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8 Moments in Knock Knock Joke History

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Think back to the first joke you ever learned to tell, and chances are good that it started out with two simple words: Knock knock. (Chances are also pretty good that it wasn’t very funny.) You may have thought you invented the pun, but its history dates back much, much further than that. Here’s a brief history…

1. THE BARD ABIDES IN 1606.

Though the exact origin of the knock knock joke is officially unknown, many scholars point to the second act of Shakespeare’s Macbeth—written around 1606—as the earliest known example. It occurs when a porter is awoken out of a drunken stupor by a man knocking at Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s door.

2. CHILDREN PLAY IN 1929.

In Henry Bett’s 1929 book, The Games of Children: Their Origin and History, the author talks about the knock knock joke as being part of a kid’s game called Buff, in which one child would bang a stick while saying “Knock knock,” to which his or her opponent would ask, “Who’s there?”

3. WRITERS CATCH ON IN 1934.

In 1934, a newspaper columnist used the following (not-so-funny) joke in a story, which marked the knock knock joke’s first published appearance in popular culture:

Knock knock.
Who's there?
Rufus.
Rufus who?
Rufus the most important part of your house.

4. WHAT’S THIS TURNS TO WHO’S THERE IN 1936.

By 1936, the knock knock joke had made its way to the masses. So much so that an Associated Press article about its growing popularity appeared in the August 3rd edition of the Titusville Herald. Titled “‘Knock Knock’ Latest Nutsy Game for Parlor Amusement,” the piece talked about how “What’s this?” had given way to “Knock, knock” as the favorite parlor game setup. “Gone, apparently, are the days when the more serious-minded settled down to a concentrated spar with jigsaw puzzles, anagrams, intelligence tests, and similar intellectual pursuits,” the author lamented.

5. RAMROD DANK INVENTED IT IN 1936.

On December 30, 1936, humorist/radio host Fred Allen produced a wrap-up of the year’s biggest events in which he included an interview with the fictional Ramrod Dank, whom he deemed “The first man to coin a knock knock.”

6. KNOCK KNOCK GOES INTERNATIONAL IN 1953.

By the 1950s, the knock knock joke had gained popularity around the world, in both English-speaking countries (England, Ireland, Australia, Canada) and otherwise (France, Belgium, India). French versions of the joke started out with “Toc-Toc,” and the punchline was typically a song title. In Afrikaans and Dutch, it’s “Klop-klop” and “Kon-kon” in Korean and Japanese. In Spanish, the joke usually rhymes. In South Africa in 1953, the following joke was popular amongst school children:

Knock, knock!
Who's there?
Delores.
Delores who?
Delores my shepherd.

7. LAUGH-IN DOES KNOCK-KNOCK IN 1968.

Knock knock jokes were a staple of the banter on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In from the very first season of the sketch comedy show’s six-season run.

8. GEORGE ZIMMERMAN’S LAWYER GETS IN ON THE FUN IN 2013.

“At considerable risk… I’d like to tell you a little joke,” George Zimmerman’s lawyer, Don West, told the jury during opening statements. Then proceeded to unleash the following bit:

Knock-knock.
Who's there?
George Zimmerman.
George Zimmerman who?
Alright good. You're on the jury.

Crickets would have been an improvement over the reaction the “joke” got.

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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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