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6 Creative Uses of Sentence Diagramming

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Inkall.com

Sentence diagramming was once a widespread technique for teaching kids how to analyze the structure of a sentence. If you had to do it in school, you either loved it or you hated it. Most kids hated it. But for the kids who loved it, it made language into an orderly puzzle, complicated but solvable, where words clicked into interlocking pairs, groups, and chunks, until a picture of the hidden architecture of sentences emerged. That architecture, when exposed, can be beautiful. It’s no wonder that sentence diagrams have made their way into art. Here are 6 creative uses of sentence diagramming.

1. Our Own Effort (Proust)

Click to enlarge. Image courtesy of Nicholas Knight

Artist Nicholas Knight features sentence diagrams in many of his drawings, collages, and wall installations. He diagrams quotes from famous artists and thinkers that highlight the interplay between meaning and structure. This work, Our Own Effort (Proust), represents Proust’s statement that “what we have not had to decipher and to clarify by our own effort, what was clear before we came, does not belong to us.” You can figure this out, through the clarifying effects of your own effort, if you closely study this print that at first appears to be a colorful subway map.

2. close 

Image courtesy  of Kelly Sherman and Barbara Krakow Gallery.

Artist Kelly Sherman has produced a series of works diagramming lines of original poetry. As she says in her artist’s statement, “reiterating or undermining the sentences’ content, the work in this series addresses the hierarchies, structures and overwhelming eloquence of language.” In this work, close, the modifiers of the adjective “close” in “so close like breath” are obscured to different degrees by layers of vellum, adding another element of visual structure.

3. 9 artists/9 spaces

Photo courtesy of lnkall.com.

In 1970, the Minnesota State Arts Council organized a show of art in public spaces called 9 artists/9 spaces. The invited artists prepared their pieces, but almost none of the works were ever seen because, as Peggy Weil explains in this unbelievable history of the event, “one by one each piece fell victim to controversy or mishap.” One was vandalized, one was dismantled by the FBI, and one was shut down after a giant cache of explosives were discovered in the basement of the building where it was installed. The piece Robert Cummings created, a giant sculpture of diagrammed sentences made up of 1150 painted letters on wooden scaffold, was destroyed when a semi truck crashed into it. As if that wasn’t unlucky enough, the camera of the photographer who was at that very moment photographing the piece was also destroyed, along with the detailed images he was in the middle of capturing for posterity.

4. "Which Sentences Are We Diagramming"

Comic by Kevin Huizenga; image via Austin Kleon. 

In “Which Sentences are We Diagramming,” Kevin Huizenga illustrates the frustration of parsing confusing sentences. He tries to untangle structure through everything from sentence diagrams and lists to base-running and Mad Libs. The full version of this comic is at What Things Do.

5. "a loving heart is the beginning of all knowledge"

Image courtesy of Follow Your Gnose

 

This post from Follow Your Gnose gives instructions for making your own sentence diagram mobile. The sentence pictured here, “a loving heart is the beginning of all knowledge,” is from Thomas Carlyle. With some card stock, wooden dowels, fishing line, and glue you too could set some delicately balanced clauses spinning in the breeze.

 

6. "cross-stitching is contagious"

 

Image courtesy of Embroiderbee

The straight lines of sentence diagrams lend themselves well to anything made on a grid. Embroiderbee offers a huge selection of free needlework patterns, including this cross stitch sentence diagram.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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