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The Blogger Abides: Words and Phrases I've Misused

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Have you ever wondered what it's like to interview famous people who are intimidatingly awesome and/or rude? Have you asked yourself, "Do bloggers wear pants?" Have you mused aloud, "How can I write words, using a computing device, for small quantities of money?" I thought so. Read on for an excerpt from the book -- this is from Frequent Offenders, which is chapter seventy-seven (I'm not kidding) in
my new opus.

Frequent Offenders

Here’s a list of words and phrases that are problematic and/or commonly misused. I hope these explanations save you from embarrassing yourself someday.

Alot

“A lot” is two words. If you write “alot” you are either misspelling “allot” (synonym: allocate) or you’re about to get kicked out of Professional Writer Club. (See also: the Alot, Allie Brosh’s imaginary creature/)

Could Care Less

A lot of people say “I could care less” when they mean “I couldn’t care less.” Think about it. Think really hard. Then start saying “couldn’t,” unless you don’t care about sounding like a doofus. (Practical note: commenters will nail you on this one, and there is no defensible case for the “incorrect” form. So, really, this one is a slam-dunk.)

Baited Breath

Imagine my surprise when I wrote a sentence like, “I’ve been waiting for the new Neal Stephenson book with baited breath,” and commenters dryly informed me that the correct spelling is “bated.” Look it up. It’s “bated breath.” Who knew? (I didn’t.)

Moot

The word “moot” is deeply problematic: part of the world thinks it means “open to debate,” the rest of the world thinks it means “not worth debating.” There is no proper way around this, so I suggest you try to stop using this word, if you intend to write for a broad audience. I wrote a post about it entitled The Meaning of the Word “Moot” is Moot. People still argued with me.

Graduated High School

You graduated from high school. You did not “graduate high school.” (Or college. Or clown college. Or whatever.) Use the “from,” otherwise people will rip you a new one.

Needs Fixed

This colloquialism (omitting “to be” in the middle of a statement) is controversial because part of the English-speaking world thinks it’s perfectly fine vernacular (which could mean it’s part of using your voice), and the other half is baffled about why you’re omitting a seemingly crucial verb. I never encountered this construction until I moved to the west coast, though I gather it’s a regional thing in many places. Anyway, I’d suggest you include all relevant verbs in your writing to avoid confusion.

Tough Road to Hoe

A lot of idioms don’t seem to make sense, particularly if you (like me) never really heard them right, and just said what you thought you heard. It’s “a tough row to hoe,” not “a tough road to hoe.” Hoeing a row is something you do in a garden. With a hoe. It’s tough. You don’t hoe a road. I think maybe I thought it was “a tough road a-ho” for a while, which also seems to mean nothing (unless perhaps that’s short for “ahoy”), but maybe in some old-timey slang from my primitive brain it means something…anyway, pro tip: when using some seemingly nonsensical idiom in your writing, Google it first to figure it out what it really is and how to write it properly.

Sewing Confusion

Sowing is another garden idiom–you sow seeds into the ground. I’m not sure if this happens before or after hoeing the row. Probably after. Anyway, watch out for the easy misspelling here–“sow” is easily mistyped as “sew.”

Myriad Plethoras

The word “plethora” traditionally has a negative connotation–so you’d say something like, “I’m pretty sure she’s crazy because she owns a plethora of cats and also never wears shoes.” In modern usage it’s often used much like “myriad,” just meaning “a lot of something”–but some readers will freak out, because of its traditional use as “a problematically large number or amount of something.” Further, the word myriad actually has a positive connotation–so you’d say something like, “Myriad stars shone from above.” (Note: debate rages over the possible uses of the word myriad. In the example just now, I used it as an adjective. It may also be used as a noun, just like plethora: “A myriad of stars shone from above.”)

In short: myriad good, plethora bad (due to quantity).

Proffered and Preferred

To proffer is to offer; to prefer is to favor. It’s easy to mistype these or have auto-correct mess it up for you.

Literally the Best Tip Ever

The word “literally” roughly means “actually.” It has a convenient antonym: “figuratively.” So while I would literally pitch a baseball, I would figuratively pitch a fit. Somehow, these two terms get mixed up in people’s brains (and to be fair, this has been going on for centuries–the word “literally” is misused in Little Women). There are whole websites devoted to the misuse of these terms. In short, if you use the term “literally” solely for emphasis, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Hopefully I Hope

This is pedantic, but get used to it–pedants will comment on your blog posts. “I hope” means what you think it means. For example, “I hope it doesn’t rain today.” However, “hopefully” is an adverb. Thus, technically speaking, “Hopefully it won’t rain today” is nonsensical. A proper use of “hopefully” would be: “The boy gazed hopefully at the bag of Halloween candy in his mother’s hands.”

Technical note: because of overwhelming common usage, “hopefully” is arguably valid in its non-adverbial form; it occupies a similar linguistic space as terms like “interestingly,” “frankly,” and “unfortunately.” I freely misuse all of those terms, but for some reason, “hopefully” does bug me.

Different From/Than/To

There are some instances of “different than” in American English, and “different to” in British English. In general, however, the best and most common form is “different from.” For example: “Joe’s haircut was different from Steve’s.” In general, I always try to use “different from,” although such esteemed authorities as the Oxford Dictionary Online suggest that all forms are equally valid. Be aware that if you write for American pedants (I mean readers), “different to” will catch the most flak.

What Did I Leave Out?

I'll eventually have to "revise and expand" this thing to cash in on lucrative paperback sales. What would you add to this list?

Now the Hard Sell

The Blogger AbidesThe book is available now for Kindle. If you don't have a Kindle, consult my website for the answer to the oft-asked question I don't have a Kindle. How can I read this? (Short answer: on your phone, tablet, web browser, Mac, PC, or smart fridge.)
 
Pro tip: if you're an Amazon Prime member and have a Kindle, you can "borrow" the book for free from your Kindle. You should do that. There's also a free preview available for anyone -- grab that from the rightmost column of the Amazon page.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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