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The Bodacious Letter B

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Always a bridesmaid and never a bride, B is the also-ran, the second best, the afterthought, the sidekick to the alphaletter A. When things fall apart, we go to Plan B; we’ll watch B-movies with B-list actors on basic cable if we can’t fall asleep; we’ll pass on grade-B meats and eggs and B-rated bonds.

Despite its second banana billing, B has shown some incredible staying power.  The oldest B appears, like A, in one of the earliest known alphabet inscriptions, discovered in central Egypt and dating to around 1800 BCE. As the early alphabet crept out of Egypt and into the surrounding areas, B was prominent in the different variations that popped up in different cultures, most notably in the Phoenician alphabet, which our alphabet and most other modern ones are ultimately descended from.

Our House

Like the other Phoenician letters, the ancient B was probably adapted from an Egyptian glyph and named for a familiar object, in this case, bayt or beth, meaning “house.” Its shape was very similar to the Egyptian “reed shelter” hieroglyph, but simplified for writing with an ink brush. It wound up looking sort of like a lowercase g.

It was the first consonant in the alphabet and represented the same sound then that it does today—what linguists call a voiced bilabial stop (that is, the sound uses the vocal cords, is formed by both lips, and involves the stopping of air through the nose). It’s one of the easier letter sounds to make, because it doesn’t require the use of the tongue or teeth, and can be heard very early on when kids first start to speak. Spend more than a few minutes with a baby and the conversation will inevitably turn to “buh buh bah buh buah.”

The bayt was borrowed and adapted by the Phoenicians’ neighbors, including the Jews and the Greeks. In modern Hebrew, the letter is called beth, and it still has the same sound, place in line, and meaning. The only thing that really changed was its shape. The Hebrew letter symbol can represent two different sounds, a B sound or a V one, that are distinguished by the appearance or absence of a dot called a dagesh in the center of the letter.

Beta Version

The Greeks also kept bayt in the same place and used it for the same sound, but changed its name by adding a Greek-style ending and turning it into beta. With the name change, the letter lost the “house,” and all other meaning; beta had no significance beyond denoting the letter. The shape was also changed, and a second loop was added at the bottom, making it look like a backwards modern B. Around 600 BCE, they flipped the letter, so it looked more like the symbol we know today. Beta lives on in modern English, particularly in scientific and technical language, where usually denotes weaker, later, or more refined versions of alpha-designated objects.

The Greeks loaned their alphabet to the Etruscans, an Italian tribe, sometime in the 700s BCE. They then passed it on to the Latins (early Romans), who, in turn, passed it on to almost everyone they conquered in Europe. The Etruscans might have shortened—and the Romans most certainly did shorten—beta’s name to something like bee or bay. The Anglo Saxons and then the English kept calling it bay until pronunciations started shifting between the 1300s and 1600s CE, though some other European languages still call it bay.

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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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