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11 Places to Visit on a Tour of the English Language

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Battle sites, architectural landmarks, birthplaces of the famous—there are many ways to get in touch with history through travel. What if linguistic history is your thing? The prolific linguist David Crystal (author of over 100 interesting books on language) and his wife Hilary have created a guidebook specifically for the tourist of the English language called Wordsmiths & Warriors. They traveled thousands of miles around Britain, tracing the history of English and collecting anecdotes and photographs along the way. The resulting book is presented as a list of 57 stops (detailed directions and parking information included) where you too can soak up a bit of linguistic lore. If you can’t get there this year, you can at least use the guide to visit from your desk. Here are some can’t-miss stops on a tour of the history of English.

1. Pegwell Bay: Arrival of the Anglo-Saxons

The Germanic tribes that developed early English settled in the eastern part of England after a pair of brothers named Hengist and Horsa conquered it in the 5th century. They arrived at Pegwell Bay in Kent, where you can see a replica of their ship.

2. Caistor St. Edmund: Earliest Recorded English Word

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This village in Norfolk was the site of an archaeological dig that yielded a cremation urn in which a bone engraved with runes was found. It says “raihan” and probably means “roe-deer,” the animal that the bone comes from.

3. Undley Common: Earliest Recorded English Sentence

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A small disc of gold found by a farmer in these Suffolk fields is decorated with the head of a bearded warrior, a wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, and a three word sentence written in Anglo-Frisian runes. It is read as “gægogæ mægæ medu,” and it may mean “this howling she-wolf is a reward to my kinsman,” though scholars are looking for more evidence to confirm this.

4. Cerne Abbas: First Recorded English Conversation

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A monk who later came to be known as Ælfric the Grammarian taught in a monastery in this Dorset village at the end of the 10th century. One of the works he wrote for Latin instruction was a dialogue between a teacher and his students, and in the manuscript, someone wrote above the text, in tiny script, an English translation, making it the first example of written dialogue in English.

5. Battle and Normans Bay: Where French Got Mixed In

The 1066 Norman Conquest brought French with it and fundamentally changed English. You can ponder the consequences while roaming the tourist area known as 1066 country.

6. Canterbury: Chaucer

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However you want to refer to Geoffrey Chaucer—the father of English literature, England’s greatest medieval poet, champion of the vernacular—he’s got to figure into any proper tour of the history of English. Since his most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, heads toward Canterbury, you should too.

7. Tothill Street, London: England’s First Printing Press

William Caxton set up the first printing press in England near Westminster Abbey—a smart business move, considering the number of texts (records, indulgences, etc.) that the Abbey needed to produce. There is a statue of him and a memorial tablet you can visit.

8. St. Albans: The First Collection of Collective Nouns

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An exalting of larks, a charm of goldfinches, a muster of peacocks: The Book of St. Albans, printed in St. Albans in 1486, is where we find the first list of these delightful terms for collections of things. It was probably written by a nun named Juliana Berners, and a wildlife site near the site of her nunnery is a good place to spot some of those groups of animals she was talking about.

9. North Nibley: The First English Bible

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William Tyndale’s English translation of the Bible in 1525 introduced expressions like “powers that be,” “stumbling block,” and “my brother’s keeper.” He had to publish it abroad, and English authorities condemned his translation, burning any copies they got their hands on. There is a tower in North Nibley erected as a monument to Tyndale in which you can climb 121 steps to reach the top and take in a view of the surrounding countryside.

10. Stratford-upon-Avon: Shakespeare

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You can’t talk about the history of English without talking about Shakespeare, and you can’t do a tour of the history of English without visiting his birthplace.

11. Lichfield, Staffordshire: Samuel Johnson

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Johnson’s dictionary was a major achievement in lexicography and helped shape standards for English and for dictionary-making in general. He was born in Lichfield, where there is a museum with many of his personal items and papers.

Check out Wordsmiths & Warriors to learn about 46 other stops you can make on your tour.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]