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10 Things We Learned About the Dictionary From Kory Stamper’s AMA

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Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper is a self-proclaimed "word nerd of the first order" and the author of Word by Word: The Secret Life Of Dictionaries, which came out last month. She spent part of this afternoon (April 20, 2017) in a Reddit AMA, dishing about her favorite definitions, words she wishes we had in English, how the internet is changing language, and the biggest mistake she's seen get into the dictionary.

1. SHE HAS A FAVORITE DEFINITION.

Asked her favorite dictionary definition, Stamper replied “I love the absurdity of the [Webster's Third New International’s] definition for ‘fishstick,’ which was ‘a stick of fish.’ Nope, but points for trying!”

And she has a runner-up: “I also love the definition for ‘gardyloo’: ‘used as a warning shout in Scotland when it was customary to throw household slops from upstairs windows.’ That this word exists at all is a triumph.”

2. SHE’D LIKE TO RENAME YOUR LOWER BACK TATTOO.

“I sort of wish that we called a lower-back tattoo by the name that Germans give it (Arschgeweih) instead of the name that we do (tramp stamp). Arschgeweih is far more accurate, anyway: it means ass antlers.”

3. SOMETIMES THERE’S AN INVERSE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE LENGTH OF A WORD AND ITS DEFINITION.

Asked if it’s true that short words often have long dictionary definitions, Stamper said “sometimes”—it depends partly on whether the dictionary is unabridged, in which case people expect more complex entries. But, she noted that the word hotel has a famously long definition in Webster's Third New International, Unabridged. Here it is:

A building of many rooms chiefly for overnight accommodation of transients and several floors served by elevators, usually with a large open street-level lobby containing easy chairs, with a variety of compartments for eating, drinking, dancing, exhibitions, and group meetings (as of salesmen or convention attendants), with shops having both inside and street-side entrances and offering for sale items (as clothes, gifts, candy, theater tickets, travel tickets) of particular interest to a traveler, or providing personal services (as hairdressing, shoe shining), and with telephone booths, writing tables and washrooms freely available.

4. DON’T PLAN A FUNERAL FOR PRINT DICTIONARIES ANYTIME SOON.

“Wikipedia killed off printed encyclopedias,” one participant asked; “can we avoid the same fate for printed dictionaries?” Stamper’s reply: “I hold out a good deal of hope [for the continuance of print]. First, printed dictionaries are way cheaper than printed encyclopedias: most people can scrimp and afford a $25 dictionary ... but few people can afford a $2000 printed encyclopedia set. And though we live in this digitized world, there are plenty of places and people who still prefer print … not all is lost, printwise.”

5. THE DICTIONARY INCLUDED A FAKE ‘GHOST WORD’ FOR MORE THAN A DOZEN YEARS.

In response to a question about the biggest error she’d seen make its way into the dictionary, Stamper linked to a Merriam-Webster video about the “ghost word” dord, which first showed up in the 1934 second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary as meaning “density.” Five years later, an editor realized that dord owed its existence to a misunderstanding of a note from a chemistry consultant who had typed the letters “D or d” on a slip of paper for the dictionary. At the time, the notes the lexicographers consulted while creating their definitions were usually typed with spaces in between the letters (to leave room to show stress and syllable breaks), so someone at the dictionary had misinterpreted that consultant's or in between the D and d as the middle of a word. It wasn’t, but the mistake was only corrected in the 1947 edition of Webster's.

6. YOU CAN STOP WORRYING ABOUT YOUR GRAMMAR AROUND HER.

Asked if she finds that people are scared to talk to her because she’s a “word person,” Kamper replied: “Yes, and it makes me SO VERY SAD. I don't police people's language when we're talking, though I know people assume I am, because I want to pay more attention to what the person is saying instead of how they say it.”

When pressed about whether there’s a particular grammar mistake that drives her nuts, Stamper offered this: “Most of the typical ‘grammar mistakes’ that people froth and rage over aren't actually mistakes: they are the expressed and canonized opinions of dudes of yore who found one particular use or word inelegant. Bombast sells, so these guys would simply say that XYZ was wrong—and because no one likes to be wrong, everyone parroted the advice. But most of those opinions go against how the language is actually used, and by some pretty decent writers, too: Shakespeare, Pope, Dryden, a smattering of Brontes, etc. And what's considered right is always changing.”

7. SPELLING THINGS ALOUD IS HER ‘SECRET SHAME.’

Stamper speaks multiple languages—English, Latin, German, Old English, Old Norse, Middle English, among others—but don’t ask her to spell things aloud. Asked what she’s learned about herself from working at a dictionary, she replied: “I've also learned that I can't spell aloud, because now I work with people who help judge spelling bees. There it is: my secret shame.”

Definitely don’t ask her to spell the word “achieve,” whose letters, she reports, her brain has pushed aside to make room for more jokes about Samuel Johnson.

8. SHE FELL IN LOVE WITH WORDS PARTLY THANKS TO OLD NORSE.

“I've always been in love with words to a certain degree,” Stamper explains. But, she says, “It was really Old Norse and Old English that started up the love affair in earnest … I talk about it at length in the first chapter of the book, helpfully titled "Hrafnkell: On Falling in Love."

9. THE DIGITAL WORLD IS SPEEDING UP THE TRANSMISSION OF NEW WORDS.

Asked how “being connected online to the whole world is changing English,” Stamper said, “I think that the whole online shebang shows us more of English more quickly. It's much easier to transmit global English or words from marginalized dialects like African American Vernacular English to a broader audience online than it was in print. Think of woke, which was used mostly in AAVE [African American Vernacular English] back to the 1960s, but which Twitter and Snapchat have spread to other speaking communities.”

10. SHE LOVES ‘KUMMERSPECK’ TOO.

The German word kummerspeck is one of our favorites around the mental_floss offices, and Stamper loves it too. Here’s how she defines it: “I absolutely love the German word ‘Kummerspeck,’ which refers to the fat you gain from overeating and literally translates to ‘grief bacon.’”

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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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Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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