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Pencils Down: Scantron Inventor Michael Sokolski Has Died

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(Modern Scantron test sheet; photo by Josh Davis, used under CC license.)

We learned this week that Michael Sokolski, a soldier, engineer, and inventor of the Scantron, died on June 13. Sokolski was an immigrant to the US from Poland, and later an engineer and inventor best known for his work with Scantron. Today, we dig into some Scantron trivia -- please make sure your trivia bubbles are completely filled or the machine may not give you credit.

How Does the Scantron Work?

The original Scantron tests were a form of Optical Mark Recognition (OMR) system, in which a scanning machine beamed light through your test paper and examined the back of the paper, noting which areas were dark using phototubes. The notion was that wherever you'd made a dark mark (using a No. 2 pencil, of course!), the graphite laid down by the pencil would block the light, causing it to bounce off the paper. The machine noted the position of that dark mark detected by the phototubes, compared that position to a master answer key, and tabulated the results. Because of this through-the-paper technique, early Scantron sheets had to be one-sided.

More modern Scantron testing machines use imaging sensors capable of recognizing marks other than those made by No. 2 pencils (hence my Oregon vote-by-mail ballot allowing and even encouraging the use of ink pens on the sheet). These sensors act more like digital cameras, taking a digital picture of the sheet and determining the darkest area. These systems have additional advantages, as their software can (within reason) ignore stray marks and even determine the darkest area in a given region. (You'll know why this is important if you've ever tried to erase your ultra-dark Scantron bubble and left behind a smudgy ghost. Teachers will also be aware of this phenomenon, as those "unscorable" rows had to be examined manually.)

Why a No. 2 Pencil?

Pencils come in different grades depending on the composition of the graphite mixture used within them. The "lead" in a typical pencil is actually graphite powder mixed with clay; the ratio of graphite-to-lead determines the hardness of that lead, which has a lot to do with the darkness of the mark made, as well as how the pencil holds up to repeated use before you have to sharpen it again. The American numbering system is a bit arbitrary, but effectively #2 is moderately soft and #4 is very hard. The #2 pencil (also known as "HB" in the European nomenclature) makes a dark enough mark, but doesn't suffer from the extreme smudging and breakability you can get with harder pencils.

When Scantron systems were first invented, in order to block that light beaming through the paper, the system needed the user to lay down a nice sheet of reflective graphite. The #2 pencil was deemed the right fit for that application -- and it didn't hurt that it was already a very common pencil anyway. You can read way more about pencil grading from Wikipedia, if you're into that kind of thing.

What Made Scantron Special?

OMR systems of various types had been around for decades when Scantron was founded in 1972. Some of the earliest OMR systems (invented in the 1930s and deployed by IBM) used even weirder techniques than the through-the-page light system -- some brushed the page with wires, testing for electrical conductivity (the graphite marks have a markedly different conductivity signature than plain paper). Although Scantron's optical system was patented, the Scantron corporation's other crucial innovation was its business model: by getting inexpensive Scantron test-scoring machines into schools, the company could later make a profit by selling the proprietary test sheets. This is a variant of the classic "razor blade" business model in which you effectively give away the handle but sell the blades, and it worked well for Scantron.

It's important to note that there are lots of players in the standardized test business, so it's likely that many test forms we call "Scantrons" are not the real Scantron-brand item. "Scantron" is one of those trademarked terms like "Xerox" and "Kleenex" that has become partly genericized through common use and overwhelming popularity, despite its valid trademark status.

The College Prep Pro Tip

I flirted with the idea of being a college prep tutor, until I learned about the pay scale involved. But before I gave up on that weekend-long dream, I picked up one pro tip: test-takers should bring slightly blunt pencils to tests. The logic is that if you use a very sharp pencil, it takes longer to fill in the oval completely and you run the risk of breaking the tip; a slightly dulled point gets you to a filled-in oval faster.

If you really do want a sharp pencil, I must refer you to the instant classic How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants; a book that is, no kidding, the definitive resource on pencil sharpening techniques -- written by David Rees, the world's "Number One No. 2 Pencil Sharpener."

The Scantron Test-Taking Machine

Artist/engineer Christian Croft made a Scantron test-taking robot as part of an art installation. Here's a photo of the machine by Kevin Slavin, used under CC license:

Scantron Test-Taking Machine

A Crazy Scantron/TRON Crossover

And finally, a Light Cycle scene from TRON done using Scantrons. The animators are clearly not using No. 2 pencils.

What are Your Scantron Memories?

If you're like me, you have a lot of memories of the Scantron from school, including "Christmas-treeing" a test (drawing a Christmas tree or other image using the bubbles, because you knew you'd fail the test anyway), the common lore that "C" is the most common answer on A-D tests, and a bunch of (bogus) notions that things like Chapstick can help you ace a Scantron test. Share your Scantron memories in the comments.

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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES