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Is the Adverb Dying?

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For more than a century, a war has been waged against adverbs by advocates of good writing, by the likes of such literary luminaries as Mark Twain, who said --

I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me "¦ There are subtleties which I cannot master at all -- they confuse me, they mean absolutely nothing to me -- and this adverb plague is one of them.

-- and modern scribes like Elmore Leonard, who cautions that only rank amateurs would dare modify the word "say" with an adverb:

To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs."

But to some grammarians, there's another war on against the adverb -- a corporate war. For the last fifteen years or so, sloganeers have seemed almost to take joy in whacking the -ly from the end of words that modify verbs, littering our cultural landscape with amputated-sounding phrases like:

and rather more famously:

ThinkDifferent

There's even a publication -- and one might argue that any publication must at least nominally be devoted to the discipline of language -- that employs this same lamentable technique:

shopsmart

Lord, lord lord. It annoys me to no end. I am fairly assaulted with it every time I go into the Subway sandwich joint down the street, where the management has instructed its employees to shout its new slogan at anyone who comes through the door:

"Welcome to Subway!" the woman behind the register will say, and then, in an almost military call-and-response fashion, all the sandwich artists cry, "EAT FRESH!" And though their loud voices try and communicate enthusiasm, a genuine desire for you to eat fresh, their dead eyes betray a desperation, worsened with each repetition, to add an -ly.

Yeah, eat freshly sounds weird and would make a crappy slogan. But it's correct, isn't it?

Yes, but according to grammarians who know, like the late, great William Safire, "eat fresh" isn't necessarily wrong, either. They claim that it's something called a "flat adverb," and is perfectly acceptable. From an article by Boston Globe writer Jan Freeman:

Adverb is as adverb does; according to the streamlined definition from ``A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage" (1957), ``A qualifying word that is not qualifying a noun is an adverb." ``Eat healthy" isn't missing an adverb; it just happens to have borrowed healthy, the adjective form, to serve in place of healthily or healthfully. That doesn't make healthy an adjective, though; it's the job, not the uniform, that counts.

So the adverb is not fading away; it's just going about more often in the style H.L. Mencken called ``bob-tailed" and grammarians call ``flat," or uninflected.

Fine. But it still makes my freaking skin crawl.

Anyone else want to ban the flat adverb?

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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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