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Mark Bowen/Scripps National Spelling Bee

25 Facts About the Scripps National Spelling Bee

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Mark Bowen/Scripps National Spelling Bee

Call it the Super Bowl of Spelling. This week, 285 pint-sized spellers are sweating out their ABCs in the Maryland Ballroom of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, hoping to be crowned the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion. You may know how to spell “victory,” but here are 25 things you might not know about the country’s best-known gathering of logophiles.

1. IT WAS ORGANIZED BY A NEWSPAPER.

It was inaugurated in 1925 by Kentucky’s Louisville Courier-Journal as a way to consolidate a number of local spelling bees and generate “general interest among pupils in a dull subject.” (Cash prizes have a tendency to do that.) The E.W. Scripps Company didn’t take ownership of the Bee until 1941.

2. FRANK NEUHAUSER WAS THE BEE’S FIRST OFFICIAL CHAMPION.

Neuhauser, an 11-year-old from Louisville, Kentucky, beat out eight other finalists to become the National Spelling Bee’s first champion. His word for the win? Gladiolus. Yes, the flower. On March 22, 2011, Neuhauser—a retired lawyer—passed away at his home in Silver Spring, Maryland at the age of 97.

3. IN 1926, PAULINE BELL BECAME THE FIRST FEMALE CHAMPION.

In the Bee’s second year, it declared its first female winner, Pauline Bell, who won by correctly spelling the color “cerise.” Bell kicked off a trend of girl winners: Of the Spelling Bee’s 89 champions, 47 of them have been girls. This year, 51 percent of the competitors are female.

4. THERE WERE NO WINNERS IN 1943, 1944, OR 1945.

That’s because the Spelling Bee was put on hold during World War II.

5. THERE WERE TWO WINNERS ON FOUR OCCASIONS.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Co-champions are a possibility at the National Spelling Bee, and were a reality in 1950, 1957, 1962, and in 2014, when Sriram Hathwar from Painted Post, NY and Ansun Sujoe from Fort Worth, TX both walked away winners.

6. THE BEE WAS FIRST TELEVISED IN 1946.

The Bee’s national finals were first broadcast live on NBC in 1946. Portions of the Spelling Bee have since been broadcast on PBS and ABC as well. But since 1994, ESPN has been the Bee’s biggest champion, broadcasting near-constant spelling action throughout the entire competition.

7. NO ONE REALLY KNOWS WHERE THE WORD “BEE” COMES FROM.

According to the folks at Scripps:

The word ‘bee,’ as used in ‘spelling bee,’ is one of those language puzzles that has never been satisfactorily accounted for. A fairly old and widely-used word, it refers to a community social gathering at which friends and neighbors join together in a single activity (sewing, quilting, barn raising, etc.) usually to help one person or family.

The earliest known example in print is a spinning bee, in 1769 ... Spelling bee is apparently an American term. It first appeared in print in 1875, but it seems certain that the word was used orally for several years before that.

8. WEBSTER'S THIRD NEW INTERNATIONAL DICTIONARY IS THE SPELLING BEE BIBLE.

With more than 472,000 word entries, it’s the official dictionary of the Scripps National Spelling Bee—and the only one that counts in terms of spelling.

9. “KNAIDEL” CAUSED A CONTROVERSY IN 2013.

In 2013, New Yorker Arvind Mahankali won the competition by spelling the word “knaidel,” another word for matzo ball. While a number of Yiddish speakers claimed that spelling was incorrect, Arvind’s spelling of the word was the same as Webster's Third New International Dictionary's, the only spelling that matters in the competition, leading the event’s organizers to declare that there was no controversy at all.

10. KIDS ARE GIVEN A TOTAL OF TWO MINUTES TO SPELL A WORD.

The countdown begins when the pronouncer first pronounces the word.

11. A TRAFFIC LIGHT HELPS SPELLERS KEEP TRACK OF THE TIME.

Spellers have the benefit of viewing a monitor with a traffic light to keep track of time. For the first 75 seconds, the traffic light is green, followed by 15 seconds of yellow. At the 30-second mark, the light turns red and a countdown clock appears. Neither the judges nor the pronouncer can communicate with the speller once the monitor has shifted into “red light mode.”

12. PRONOUNCER DR. JACQUES BAILLY IS A CHAMPION SPELLER, TOO.

Mark Bowen/Scripps National Spelling Bee

For the past 13 years, Dr. Jacques Bailly has served as the Spelling Bee’s official pronouncer, and was an associate pronouncer for 12 years before that. But his history with the Spelling Bee goes back even further—all the way back to 1980, when he won the whole shebang at the age of 14 by correctly spelling “elucubrate.”

13. DR. BAILLY DOESN’T PLAY FAVORITES.

“I always want them to get all the words right,” Bailly told Time in 2009 about sympathizing with the entire lineup of spellers. “I think that's a lot of the fun of the spelling bee—you root for everybody. And I try to make it clear to the spellers that I'm there to give them absolutely every possible thing that I can to help them—within some limits.” In fact, it’s part of Bailly’s job to help the speller. If he has some word information that he senses could be helpful to the speller, he can offer it up without the speller requesting it.

