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The [adjective] History of Mad Libs

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Leonard Stern, the [adjective] creator of Mad Libs, the wacky fill-in-the-word game we all [past-tense verb] as kids, died this week at the age of [number]. OK, I’ll give you that one: he was 88.
Stern was a writer for shows like The Honeymooners, Get Smart and Steve Allen’s Tonight Show. Like all writers sometimes (…often…) do, Stern was sitting over his typewriter, stumped. “I need an adjective,” he told his friend, Roger Price. Before he could give some context by explaining the storyline thus far, Price gave him the words clumsy and naked. It turned out Stern was searching for a word to describe Ralph Kramden’s boss' nose. After laughing over it for a time, the pair spent the afternoon coming up with a rough draft of Mad Libs, which they debuted at a party later that evening.


Despite its massive success amongst their friends, Mad Libs didn't debut until several years later for a couple of reasons. First of all, Price and Stern couldn't think of a catchy, clever name for their product. Secondly, publishers just didn't know what to do with it. Book publishers thought it was more game than book and game publishers found it to be more book than game. Eventually, the duo decided to publish it themselves. It was a pretty smart decision considering the series has sold more than 150 million copies since then, not to mention more than two million downloads on a Mad Libs app for iPhones and iPads. Versions include Mad Libs books based on Indiana Jones, Family Guy, Star Wars, iCarly and Napoleon Dynamite, among others.

Despite the commercial success enjoyed by the series today, the book/game might have not taken off if Steve Allen hadn't intervened. Stern was writing for The Steve Allen show when he and Price decided to self-publish Mad Libs. Sick of storing 14,000 copies in his dining room, Stern asked Allen to give the game a plug so he might sell a few copies and actually be able to eat at his dining room table. Luckily, Allen was a fan of word games and ended up often using Mad Libs to introduce his guests, asking the audience to fill in the blanks. This resulted in guest intros such as one of Stern's favorites: "And here’s the scintillating Bob Hope, whose theme song is “Thanks for the Communist.”

Though they're more than 50 years old now, Mad Libs still has maintained a strong following over the years. Some video evidence:

A bizarre game show for kids based on Mad Libs

A spoof of Mad Men

A reference on The Office:

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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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