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Niche Blogs: The English Language

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There are many, many blogs dedicated to the use of the English language. Some are fairly comprehensive; others are tightly focused on one aspect of language usage that should be corrected, protected, or mocked. Here is a sampling of those blogs for your enjoyment.

Punctuation

Apostrophe Abuse and Apostrophe Catastrophes give us examples of apostrophes that shouldn't be there, and some cases where they should be but aren't. The picture above, from Apostrophe Abuse, makes mistakes in both apostrophe and quotation mark use.

Then there's the "blog" of "unnecessary" quotation marks, which never runs short of material, since it seems memo, ad, and sign makers adore putting quote marks around seemingly random words.

Lower Case l looks at words in which all the letters are capitalized except the L, which happens a lot more than you'd expect.

Print

The tagline at Criggo says "Newspapers are going away. That's too bad." This refers to the entertainment value of the weird things that make it to print because of a deadline rush, miscommunication, or lack of editing. Probably Bad News also collects news items that use odd or confusing language and misprints, but includes internet and television news as well as newspapers.

Say What?! documents signs that make you look twice because of misprints, poor grammar or spelling, confusing syntax, and/or double entendres.

Published mistakes are on the internet are commonplace (especially in my posts), but they are usually corrected as soon as they are noticed. Rest assured there is no shortage of people waiting to point out such mistakes. The fluid nature of internet publishing makes these everyday mistakes hard to blog about. However, internet automation lends itself to a special brand of language comedy. Autocomplete Me publishes screenshots of the Google search feature that suggests what you might be searching for based on previously used search terms that contain the first letters or words you type. You have to wonder about those other searchers. The blog also accepts screenshots from other sources, like Bing and Captcha.

Bad Writing

[Citation Needed] does nothing but repost weird, grammatically wrong, or confusing sentences from Wikipedia.

Writing Advice

The Subversive Copy Editor has advice for writers and for those poor souls who have to deal with them. Other blogs featuring writing advice include Grammar Monkeys and Copyediting. A subcategory of language blogs focus on the misuse or overuse of a particular phrase. The Rosa Parks of Blogs collects examples of "Absurd Comparisons By Real People Using Famous People". Literally, A Web Log tracks the abuse of the word "literally", which is overused and usually misused. You'll find more cliches and examples of bad writing in the blogs It's Your Damned Language and Terribly Write.

Words

Dictionary Evangelist is one of many blogs devoted to words. Another is Wordlustitude, "a dictionary of rare, raw, real words" collects examples of made up terms in publications and defines those odd words. An example is employer-icide, meaning probably just what you think, used in a blurb for an upcoming movie. Other examples include thingy-majiggy-bobdoohicky-thang-thang and geekphoric.

Language as Art

Josh Millard turned a little idea into a flier which turned into a meme and then into a blog called Useless Fliers. Other people are now putting useless fliers up in far-flung places.

Letterheady from Shaun Usher brings us letterheads that are worth a look because of who they come from, great design, and for the fact that some people still write letters on paper. Letterheady is a companion blog to Letters of Note, where you'll find interesting letters of all kinds that deserve to be recorded for posterity. The Ampersand is a photo blog dedicated entirely to instances of ampersands spotted all over.

These are just a few of the many blogs dedicated to the English language. If you know of more, please share them in the comments.

See also: A Sampling of Niche Blogs, Niche Blogs: Awesome Animals Edition, Niche Blogs: Focused on Food, and Niche Blogs: Found Photos Edition.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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