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How Do Companies Get Their Stock Symbols?

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A company does a lot to protect its brand. It market-tests new logos, focus-groups slogans, and runs every new product name through a hundred different tests to make sure that it stays in line with the company's image. Part of that brand is a company's stock symbol. A company's stock symbol can be as simple as a single letter, can be representative of an ideal, or can celebrate a favorite product. But in most cases, it's a vaguely recognizable collection of characters used for the sake of utility. "¨"¨

Where to List Yourself"¨"¨

The first question that a company asks is not what it wants its stock symbol to be, but rather where. The three major exchanges in the United States are the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), American Stock Exchange (AMEX), and the National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations (NASDAQ). Each exchange has its own listing requirements and costs. By far, the NYSE has the most stringent listing requirements, insisting that its listed companies have at least $100 million in capitalization and that their stock prices start above $4 per share.

The NASDAQ has slightly lighter requirements and thereby became the preferred exchange for new companies and start-ups. The AMEX was recently bought out by the NYSE but still lists companies independently with much lower stock prices and market caps.

How Many Letters Do You Want?

Traditionally, stocks listed on the NYSE and AMEX could only contain one, two or three letters, while companies listed on the NASDAQ always had four letters to their symbol.  In 2007, however, this rule changed to allow companies to move freely from the NYSE to the NASDAQ. Prior to 2007, a company like E*TRADE Financial had to change its symbol when it moved, going from ET on the NYSE, to its current symbol of ETFC on the NASDAQ. After 2007, a company like Computer Associates (CA) was able to move seamlessly from NYSE to NASDAQ without making a change.

The Power of One

You'd think that the one-letter symbols would be the most highly sought after. Really, what company wouldn't jump at the chance to have a sexy, single-letter symbol summing up its whole financial being? Apparently, one-letter symbols aren't all that exciting anymore. Yet they used to be all the rage.

Just following the Civil War, Thomas Edison invented the ticker tape machine, which sped news about stock transactions all over the country. To speed up transmissions, some of the most frequently traded companies were given single letter abbreviations -- "A" for the Atchison-Topeka-Santa Fe Railroad, "X" for US Steel. 

These days, some of the older companies treasure their single-letter status -- AT&T (T), Sprint Nextel (S), Kellogg (K), and Ford (F) -- yet there are a surprising number of letters open, specifically H, I, J, P, U, W, and Z. Come on entrepreneurs, name your new company Harry's Hot Dogs or Willy's Wieners and snatch up one of these iconic symbols.

Sometimes You Change the Symbol, Sometimes the Symbol Changes You

Choosing the right symbol can be a tricky business. Some are no-brainers -- General Motors (GM), General Electric (GE), Home Depot (HD) -- while others go for a more clever approach.  Before being bought out by the Belgians, Anheiser-Busch went by "BUD." Brinker Intl., franchisers of Chili's and Macaroni Grill restaurants has the coveted "EAT" symbol. Dreyfus, whose mascot is the lion, uses the "LEO" symbol for one of its closed-end funds.
 
yum.jpgOne of the most interesting symbols out there is "YUM." In 2002 Tricon Global Inc., a company with a most nefarious sounding name, was one of the largest restaurateurs in the world. Tricon owned KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. However, the name "Tricon Global Inc." didn't exactly conjure up thoughts of finger-licking, carefully prepared food.  Rather, the name sounded like some faceless, evil corporate conglomerate that would consume the children of its competitors and have a dungeon below its corporate headquarters. To seem a little more warm and fuzzy, Tricon changed the company name to Yum! Brands, echoing the down-home, good-time, string-tie-and-white-suit image that they were trying to project.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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