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The Quick 10: Merriam-Webster's Top Ten Words of 2010

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As a self-proclaimed word nerd, I love when the word of the year is announced. You may have seen the #1 word floating about the Web, but here's the rest of the list as determined by Merriam-Webster.com. They base their picks on words that have seen more traffic than in previous years; they can typically be tied to events that happened throughout the last 12 months.

1. Austerity: enforced or extreme economy. Merriam-Webster's editor-at-large, Peter Sokolowski, says this was the most unusual looked-up item this year, especially after the debt crisis in Europe reared its ugly head.

2. Pragmatic: relating to matters of fact or practical affairs often to the exclusion of intellectual or artistic matters. It's no coincidence that this was looked up while candidates were stumping last fall.

3. Moratorium: a suspension of activity. If you're thinking BP oil spill, you're correct, but I bet the proposed foreclosure moratorium boosted searches as well.

4. Socialism: any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods. Editors believe this word was looked up because of media coverage of federal health care legislation.

5. Bigot: a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially one who regards or treats the members of a group with hatred and intolerance. Several politicians and analysts have used this phrase this year, including fired CNN host Rick Sanchez who infamously referred to Jon Stewart as a bigot.

6. Doppelganger: a ghostly counterpart of a living person. This one likely spiked because of its repeated use in the popular T.V. show Vampire Diaries.

7. Shellacking: a decisive defeat. I thought perhaps people looked this up in reference to my performance in the mental_floss fantasy football league this year, but it seems to be centered on President Obama's reference to the beating the Democratic party took after midterm elections.

8. Ebullient: having or showing liveliness and enthusiasm. People wanted a definition of this effervescent word after the press used it to describe the rescued Chilean miners in October. And seriously, is there a better word to ascribe Edison Pena? Check out his rendition of "Suspicious Minds."

9. Dissident: disagreeing especially with an established religious or political system, organization or belief. This year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xialbo, was often called a dissident in the news because he didn't get to attend the ceremony due to his political prisoner status in China.

10. Furtive: done by stealth. Remember the guy who tried to bomb Times Square in the spring? Surveillance tapes caught him looking furtively as he fled the scene, according to the New York Times.

In 2007, "w00t" took Merriam Webster's top honor; it's no surprise that "bailout" was much-searched in 2008, and 2009's #1 spot went to "admonish."

Do you have any words you would have added to the list?

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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