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The Quick 10: The New York Times Crossword Puzzle

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The New York Times crossword app on my iPhone is probably the best and worst investment I have ever made. I use it all of the time, which is more than I can say for some of my other apps (I meant well, Tetris, I really did), but I probably use it way too much. The problem/awesomeness of the app is that you can consult a calendar and pick any crossword you want going several years back. This means I am doing crosswords all of the time. I have become one of those people who is always completely enthralled in the iPhone and can't be bothered to make eye contact with anyone. It's not healthy. And no, The New York Times certainly hasn't paid me to endorse their app, although if they would like to, I'd be happy to provide my Paypal address. It's really all just a long-winded way of saying that I have crosswords on the brain lately, so it only seemed natural to do a little research on the American pastime.

1. Prior to 1942, the Times was kind of snobby about the wordplay game. They called it "a primitive form of mental exercise" and turned their collective noses up at people who would deign to spend their time arranging letters in little boxes. But the paper finally decided to give in to fun and games during the WWII, when it was decided that perhaps readers needed something a little bit frivolous to take their minds off of the considerably heavier events going on in the world. 

2. There are about 20 errors in the crosswords every year. When you consider that 417 are published annually (there are two on Sundays) and each crossword contains more than 50 clues, that's a pretty good rate. But keep your eyes peeled anyway"¦ it's always fun to spot one.

3. Celebrity NYT crossword fans include Bill Clinton, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Norman Mailer, Jon Stewart and Beverly Sills. "You are never famous until you've had your name in a crossword puzzle," she once said. "There is a group of people who mail the puzzle to you when your name comes up in it."

4. Clinton is such a fan that he collaborated on an online-only crossword for the Times in 2007. He wrote the clues, but the grid was constructed for him. Shortz edited the puzzle "“ albeit very little, he said "“ and reported that Clinton's clues and answers were "laugh out loud" funny.

shortz5. Will Shortz doesn't write all of the crosswords, but he does edit them. The puzzles are written by a team of freelance writers. There is apparently a pool of about 500 puzzle writers who can produce New York Times-quality clues, which is up from only 100 about 40 years ag.
6. Incidentally, Shortz' favorite puzzle clue of all time is "It might turn into a different story." The answer? "SPIRALSTAIRCASE."
7. You can rotate the crossword 180 degrees and, more often than not, the position of the black and white squares will not change. If you see a puzzle that is asymmetrical, it's probably because there is a rebus or theme that required the puzzle to break its usual shape.
8. There have only been four editors of the NYT crossword since its 1942 inception. The first, Margaret Farrar, started her career as a secretary who was hired to help Arthur Wynne, the inventor of crosswords, with his work. Her work soon became more popular than his. Will Weng was the editor from 1969 to 1977, Eugene Maleska then became the editor after years of freelancing for the famous diversion. Shortz took over when Maleska died of throat cancer in 1993 and is the only editor (the only known person in the world, actually) to hold a college degree in enigmatology, the study of puzzles.

9. In 1998, a man proposed to his New York Times crossword-loving girlfriend using the puzzle. Bob Khan prepared a puzzle where answers to clues included "BILLG" (his first name and last initial") "WILLYOUMARRYME" and "AMODESTPROPOSAL." She said yes. What do you want to bet that completed crossword puzzle is hanging on their wall, framed?

10. A few tips to help you on your life quest to finish the Sunday Crossword (or is that just me?):
"¢ Any time the clue uses an abbreviation instead of spelling out the word, the answer is an abbreviation.
"¢ If the clue ends in a question mark, the puzzle author is using a play on words or is doing something else particularly clever.
"¢ The answer will never be in the clue itself.

The Sunday puzzle, by the way, is supposed to be about the difficulty of a Thursday puzzle.

My crossword puzzle-addict friend, who is a lot better at them than I am, swears by Rex Parker Does the NYT Crossword Puzzle. He explains answers and is a bit condescending ("[This was] medium for me, but rebuses always befuddle a significant chunk of the audience"), but is also entertaining and kind of helps you understand the reason behind the clues and answers so you'll "get" the writers better in the future.

Any other NYT crossword junkies out there? Maybe we can start a group. Leave a comment and let us know how far in the week you can get, and then we'll divide into small therapy sessions from there"¦ And yes, I have seen the documentary Word Play, and it makes me feel bad about my intellect.

Have a Q10 request? I'm on Twitter and I'm all ears! Err... all keys. Something.

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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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