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Benjamin Ziek

Pun-Off Champion Benjamin Ziek

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Benjamin Ziek

Each May since 1978, some very punny people gather in Austin, Texas, to participate in the O. Henry Pun-Off. This year's competition takes place May 10; we spoke with last year's Punniest of Show, Benjamin Ziek—who plans to participate again this weekend—to find out just how he does it.

What’s your day job? 
I'm a hotel night auditor. I work to make sure our guests are charged properly, and that the hotel's books balance. I also help with guest complaints, questions, or issues.

Do you incorporate puns into your daily life or work?
I pun a lot at work—to the chagrin of my co-workers—and in life. However, it's almost involuntary. A paranomastic, or punster's, mind works much in the same way as a dyslexic's. We hear something, something sticks out in a conversation, and our mind just starts working on how we can change that word or words into something humorous. Some people hold it in. I usually will just say it, depending on the situation.

How do you prepare for the pun-off? How long does it take you to craft your Punniest of Show entry?
For Punniest of Show, I usually take about 3 to 4 months to come up with my finished entry. I'll decide on what topic I want to use. Then I make a list of things belonging to that topic. I start playing with the words, and come up with individual, usually disjointed, sentences. Then I find a way to bind them together, check it for time—you have a maximum of 2 minutes before being disqualified—then pare it down if necessary. When I'm finally happy with it, then I practice and try to memorize it, so I can perform it, rather than just reading it, because you're also judged on performance.

In particular, how do you hone your craft so that you can participate—and ultimately win—in the Punslingers portion of the competition?
For the Punslingers competition, the first year I went, I created a Powerpoint program to give me a random topic on which to make a pun. I spent hours practicing, but you can never fully be prepared since you don't know what categories will show up. My approach when I'm on stage is to come up with two puns when I hear the topic. That way, I can use one, and save the other to pull out when I need it. One of the biggest pointers I could give is to listen carefully to your opponent's pun. There may be something in it that you can use as a springboard to your next pun.

According to the rules, you can present your Punniest of Show routine in any format. Is there any format you want to tackle?
I never know how I'm going to present my routine until I've written it. So far I've done a couple of regular stories, a soap opera, a film noir, and I've even sung. I just let the routine dictate what format it will be

Can you tell me a little bit about competition? Is there any behind-the-scenes drama? Has a war of the words ever turned into an actual fight?
There is a great camaraderie between the Pun-Off contestants. When you have a love for something so niche, finding others who share this love is an amazing thing. So everyone gets along well, even during the competition. Sometimes people get upset with a topic they get during Punslingers—and sometimes with reason, as this could make the difference between winning and losing—but everybody knows it's part of the game.

What’s one pun you’ve heard at the Pun Off that you wish had been yours?
In 2009, the first year I went, I was told a pun by a friend, Jay Rosenberg, that I ended up getting to use in Punslingers. The category was mythology: "I have a friend named Dora who wrote a one-panel comic strip which the critics didn't like, so they all Panned Dora's Box." (Pandora's Box.)

When you’re up there delivering your puns, what sort of reaction are you looking for from the audience?
To be honest, anything but silence. People think that groaning at a pun might coerce the punster to stop, but I believe it's just the opposite. A laugh is great because the recipient got it and enjoyed it. A groan is great because the recipient still got it.

What separates a good pun from a bad one?
I don't like to look at puns as good or bad. I see them as well-crafted or poorly-crafted. Some of the "worst" puns are ones that are superbly crafted.

What’s the worst pun you’ve ever heard?
One of the worst puns, though I still love it, was from my roommate Tim, who once said he knew someone whose father was from Canada, and whose mother was from Minnesota, so that makes him a Canasota. (Can of soda.)

Who, in your opinion, is history’s best punster?
There are many people throughout history who have used puns in their works—Shakespeare, for example. A lot of the classic movie comedians, in particular Abbott & Costello and the Marx Brothers, were masters of the art, but I have to say that for me, my earliest pun memories involve the books written by Random House founder Bennett Cerf. His punny sense of humor is evident when he appeared as a panelist on What's My Line?

Do you have any tips for coming up with good puns?
I would say, listen to words. Also listen to the individual sounds that make words up, and see how you can manipulate those words and sounds into something humorous. Use what you know. I love cooking, so in 2012, my pun routine was about cheeses. Last year, about herbs and spices. If you want to be a punster, don't be afraid of hearing groans. Remember, a groan is not a bad thing in the world of puns.

You’re the reigning Punniest in Show champ. Do you have any strategies for staying on top this year? Are you already preparing?
Write, practice, repeat! Everyone prepares so well for this competition, that it's impossible to pick a winner. I have started preparing my routine for this year, so we'll see what hap-puns!

A version of this story appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]