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The Tiny Island Where Men Have Their Own Language

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In 1837, the British cutter Lambton sailed from Sydney to Ngatik (now Sapwuahfik, above), a tiny island in Micronesia. On orders from Captain Charles "Bloody" Hart, who hoped to take control of the valuable supply of tortoise shells there, the crew massacred all the men on the island. They left behind some European and Ponapean crew members, installing an Irishman named Paddy Gorman as a "chief," and the sailors claimed the widowed island women as their wives.

Today, the islanders speak a dialect of the Ponapean language of the region. But there is another language spoken on the island, called Ngatikese Men's Language or Ngatikese Pidgin, that is spoken only by men. It was described by the late well-known linguist of Austronesian languages, Darrell Tryon. The women and children on the island can understand it, but it is primarily used among men engaged in male domain activities like fishing and boat-building. It developed from an English-based pidgin—one of many in Austronesia—but because Ngatik lies so far from the main shipping routes of the region, it resisted further mixing, remaining today a sort of preserved historical crumb dropped from a passing ship. It is the echo of the voices of those 19th century sailors.

This makes it different from the other pidgins of the region, such as Tok Pisin and Bisalma, which developed over a long period of steady contact with shipboard language, and have many features in common with each other. For example, many of those languages use blong (from "belong") as a marker of possession, and bambai ("by and by") as a marker of future tense. Ngatikese Pidgin uses kon ko (gonna go) instead of bambai and possessive pronouns instead of blong (hi nihm, "his name" as opposed to nem blong em), features that make it more similar to the New South Wales Pidgin of the 1820s and '30s, now extinct.

Overall, the Ngatikese Men's Language is more Ngatikese than English. Most of the words and grammatical structure come from Ngatikese. The English and English-based pidgin used by the European and Ponapean sailors eventually receded, and the language and people of Ngatik became Ngatikese again, or rather Sapwuahfik, the aboriginal name they revived in 1986. But there remained this one strange little practice, this thing that men do, that preserves a piece of tragic history from another time.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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