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8 Symbols That We Turned Into Words

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The symbols we use also have names: dollar sign, treble clef, asterisk, etc. But sometimes the name for a symbol takes on a different sort of meaning, so that it is no longer a name, but a word in its own right. Here are eight words that started as symbols.

1. SLASH

An article by Anne Curzan explains how the slash (/) has become a proper word among young people. Her students not only speak the word slash in places where the symbol would be found in writing, they write it out instead of using the symbol in status updates and text messages. (Does anyone care if my cousin comes visits slash stays with us Friday night?) Even more interesting, slash has taken on a different meaning than the and/or one implied by the symbol. It can be used to follow up on a comment, or add an afterthought (I really love that hot dog place on Liberty Street. Slash can we go there tomorrow?) To Curzan this development of a new kind of conjunction is "like a rare bird sighting in the world of linguistics: an innovation in the slang of young people embedding itself as a function word in the language."

2. HEART

The heart probably first made its way into written language with the classic "I ♥ Mom" tattoo, but it became really prominent during the 1970s' "I Love New York" tourism campaign. The logo for the campaign substituted a red heart for the word love, and soon imitators were putting it on mugs and T-shirts proclaiming love for all kinds of things. Then the symbol turned back into a word, not meaning love, but heart. This seems to have begun with the 2004 movie I ♥ Huckabees, which was read out loud as "I Heart Huckabees" (though it was also called "I Love Huckabees"). Now people heart to heart everything. They heart it so much.

3. HASHTAG

The hash (#) symbol took on special importance in Twitter for its use in hashtags, keys that could be used to group or organize tweets. Hashtags soon became a way for people to make meta-comments or asides about what they were saying ("Watching wheel of fortune and eating oreos #livingthedream"). People started introducing hashtags in their speech by saying the word hashtag and then, to bring it full circle, started writing the word hashtag to introduce meta-comments ("Yay for the selfie screen on vine. Hashtag so excited!"), even when they could have used the much more economical (#).

4. DOT DOT DOT

The ellipsis (…) is a useful way to indicate a pause or, at the end of a sentence, to hint that there is more to say, but you're not going to say it right now. It's perfect for coy social media dialogue. Lately those who want to really emphasize the coyness or the awkwardness that an ellipsis can represent, as well as show that they are well aware they are taking advantage of those functions, write it out as dot dot dot ("I need more friends to hang out with because when my like 4 friends are busy I'm just like dot dot dot"). It can even be used along with ellipses ("I'm wearing children's size 10-2 socks right now..... Yea, dot dot dot....")

5. PERIOD

Not all of our symbols-turned-words come from the modern era of social media. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the period (.) punctuation mark has been used as the adverb period, indicating "end of story; nothing more to say about it": "I have never and will never ride a jet ski, period."

6. QUOTE UNQUOTE

Quote-unquote has also been around for a while. At first the words more closely followed the structure of the actual quote symbols, with the quoted (or ironically quoted) words appearing between quote and unquote, but it became a compound, similar to so-called, that no longer follows the rules of actual quotation marks.

7. BLANKETY BLANK

Blankety blank does not really refer to the symbol for a blank (_______), but for what would be filled into that blank if it weren’t for propriety's sake. ("This blankety blank car won't blankety blank start!") The reduplication makes it more fun to say, offering some of the psychological release afforded by the words it replaces.

8. Z'S

The origin of the phrase "gotta catch some z's" is probably in comic books, where sleeping characters were depicted with a line of z's over their heads. This makes it a bit different from letter phrases that come from acronyms, like LOL or OMG, because the letter in this case doesn’t stand for a word, but an image, the letter z as a symbol.

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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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