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Weekend Word Wrap: Mental Jotto

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For those word game lovers out there who've had the privileged of knowing Leonard Bernstein (or any of his friends or family) or, alternatively, read my novel Behind Everyman, you already know how to play Mental Jotto.

For those who didn't know him or his posse and haven't read my book (and judging by my Random House quarterly statements, that's most of you), it's time to learn one of my favorites.

IMG_38921.JPGFirst the background: As far as I know, this variation of Jotto was invented by Leonard Bernstein. So if you can't prove me wrong, we'll give the maestro the props. The original Jotto was was invented in the 50s by Morton Rosenfeld and put out by Jotto Corporation. The version I bought off eBay some years ago (pictured here) says Copyright 1972 by Selchow and Righter, so my assumption is they bought Rosenfeld out.

The object of the game: to guess your opponent's secret word. (The only real difference between Mental Jotto and the paper/pencil version is that with the former, the only thing you have to work with is your brain. So it's a) harder! and b) perfect for long drives or flights, or anywhere you need to pass some time.)

How you play: One player picks a secret 5-letter word. Any 5-letter word will do, but it mustn't contain any repeating vowels or consonants. Why? It'll be obvious by the end of this post.

1. Once you have a secret 5-letter word, your opponent must guess the word by offering up 5-letter words of his/her own.
2. For example: Let's say you and I are seated next to each other on a plane and strike up a conversation. After some time, I decide to teach you Mental Jotto, because, I'll admit it, I'm actually rather boring off-blog and wouldn't have much to say to you otherwise. Okay, so we decide to play and it's my job to come up with a secret word and your job to guess it.
3. So my secret word is plane "“ P-L-A-N-E "“ plane. (Notice: no repeating vowels or consonants, each letter appears only once.)
4. You try to guess my word by figuring out how many letters in your guess word are also in my secret word. So you offer, say, the word stump. You say, "David, how many in the word stump?" Meaning, how many letters are in common with my secret word.

5. I say, "Well, planepal, (I just coined that: it's your pal for the duration of a flight who, afterward, you'll never speak to again as long as you live), there is one letter in common with my secret word." Namely, the P, but you don't know that yet.
6. Next, trying to eliminate letters in the alphabet, you say, "And how many are in the word stamp?" By substituting the letter A for the letter U, you might learn something.
7. I say, "Two." Because hey, now we have the P and the A in common. By this point, you should know two things: first, that there's no U in my word. And second, that there's an A in my word.
8. If you then offer: "How many in the word stomp?" I change my answer from two to one, and you now know my word has no O in it.
9. The smarter you are, and the better your memory, the sooner you'll eliminate all the letters that aren't in my word and come up with the five letters that are in my word. Chances are, you'll probably get an anagram first, like NEPAL, or PANEL or PENAL. But it doesn't matter.
10. Because when you next ask, "How many in the word panel," I have no choice but to say, "Five!" "“ and it's just a matter of time before you do the anagram and hit on plane.
11. Besides getting my secret word, obviously one of the challenges in Mental Jotto is to figure out the letters in as few guesses as possible. (In the paper and pencil version they give you 35 tries.) That's why a strategy like the one I started above, Stamp, Stump, Stomp, etc., helps because you're focusing in on the vowels first. It's much harder if you just start with random words in the beginning like, "How many in Egypt? How many in viola?" etc., because one guess doesn't inform the next.
12. Now, why can't you pick apple as your secret word or your guess word? Because if I were to ask, "How many in plant?" What would you say, three or four? It's too confusing and too misleading.

I never had the chance to play the game with Bernstein, but he was known for playing in multiple languages at the same time. Which meant the secret word could be in Spanish, French, English, etc. One never knew!

For an even harder version of the game, try 6-letter Mental Jotto. It's killer!

I know we've never written instructions on the blog before, so if you have questions, by all means, drop them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer quickly. Meanwhile, Jot on word lovers, Jot on. And if you're ever seated next to me on an airplane, don't hesitate to invite me to play, or at least offer me some gum.

Check out all past Weekend Word Wraps>>

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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]