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Wikimedia Commons/Thinkstock/Bryan Dugan

11 Historical Figures Who Were Really Bad At Spelling

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Wikimedia Commons/Thinkstock/Bryan Dugan

Do you struggle with spelling bees? Do you always seem to get “lose” and “loose” mixed up? Would you recoil in terror if spell-check ever stopped working? Fear not: You're in good company. From Nobel Prize winners to the authors of great literary works, the inability to spell correctly has plagued some of the most influential people in the history of our species. Here are 11 of the most famous.

1. Jane Austen

Luckily, the author of Emma and Pride and Prejudice was always fortunate enough to find editors who could weed out her various alphabetical mishaps. An early work, written when Austen was 15, was called Love and Freindship.

2. George Washington

According to Richard Lederer in his book More Anguished English, the man who would become the first American president wrote  “we find our necessaties are not such as to require an immediate transportation during the harvist" while complaining about a supply shortage during the Revolutionary War.

3. Winston Churchill

Though he later became universally regarded as one of the greatest orators of all time, one of Churchill's early report cards said “Writing is good, but terribly slow—spelling about as bad as it well can be.”

4. Agatha Christie

“Writing and spelling were always terribly difficult for me... [I was] an extraordinarily bad speller and have remained so until this day.” It's incredible to think that this humbling statement came from the pen of one of the greatest mystery authors of all time: a woman who would later be celebrated as “The Queen of Crime." Christie's dyslexia made accurate spelling difficult, and she'd occasionally even misspell the names of her own characters: in An Appointment with Death, Colonel Carbury's name is later written as “Colonel Carbery.”

5. Andrew Jackson

Examples of Old Hickory's seemingly innumerable botched spelling attempts include “devilopment,” the continent of “Urope," and performing before a “larg” audience. This ineptitude even went on to become a political punchline. His perennial political rival John Quincy Adams once denounced him as “a savage who can scarcely spell his own name.” Jackson's retort? “It's a damn poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word.”

6. Albert Einstein

In Einstein's defense, English was his second language. It's therefore easy to understand why spelling and grammatical errors in his works were a constant source of frustration to the physicist. “I cannot write in English,” he said, “because of the treacherous spelling.”

7. Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway seemed to have difficulty with present participles, as “loving” became “loveing” and “moving” turned into “moveing” in his manuscripts. Whenever an editor complained of these bloopers, however, Hemingway would snap “Well, that's what you're hired to correct!”

8. F. Scott Fitzgerald

The original draft of The Great Gatsby contained literally hundreds of spelling mistakes, some of which are still confounding editors. These include “yatch” (instead of “yacht”) and “apon” (instead of “upon”). One of his most famous gaffes, which occurs toward the end of the novel, inspires debate to this day.

9. Olivia Clemens

The wife of Samuel Clemens—better known by his pen name “Mark Twain—“Livy's” frequent compositional errors were an endless source of amusement to her husband. After receiving one of her letters, in which she miraculously made virtually no such bloopers, he wrote “Oh you darling little speller!—you spelled 'terrible' right, this time. And I won't have it—it is un-Livy-ish. Spell it wrong next time, for I love everything that is like Livy.” Despite Samuel's playful jabs, he relied upon his beloved wife as a “faithful, judicious, and painstaking editor” until her death in 1904.

10. William Butler Yeats

According to biographer David A. Ross, “Yeats' spelling, indeed, seems at times a matter of wildly errant guesswork.” Ouch. The great Irish poet and senator's idiosyncratic writing style resulted in some distinctively misspelled words cropping up throughout his works, such as “feal” instead of “feel." Despite this Achilles' heel, Yeats won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.

11. Dan Quayle

No list of famously bad spellers would be complete without mentioning the 44th Vice President's infamous “Potatoe Incident."

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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