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35 Kinds of Hot, Sexy Homophone Action

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An article in the Salt Lake Tribune reports that Tim Torkildson, a social media specialist for an English learning center in Provo, was fired after his boss objected to a post he wrote about homophones. Torkildson said that the language center owner, Clarke Woodger, reprimanded him, saying that “now our school is going to be associated with homosexuality,” and told him to clean out his desk.

The story has gone viral, though it does seem somewhat suspicious. (Woodger says his problem with Torkildson is that he'd "go off on tangents" that some might consider offensive; the Tribune article also ends with the line “interestingly, [Torkildson] was hired on April Fools’ Day.”) But this Woodger character may be on to something. Sure, it’s easy to laugh at someone who would read anything about sexual orientation into an innocent term for words that sound alike but mean different things, but the world of homophones is not as innocent as it may seem. As a matter of fact, it’s totally sex-crazed. Just look at what homophones are into:

Suggestively racy behavior!

Oh owe
Wet whet
Laid lade
Bases basis
Oral aural
Sighs size
Cruise crews
Moan mown
Groan grown
Butt but
Sighed side
Intense intents
Illicit elicit

Drugs!

Weed we’d
High hi

Bondage!

Cord chord
Locks lox

Sexy Role-playing!

Nun none
Colonel kernel
Maid Made
Knight night
Serf surf

Weird fetishes!

Feet feat
Fur fir
Pee pea

Threesomes!

For four fore
Do due dew
Ewe you yew
Pedal peddle petal
To too two
Their they’re there
Buy by bye
Mary merry marry*

*They’re not into this one in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia 

And even foursomes!

Carat carrot caret karat
Medal mettle meddle metal

So laugh all you want. I, for one, will not be teaching my kids about homophones until they are at least 25.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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