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Word fun in Nabokov's Lolita

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If you're a fan of word play, you probably already know how much fun Nabokov had penning Lolita. There's hardly a page in the novel that doesn't make good use of a pun, play on words, or other cool lit-device. There are also dozens upon dozens of allusions to Poe, Joyce, Flaubert, Shakespeare, Keats, Melville, and on and on. It is, by this writer's way of thinking, one of the busiest novels written in recent history, if you're into reading between the lines. Here are some of my favorite examples.

1. Vivian Darkbloom

Let's start with perhaps the most famous, Vivian Darkbloom, the mistress of antagonist Clare Quilty. Ms. Darkbloom's name is a simple anagram of Vladimir Nabokov.

2. Edgar

There are a lot of references to Edgar Allan Poe throughout the novel. This is partly due to the fact that Poe was the master of word play, and partly to the fact that Poe married his 13-year-old cousin. One of the more obvious references is when H.H. checks into his first motel with Lolita (who, don't forget, is only 12 in the novel), and signs in as Dr. Edgar H. Humbert.

3. Blanche Schwarzmann

In the novel's foreword, penned by the fictitious John Ray, Jr., Ph.D., (to give "˜authenticity' to the confessional style of the novel), a certain psychologist named Dr. Blanche Schwarzmann is quoted (to give even more "˜validity' to that which is already clearly fake). Blanche is, of course, white in French. And schwarz is black in German, so her name is actually Dr. White Blackman. Nabokov believed that Freudian psychologists, like Dr. Schwarzmann, see everything in black and white.

4. Double Ds

Nabokov loves to have fun with phonetics and double consonants throughout the novel. Humbert Humbert is just one in a long succession, including Gaston Godin, Mesmer Mesmer and Harold D. Doublename. This word play applies to the names of the places and towns Lolita and H.H. visit along the road, too. Places like Hazy Hills, Kumfy Kabins, Hobby House, Raspberry Room, Pierre Point, and many more.

5. Pardon my French

Nabokov's mother tongue was Russian, of course, as he was born in Saint Petersburg in 1899. His first books were written in Russian, and, later, French (he eventually wound up in Paris in the late 1930s before moving to the US). These facts make Lolita, and all the word play, all the more amazing, because it was written not in Russian or French, but English. Still, his fluency in Russian and French play a small part in the novel. For instance, there is a man in the novel referred to as the "˜White Russian ex-colonel' who lives and works in Paris. When he speaks, he speaks in French, and says, "J'ai demannde pardonne" If you know your French, you know that the White Russian's grammar is wrong. It should, of course, be Je, not J'ai. And demannde and pardonne both have extra N's. Why? Because this is how a Russian would pronounce French, emphasizing that consonant.

6. PO Box

When Nabokov creates a name or even a thing in Lolita, he always makes sure to have fun with the words. For instance, H.H. has his mail forwarded to a couple different post boxes. The first is called P.O. Wace (that would be POW, of course, or the prison H.H. has created for himself); the second is called P.O. Elphinstone, another reference to old Edgar Allan.

These are just a spit in the bucket, though. Take a fine-tooth comb to Lolita and you could fill an entire book noting the allusions, homages, and word plays. Have a favorite of your own, drop it in the comments below. Let's get a list going.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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