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The American Dialect Society's Word of the Year Is Hashtag

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These days it seems like everyone goes around declaring the "word of the year," but the tradition began with the American Dialect Society, which met last night in Boston for its 23rd annual Word of the Year vote. It's a spirited event, where the members of the society—a group of linguists, lexicographers, and other professional language scholars—argue for their choices. And we were there! Here are some of the words that were discussed.

1. hashtag

Hashtag won for Word of the Year. Though it didn't look like an early favorite, the crowd was won over by arguments that it was the most linguistically interesting. It is a word for a written symbol in a written medium that has now crossed over into speech. What's more, its purpose is for speakers to make comments about their own speech. The word of the year is a word for talking about words, making it a very wordy word indeed.

2. gate lice

Gate lice is a term for airline passengers who crowd around a gate waiting to board. It won in the "Most Creative" subcategory, beating out mansplaining in a close runoff vote.

3. -(po)calypse, -(ma)geddon

These endings that combine with other words to make hysterical names for various events won for "Most Useful."

4. legitimate rape

Congressman Todd Akin's term for the kind of thing he thinks can't result in pregnancy swept two categories: "Most Unnecessary" and "Most Outrageous."

5. self-deportation

Won for "Most Euphemistic."

6. marriage equality

This term for the legal recognition of same-sex marriage won for "Most Likely to Succeed."

7. phablet

This blend of "phone" and "tablet" for the electronic device between those things won for "Least Likely to Succeed." However, because after two close runoff votes it only squeaked by with one more vote than YOLO, they were declared co-winners.

8. binders (full of women)

This was a last minute addition to the category "Election Words" and ended up winning over 47 percent, Etch-a-Sketch, Eastwooding, and the various blends made with the candidates' names (Obamaloney, Romnesia…)

9. fiscal cliff

Though fiscal cliff was considered a "Word of the Year" favorite going in, and it was also nominated for "Most Likely to Succeed," it ended up not winning in any category. One supporter pointed out that it was the most poetic of any of the considered words, and almost makes a palindrome. Another proposed that it was better taken under consideration in its plural form, fiscal cliffs, since it looks like we're going to be having them every two months now.

Linguists may not be able to do anything to prevent that from happening, but for at least one night they could decide to deny the name just a tiny bit of power. #sotheydiditwithahashtag

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]