Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Summa - - - laude: Fill in the blank, which is more than a cake computer can do


Photo courtesy of Cara Koscinski


     Now cum is an interesting word. Latin, of course, a preposition meaning "with." It begins the aphorism cum grano salis—"with a grain of salt"—a note of skepticism going back to ancient Rome, when soldiers' pay was connected to the common mineral ("salary" derives from the Latin salarium, the money soldiers were paid to buy salt).
     We see it particularly this time of year, on diplomas flashed at graduations. There is cum laude, "with praise," magna cum laude, "with great praise" and the utmost, summa cum laude, or "with greatest praise."
     You and I know this because we're human beings in a literate society. We pick things up.
     But the cake-decoration system at the Publix supermarket in Charleston, South Carolina is not human, and does not know this. It's a computer, programmed to weed out surprisingly frequent attempts to render profanity into icing. (Sigh. There is a non-Latin, sexual meaning to the Latin term which, if you don't know, I'm not going to explain. Ask around).
     Charleston mom Cara Koscinski ordered a cake from her local Publix supermarket to honor her son Jacob, graduating from a Christian home schooling program.
     Ordering online, she designated it was a graduation cake, which automatically conjured up mortarboard and scroll ornaments. Then she plugged in "Congrats Jacob! Summa Cum Laude Class of 2018."
     Up popped a red warning: "Profane/special characters not allowed."
     As is common with automatic systems, there was an out, a place for "Special Instructions," where Koscinski explained that, as opposed to its center syllable standing alone, "summa cum laude" is not in fact profane.

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18 comments:

  1. It could've been worse. The store might have spelled it "Summa Come Laude".

    I also remember when some stores had a print your own greeting card computer. So of course we made one saying Phuck Off, as the correct spelling wasn't allowed, but this was. Censors rarely think out of the box. Oh, there's another meaning to that too!

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  2. Loved this column. One thing though. You just told us yesterday that you are not a reporter but a commenter and that's obviously why you got one detail wrong. The mom did not follow up with the " cake wrangler" after getting the warning message though she did explain he issue to the computer in the " special instructions."

    (See the WaPo article that got info directly from the mom and makes this this pretty clear: "The Publix form included a section for “special instructions” for the bakery, in which Koscinski explained that Summa Cum Laude was a Latin term for high academic honor and was not profane. She included a link to a website explaining the meaning of summa cum laude and said she didn’t think much about it afterward.)

    The accurate story, that she didn't follow up with a human being actually makes your point even stronger.

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    1. Umm, Annie. I spoke with the mom. She TOLD me she later called. The Washington Post article, while where I learned of it, is not the final word. If you notice, the quote about home schooled kids not being stupid isn't in the article either. She told me that too. Which is why I encourage people not to go all coy with their proposed corrections ("that's obviously why you got one detail wrong.") Because half the time, it is they, the correctors, who end up being wrong. Such as in this case.

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    2. My bad. I had assumed that the Washington Post article was accurate ( if she didn't think any more about it after entering the info on the computer she couldn't have spoken to the store beforehand ) and that your discussion yesterday about not being partcularly Intersted in tracking down sources meant that you hadn't talked to her. Didn't give you ennough credit. Gave the WaPo too much.

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    3. No worries. Though if your take-away from the Laurie Dann post yesterday was that I'm not interested in tracking down sources, that's also not quite correct. I don't like talking to teachers who saw their students shot earlier in the day. There's a difference. I admit, it is with a cast of reluctance, as opposed to eagerness, that I burst into people's lives. But I do it, because it is necessary -- in this case, I phoned her get the photo. The interview was because I already had her on the phone. It isn't that I'm not interested. It's that I'm shy, so it's harder for me than it should be.

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    4. Shy in Chi? Wow. After literally decades of tracking down sources and victims and those in the news? I can imagine how hard it must have been at the start of your long career. One might assume your shyness would have decreased with time and experience,and even lead to its opposite...boldness. But one would be incorrect.(Forgive me for starting out with that awful shorthand for Chicago, which is as painful to the ear as "Frisco". I never say it, but to a punster, it fits).

      Once the dialogue started, my shyness and hesitancy would vanish, and it was hard to shut up. My reluctance to be a reporter was caused by my weak stomach. It was the "ick" factor, which I could never overcome. The smashed cars, the dead babies, the bloody crime victims, the bodies burned beyond recognition...I couldn't handle it. There was no way in hell I'd have succeeded as a reporter in Chicago. Even a small town proved to be too much to handle. But you've seen and done things in my hometown that I never could have. Kudos, Neil, and a summa cum laude shout-out to you.

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  3. It's not clear exactly why Publix feels it is necessary to censor writing on a cake. If the process is automated, as it seems to be, and the cake is boxed and sealed, who cares what the clients needs are. It's easy for a clever wag to bypass the censor, there are all manner of foreign phrases with naughty meanings that a customer can request. Publix would require an IBM Watson computer program to achieve their goals. Probably the only useful feature their website could provide would be a red warning by a spell checker app that notes "warning the word 'xxxxx' is normally spelled 'yyyyy', would you like to proceed?"

