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8 Symbols That We Turned Into Words

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ThinkStock

The symbols we use also have names: dollar sign, treble clef, asterisk, etc. But sometimes the name for a symbol takes on a different sort of meaning, so that it is no longer a name, but a word in its own right. Here are eight words that started as symbols.

1. SLASH

An article by Anne Curzan explains how the slash (/) has become a proper word among young people. Her students not only speak the word slash in places where the symbol would be found in writing, they write it out instead of using the symbol in status updates and text messages. (Does anyone care if my cousin comes visits slash stays with us Friday night?) Even more interesting, slash has taken on a different meaning than the and/or one implied by the symbol. It can be used to follow up on a comment, or add an afterthought (I really love that hot dog place on Liberty Street. Slash can we go there tomorrow?) To Curzan this development of a new kind of conjunction is "like a rare bird sighting in the world of linguistics: an innovation in the slang of young people embedding itself as a function word in the language."

2. HEART

The heart probably first made its way into written language with the classic "I ♥ Mom" tattoo, but it became really prominent during the 1970s' "I Love New York" tourism campaign. The logo for the campaign substituted a red heart for the word love, and soon imitators were putting it on mugs and T-shirts proclaiming love for all kinds of things. Then the symbol turned back into a word, not meaning love, but heart. This seems to have begun with the 2004 movie I ♥ Huckabees, which was read out loud as "I Heart Huckabees" (though it was also called "I Love Huckabees"). Now people heart to heart everything. They heart it so much.

3. HASHTAG

The hash (#) symbol took on special importance in Twitter for its use in hashtags, keys that could be used to group or organize tweets. Hashtags soon became a way for people to make meta-comments or asides about what they were saying ("Watching wheel of fortune and eating oreos #livingthedream"). People started introducing hashtags in their speech by saying the word hashtag and then, to bring it full circle, started writing the word hashtag to introduce meta-comments ("Yay for the selfie screen on vine. Hashtag so excited!"), even when they could have used the much more economical (#).

4. DOT DOT DOT

The ellipsis (…) is a useful way to indicate a pause or, at the end of a sentence, to hint that there is more to say, but you're not going to say it right now. It's perfect for coy social media dialogue. Lately those who want to really emphasize the coyness or the awkwardness that an ellipsis can represent, as well as show that they are well aware they are taking advantage of those functions, write it out as dot dot dot ("I need more friends to hang out with because when my like 4 friends are busy I'm just like dot dot dot"). It can even be used along with ellipses ("I'm wearing children's size 10-2 socks right now..... Yea, dot dot dot....")

5. PERIOD

Not all of our symbols-turned-words come from the modern era of social media. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the period (.) punctuation mark has been used as the adverb period, indicating "end of story; nothing more to say about it": "I have never and will never ride a jet ski, period."

6. QUOTE UNQUOTE

Quote-unquote has also been around for a while. At first the words more closely followed the structure of the actual quote symbols, with the quoted (or ironically quoted) words appearing between quote and unquote, but it became a compound, similar to so-called, that no longer follows the rules of actual quotation marks.

7. BLANKETY BLANK

Blankety blank does not really refer to the symbol for a blank (_______), but for what would be filled into that blank if it weren’t for propriety's sake. ("This blankety blank car won't blankety blank start!") The reduplication makes it more fun to say, offering some of the psychological release afforded by the words it replaces.

8. Z'S

The origin of the phrase "gotta catch some z's" is probably in comic books, where sleeping characters were depicted with a line of z's over their heads. This makes it a bit different from letter phrases that come from acronyms, like LOL or OMG, because the letter in this case doesn’t stand for a word, but an image, the letter z as a symbol.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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