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10 Hoax Definitions, Paper Towns, and Other Things That Don’t Exist

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Facts are hard to copyright—impossible, actually. This is problematic for people who deal in information; any reference material is factual, and therefore difficult to protect from dirty, lying thieves who want to steal your work. That’s where fictitious entries come in: facts become very easy to copyright when they aren’t true. These are people, places and things that exist only on paper, solely to thwart would-be info burglars.

1. Lillian Virginia Mountweazel

The mythical Ms. Mountweazel was a photographer and fountain designer. Her book, Flags Up!, was purportedly an unmatched collection of rural American mailbox photography. Unfortunately, she was killed in 1973 in an explosion, while on assignment for the equally nonexistent Combustibles magazine. Lillian Mountweazel’s life was a sham, created to protect the contents of the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia, but it wasn’t without its perks: her (fake) life would become the subject of an exhibit in Dublin, and her (fake) name would later serve as a neologism for fictitious entries, thanks to a New Yorker article about the next Mountweazel in this list...

2. Esquivalience

The second edition New Oxford American Dictionary was published early in 2005. Almost immediately afterward, a rumor leaked that the NOAD 2E contained a secretly made-up word which began with the letter e. A man with a lot of free time set about isolating the fictitious entry from the 3,128 e-words, using a combination of careful cross-referencing and probably-unhealthy obsession. He narrowed the options to six words: earth loop, EGD, electrofish, ELSS, esquivalience and eurocreep. Of a group of nine lexicographers, six pegged esquivalience as the fraud. This was confirmed by the dictionary’s editor-in-chief, Erin McKean, who said, “Its inherent fakeitude is fairly obvious.” (Fakeitude does not appear in the NOAD 2E.)

3. Zzxjoanw

Rupert Hughes’ Music Lovers’ Encyclopedia of 1903 included the word zzxjoanw, defined as “a Maori word for ‘drum.’” The entry persisted through subsequent editions, well into the 1950s. It was later proved a hoax when someone noticed that there are no Z, X, or J in the Maori language. If you’re wondering, zzxjoanw is pronounced just how it looks.

4. Dog of Norway

The Golden Turkey Awards is a weird 1980s catalogue of obscure and bad films, wherein the authors award movies of poor quality a Golden Turkey. (It’s like a Razzie, only even less prestigious.)

The authors, film critic Michael Medved and his brother Harry, revealed that one entry was a complete hoax, and then challenged readers to discover which movie never actually existed. This time, no cross-references or obsessive searches were necessary: the imaginary film, Dog of Norway, starred "Muki the Wonder Dog"... the same dog featured on the cover of the book with the authors. (That dog’s name was Muki, too.)

5. Agloe, NY

The town of Agloe, New York, was invented by map makers, but the practice of inserting fictional towns, roads, rivers or other geographical has been in place nearly as long as cartography itself. The weird thing that happened with Agloe, though, doesn’t really ever happen: it became a real place. The Agloe General Store was built at its fictional location, prompting the (real) county administrator to declare Agloe an actual town. (Paper Towns by John Green is partially set in Agloe, and one character has a dog named Myrna Mountweazel.)

6 & 7. "The Song of Love" and The Cysterz

Joel Whitburn created a book series based on the Billboard music charts. To throw potential copycats, Whitburn’s pop chart compilations say that, for the week ending December 26, 1955, Ralph Marterie's "The Song of Love" peaked at #84. Sad news for Ralph Marterie, who was probably shooting for a single-digit rank, but it was all okay, because Billboard Magazine didn’t even issue a list that week, and “The Song of Love” was never recorded by Marterie.

In Whitburn’s rock charts, the song "Drag You Down" by The Cysterz makes an appearance, though neither the group nor the song ever did in real life.

8 & 9. Beatosu and Goblu, Ohio

The official state map of Michigan from 1978 includes a pair of hoax entries designed to irk every football fan in Ohio. The chairman of the State Highway Commission (and Michigan alumnus) had Beatosu and Goblu (“Beat OSU!” and “Go Blue!” to Michigan fans) inserted in the Ohio side of the Michigan-Ohio border. They were removed from later editions, but Goblu was briefly of interest again later when it was revealed that Road Pig from G.I. Joe was born there.

10. Philip

In the 1970s, Fred L. Worth began publishing a series of trivia encyclopedias, imaginatively titled The Trivia Encyclopedia, The Complete Unabridged Super Trivia Encyclopedia, and Super Trivia volumes I and II. In order to protect his stake in the trivia encyclopedia market (which was not yet booming), Worth inserted a single entirely false “fact.”

In 1984, Trivial Pursuit hit the market and sold like gangbusters. Unfortunately, the company was about to get sued for a lot more than the $256 million they raked in that first year. Why? Because one answer on the game’s cards was known to only one person—Fred L. Worth, who’d fabricated it years earlier:

The card said the answer was Philip, which was false. In fact, Columbo's name was never revealed, a fact that's been confirmed by both the cast and writers of the show. (Unless you believe this screenshot of Columbo's badge has the answer.) Worth’s suit fingered the creators of the game as well as their distributors; aside from the fictitious entry, he showed that Trivial Pursuit’s creators had lifted his work so completely that the game even included his typos and misspelled words. Trivial Pursuit eventually admitted that they had, in fact, stolen Worth's work for the game—but they had also stolen trivia from a lot of other places, too, which they defended as "doing research."

The case was thrown out before going to trial on the grounds that Trivial Pursuit was “substantially different” from Super Trivia. Worth and his attorneys appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, but to no avail.

Because of Trivial Pursuit’s persistent popularity (and more than a few original versions that are still in play), some shady-looking “fun fact” sites continue to insist that Columbo’s first name was, in fact, Philip.

Image credits: FactFixx, Nerdfighters, and Trivia Hall of Fame.

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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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