14. THEY TAKE “THE GIGGLE FACTOR” INTO ACCOUNT.

In a 2003 interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Bailly admitted that in the days leading up to the final event, Spelling Bee officials review every word for a final time and take into account something they call “the giggle factor,” explaining that “A word like ‘titillation’ might cause a sixth-, seventh- or eighth-grader to giggle.”

15. THE FIRST RULE OF THE SPELLING BEE WORD COMMITTEE IS YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT THE SPELLING BEE WORD COMMITTEE.

Though there is a committee of officials who approve all of the words that will be used in any year’s competition, “The first rule of the committee is not admitting that you’re on the committee,” Bee spokesman Chris Kemper told Time in 2013. “The committee is the secret sauce of the spelling bee and the identity of those on the committee will not be revealed.”

16. BUT DR. BAILLY IS A MEMBER.

“It is true that Jacques is on the word committee,” Kemper admitted to ABC Denver in 2014. “But beyond that, the members of the team and their process is secret.”

17. MISSPELLINGS AREN’T THE ONLY CAUSE FOR DISQUALIFICATION.

In addition to clearly misspelling a word, there are four other reasons a speller can be disqualified. These include not approaching the microphone when it’s the speller’s at-bat ("unless there are extenuating circumstances that, in the judges' sole discretion, merit holding the speller's word in reserve and offering it to the speller after all other spellers in the round have spelled and before the close of the round"), engaging in “unsportsmanlike conduct,” altering the letters or sequence of letters in the process of retracing a spelling, or uttering “unintelligible or nonsense sounds” during the spelling process.

18. THE SPELLING BEE REQUIRES MORE THAN JUST SPELLING.

In 2013, vocabulary questions were added to the preliminary rounds, a move that was met with criticism by some, who believe that a spelling bee should be a test of one’s spelling ability only. But the Bee’s executive director, Paige Kimble, says the change in procedure is one that helps reinforce the Bee’s educational purpose. “What we know with the championship-level spellers is that they think of their achievement in terms of spelling and vocabulary being two sides of the same coin,” Kimble told the Associated Press in 2013. “These spellers will be excited at the opportunity to show off their vocabulary knowledge through competition.”

19. PAIGE KIMBLE AND DR. BAILLY GO WAY BACK.

When Dr. Bailly became the Spelling Bee champion back in 1980, it was Kimble he defeated (then known as Paige Pipkin). But all was not lost: She won the very next year, and has been working with the organization in a professional capacity since 1984—including the past 18 years as executive director.

20. “SCHWARMEREI” HAS KNOCKED OUT TWO FINALISTS.

This German origin noun, which means excessive sentimentality, has knocked out two finalists in recent years, once in 2004 and again in 2012. The former incident happened to 13-year-old Akshay Buddiga, who famously fainted on stage in the middle of spelling “alopecoid” earlier in the competition, only to get up and spell the word correctly.

21. "CONNOISSEUR" IS A WORD TO ANTICIPATE.

The French origin noun is the most frequent word on the Scripps National Spelling Bee word lists.

22. GOOD SPELLERS MAKE GREAT SCIENTISTS.

Jeffrey Blitz, who directed the 2002 Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound about the National Spelling Bee, told Time how he observed that many Spelling Bee finalists go on to have careers in science and medicine. “Something about the kind of brain that’s not intimidated by the dictionary in childhood seems well-suited to the work of medicine in adulthood,” he noted.

23. ONE-FIFTH OF THIS YEAR’S SPELLERS ARE BEE VETS.

Mark Bowen/Scripps National Spelling Bee

Fifty-seven of this year’s 285 spellers—an even 20 percent of them—have competed previously at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. In 2014, 27.8 percent were returning spellers. But Vanya Shivashankar (a.k.a. Speller No. 90) is this year’s most experienced speller; this year marks her fifth appearance at the National Spelling Bee. The 13-year-old from Olathe, Kansas previously competed in 2010, 2012, 2013, and 2014 (when she tied for 13th place).

24. THERE ARE THREE LEGACY SPELLERS IN THIS YEAR’S COMPETITION.

Three of this year’s spellers—including Vanya Shivashankar—are the siblings of previous champions. Vanya’s sister, Kavya, won in 2009. Speller number 153, Jairam Jagadeesh Hathwar, is the brother of last year's co-champion, Sriram Hathwar; and speller 159, Srinath Venkat Mahankali, is the brother of 2013 champ Arvind Mahankali.

25. CAMERON KEITH IS THIS YEAR'S YOUNGEST SPELLER.

Mark Bowen/Scripps National Spelling Bee

Though there are three nine-year-olds in this year's competition, Cameron Keith—speller 28 from Boulder, Colorado—is this year's youngest, having celebrated his birthday in March, and the only third-grader.

This article originally ran in 2014.

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technology
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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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