The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

How the McDonalds Monopoly game was rigged

Via Schneier, the head of security for the marketing firm running the game stole the million-dollar game pieces:

[FBI Special Agent Richard] Dent’s investigation had started in 2000, when a mysterious informant called the FBI and claimed that McDonald’s games had been rigged by an insider known as “Uncle Jerry.” The person revealed that “winners” paid Uncle Jerry for stolen game pieces in various ways. The $1 million winners, for example, passed the first $50,000 installment to Uncle Jerry in cash. Sometimes Uncle Jerry would demand cash up front, requiring winners to mortgage their homes to come up with the money. According to the informant, members of one close-knit family in Jacksonville had claimed three $1 million prizes and a Dodge Viper.

When Dent alerted McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, executives were deeply concerned. The company’s top lawyers pledged to help the FBI, and faxed Dent a list of past winners. They explained that their game pieces were produced by a Los Angeles company, Simon Marketing, and printed by Dittler Brothers in Oakwood, Georgia, a firm trusted with printing U.S. mail stamps and lotto scratch-offs. The person in charge of the game pieces was Simon’s director of security, Jerry Jacobson.

Dent thought he had found his man. But after installing a wiretap on Jacobson’s phone, he realized that his tip had led to a super-sized conspiracy. Jacobson was the head of a sprawling network of mobsters, psychics, strip-club owners, convicts, drug traffickers, and even a family of Mormons, who had falsely claimed more than $24 million in cash and prizes.

The longish read is worth the time.

New evidence of the Mayans' fate

Sediment under Lake Chichancanab on the Yucatan Peninsula has offered scientists a clearer view of what happened to the Mayan civilization:

Scientists have several theories about why the collapse happened, including deforestation, overpopulation and extreme drought. New research, published in Science Thursday, focuses on the drought and suggests, for the first time, how extreme it was.

[S]cientists found a 50 percent decrease in annual precipitation over more than 100 years, from 800 to 1,000 A.D. At times, the study shows, the decrease was as much as 70 percent.

The drought was previously known, but this study is the first to quantify the rainfall, relative humidity and evaporation at that time. It's also the first to combine multiple elemental analyses and modeling to determine the climate record during the Mayan civilization demise.

Many theories about the drought triggers exist, but there is no smoking gun some 1,000 years later. The drought coincides with the beginning of the Medieval Warm Period, thought to have been caused by a decrease in volcanic ash in the atmosphere and an increase in solar activity. Previous studies have shown that the Mayans’ deforestation may have also contributed. Deforestation tends to decrease the amount of moisture and destabilize the soil. Additional theories for the cause of the drought include changes to the atmospheric circulation and decline in tropical cyclone frequency, Evans said.

What this research has to do with the early 21st Century I'll leave as an exercise for the reader.

Late afternoon reading

When I get home tonight, I'll need to read these (and so should you):

And now, I'm off to the Art Institute.

American Land Use

Bloomberg published on Monday a super-cool analysis of U.S. land use patterns:

Using surveys, satellite images and categorizations from various government agencies, the U.S. Department of Agriculture divides the U.S. into six major types of land. The data can’t be pinpointed to a city block—each square on the map represents 250,000 acres of land. But piecing the data together state-by-state can give a general sense of how U.S. land is used.

Gathered together, cropland would take up more than a fifth of the 48 contiguous states. Pasture and rangeland would cover most of the Western U.S., and all of the country’s cities and towns would fit neatly in the Northeast.

This is, of course, total Daily Parker bait.

Lunchtime reading

Happy August! (Wait, where did April go?)

As I munch on my salad at my desk today, I'm reading these stories:

And finally, a bit of good news out of Half Moon Bay, Calif. The corporate owner of the local paper told them they had to shut down, so a group of townspeople formed a California benefit corporation to buy the paper out.

