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The Quick 10: 10 Facts About Pittsburgh (or is it Pittsburg?)

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As I mentioned last week, the actual Super Bowl game isn't really my thing. If you're in the same boat as I am, but still want to compete when people are spouting off obscure stats and trivia, try tossing in a little, "Yeah, Roethlisberger is great. Did you know the smiley face emoticon was invented in Pittsburgh?"

1. Pittsburg, Pittsburgh or Pittsbourgh? The town was named in 1758 by Scotsman John Forbes, who was honoring William Pitt the Elder. Forbes sent a letter to Pitt the same year to let him know that the city had been named for him, and in the letter he spelled it "Pittsbourgh." Most experts agree that as a Scotsman, Forbes probably pronounced it the same way we pronounce Edinburgh. It wasn't until 1769 that the "Pittsburgh" spelling first turned up on a surveying document, but the real controversy came with the 1891 United States Board on Geographic Names ruling that all towns with the spelling "burgh" needed to drop the "h." Many people were outraged at the decision and refused to follow the rules, even the Pittsburgh Gazette, the University of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Stock Exchange. In 1911, the Geographic Board gave in and officially restored the "h" that was never really missing for most people anyway.

2. San Francisco may be own for its hills, but Pittsburgh has it beat when it comes to verticality. In fact, Pittsburgh has more vertical feet than San Fran, Cincinnati and Portland, Oregon, combined. There are more than 700 sets of stairs in the city.


3. Pittsburgh dialect is so distinct, some locals who speak Pittsburghese have their own name: Yinzers. From what I understand, "Yinz" is kind of like "ya'll." Some examples of Pittsburghese:
City Chicken = pork or veal cubes on a wooden skewer.
Crudded milk = cottage cheese
Gum band = rubber band
Red up = clean up or tidy up

Any others we should know about?

4. You might not know WQED, the PBS station in the 'Burgh… but you definitely know a couple of the shows it has produced. It's where Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego were both born. Michael Keaton (then Michael Douglas) was working as a cameraman for WQED when he got to appear on screen in a couple of shows, including as a "Flying Zucchini Brother" on Mister Rogers.

5. You know this guy - :-) Love him or hate him, the Pittsburgh-originated smiley emoticon has been invading your computer screen since the early '80s, when Carnegie Mellon computer scientist Scott Fahlman came up with him. This was his original post on the Carnegie Mellon message board:

19-Sep-82 11:44 Scott E Fahlman :-)
From: Scott E Fahlman

I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:

:-)

Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark
things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use :-(

6. Many filmmakers feel a certain tie to the Pittsburgh area, but perhaps none as much as George Romero, "Grandfather of the Zombie." Romero has filmed the majority of his Living Dead movies in Pittsburgh or the area. Much of Night of the Living Dead was filmed in or near Evans City, Pennsylvania, just 30 miles north of the Steel City. Dawn of the Dead was shot in Pittsburgh and Monroeville, a suburb. The city takes pride in its association with the undead, hyping it up with Zombie Walks (they held the Guinness World Record for a while), Zombie Fest and a local horror T.V. show called The It's Alive Show.

7. Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun. That jingle never would have existed if it wasn't for 'Burgh area-resident Jim Delligatti. He operated several McDs in the area; when the Big Mac was a big smash at his Unionville location, it was tested at three Pittsburgh locations before it went national in 1967.


8. Actress Sienna Miller outraged the fine residents when she called their city "Shitsburgh" after spending time filming 2008's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh there. She later backtracked and explained that she wasn't happy about the all-night filming schedule, even though her comments to Rolling Stone seemed pretty clear: “Can you believe this is my life? Will you pity me when you’re back in your funky New York apartment and I’m still in Pittsburgh? I need to get more glamorous films and stop with my indie year." The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette put it this way in a headline: "Semi-famous actress dumps on the 'Burgh."

9. Pittsburgh may have a reputation as a polluted, industrial town, but much has changed since that reputation was earned in the early-to-mid 1900s. In fact, the city has the most certified "green" buildings in the U.S.

10. You can get all the way from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. - that's 245 miles - via a bike and running trail called the Great Allegheny Passage and Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath trail. Should you feel compelled to try it, you'll pass landmarks like Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, one of two surviving cast-iron truss bridges in all of North America, an abandoned railway tunnel called the Big Savage Tunnel, Antietam Battlefield, Harpers Ferry, and Georgetown University. Sounds like a pretty sweet trip to me.

Pittsburgers, help us out - what other fabulous facts do we need to know about your town? And Green Bay residents, don't worry - I've got facts up my sleeve for your town later this week.

I'm on Twitter if you have Q10 requests or care to discuss what the proper name for Green Bay residents is (Green Bayans? Green Bayonets? Just plain Cheeseheads?).

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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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