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Brian Combs // Youtube

3 Epic Pun Contests (And A Few Of Their Winning Entries)

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Brian Combs // Youtube

“A pun is the lowest form of humor … when you don’t think of it first.”— Oscar Levant

Wordplay is sadly pun-derrated. However, if you like coming up with groan-inducing quips, why not try taking your talents to the next level? Here are three of the world’s greatest punster contests, along with some of the one-liners that’ve helped the winners earn their trophies. Jest be careful using these in real life...

1. The Great Durham Pun Championship

Since 2011, the city of Durham, North Carolina has held this annual event, also known as “Pundemonium.” According to the official rules, “[Pairs] of punsters are given a subject. Punster number one will then have 10 seconds to come up with a relevant pun. Punster number two then gets ten seconds. On it goes, until someone’s pun doesn’t pun out ... the last pun person standing will be crowned the Pun Master of Durham.”

Jake Palmer won this coveted title in 2012, and some of his friends were thoughtful enough to film his performance. Below are a few of the highlights.

TOPIC: “Magic”

“You’re really potion your luck with this one!”
“I’ve wand-ered into dangerous territory here.”

TOPIC: “Marriage & Divorce”

“I don’t even really think I can COMMIT to this category!”
(To his opponent): “You do appear very well groomed.”

2. The “Shop Pun of the Year” Award

Small businesses in London, England love serving up humor with a side of cheese. The city’s home to such delightful establishments as a fish-and-chips restaurant named “The Codfather," a barber shop dubbed “Jack the Clipper," and a wine & spirits store known as “Planet of the Grapes."

In honor of this comedic tradition, the Local Data Company (which observes the area’s retail industry), held a public election to determine which boutique had the most “pun-derful” name. After taking a commanding 33.3 percent of the vote, the secondhand shop “Junk and Disorderly” emerged victorious. Runners up included "Sofa So Good" (a furniture store), "World of Woolcraft" (a needlecraft shop), and "License 2 Fill" (a takeout joint).

3. The O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships

Listen up, punsters: Here’s the big one. Founded in 1978, the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships are organized by a group called “Punsters United Nearly Yearly” (P.U.N.Y.) and takes place in Austin, Texas. Unlike the previous entries on this list, participants compete for not one but several titles at these games. They are as follows:

Punniest of Show:

Competitors deliver a rehearsed pun-filled routine in this category. Jerzy Gwiazdowski took home the trophy (which—fittingly—is shaped like a horse’s rear end) for his state-themed rant in 2012. “I’m a new man with a new outlook, and Iowa lot of that to you!” he shouted. “You won’t always be happy, but Missouri loves company!”


Here, punsters face off in one-on-one matchups featuring a given topic before advancing to the next round. Ben Ziek became the 2013 champion, having survived the final heat. Earlier in the contest, he fought his way through the subject of “toys” by saying things like “I used to have curly hair… and stinging insects kept coming up to it. I had to say, ‘Get out of my Frizz, Bee!’”

McClughan Memorial Most Viable Punster Award:

Longtime O. Henry devotee George McClughan sadly passed away in 2001. To honor his legacy, contestants have begun the practice of voting for “one of their own” as the competition’s “most viable punster.” The most recent recipient was Alexandra Petri of Washington, DC, whose skills you can see on full display in the above clip from the 2013 tournament.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]