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Be Amazing: Get a New Word in the Dictionary

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Whether you're looking to start your own religion, swallow a sword, quit smoking, find Atlantis, buy the Moon, sink a battleship, perform your own surgeries, or become a ninja, our new book Be Amazing covers all the essential life skills! This week, we'll be excerpting a few lessons from the book.

New words pop up in the dictionary all the time, thanks to a handy—and almost maniacally extensive—editorial system. If you want your word to make into the big books, you'll need to slip it past the gatekeepers.


Over at the Oxford English Dictionary, they'll tell you that the the life of a new word starts out in their Reading Programme department, where about 50 people spend their 9-to-5s gobbling up all the printed material they can get their hands on: novels, television transcripts, song lyrics, newspapers, magazines . . . anything. They're on the lookout for new words (or innovative uses of old, mundane words). New discoveries end up on a searchable electronic database that Oxford calls its "Incomings."


In our experience, this is pretty much "Step 2" in any creative undertaking. And it's no different in the world of words. Each new word under consideration is assigned to a specific editor, who then begins tracking its use and popularity in the long-term. How long-term? Try 5 years.

The rule of thumb at Oxford is that a word can't be included in the dictionary until it's appeared 5 times, in 5 different sources, over a period of 5 years.

We don't know for certain, but if we were word editors, we'd be a lot more likely to notice that all-important fifth usage if there was a bottle of 12-year-old Scotch left on our desk. Just sayin'.


Yes, the dictionary is just like junior high. Dictionaries are meant to record English as a living language, not a museum showpiece. So when a word falls out of use, it can kiss its spot on the all-dictionary cheerleading squad good-bye. In 2003, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the good folks at Merriam-Webster opened the doors for 10,000 up-and-coming new words and usages, including: "phat," "Frankenfood," and "cheesed off." (This should give you hope for your favorite word. Whatever it is, it's gotta be better than "cheesed off.") But, that same year, several hundred words got the ax. Among them, "snollygoster," which once (back when your grandma had all her teeth) referred to an unscrupulous politician, and "Vitamin G," which hasn't technically disappeared but is now called "riboflavin."

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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