Chicago's first opera

On this day in 1850, Chicago had its first (sort-of) professional opera performance. It wasn't exactly up to the Lyric's standards:

In New York, P.T. Barnum was paying Jenny Lind—“The Swedish Nightingale”—$1,000 a night to perform. Chicago’s first opera didn’t have Jenny Lind. But the local promoters were crafty enough to choose one of her biggest hits for their first show, at Rice’s Theatre. The opera was Bellini’s La Sonnambula.

Four singers are not enough for an opera. So the Chicago cast was filled out with local amateurs. A few of them had good voices, most of them didn’t. Rehearsals were—I think “confused” is a good word to describe them.

Just like in one of those bad old Hollywood movies, the show had problems. The audience kept applauding at the wrong time—whenever one of the hometown amateurs showed up on stage, his friends in the audience would stand up and cheer. Meanwhile, one of the extras named J.H. McVicker sang so loudly he drowned out everybody else.

It helps to remember that 18 years after the city's founding, it more resembled a frontier town than the international metropolis it became in the 20th century. Still, it sounds like a fun show.

And then the theater burned down the next day...

Evidence suggests people heard Earhart's distress calls

More data has emerged about Amelia Earhart's final days:

Across the world, a 15-year-old girl listening to the radio in St. Petersburg, Fla., transcribed some of the desperate phrases she heard: “waters high,” “water’s knee deep — let me out”  and “help us quick.”

A housewife in Toronto heard a shorter message, but it was no less dire: “We have taken in water . . . we can’t hold on much longer.”

That harrowing scene, the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) believes, was probably one of the final moments of Earhart’s life. The group put forth the theory in a paper that analyzes radio distress calls heard in the days after Earhart disappeared.

Some of Earhart’s final messages were heard by members of the military and others looking for Earhart, Gillespie said. Others caught the attention of people who just happened to be listening to their radios when they stumbled across random pleas for help.

Almost all of those messages were discounted by the U.S. Navy, which concluded that Earhart’s plane went down somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, then sank to the seabed.

[Research director Ric] Gillespie has been trying to debunk that finding for three decades. He believes that Earhart spent her final days on then-uninhabited Gardner Island. She may have been injured, Noonan was probably worse, but the crash wasn’t the end of them.

Gardner Island, now called Nikumaroro, fits the classic description of a desert island: it's a small atoll with trees and a very long swim to the next nearest land mass. Crashing there might have meant a slow death from dehydration instead of a quick one from impact. We'll never know for sure, but this new data, if accurate, adds some weight to the hypothesis that Earhart crashed on Nikumaroro in 1937.

Unprecedented heat in Northern Europe

London has very few air conditioners compared with North American cities, because the 30°C temperatures they've got right now happen so rarely it hasn't made a lot of sense to install them. But this heat wave is different:

The average July high in Stockholm, for example, is usually 23°C; this week, temperatures will crest 32°C, and there are 21 wildfires currently blazing across Sweden during its worst drought in 74 years. Some municipalities have resorted to sending leaflets to older residents to give them tips on how to manage the heat. Hospitals are shipping in otherwise rarely needed air conditioning units. Swimmers might be tempting to cool off in the city’s many waterways, but hot weather has caused giant algae blooms to appear within the Stockholm Archipelago, making the water unhealthy to swim in.

In the UK, severe dry conditions have also fed wildfires. Earlier this month, a large section of the grassy meadows at Wanstead Flats, on London’s eastern edge, burnt to ash—only to reignite again during another fire yesterday. This summer parts of the London region have received only six percent of their normal rainfall, leaving parks brown and reservoirs dry.

Parts of the UK may hit 36°C later this week, with torrential downpours predicted for Friday—a recipe for flash floods and massive property damage:

Several places have now had 54 consecutive dry days – meaning less than 1mm of rain – stretching back to 30 May, the longest spell since 1969 when 70 days passed with no significant rainfall, according to the Met Office.

The longest run of days with no rain at all this summer is 48 at Brooms Barn, near Bury St Edmunds.

A Met Office spokesman said: “For the UK as a whole we’ve only seen about 20% of the rainfall we’d normally expect throughout the whole summer. Parts of southern England have seen only 6%.”

