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Weird names, ironic and otherwise

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Having grown up with a name like Ransom -- people sometimes assume it's a blog-world pseudonym; nope -- I know all about the blessings and curses of having a weird name. When you're young, they get you all the wrong kind of attention: teachers who can't pronounce your name during roll call; uninspired, sing-songy mocking; wedgies. When you're older, however, your name undergoes a mysterious transformation from just-plain-weird to unique, and suddenly you're a standout in a world full of Jims and Janes. There's another, entirely unwelcome transition your name can undergo, however, though so far I've been lucky enough to avoid it: weird or not, circumstance can make your name ironic. That's right: I'm just one kidnapping away from having a ridiculous name. Here are a few people (and places) that haven't been so lucky.

Oh, the irony
"¢ After a recent near-accident on a British Airways flight -- the plane lost power as it approached the runway from the air -- the pilot singled out the co-pilot for his heroism in averting disaster: "Mr Coward did a most remarkable job in landing the aircraft." Link

"¢ This was a particularly hilarious (and anonymous) comment on Tribe.net:

A friend of ours works in the local gardening store with a guy named "Bat Dung." He asked him what his name meant in Vietnamese one day and got this story. In Vietnam, "Bat" means "8." He was the 8th child in the Dung family and his parents apparently ran out of names (or were just tired of having kids?) so they just named him "8." When he immigrated to the U.S. he hoped people wouldn't laugh at his name anymore. Sadly, that's not the way it turned out ...

A hospital that's DOA: after enduring years of jokes, R.H. Dedman Medical Center in Dallas finally changed its name to R.H.D. Medical Center a few years ago. Apparently, the name change has had no effect on the hospital's mortality rate.

Ridiculous Names from British History
Back in 2005, census-takers in Cornwall, England decided to compile a list of the weirdest names their town had ever registered. They surfaced with an impressive haul of oddities:

"My all-time favorites are Abraham Thunderwolff and Freke Dorothy Fluck Lane," archivist Rene Jackaman said. Other discoveries included Boadicea Basher, Philadelphia Bunnyface, Faithful ######, Susan Booze, Elizabeth Disco, Edward Evil, Fozzitt Bonds, Truth Bullock, Charity Chilly, Gentle Fudge, Obedience Ginger and Offspring Gurney. Levi Jeans was married in Padstow, Cornwall, in 1797.

Other remarkable duos in the marriage records included Nicholas Bone and Priscilla Skin, joined in wedlock in 1636; Charles Swine and Jane Ham in 1711; John Mutton and Ann Veale in 1791, and Richard Dinner and Mary Cook in 1802.

Who's the weirdest-named person you know (besides me)?

Thanks to Ironic Sans for the graphic.

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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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May 23, 2017
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