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Why Do Some Clocks Use Roman Numeral IIII?

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Readers Georgia and Gecko are both curious about clocks. Georgia wrote in to ask, "Why is it that some analog clocks with Roman numerals have '4' as 'IV,' while others use 'IIII'? Has there always been a choice, or is it an overlooked error that's been replicated? This has been driving me crazy for a long time, but I can't figure it out myself."

Unfortunately, this is one of those questions where no one seems to have a definitive answer, and probably no one ever will. What we do have is a handful of competing theories, some with plenty of holes and others that might just be true. You'll just have to pick the one that sounds best to you and roll with it.

"¢ Once upon a time, when Roman numerals were used by the actual Roman Empire, the name of the Romans' supreme deity, Jupiter, was spelled as IVPPITER in Latin. Hesitant to put part of the god's name on a sundial or in accounting books, IIII became the preferred representation of four. Of course, IVPPITER wasn't being worshipped much by the time clocks and watches replaced sundials, but clockmakers may have stuck with IIII just for the sake of tradition.

"¢ In another blow to the Jupiter theory, subtractive notation "“ where IV, instead of IIII, represents four "“ didn't become the standard until well after the fall of the Western Roman Empire (and the numerals we use now are an even more modern set). It's likely, then, that IIII was used on sundials (and everywhere else) simply because that was the proper numeral to use at the time, and not for fear of divine retribution.


"¢ Once subtractive notation came onto the scene and a choice was available, to V or not to V became a question every clockmaker had to answer for themselves. Some adopted the newfangled IV because it was the new standard, but others hung on to the traditional IIII.


"¢ IIII might have stuck around because it's easily recognizable as four. IV involves a little math. Yes, it's just one simple subtraction operation, but keep in mind that when subtractive notation really caught on in the Middle Ages, the majority of people weren't literate or numerate. Subtraction was a lot to wrap the head around. On top of that, IV and VI might have been easily confused by the uneducated (likewise with IX and XI, which is why nine was sometimes represented by VIIII).

"¢ Using IIII may have also made work a little easier for certain clock makers. If you're making a clock where the numerals are cut from metal and affixed to the face, using IIII means you'll need twenty I's, four V's, and four X's. That's one mold with a V, five I's, and an X cast four times. With an IV, you'd need seventeen I's, five V's, and four X's, requiring several molds in different configurations.

"¢ King Louis XIV of France supposedly preferred IIII over IV, perhaps for the same vain reasons Jupiter wouldn't want two letters from his name on a sundial, and so ordered his clockmakers to use the former. Some later clockmakers followed the tradition, and others didn't. The problems here are that this story is told in connection with many other monarchs, and IIII was used also in areas where there was no king with an IV in his title to object to the subtractive notation.

"¢ One more reason to use IIII is that it creates more visual symmetry with the VIII opposite it on the clock face than IV does. Using IIII also means that only I is seen the first four hour markings on the, V is only seen in the next four markings, and X is seen only in the last four markings, creating radial symmetry. As we learned last year when pondering why display clocks are often set to 10:10, symmetry goes a long way in the clock world.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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]

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