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8 Things I’ve Learned from mental_floss Readers

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ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

It’s my Flossaversary! It’s been a year since my first piece for mental_floss was posted. Since then, I’ve posted over 120 articles about everything from ABC songs of the world to the origin of “OK” to dog naming trends.

I’m a language person. I’m interested in every aspect of it. I’ve studied various languages. I have a Ph.D. in linguistics. I’ve edited and copyedited; I know how to use a semicolon. But like everyone, I make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes get published, and when they do, they are sure to be found. Nothing brings out the usage/spelling/punctuation commenters like an article about language. Sometimes the corrections are just plain wrong (not so much here on mental_floss, of course). Sometimes they are helpful, but boring (a typo, a repeated “the”). But every once in a while, they hit on something I probably should have known, but for whatever reason didn’t. We are always learning. Or should be, at least. Here are 8 things I’ve learned from being corrected by the wonderful commenters on mental_floss

1. Vocal chords vs. vocal cords

In this piece about kids’ language mistakes, I characterized a speech sound with the phrase “the vocal chords kick in sooner.” It didn’t take long before someone pointed out that it should be “vocal cords” not “chords.” But of course! The vocal folds are like strings (cords) that vibrate, not combinations of simultaneously produced pitches (chords).

Still, even after the correction, “vocal cords” looked strange to me. Surely in my linguistics education I had written about “vocal chords” before. Had I never been corrected? My initial embarrassment was soothed by this Language Log post explaining the odd “reciprocal swap” that left us with the the word “cord” from the Latin chorda (rope, string, cord), while we got “chord” (originally spelled “cord”) from “accord.” I was at least etymologically justified. Not that any of that matters now. “Vocal cord” is considered the correct spelling (at least in American usage.) 

2. In tact vs. intact

In this piece explaining how an exception can prove a rule, I talked about rules remaining “in tact.” It wasn’t just a typo. In fact, I made the same mistake twice. What can I say. It’s straight-up wrong. Fortunately for me, the correction, from a commenter called “stickler,” was the perfect model of what a grammar comment should be, beginning with a compliment on the content of the article (“I've always wanted to see this explained; thanks”) and continuing with a gentle reminder (“‘intact’ is of course one word”) that assumes I knew the correct form already. Stickler, you are a shining beacon of internet civility, and I salute you.

I probably have been corrected on “in tact” before, but it didn’t stick because I failed to update my idea of the meaning, which I formerly had as follows: tact is from the Latin for touch, and something is “in tact” because all the parts are touching each other, i.e., it hasn’t fallen apart. Now I have updated to the correct idea: tact is indeed from the Latin for touch, but here “in” means “un” (as in “inaccurate”), so “intact” means “untouched,” i.e., unaltered. I will always remember this now, for I will always remember the honorable kindness of Stickler.

3. Pyjamas vs. pajamas

The word “pyjamas” in this piece about nouns that only have plural forms inspired another wonderful example of how commenting should be done. The commenter “ATxann Chris” wrote “I've never seen pajamas spelled 'pyjamas' before. Until I saw it spelled the same way the second time in the article, I assumed it was a typo. But when I looked it up online after reading your comment, it appears to be primarily a British usage, while the American usage is usually ‘pajamas.’”

The commenter looked it up. Before commenting. You, ATxann Chris, on the strength of your commenting principles alone, could be the salve that heals this fractured nation. 

You go on to say, “now I'm really confused because the author of this piece says she lives in Philadelphia, but speaks with a Chicago accent. I have plenty of friends and relatives in the Chicago area—they all sleep in pajamas, not pyjamas. ;)” Your confusion is warranted. I’m not sure what happened. “Pajamas” looked weird to me that day (though I have used it in other articles). I think I was reading a British biography that week? My kids had a French test with that word (pyjama in French)? Honestly, I didn’t realize that “pyjamas” was British when I used it, but now I know. 

