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Weekend Word Wrap: satire

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The great Roman poet Horace wrote: satura tota nostra est -- satire is completely our own. And while all those classic Roman satires can't be ignored, (I'm thinking of a few by Juvenal, for example), my personal favorite is still Voltaire's Candide, written in the 1750s. Highly critical of Leibnizian optimism (the best of all possible worlds? really?), Voltaire also picks religion apart—clearly way, way ahead of his time. Recently I went back and reread Candide (just because it had been far too long) and was inspired—for reasons I still don't quite understand—to write this little satirical ditty on the demise of newspapers. And while there isn't really room for the usual Wrap interactiveness, feel free to recommend your own favorite satirical piece in the comments below.

I should also add that the loyal Wrap reader will notice a lot of inspiration culled from the last year's worth of posts here.

All the Words That Are Fit to Print

by David K. Israel

We, the printed words you find in your daily newspapers, are well aware of the articles that have been written about the impending demise of our empire. How could we not? Like the slave who has to dig his own burial pit, you've printed insult to injury, forcing us to tell such stories against our own will.

But before the curtain falls on us, in addition to thanking those readers among you who will faithfully continue on until the final print edition is delivered to your door, we'd like to take a moment and honor our brethren—the words we feel are most deserving of praise and recognition. And though we are deeply disappointed with C-SPAN for not televising this awards ceremony as they promised, we, of course, understand that, in the grand scheme of things, roasts, which help raise money for EAAS (the Effect/Affect Awareness Society), certainly take precedence.

Let this memo, then, serve as a list of highlights for those of you who were unable to attend the momentous evening, hosted by the granddaddy of us all, The New York Times, and held in their sizeable, yet intimate office supply closet. (Special thanks to Post-it for reminding everyone and helping to set that up!)

The evening's master of ceremonies was, of course, emcee. Though no Robin Williams or Billy Crystal, emcee was comedian enough when the occasion called for it, plenty affable, and handled the responsibility of running the show with aplomb.

Words were awarded across a whole host of different categories, building up from minor merits and citations, like Article We'll Miss Most: the, to Most Common Typos: there, their, and they're. The first important award given out was for the Word Containing the Longest String of Consecutive Rs: Brrrr, which walked away with the prize after giving a rather cold acceptance speech.

We newsprint words apparently have something in common with James Joyce, as we voted cuspidor the Most Beautiful Word. This got a big rise from the audience, as its synonym, spittoon, was nominated for Ugliest Word. But that one, however, was won by aasvogel.

Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg, in Boston, failed to take the award for Longest Name of a Place, but did take home awards for Most Frequent Appearance of a Single Letter, with 17 Gs, and Most Difficult Word to Pronounce Correctly, edging out asterix and comfterble. Just kidding! That would, of course, be asterisk and comfortable.

The Most Musical Word went to the eight-letter baggaged, which although clearly not the most mellifluous when spoken, does sound rather beautiful when played on a piano. And while on the subject of tuneful words, the Rookie of the Year award went to underdog ringxiety, a newly coined word that expresses the confusion experienced by a group of people when a cell phone rings.

Not to come off as name droppy, but Joyce gets another mention as his word, tattarrattat, took the prize for Longest Palindrome. And while in the "backward" category, the Most Obvious Reversible Word award was, of course, given to Dennis/sinned.

Schmaltzed beat out two other 10-letter words starting with "sc", scraunched and scroonched, to take the award for Longest Monosyllabic Word, but many believe this is only because of the unremitting lobbying efforts by groups from The Forward and The Jewish Week. If so, they certainly got a triple word score in the Funniest Sounding Word category, getting an equal number of votes for all three winning words: noodnik, schmegegi, and schpilkes.

Though many fell asleep during the exceedingly insipid, not to mention long acceptance speech, the Last Word award, did, indeed, go to zzz, initiating a discussion among us as to whether or not stricter limits on the lengths of acknowledgements and thank yous should have been enforced.

Comeback Words of the Century were given to dilligrout and pettifogger and lastly, there was our Lifetime Achievement award, given to the now retired, blutterbunged, which once meant "confounded, or overcome with surprise"—something we newsprint words will continue to feel, along with profound sadness, as we're replaced by our online cousins.

As we bid each other our final farewells, may we go out with our letters held high—both capitals and lower case—spelled correctly, with our dignity in tact, recapitulating one last refrain of our favorite chorus:

From sea to sea, all over this great land
May the smudge of newsprint forever stain the hand!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]