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Why Does “Terrible” Mean Bad and “Terrific” Mean Good?

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Terrible and terrific are both formed off the same root: terror. Both started out a few hundred years ago with the meaning of terror-inducing. But terrific took a strange turn at the beginning of the 20th century and ended up meaning really great, not terrible or terror-inducing at all.

This happened through a slow reshaping of the connections and connotations of terrific. First it acquired the sense, not just of terror-inducing but of general intensity. You could talk about a “terrific clamor,” meaning a whole lot of clamor. This was a bit of hyperbole—“so much noise it was terror-inducing!”—that eventually got reduced to a general sense of “more intense than usual.” Once a word like that gets established as a general intensifier, it may also be applied to positive experiences—terrific beauty, terrific joy—and from there the jump to a fully positive “terrific!” isn’t so unexpected. The same thing happened to the word tremendous (“causing one to tremble in fear”). It happened to formidable (fear-inducing) too, but only in French, where it means “really great!” It hasn’t quite reached that stage in English, but it has acquired positive intensifier status (“a formidable talent”).

The path from fear to happy enthusiasm isn’t an inevitable one. Awful also started as a fear word—“awe” used to have much stronger connotations of quaking with fear before powerful forces—and came to be a general intensifier (“that pie was awful good!”), but it hasn’t crossed over to the happy side. On the other hand, its close relative, “awesome,” did make the jump.

The fully positive “awesome,” a child of the '80s, is a relatively recent innovation. It began as slang, with a dash of irony or sarcasm to it. That seems to be the crucial ingredient in these crossover words. The positive “terrific” dates to the slang-heavy flapper era, where “killer” also became a playful positive. “Egregious,” a word that made the opposite crossing from positive to negative (it used to mean notable, excellent), also appears to have arisen from an ironic use. And we have plenty of very recent examples of slang crossover (Sick! Ill! Wicked! Bad!).

Crossover words are a tremendous testament to our awesome ability to shape the language as we use it. To master our fears. To take our terror and use it to build something terrific.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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