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Calculator Words

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In my day, middle school math class was pretty boring, and led to some remarkable goofing off. (I’m sure math class isn’t like that today; surely no modern kid would waste time in school.) For me, math class was an opportunity to explore new worlds with my calculator — but not new mathematical worlds. The main challenge I took on was finding new words I could spell on my calculator. And this was before we had calculators with alphanumeric keyboards.

For the uninitiated, the way this works is you punch numbers into the calculator, then show it to your friends, chortling all the while. The classic Calculator Words in my class were the admittedly juvenile 80085 (“BOOBS,” pictured above), 710.77345 (“ShELL.OIL”), and the arguably incorrect 32008 (“BOOZE”) — the last one requires you to assume that the number 2 is “Z,” which is sort of a stretch. Note that the latter two words require turning the calculator upside-down, and having the “calculator font” (also known as the “digital alarm clock font”) helps.

So, thinking back on this, I thought I’d call upon fellow _flossers to create a complete list of all the Calculator Words we could think of. Unfortunately, the internet beat me to it. The best resource I could find was Langmaker’s Oðblgshezi: Calculator Words. They describe it like so:

Oðblgshezi (pronounced /oth-blg-SHEH-zee/, with a syllabic /L/) is the name of a “language” consisting of English written with the digits of a calculator. You type in a number and then turn the calculator upside down to see the word. In order to make use of all ten digits, I persuaded the Anglo-Saxon letter eth (ð) to return from retirement to stand in for ‘TH’. For instance:

SHIBBOLETH (SHIBBOLEð) 937088145

Major nerd bonus points for using “shibboleth” as a linguistic sample term.

The site goes on to explain that this “language” contains only 10 letters: I, Z, E, H (h), S, G, L, B, TH (ð), and O. Despite these limitations, they’ve documented 362 words (including my favorites above). Check out the list for an awesomely nerdy cataloging of a language you never knew had a name.

Got a Favorite Calculator Word?

Share it in the comments! Also, check out this cross-stich featuring 80085 and this Brain Game featuring some of Sandy’s Calculator Words.

(Photo courtesy of Flickr user ZardozSpeaks, used via Creative Commons license.)

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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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