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14 Old-Fashioned Words for Writers

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getty images / istock

In our age of bloggers, spammers, texters, and tweeters, there are types of writing earlier eras couldn’t have imagined. But there are also many old, out-of-use words for very specific types of writers (and also terrible writers). At the risk of being a puffer, here are some obscure things to call a quill-driver.

1. PUFFER

This word started out in the 1600s as a word for a bloviator who tended to blow empty smoke about something. Eventually, the word gravitated toward another type of malarkey-spewer: the advertising writer. In this 1998 Chicago Tribune article, the term is clearly not aspirational: “Were we journalists then and we're just puffers of stories now to get numbers?”

2. TOOTLER

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a tootler as a “a writer of ‘tootle’, verbiage, or twaddle.” Tootling took a trip down Horsefeathers Avenue because early meanings referred to birdsong or the notes of a wind instrument, both of which can be pretty but rarely present a logical argument.

3. SARCAST

This noun, in print since the 1600s, would not be useful at all today, since it refers to a sarcastic writer. Sarcasm is harder to find on the Internet than kittens.

4. QUILL-DRIVER

This vivid term has been around since at least 1700, and it can refer to a clerk or secretary, but it’s also a dismissive term for a writer. Quill-driver is as straight-up a synonym you’ll ever find for pencil-pusher. This 1900 example from Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim shows how little respect the term carried: “He wouldn't be terrified with a pack of lies by a cocky half-bred little quill-driver.”

5. CATASTROPHIST

A catastrophist has often referred to a specific type of pessimist—someone who thinks life is constantly falling into debacle and disaster, with apocalypse right around the corner. But the word gained an even more specific meaning thanks to the 1930s Polish Żagary movement: writers who were part of this movement were called catastrophists.

6. BLOTTER

A blotter—like the similar term paper-stainer—is a writer who is not doing much more than literally leaving a mark.

7. SMEAR MERCHANT

Along the lines of blotting, there’s the ignoble profession of smear journalism. Sometimes such writers have been known as smear merchants or smear-mongers. They use smear tactics in smear sheets, where they do smear jobs

8. BOOKWOMAN

This term—which could name a literary superhero and member of the Avengers—has had two meanings. A bookwoman (or a bookman) is someone who loves to read, but a bookwoman can also be a female writer. Many similar sexist terms used to be common, such as authoress (a broader term than murdermongress, a word Ogden Nash used to describe Agatha Christie) and sob sister (an advice columnist for the lovelorn, which was Lois Lane’s first job in the original Superman comics).

9. WRITRIX

Another milestone in sexism was the rare word writrix, which can be found in an astounding 1772 sentence written by José Francisco de Isla and recorded by the OED: “Why should it not be said, she was not a common woman, but a geniusess, and an elegant writrix?” Yikes.

10. COUPLETEER

This is one of many terms that simply alter the name of the type of writing. A coupleteer writes couplets, much as an epigrammatarian writes epigrams, a legendarian writes legends, and a manuscriptor writes manuscripts.

11. DEATH-HUNTER

This sounds like the name of an action or horror movie, but it’s just a type of scribbler: specifically, an obituary writer. Death-hunter has also referred to fun professions such as undertaker and corpse-robber.

12. SNOBOGRAPHER

The OED eloquently defines this word as “A writer on, a describer of, snobs.” 

13. MINIATURIST

This word could plausibly describe a maker of model ships, nanobots, or Ant-Man, but it actually describes a writer of short pieces of music or fiction. This term is still used occasionally. It turns up in a New York Times article from 1989: “Ms. Tolstaya is a miniaturist whose stories lack the political and moral resonance of the most formidable antirealists.”

14. SQUIBBLER

This very rare term—only found in 1671 (and possibly a misspelling of squibber)—is a scribbler who quibbles. Given the endless stream of pretentious think pieces, snotty comments, and mean tweets in the world today, this word could use a revival. So could anonymuncle—a word for an annoying anonymous writer. You can find even more words for ink-jerkers here.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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