ATxann Chris concludes, “anyway, the article is interesting, and as a big Britcom fan, I'm delighted to learn this variation of how to spell those sets of things we sometimes sleep in.” I can only hope that all my future errors in applying consistent style rules are viewed so charitably, and with such delight. 

4. Guerilla vs. Guerrilla

In an article about why English spelling is so weird, I discuss how English got many difficult-to-spell words from our habit of borrowing words from other languages without changing their spellings, even when we do change their pronunciations. So, I said, “we do our best with guerilla, piñata, llama, angst, kitsch, fjord, Czech, gnocchi, and zucchini, even if we don't always remember exactly how to spell them.” Guerrilla is supposed to have two ‘r’s in it; it comes from the Spanish guerra, “war.” I could have pretended my misspelling was a subtle joke—see how hard it is to get these right!—but it was just a mistake. At least I didn’t spell it “gorilla.” It was also pointed out to me that, except in Tuscany, zucchine (the plural of zucchina) is what most Italians call zucchini.

5. Swedish “lost”

I took a semester of Swedish a long time ago and figured it should be enough to put together this list of Swedish words that conflict with the Ikea products they name, but there was a distinction I wasn’t aware of until commenter “Haha” politely alerted me to an error. Under “VILSE” (lost), a square glass vase, I wrote, “It was here a second ago…” It turns out that where we use the same English word “lost” to describe either an object that has been lost by someone (“I lost my keys. The keys are lost!”) or a person that can’t find their way (“Where am I? I’m lost!”), in Swedish you’d use vilse for the second sense, but borta for the first. This is a good reminder of the pitfalls of dictionary translation. Luckily, all that was at stake here was a weak punchline. 

6. e.e. cummings vs. E. E. Cummings

The poet E. E. Cummings sometimes used unconventional capitalization and punctuation in his poems, and in the 1960s some publishers, believing him to be generally anti-capitalization, printed his name in lowercase on the covers of his books. Despite the fact that, according to Cummings scholar Norman Friedman, he preferred others to refer to him as E. E. Cummings, the lowercase version of his name spread, probably because it somehow seemed the more “in the know” thing to do. But it is actually less “in the know,” as I discovered after “Leigh” pointed that out to me in the comments on this piece about “screw you” book dedications.

7. Guadaloupe vs. Guadalupe

Guadaloupe is French. There is an island of that name in the French West Indies. Guadalupe is Spanish. There are towns all over the Spanish speaking world by that name. Our Lady of Guadalupe is a catholic icon of great importance in Mexican culture. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo is the agreement that ended the Mexican-American war in 1848. It was signed in the town of Guadalupe Hidalgo, now a neighborhood of Mexico City, where the vision of Our Lady of Guadalupe was said to have appeared. In this post on the top ten viral hits of the pre civil war years I note that the seventh most reprinted article of the time was about the Treaty of Guadaloupe Hidalgo. Of course, as commenter Armando Gutierrez pointed out, it should be the Spanish “Guadalupe” instead.

However, in the pre-civil war years (and through the early 1900s) U.S. newspapers overwhelmingly called the treaty “Guadaloupe Hidalgo.” This is why the researchers whose work on viral hits I was citing used that spelling, and why I, in turn, used it too. Why was that the popular spelling then? Was it a war-induced anti-Spanish bent, a fancy French affectation, or just the fashion of the times? Maybe I’ll look into it some day.

8. ??

I’ve looked over this post, How Many Languages is it Possible to Know, dozens of times, but I still can’t find any misspelled words. Why, then, did a commenter write, multiple times, “Is anyone going to point out the spelling mistakes in this article?” Nobody has, including the commenter. Perhaps it’s just garden variety trolling, but I like to think there’s a more subtle philosophical point hidden in this commenter call to arms. It says “look, this is an article about language. Therefore there must be language mistakes to find. It was ever so, and it will ever be thus.”

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

501069-OpeningCeremony3.jpg

Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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