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Why QWERTY?

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You spend hours with it each day. Your fingertips know it intimately. But how familiar are you with your keyboard's history?

When was the typewriter invented?

The first recorded patent for a typewriting machine was filed by a British engineer, Henry Mill, in 1714. It seems that Mr. Mill was more of a thinker than a doer, though, as there’s no evidence that the machine was ever built. The real history of the modern (QWERTY) keyboard begins in 1867, when American newspaper editor and printer Christopher Sholes built the first actual Type-Writer – in fact, that was the patented name of the invention.

What was the state of the art writing implement before the typewriter?

The quill.

That’s only a slight exaggeration. Since Gutenberg’s 15th-century invention of the printing press, not much had changed in the field of writing and printing. A portable pen that contained its own ink supply was not perfected until later in the 19th century, so the quill was still the standard writing implement when Sholes introduced his machine. In fact, Union Officers during the Civil War were issued 12 quills per quarter as part of their stationery ration.

Who came up with the QWERTY layout?

Christopher Sholes was primarily responsible for QWERTY, but it took years of tinkering to arrive at the layout we know today. The first model that Sholes built mimicked a piano keyboard, with the letters placed alphabetically. By the time the machines began to be mass-produced in the 1870s, the QWERTY keyboard was almost identical to the one in front of you.

What is the connection between QWERTY and the Civil War?

Gun manufacturer E. Remington and Sons had made a fortune selling arms during the war, and the company was branching out into the mass production of peace-time inventions like the sewing machine. Remington bought the manufacturing rights for Sholes’ Type-Writer in 1873 and began mass producing the QWERTY machines the following year. Until 1881, Remingtons were the only typewriters commercially available, giving the QWERTY layout a head start on any would be competing layouts.

Is there any proof that QWERTY is the optimal keyboard arrangement?

Not a shred. In fact, all evidence points to QWERTY being terribly inefficient. The most accessible row of the keyboard is the second, or ‘home’ row. So it would make sense if the most commonly used letters in the English language were there, right? But that’s not how QWERTY rolls. About 70% of words in English can be typed with the letters DHIATENSOR, yet only 4 of those 10 letters fall on QWERTY’s home row. The letter A falls on the home row (the only vowel to do so), but it must be struck with what is for most typists the weakest finger — the left pinky.

So why did Sholes create such an awkward layout?

To slow down fast typists. Sounds ridiculous, right? But that's the consensus among historians. On earlier arrangements of the keys, ones where the most commonly used letters were more sensibly placed on the home row, typists could get on a real roll, even when using the hunt and peck method. The problem with that? With all the popular letters close together, the keys got jammed. The typist had to stop to un-jam them. What made that worse was that in the earliest models of the typewriter, the keys struck the back of the paper, so the typist was unable to see jams — and the resulting mistakes — until the page was removed from the machine. Slowing the typist down a bit by dispersing the most commonly used letters all over the keyboard was preferable to wasting even more time because of jammed keys.

Does the QWERTY keyboard favor right handed typists?

Nope. In fact, it heavily favors left-handed typists. A total of 300 English words can be typed by the right hand alone. By contrast, 3000 English words can be typed with the left. While that's good for left-handed people (10% of the population), it contributes to the inefficiency of QWERTY keyboard for the majority.

Was there ever an alternative keyboard arrangement?

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
There have been several. The most successful has proven to be the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard (DSK). August Dvorak, cousin of the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, was a professor of education in 1932 when he introduced his alternative to QWERTY. In 1914, Dvorak had been inspired by the work of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, a married couple who were pioneers in the field of workplace efficiency. After almost two decades of study and experimentation, Dvorak patented the DSK.

So why don’t we use the Dvorak keyboard, then?

Same reason we don’t use the metric system. We embrace its inefficiency and prefer it to the pain of switching to something better. By the time the DSK was introduced in 1932, several generations of typists had been using QWERTY. It was by far the most readily available layout, and the one that was taught in most typing schools. So even after technological advances solved the key jamming issue, we kept the relic of the problem – the QWERTY keyboard.

[NOTE: See the comment from Nancy below about the DSK vs. QWERTY argument.]

Just throwing this out there: Do Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt have anything to do with QWERTY?

Tangentially, yes. Remember the Gilbreths, the couple who inspired Dvorak to create his keyboard? Their family was the subject of the book Cheaper by the Dozen, a film version of which Martin and Hunt starred in decades later.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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iStock

Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]

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