing more than a couple percent better than others. So if anyone wants to do a rock-paper-scissors with you to decide something, make sure you make it the best out of a hundred.


There are many freaks like me. That is why some people developed the game rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock. It has more interesting rules like, “Scissors decapitate lizard” and, “Paper disproves Spock.”

Why Benghazi Still Rocks Conservatives

Fox Not NewsAs I’ve mentioned before, The Progressive has a feature called, “No Comment.” In it, they put quotes that need no comment. For example, take almost anything from what Bundy has recent said and nothing really needs to be added. Media Matters flagged just such an example today, Fox Promises To Ignore Obama’s Press Conference Unless Someone Asks About Benghazi. In the following video, Fox News was covering the president’s news conference which he was doing with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Fox cut away, claiming that the next question was from a German reporter so they knew it wouldn’t be about, “Benghazi! Benghazi! Benghazi!”

Of course, I’m not a “no comment” kind of guy, so I will have a few things to say after the video:

This all follows from the announcement this morning that John Boehner will form a select committee on Benghazi. This, in turn, was a response to the “shocking” revelations that the White House was concerned about how the Benghazi attacks might hurt Obama’s re-election bid. This is right up there with the shocking revelation that politicians try to impress potential voters. As John Dickerson noted, there is every indication that at that time the White House actually believed the story they were pushing.

But David Weigel really gets to the heart of the matter, The Umpteenth Guide to the Impenetrable Benghazi Outrage. He goes through all the history and the supposed smoking gun email from speechwriter Ben Rhodes, and sums up:

Are you lost yet? OK—the entire argument is about Rhodes mentioning, hours after the CIA had suggested the Benghazi attack grew out of demonstrations in several countries, that the immediate inspiration for the demonstrations was a video. That’s the scandal—that by giving the video all this credit, the administration was distracting people from the real story that terrorism was surging again. Even though the subsequent 19 months have seen no more attacks on embassies. Even though reporting at the time said the excuse for the protests was said video.

So let’s boil that down further: according to the Republicans, the scandal is that the White House tried to distract attention from something that wasn’t happening. This is what is so aggravating about conservative media. It doesn’t matter what a Democratic administration does: the conservatives are going to scream scandal. If the administration really was sandal ridden, the right wingers would have moved on to something else—something meatier. I’m getting the same impression I got during the Clinton years (when I was a libertarian and not inclined to side with the Democrats), “If this is the best they can come up with, this must be a squeaky clean White House.”

In the end, this will come to nothing. But no one will admit it. And no one will ever tell the Republican base. So just like some conservatives still think Hillary Clinton killed Vince Foster, in twenty years some will think there was something to “Benghazi! Benghazi! Benghazi!” Even if they won’t be able to tell you what it was.[1]

The next time you wonder why it is that Republicans believe such crazy things, all you have to do is return to this one and a half minute video. People don’t switch over to Fox News because they are looking for coverage of Benghazi. They are already on Fox News because they flatter themselves that it really is “fair and balanced” (or at least “news”) and that they will get coverage that doesn’t upset their prejudices. But it is Fox News that decides that they are going to be outraged about Benghazi. Note that Weigel wasn’t saying that the Benghazi story was impenetrable; he was saying that the outrage was impenetrable. Indeed it is. But it is completely understandable.

[1] Actually, I think I have a plot for a film. Hillary Clinton actually used voodoo to force Vince Foster to kill himself. Now she has reanimated his body and sends it out to kill her enemies. She had long had an affair with Christopher Stevens, before he left her, announcing that he was gay and running off with Bill. So she sent Vince Foster to Benghazi to kill him. I see a series of films, collectively known as, “Vince Foster: Zombie Assassin.” It’s a winner!

Elegant Racism

Ta-Nehisi CoatesTa-Nehisi Coates wrote a great article yesterday at The Atlantic, This Town Needs a Better Class of Racist. In it, he looks at an issue that has long bugged me: how we ignore implicit racist that has huge social costs and freak out about explicit racism that while vile is largely impotent.

