Original image

How Pittsburgh Got Its "H" Back

Original image

Thanks to the United States Board on Geographic Names, big cities and little towns alike lost a lot of character in the late 1800s. In 1891, with President Benjamin Harrison’s stamp of approval, the board decided a few things about how towns should be named.

1. “In names ending in ‘burgh,’ the final ‘h’ should be dropped.”

Oh, you’ve been happily using that “h” for more than a century? You’ve got newspapers, baseball teams, and buildings already bearing the consonant? Too bad. While most cities didn’t mind enough to raise a stink about it, Pittsburgh didn’t make the change to “Pittsburg” quietly. The city was originally named to honor William Pitt the Elder, but it was General John Forbes who did the naming. His Scottish background is the reason for that extra “h”—think Edinburgh. To edit the spelling to the German “burg” was akin to editing the city’s founding. After 20 years of complaints, the Board finally overturned their previous decision on Pittsburg(h)’s controversial consonant on July 19, 1911. Town representatives got a little sassy when they announced victory:

Hon. George T. Oliver, United States Senate:

Sir: At a special meeting of the United States Geographic Board held on July 19, 1911, the previous decision with regard to the spelling of Pittsburgh without a final H was reconsidered and the form given below was adopted:

Pittsburgh, a city in Pennsylvania (not Pittsburg).

Very respectfully,

Pittsburgh isn’t the only city that battled for an H. In 2006, the citizens of Alburg, Vermont, voted to change the name of the town back to its original spelling of “Alburgh,” which had endured a stunted spelling since the 1891 Board decision.

2. “The possessive form should be avoided whenever it can be done without destroying the euphony of the name, or changing its descriptive action.”

Hence Downers Grove, Pikes Peak, and Harpers Ferry. In fact, as of May 2013, the Committee has only approved five official possessive apostrophes in the entire United States—Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.; Ike’s Point, N.J.; John E’s Pond, R.I.; Carlos Elmer’s Joshua View, Ariz.; and Clark’s Mountain, Ore. And even Martha’s Vineyard had to fight for three decades until getting their possessive restored in 1933.

3. “Names ending in ‘borough’ should be abbreviated to ‘boro.’”

Middlesboro, Kentucky, a little town of about 10,000, near the Cumberland Gap, lost its “ugh” thanks to this rule. So did Marlborough, Massachusetts, named after a town in England. The Massachusetts town really felt the three-letter loss and rallied to have them restored.

4. "The word 'center,' as part of a name, should be spelled as above and not 'centre.'"

At least two places in the U.S. have managed to skirt the issue: Centre, Alabama, and Centre County, Pennsylvania.

5. "The use of hyphens in connecting part of names should be discontinued."

There are a few hyphenates still in existence today: Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; and Milton-Freewater, Oregon, among others. But names like Ne-Ha-Sa-Ne Park, New York, were obliterated with the new 1891 rule. In its place, of course? "Nehasane."

Image: USPS

6. "In the case of names consisting of more than one word, it is desirable to combine them to one word."

Obviously that one didn’t stick as well as the ban on hyphens and possessive apostrophes, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. In 1894, a slew of cities with two names, like Olive Bridge, New York, were smushed together into single words: Olivebridge.

7. "It is desirable to avoid the use of diacritic characters."

Those are accented letters such as “á,” or letters with glyphs, such as “ö.” It’s possible that San Jose fell victim to the 1891 homogenization of city spellings. Though it was originally founded as “El Pueblo de San José de Guadalupe” in 1777, let’s be honest—that was never going to fit on a postmark. Whether or not the change was due to the Board on Geographic Names, the city’s spelling morphed into “San Jose” over the years. Since 1979, however, the city has been using the diacritic-infused “San José” on the city seal and official city correspondence. The city charter still recognizes “San Jose” as the city name.

8. "It is desirable to avoid the use of the words city and town, as parts of names."

Tell that to Oklahoma City, Kansas City, Atlantic City, New York City, Iowa City, and Salt Lake City.

Primary photo—part of an 1892 map of Pennsylvania—courtesy of MapsofPA.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
Original image