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Creatively Speaking: June Casagrande

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0143113321.jpgYou might recall my post on June Casagrande's first book, Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies. Well, she's back with a new book, Mortal Syntax 101 (Language Choices that Will Get You Clobbered by the Grammar Snobs Even if You're Right) and on Friday we'll be giving away 3 copies of it! But first, check out my interview with June below and discover the one grammar rule she's itching to change, and a whole lot more.

DI: We know whose side of the language snob war you're on, but still, there must be a couple offenses that really get your grammar goat. Lay 'em on us.

JC: I hate confessing this stuff. But you got me: I cringe when I hear "between you and I," mostly because people instinctively know better but are overcompensating for their grammar insecurities. We all know to say "between us" instead of "between we," but with these "and I" constructions, suddenly we start hearing a mom voice in our heads and we panic. Then, despite our instinctive understanding that an object form like "me" is called for after a preposition, we goof up and say "between you and I."

I also get a taste of bile from "there's" used before a plural. Technically, you can get away with this. The "Oxford English Grammar," for example, sanctions it. But I was taught to use "there are" before a plural, so it's hard to stomach "There's some people I want you to meet."

DI: How much has the success of Lynne Truss' Eats, Shoots & Leaves changed the language landscape? Or has it always been cool to kibitz about grammar?

JC: Lynne Truss did a good thing: She gave voice to all the people who were frustrated with a world full of misplaced apostrophes. It's a valid frustration. The problem is that, given the slightest bit of encouragement, these types can go too far. Way too far. So criticizing something like "carrot's" on a sign becomes a slippery slope into a valley of bullying and misinformation: a place where people run around making others feel dumb for ending sentences with prepositions, for using the word "nauseous" to mean "queasy" and for starting sentences with the word "hopefully" -- all of which are completely grammatical and acceptable. A pathetic brand of power-drunkenness if ever there was one.

DI: With technology making such an impact on words and language, can you imagine a day in the not-so-distant future when there are practically no rules governing its use?

JC: I can indeed imagine a world in which there are practically no rules governing the use of language. Ever read Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" or Stephen King's "The Stand"? Show me a scorched earth on which people are eating each other and I'll show you a world in which grammar rules have gone the way of the salad fork. But as long as we continue to be a society, we'll continue to conform to some standards of communication. In fact, Noam Chomsky has hypothesized that this stuff is innate -- hard-wired. I'm not qualified to weigh in on his theories. All I know is that grammar arose if not out of nature out of necessity. And every BFF knows you'll get a funny look if you call someone your FFB.

People worried that language standards are going to hell in a handbasket need to chillax.

DI: English is spoken the world over now. How much has the global-village influenced grammar?

JC: I don't know. I'm too busy worrying which I should learn first: Mandarin or Cantonese. (Brace yourself, world.)

DI: Have you ever coined a word? If so, what?

JC: I have indeed tried to coin words. Here's how successful I was: Not even I remember what they were.

DI: If you could change any existing grammar rule, what would it be?

JC: I would write a clear, unimpeachable and enforceable-by-federal-law definition of the prefix "-bi" as applied to words like "weekly." It would mean "every two." "-Semi," on the other hand, would mean "every half." Currently, that's not the case. "Biweekly" can mean either every two weeks or twice a week. Yes, really. Quoth "Word Court" columnist and "Atlantic Monthly" editor Barbara Wallraff: "-Bi is useless for making clear a rate of occurrence." Not if I had my way, it wouldn't be.

DI: How can our readers be in touch with you if they have grammar-related questions? Do you keep up an online presence?

JC: I welcome grammar questions of all kinds, including ones that begin with, "Some idiot in my office is betting me $20 that "¦" Send 'em to (which I check infrequently but eventually). I also have a website and a blog at and a weekly grammar column at (enter search term "Casagrande").

Browse through past Creatively Speaking posts here >>

Shhh...super secret special for blog readers.

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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]