He noted, “Cliven Bundy looks, and sounds, much like what white people take racism to be… The problem with Cliven Bundy isn’t that he is a racist but that he is an oafish racist.” As I wrote last month, “Take away the [explicit] racism and the idea that slavery was just great and you are left with Paul Ryan’s hammock argument.” Yet when I say that Ryan’s policies are racist, I get ridiculed. Apparently, we aren’t supposed to talk about racism unless it is of the most obvious variety. As Coates wrote, Cliven Bundy “does not so much use the word ‘Negro’ — which would be bad enough — but ‘nigra,’ in the manner of villain from Mississippi Burning or A Time to Kill.”

Coates defines what we should be fighting as “elegant racism,” which is “invisible, supple, and enduring.” And the example of the hour comes to us from Donald Sterling because in public, he is one of its great practitioners. He refers to Bomani Jones who has been complaining about Sterling’s racism since at least 2006 when Sterling was sued by the Department of Justice on Monday for housing discrimination. Sterling was later fined $2.7 million for his behavior. In the following radio interview, Jones commented about the reason we freak out about these comments and not about his rental policies, “This is the only opportunity that a lot of people out here will have that they feel comfortable within their souls and within their psyches to stand against racism. Because it is so easy to do it on this right here and it’s so scandalous.”

But Coates took it deeper. The sin is not racism but making white people feel bad about racism. When Paul Ryan talks about lazy inner city youths, there is plausible deniability. We can say, “Sure, he means black inner city youths, but there are white inner city youths as well.” But when someone uses the n-word or says that blacks don’t have a good family life because they aren’t picking cotton as slaves, there is no denying the racism.

This is a pretty typical problem with conservatives: seeing the problems of the past but not the problems of the present. But Coates is right: this is largely a liberal problem. (Sadly, the conservatives are mostly not even this evolved on the issue of racism.) He argued that we see race as a thing, when it is actually not. Racism is a thing, and the idea of race is born from that. I think that is fundamentally correct. But more uncomfortably, he’s right that this is the way I think about such issues. I’m going to have to give it much more thought.

Coates ended the article with an observation that is so obvious that no one else seems to have thought of it:

A racism that invites the bipartisan condemnation of Barack Obama and Mitch McConnell must necessarily be minor. A racism that invites the condemnation of Sean Hannity can’t be much of a threat. But a racism, condemnable by all civilized people, must make itself manifest now and again so that we may celebrate how far we have come. Meanwhile racism, elegant, lovely, monstrous, carries on.

Tragic and Wonderful Lorenz Hart

Rodgers and HartOn this day in 1895, the great lyricist Lorenz Hart was born. I can safely say that he is my favorite lyricist. He wrote very clever and complex and playful lyrics. For example, in “Manhattan,” he wrote, “The city’s clamor can never spoil; the dreams of a boy and goil.” Throughout the rest of the song, he rhymes with “boy,” so that reversal really works. Of course, this kind of stuff doesn’t exactly distinguish him from Cole Porter. But Hart’s work is wedded to a sadly romantic view of the world that devastates me as much today as ever.

Hart was a tragic figure. It’s well known that he was gay and an alcoholic. But according to Stephen Holden, he was also very short and considered himself ugly and unlovable. He was so unstable in his life that Richard Rodgers would generally write the music for shows first and then trap Hart in a room and force him to write the lyrics. I’ve always thought this is why his music from this period was better than his work with Hammerstein, although I understand that most people don’t feel that way. Regardless, Rodgers was the great technician and Hart the tortured artist.

Still, despite all his drinking, he still managed to outlive F Scott Fitzgerald by four years. And when he died, it was from exposure, not liver failure. (Admittedly, the exposure came about because he was drunk.) But I don’t know what would have happened to him had he lived. Rodgers had given up on him. But I’d like to think he would have made peace with his demons and gone on to be happy and productive. Or at least happy.

There are two people who I think have done the most with the Rodgers & Hart songbook: Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. So let’s listen to Sinatra do “I Could Write a Book” from Pal Joey:

And here is Fitzgerald doing “Dancing On The Ceiling”:

Happy birthday Lorenz Hart!


As great as they are, I’m not much of either of the following singers, but this is just too wonderful not to share. Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga do “The Lady is a Tramp,” even using Sinatra’s old “chick” variation: