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The Quick 10: 10 Fictitious Entries

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You know how animators and filmmakers will sometimes slip something a little unexpected into a piece just to put their stamp on it? They're not the only ones who do so. You'll find silly little entries in lots of other places - if you know what to look for. And sometimes the reason for the fictitious entry serves a purpose other than to amuse the author (see #4, #5 and #8). Check out these 10.

1. Apopudobalia. What, you've never heard of this sport? Don't feel too bad "“ neither have most people, and that's because it doesn't exist. But the German-language Der neue Pauly, a German encyclopedia Brittanica, didn't let the fact that the sport never was stop them from including it in their 1986 edition. According to the encyclopedia, it was a Greco-Roman sport similar to modern-day soccer.

2. Zzxjoanw. This one flew under the radar for years; it was reprinted in editions of The Musical Guide from 1903-1956. The Guide contained all kinds of information on music, including a 252-page dictionary for meanings and pronunciations of non-English words often found in music. "Zymbel," which is German for cymbal, should have been the last entry. However, author Robert Hughes slipped in "Zzxjoanw," apparently pronounced "shaw," and declared it a type of Maori drum. The hoax was fully exposed in a 1996 book called Making the Alphabet Dance. One pretty big tipoff that the word was fake: there is no "Z" in the Maori alphabet.

mountweazel3. Lillian Virginia Mountweazel. The New Columbia Encyclopedia included a pretty unbelievable entry on this Ohioan in its 1975 edition. Mountweazel was a fountain designer and photographer and was particularly skilled at capturing the essence of rural mailboxes in America. She died in a freak explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine. The kicker? She was from Bangs, Ohio. Ha. For someone who doesn't exist, Lillian is quite accomplished - an art exhibit was dedicated to her "work" last year.

4. Esquivalience. Even the most well-known dictionaries slip one by people sometimes, but with good reason. In 2005, The New Oxford American Dictionary made the news when the faux word "esquivalience" was discovered amongst its other very real words. It was intended as a copyright trap "“ a purposeful error made to make it easy to spot plagiarizers. Given this purpose, the definition editors made up for it is pretty clever: "the willful avoidance of one's official responsibilities."

5. Jungftak. Yep, Websters does it too. A 1943 version of Webster's New Twentieth Century lists a jungftak as:

"A Persian bird, the male of which had only one wing, on the right side, and the female only one wing, on the left side; instead of the missing wings, the male had a hook of bone, and the female an eyelet of bone, and it was by uniting hook and eye that they were enable[d] to fly, -each, when alone, had to remain on the ground."

A professor wrote to Webster's in the "˜80s to ask about the, um, interesting entry, and its then-associate editor responded that the entry definitely lacked validity. She suspected it was used for the same copyright-protection reasons "esquivalience" had been in The New Oxford American Dictionary.

6. Dord. "Dord" is the result of a rather humorous error, although that error wasn't explained until 15 years after the fictitious word was printed in Webster's Third New International Dictionary. The word ostensibly meant "density." What actually happened was that the dictionary's chemistry editor sent a note that said "D or d, cont./density," meaning that the letter "d" could be used as an abbreviation for density. Somewhere along the line, the note was mistranslated as dord instead of "D or d."

7. Stone Louse. The stone louse is a fictitious little mite that gnawed its way into the German medical dictionary Pschyrembel Klinisches Wörterbuch in 1983. It was based on a parody nature documentary by the German humorist Loriot. It seems that most people caught on to the joke, because the stone louse remains in the dictionary, with each edition seeming to expand on the mite's habitat, medical value and natural enemies. Apparently the louse was instrumental in bringing down the Berlin Wall, as the wall was placed in areas "commonly inhabited by the stone louse." Who knew?!

agloe8. Agloe, New York. Agloe is one of the few instances of a fictional place turning real. The fake town was included on a 1930s map for the same reason publishers put fake words in the dictionary "“ to deter anyone who might try to copy the map and sell it for their own profit. The joke was on them, though "“ when someone built a little general store at precisely the spot the fake town was labeled on the map, they named it the Agloe General Store because they thought that's what town they were legitimately in. Today, it's best known as a quirky landmark and for being featured in the young adult novel Paper Towns by John Green.

9. Guglielmo Baldini. The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians is the largest reference work on Western music ever. It's so large, in fact, it even contains some musicians who aren't real. Although the fictional Baldini appeared within the Grove's pages, it wasn't their editors who made him up. The fake composer was invented nearly 100 years earlier by musicologist Hugo Riemann. An eagle-eyed reader spotted the error and Baldini was removed by the second printing of the book.

10. Dag Henrik Esrum-Hellerup. Also an entry in The Grove, Esrum-Hellerup was added to the 1980 edition, perhaps in homage to the great Baldini. Like his predecessor, though, the hoax was quickly exposed, removed, and replaced with an illustration in the book.

Have you ever spotted an entry in the dictionary that didn't quite sound right to you? I'm almost motivated to go cull through my dictionaries to see if I can spot the fake entries. Almost.

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]