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Weekend Word Wrap: Mad Libs

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Recently I've been thinking it would be cool to create a TV show version of Mad Libs, which I adored so much as a kid I think if I added up the cumulative hours spent playing, it might be like an entire year of my adolescence. In doing some research, I discovered there's already been a rather successful children's show, but never a grown-up version.

And while I'm still not entirely sure what the show would be like, I'm getting closer. So if you have words of wisdom - suggestions and such - drop me a comment. In the meantime, after the jump, check out Mad Libs co-inventor Leonard Stern's eloquent musings on the creation of the original. First word-geek to spot the misspelling gets braggin rights! (And yes, the typo comes from Penguin's own website! I didn't add it. -- Oh, and no spell checks, please.)

It was a typical post-Thanksgiving New York day in 1953. I was sitting at my typewriter (we used them in those days), desperately trying to find a new character for the "Honeymooners" show. Roger Price was in the kitchen carving a banana. As I recall, I'd run out of turkey earlier that day. I was stuck on a descriptive passage and called out to Roger for help with an adjective. Before I could define my need, he called back, "clumsy!" I now had a character with a round face, blue eyes, and a clumsy nose. At that moment, or maybe ten seconds of laughter later, Mad Libs® was born.

Roger and I spent the rest of the day creating full-length Mad Libs® which we played at a party that night. Hilarity reigned. Every player was convinced it had to be published. Roger and I didn't think a game without a name was all that marketable. It wasn't until five years later in 1958 that Mad Libs® came to us out of the blue, at Sardi's Restaurant. Abandoning our Eggs Benedict, we were off and running to a publisher. These good souls didn't think it was a book, but honestly believed it might appeal to a game manufacturer. The game manufacturer in turn thought it was a book and sent us to another book publisher, who didn't think it was a book!

After we ran out of publishers and game manufacturers within a fifty mile radius of the city, we unwittingly decided to publish Mad Libs® ourselves. What could it take? You design the book, find a printer, and place the order. So we did that. It never occured to us -- until the printer called, asking us where he should deliver the books -- that printers didn't double as warehouses; however, Roger's Central Park West penthouse apartment could and did. Fourteen thousand copies of Mad Libs® were delivered directly to his dining room, denying my good friend a decent sit-down meal for the next three months and seventeen days!

Once the books were in the stores, I went to Steve Allen, whose show I was writing at the time, and suggested that we try Mad Libs® as a way of introducing our guests. He agreed, and by Wednesday of the following week, the stores were sold out! We needed another printing immediately. Roger held it up until we could find a delivery destination other than his dining room. We made a deal with a publisher -- finally! This relationship lasted until we formed our own company and decided to become our own distributors. Unnerved by the prospect of history repeating itself, Roger moved into a new apartment which did not have a dining room. We had to use his living room!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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