Several longtime Daily Parker readers live in or are this week visiting the UK. Guys: how bad is it where you are? I'll be in the Big Stink on August 31st to find out for myself. I hope it's not as grim by then.

The intensifying battle against voting

The Republican Party has been stepping up its program of voter suppression in an increasingly-desperate effort to remain in power despite being in the minority. Having hitched its wagon to the older, whiter (i.e., diminishing) part of the electorate, they have few other options, since their policies offend and repel most of the country.

Josh Marshall and TPM Media have started a 10-part series looking at this problem, just as New Republic reports that more voters are being purged from registration rolls than any time in the past decade. Marshall:

In many ways, today’s battles over voter ID, felon disenfranchisement, gerrymandering and more are simply a continuation of a struggle that has been going for more than two centuries, with a clear line of continuity stretching through the battle for voting rights in the Civil Rights Era South. But there are key differences between past battles and those today, ones we can now see coming to the fore in the last years of the 20th century. Restrictions on voting have long been most effective against the young, racial minorities and the poor — constituencies that, increasingly over the last few decades, have voted for Democrats.

[C]hanging demographics created a simple and stark reality. Whereas attacks on voting rights did not used to clearly advantage one party over another, now voting restrictionism clearly advantaged Republicans and disadvantaged Democrats. The 2000 election with its tight margins and county officials peering at dangling chads through magnifying glasses focused Republicans on the importance of every single vote and more ominously how small shifts in the shape of the electorate could have dramatic results. In the late 1990s and early 2000s Republican politics was filled with a growing chorus of claims of “voter fraud,” usually focusing on minority and youth voting, and the need to crack down on voter fraud with new security measures (voter roll purges and voter ID) and increased prosecutions.

The series we are beginning today is made up of ten articles. They will include historical perspective, as well as extensive reporting on the current moment and policy prescriptions for advancing and securing voting rights against a tide that appears everywhere to be flowing against them. We will have pieces on felon disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, history going back to the 19th century and up through recent decades, voter ID laws, automatic voter registration along with numerous related issues. We will also have reporters in the field covering events as they unfold over the next five months. Our goal is to survey the full breadth of this critical topic, examining the history, the current range of threats and opportunities and, to the extent possible, helping readers understand the scope of the issue, its importance and avenues for positive change over the coming years.

The Daily Parker will be following this series with great interest.

You're not wrong, voice-command assistant UIs are horrible

The Nielsen-Norman Group has released recent research on user interactions with intelligent assistants like Alexa and Google Home. The results are not great:

Usability testing finds that both voice-only and screen-based intelligent assistants work well only for very limited, simple queries that have fairly simple, short answers. Users have difficulty with anything else.

Our user research found that current intelligent assistants fail on all 6 questions (5 technologies plus integration), resulting in an overall usability level that’s close to useless for even slightly complex interactions. For simple interactions, the devices do meet the bare minimum usability requirements. Even though it goes against the basic premise of human-centered design, users have to train themselves to understand when an intelligent assistant will be useful and when it’s better to avoid using it.

Our ideology has always been that computers should adapt to humans, not the other way around. The promise of AI is exactly one of high adaptability, but we didn’t see that that when observing actual use. In contrast, observing users struggle with the AI interfaces felt like a return to the dark ages of the 1970s: the need to memorize cryptic commands, oppressive modes, confusing content, inflexible interactions — basically an unpleasant user experience.

Are we being unreasonable? Isn’t it true that AI-based user interfaces have made huge progress in recent years? Yes, current AI products are better than many of the AI research systems of past decades. But the requirements for everyday use by average people are dramatically higher than the requirements for a graduate student demo. The demos we saw at academic conferences 20 years ago were impressive and held great promise for AI-based interactions. The current products are better, and yet don’t fulfill the promise.

We're not up to HAL or Her yet, in other words, but we're making progress.

The whole article is worth a read.