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15 Retronyms for When You’re Talking Old School

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In 1980, Frank Mankiewicz—then president of National Public Radio—coined the word "retronym," for a term specifying the original meaning of word after a newer meaning has overtaken it. The term was popularized by New York Times “On Language” columnist William Safire in a 1992 column, where the writer wondered what people would call “regular mail” after the advent of email (snails didn’t come up). Retronyms had been used long before 1980, though; here are a few of them.

1. Quill pen

Until metal-nib pens became popular in the early 19th century, “pen” meant an implement for writing with ink made from a wing or tail feather of a large bird. The word comes from Old French penne, which in turn comes from the Latin penna, "feather."

2. Railroad car

In 1869, when Mark Twain described in The Innocents Abroad the “peculiarities of French cars,” he wasn’t talking about Citroëns that turned out to be lemons. At that time, “cars” were train cars. In the 1890s, when the term “car” hitched itself to the automobile, the retronym “railroad car” became necessary.

3. Live music

Although musical automatons, wind-up music boxes, and player pianos were around earlier, before Thomas Edison’s introduction of the phonograph cylinder in 1878 and its worldwide popularity in the following decades, if you said the evening’s entertainment would include music, everyone knew live musicians would be there to provide it.

4. Silent film

Filmmakers had experimented with coordinating recorded sound and movies since 1895, but until the improved sound quality of The Jazz Singer broke the psychological sound barrier in 1927, silent films were, for the most part, known simply as movies or “the pictures.”

5. Human computer

From the early 1600s until the 1940s, when electronic computers came along, “computer” meant a person who performs calculations. Teams of people would perform long and often tedious calculations, dividing the work so that the calculations could be done in parallel. During World War II, some women computers for the Manhattan Project became the first professional programmers of electronic computers, making the retronym necessary to describe their earlier role.

6. Snail mail

Electronic communication created the need for a profusion of retronyms. Safire may not have known the term snail mail in 1992, but back in 1982, someone posted a comment using the term as if it was already familiar to other members of his online newsgroup: “Our Unix-Wizard mail is slower than snail mail these days.”

7. Friend IRL

Before online communication, there were pen pals, but usually when you met people, for the first time or the hundredth time, it was “In Real Life.” And you “befriended,” not “friended,” them.

8. Meatspace

The place where online communication occurs is cyberspace, so some wag came up with meatspace for the place where you interact with others in the flesh.

9. Offline

Once calculating, data entry, and dating could be done online (while connected to a computer or a network), there had to be a word for doing the same while unplugged.

10. Brick(s)-and-mortar store (US) high-street shop (UK)

When we started “Click[ing] here to add to cart,” we needed a way to distinguish online stores from the kind you can walk into. North American usage alternates between “brick and mortar store” and “bricks and mortar store,” while UK speakers favo(u)r “high-street shop.” Speaking of cable-based video-on-demand, the Annapolis Capital for October 6, 1998 said, “Still, the top chains believe the traditional brick and mortar video store will be around for some time.” It’s hard to explain why “high-street shop” began its steep rise about 1970. Perhaps shops on the high street (or main street, to Americans) were being contrasted with suburban malls initially.

11. Natural language

Even before there were computer languages, there were constructed languages like Esperanto and Interlingua, so what were formerly known as “languages” became “natural languages.”

12. Vinyl disk

Offline, other changes created a need for retronyms. Those black spinning platters people used to call “records” suddenly became “vinyl disks” with the advent of compact disks.

13. Landline

When “phone” stopped meaning something tethered to the kitchen wall, we started calling the immobile phones “landlines.”

14. Business partner

Back in the day, outside of special contexts like tournament bridge and ice dancing, when someone referred to “my partner,” you thought business partner. But with changing domestic arrangements for unmarried couples of the same or opposite sexes, “partner” has come to mean life partner, and when you mean business, you’ve got to say so.

15. Film camera

In 1889, Kodak introduced a camera with roll film, replacing those tricky glass plates or low quality paper negatives. Who would ever want anything else? In 1975 Steve Sasson at Kodak built the first working CCD-based digital still camera, leading to the day in 2004 when Kodak ceased production of film cameras (formerly known as “cameras”).

All photos courtesy of Getty Images.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]