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    1. In the earliest days of widespread internet use, most sites had word filters. Some were so fine-tuned as to be ridiculous. Not only could you not find a chink in somebody's armor, you couldn't find a crack in it, either. Or shine it up to make it spick and span. Even a wordsmith had to be ingenious and resourceful. It was a lot more fun than seeing asterisks.

      I saw Neil's cake photo even before I knew of the story, and I immediately guessed what had happened. Figured it was some benighted bakery, not a major regional supermarket chain that I've patronized countless times in South Florida. Then the story ran on my local news, and The Late Show on CBS, where Stephen Colbert had one of the best...um...comebacks. "Where does Publix get off? he smirked.

      Cake is food...so here's food for thought. Change the 'short' U sound in "Publix" to a 'long' U sound, and what do you get? And then say the last three letters of the store's name. Oh, the irony...

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    2. Wow Grizz you sure conjure up old memories. That was back in the day even before Jimmy Wales hosted publix websites on his Bomis servers. It looks like you were using America On Line, not very cool, at all. So after reading about how awful AOL was in newsgroups, curious I signed up for the 30 day free trial. A bad ISP if ever there was one. They even blocked a lame website that whined about how AOL was a ripoff because the charged an extra 25 cents for each dialup session. After a few days canceled the free trial. I was not cool enough to reverse the $9.95 charge that appeared on the credit card statement. If only I was a Russian hacker, I'd set the Publix program to randomly print "Publix cakes are known to cause cancer in the State of California"

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    3. Bingo. AOL...starting in '99 and stupidly sticking with it for six long years. Dial-up. Watching the weather radar for storms approaching from the west, which would often knock out service. Interruptions from a short in my basement phone or even when darkness turned the porch light on.

      And there were all those farshtunkener CD-ROMs they gave away in supermarkets, to get new chumps to sign up for Version 6.0 or 7.0 or whatever the hell it was. AOL was a disaster.

      But they weren't the censors....hell, no...it was the mods at message boards run by entertainment sites like A & E, the cable network out of New York, which was also so stingy that they wanted me to pay my own way to the Apple and buy my own food and pay for a hotel, all so that I could appear on a History Channel quiz show. Then they threw in a few meal vouchers for the studio commissary, in order to sweeten the deal. No thanks. I didn't go.

      A & E was the outfit that wouldn't allow the chinks in the armor or the crack in the sidewalk or whops upside the head. AOL didn't filter words on sites. How could they?

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  4. There is an appealing irony that a home schooling Christian family had this incident. It is the repressed religious world view that created this problem in the first place. What someone wants on a cake is their business and their's alone but the religious mindset often imposes an imagined sense of propriety on all of us.

    A local school district once had the parents of home schooled students in two of it's seven board member positions. It turns out the school was too demented with sin for the kids to go there for classes, but since their kids wanted to play sports they massaged the rules so home schooled kids could play football on the public dime.

    Consistency of thought and deed is not a strong point of zealots.

    Still, I got a chuckle out of someone who rejected public education for their kids getting agitated by the very mindset they helped create.

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  5. I don't see Neil as the stereotypical street reporter thrusting a microphone into a person's face, asking absurd questions (How did it feel to see your son going down for the 3rd time? What was your 1st reaction when you were named pedophile of the century? Any last words before you go on the suicide mission?), but shy? I'm shy, less so at 75 than I was at 15, but more so than I was at 5, when the glory of being the 1st born had not yet worn off. If Neil is shy, as he claims, he certainly has heroically conquered that timidity and has boldly struck forth and made his mark in the journalistic world. Bravo!

    john

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  6. It wouldn't take a programming genius to write code that would allow "cum" if followed by "laude". This is just laziness. Better yet, why don't they simply get out of the business of censoring what is written on a cake? Who made them the arbiter of what is acceptable? Maybe folks should get their cakes from other stores.

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  7. Years back my brother graduated from a medical program, and I ended up in charge of the cake. His particular program used the Da Vinci vitruvian man (the one with a man stretched out in a circle, arms and legs in different positions), so I used the picture as a background. Alas, since the drawing is naked, I had to fight the cake censors to get it done. I think I ended up having to go to a Walmart, and got quite a lot of sideways stares from the bakery, I guess they thought it was some kind of gay bachelor cake. TL; DR Humans can be just as stupid as machines.

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  8. Neil: I'm drawing a conclusion from this episode that is somewhat the opposite of yours. You say it shows that technological advances will not "be our taskmaster someday." I say it's an illustration of that very thing.

    Think about it. Even if the cake decorator was unfamiliar with the phrase "summa cum laude," I highly doubt that it would have occurred to this person on his or her own to censor the middle word. But since the computer algorithm said it was obscene, the decorator went along. Yet another example of letting computers do our thinking for us.

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  9. What is really obscene here is a mother pretending that her child who "graduated" from a "Christian home schooling program" deserved to have their achievement described as "Summa Cum Laude."

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    1. Unfair. He was part of some larger home-schooled organization. THEY conferred the designation. Besides, it is my experience that home-schooled students are, outside of their percentages, well-represented in the highest reaches of elite colleges, etc. Live in the fact-based world, not in whatever dim slideshow your personal biases are projecting inside your head.

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