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Five Lessons in Punctuation

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This week we're joined by a special guest blogger. Patricia T. O'Conner, a former editor at The New York Times Book Review, is the author of the national best-seller Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, as well as other books about language. She is a regular monthly guest on public radio station WNYC in New York. Learn more at her website, Make her feel welcome!

For sheer readability, few things make as much difference as proper punctuation. These examples from You Send Me, a book I wrote with my husband, show how much difference punctuation can make:

"Who got fired, Stacey?" said the director.

Who got fired? Stacey, said the director.

Who got fired? Stacey said the director.

See what I mean? Now I can't tell you in a few paragraphs all you need to know about punctuation. But I can hit the high spots, the problems that come up most often.

1. The Indispensable Comma

The word "comma" comes from a Greek word meaning "to cut off," and that's what commas do. They cut sentences into pieces, organizing words into meaningful groups. Sometimes, the organization can make a big difference! Check out these sentences: (1) Jack said Harry wrecked the car. (2) Jack, said Harry, wrecked the car.

Here's some comma-sense advice:

"¢ Use commas and a connecting word (like and or but) to separate clauses—groups of words with both a subject and a verb. John had forgotten her birthday five times in a row, but Gloria thought this year would be different.

"¢ Use commas between items in a list: Gloria was hoping for dinner, dancing, and flowers. She was furious that John hadn't made a dinner reservation, called the florist, or even bought a card.

"¢ Use commas before or after a quotation: Gloria said, "I might have known." "I'll make it up to you," John promised. But don't use a comma after a quotation that's a question or exclamation: "Why not kiss and make up?" John asked.

"¢ Use commas before or after the name of someone you're addressing: "Gloria, you're over-reacting," he said. "Maybe you're right, John," she answered.

"¢ Use a comma after an introductory remark if you want to emphasize the pause: Fortunately, the argument was soon over. Before long, they were cuddling on the couch.

"¢ Use commas around an aside, as you might use dashes or parentheses: He dialed Chez Panisse, their favorite restaurant, and managed to wangle a reservation.

"¢ Use commas around a clause that interrupts a sentence to insert a thought. These interruptions often begin with which, where, who, or when: They arrived at Chez Panisse, which was half an hour away, at ten. The waiter, who knew John and Gloria, joined them in a toast. (But don't use a comma if there's no interruption: John knew which wine was which. Gloria knew when she was ahead.)

2. The Underused Semicolon

The semicolon may be the most unappreciated and underused punctuation mark. If you find semicolons intimidating, relax. They're great for tidying up a series of items with commas inside them. Imagine how hard it would be to read this sentence if only commas were used: Jack willed his house to Jill, his best friend; his collection of lederhosen to his neighbors, Hans and Franz; and his dog, Tige, to a friend, Buster.

Semicolons are also handy for joining chunks of a sentence that could stand alone. A comma by itself isn't enough to hold together clauses like these: Jack broke his crown, Jill wasn't seriously injured. (This is sometimes called a run-on sentence.) Unless you want to add a connecting word, use a semicolon: Jack broke his crown; Jill wasn't seriously injured.

3. Chatty Quotation Marks

The trick with quotation marks is at the end of the quote. Does punctuation that follows the quoted material (period, comma, question mark, or whatever) go inside or outside the closing quotation marks? Here are the ins and the outs.

"¢ Periods go inside. "I think I'm getting the flu."
"¢ Commas go inside. "I probably caught it at work," he added.
"¢ Colons go outside. Elizabeth didn't like being called "Liz": it was so predictable.
"¢ Semicolons go outside. Don't play "My Funny Valentine"; she hates it.
"¢ Question marks and exclamation points are sometimes inside and sometimes outside. In most cases, they go inside the quotation marks: "What's your name, sweetie?" said the cashier. "It's not sweetie!" shouted the child. But question marks and exclamation points must go outside if they're not part of the actual quotation. Have you seen the film version of Gray's "Elegy"? Good heavens, I didn't even know they'd filmed Gray's "Elegy"!

"¢ Parentheses go outside quotation marks if the entire quote is parenthetical: Mom had the deciding vote ("I said no"). Parentheses go inside the quotation marks if only part of the quote is parenthetical. She added, "Next time, ask me first (if there is a next time)."

4. The Much-Abused Apostrophe

As someone with an apostrophe in her name, I hate to see this punctuation mark mistreated. Here's how it ought to be used.

Possessives. Apostrophes help show who owns what. To make a noun possessive, add either an apostrophe with the letter s ('s ) or just the apostrophe alone, depending on the circumstances. The rules come in threes:

1. Add 's to a singular word or name, regardless of its ending. (Yes, even if it ends in s or x or z—whether sounded or silent.) Ms. Jones's favorite pastime is reading Camus's essays and collecting Degas's etchings. Her dog's name is Rex, and Rex's meals come from Paris's finest restaurants. Her dress's fabric is bamboo and her husband's shirts are Egyptian cotton. "It was Jacques's idea to live in France," she said, "after we declared bankruptcy in the States."

2. Add 's to a plural word that doesn't end in s. The children's shoes cost almost as much as the men's and the women's. My feet's bunions are killing me.

3. Add just the apostrophe to a plural word or name that ends in s. The Joneses' and the Smiths' and the Gonzalezes' houses were vandalized, and their cars' tires were slashed as well. The houses' windows were broken too. NOTE: When you need a comma or a period after a possessive word that ends with an apostrophe, the comma or period goes after the apostrophe and not in front of it: The idea was the girls', or maybe the boys', but at any rate the responsibility was their parents'.

Contractions. An apostrophe shows where letters have been dropped in a shortened word or phrase. For example, shouldn't is short for "should not"; the apostrophe replaces the o in "not." And I'll is short for "I will"; the apostrophe is a polite nod to the dropped letters. You can't say I didn't warn you.

Some unusual plurals. No, you DON'T add 's to a word or a name to make it plural! You can, however, add 's to form the plural of an individual letter. This makes for easier reading, and many stylebooks recommend it. At Swarthmore, Libbi got B's and C's and started spelling her name with two i's.

5. The Helpful Hyphen

Look what a difference a hyphen can make: The stolen sofa was recovered. Or, The stolen sofa was re-covered. Don't underestimate this handy punctuation mark. If in doubt about using a hyphen with a prefix, look it up.

When two words are combined to describe a noun, we sometimes use a hyphen between them. Generally if the compound follows the noun, it doesn't get a hyphen: That duck is water resistant. But if the compound comes before the noun, it usually gets a hyphen: That's a water-resistant duck. (And don't ask why a duck.)

Yesterday: Five Lessons in Grammar. Tuesday: Debunking Etymological Myths. Monday: Debunking Grammar Myths. Coming tomorrow: Pat will be answering your grammar questions. You can ask said questions in the comments.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]