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5 Boring Subjects Translated Into Clickbait Headlines

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We’ve all become savvy to the tropes and tricks of clickbait headlines, but that doesn’t stop us from clicking on them. Can’t we harness the power of clickbait to funnel interest toward loftier subjects? As it turns out, the conventions of clickbait can be applied to even the most highbrow topics. Here are five edifying areas that have been given the clickbait treatment.

1. Dissertations

Think nobody cares about your dissertation? Submit it to the Clickbait Dissertations Tumblr and just watch what happens!

You NEED to See This Hot Model (NSFW) of Ethnic Politics and Foreign Policy.

(Actual title: Supporting secession or maintaining boundaries: The international consequences of ethnic politics.)

Meet the Bad-ass Bards who Changed the Way You Experience the Written Word.

(Actual title: Anthologizing Modernism: New Verse Anthologies, 1913-53.)

All of Your Brain Cells Have the Same DNA, Right? Here are 10 Reasons Why You’re So Wrong.

(Actual title: Chromosomal aneuploidy in the developing mammalian cortex.)

2. Supreme Court Business

You will literally not be able to stop yourself from clicking when you see what Twitter account @ClickbaitSCOTUS is up to.

3. Music History

Classical Minnesota Public Radio applied the clickbait formula to a bunch of its stories, and you won’t believe what happened next! (You clicked on them, and still felt good about yourself.) Here’s a selection:

When His Musicians Needed Some Time Off for Lovin’, This Composer Wrote a Piece That Made Sure They Got It.

Was This Famous Mass of Death Really Meant for a Fun Family Singalong?

What Did This Guy Do When He Heard Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony? He Finished It.

4. History

The history of the 20th century in clickbait headlines? This xkcd comic made me laugh, until it made me cringe, because I realized it would totally happen this way today.

(1920) 17 things that will be outlawed now that women can vote

(1957) 12 nip slips potentially visible to Sputnik

(1968) This year's assassinations ranked from most to least tragic

5. Literature

Whoa! Check out what The Millions did to these classic book titles!

Watch This Kid Burst Into Tears When He’s Refused Some More Porridge
(Oliver Twist)

You Thought Millenials Were Bad? Watch These British Kids Totally Nail Chaos Theory
(Lord of the Flies)

We Thought We Could Beat On Against The Current Without Being Borne Back Ceaselessly Into The Past. Boy, Were We Wrong.
(The Great Gatsby)

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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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