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How to Memorize Pi if You’re a Word Person

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Pi Day is always on March 14 (3/14), but this year it’s extra special because we get two more digits because of the year (3/14/15). The day offers something for the math-lover, of course, but also for the baked-goods lover (Bake a pi pie!), the music lover (Sing some Pi Day carols!), and the parade lover (March in a pi-rade!) What about the word lover?

Pi enthusiasts have performed amazing feats of memorization, reciting the number to thousands of digits. World record holder Chao Lu has recited it to 67,890 digits without an error. But memorizing pi doesn’t have to be done through numbers—it can also be done through words. This sentence "How I wish I could calculate pi" gives you pi to seven places. Just count the number of letters in each word—3, 1, 4, 1, 5…—and you get 3.141592.

Here are some other pi sentences from the Pi Wordplay page at Wolfram Mathworld.

May I have a large container of coffee? (3.1415926)

How I want a drink, alcoholic of course, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics. (3.14159265358979)

You can take that one a step further:

How I want a drink, alcoholic of course, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics, and if the lectures were boring or tiring, then any odd thinking was on quartic equations again. (3.1415926535897932384626433832795)

But why stop there? Sasha Volokh of the Volokh Conspiracy composed a passage that takes pi out to 167 digits. Mike Keith’s Cadaeic Cadenza takes it out to nearly 4000 digits (the last line is “I end, whispering ad infinitums").

The technique can work in other languages too. If you prefer French, there’s this:

Moi, j'aime a faire connaitre un nombre utile aux sages. (3.1415926535)
“Me, I like to teach a number useful to wise ones.”

Pi writing, also known as Pilish, is a neat trick, but it can be hard to come up with 7, 8, and 9 letter words that fit just right into a valid sentence. There are other techniques that allow more freedom of expression on the language side. Akira Haraguchi has recited pi to 100,000 digits (his feat has not yet been recognized by Guinness), and he did it by taking advantage of the structure of Japanese words, which can be broken down into strings of a limited set of syllables. The first 15 digits of pi can be captured in a four-word, fifteen-syllable sentence:

Saishi ikokuni mukosan kowakunaku.
“The wife and children have gone abroad; the husband is not scared.”

Haraguchi’s system is particularly useful and flexible because he doesn’t assign a single syllable to each numeral. Japanese has a limited but large set of syllables, about 100. He takes advantage of all of them by assigning each of the numerals 0-9 to a whole group of syllables. For example, 1 can be a, i, u, e, hi, bi, pi, an, ah, hy, hyan, bya, or byan. This way, a far larger number of words can be converted into strings of numerals. According to a 2006 article about him in The Japan Times, Haraguchi was able to memorize so much by creating “a myriad of stories and poems, including a story about the legendary 12th-century hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune and his sidekick Benkei, who was a Buddhist monk.” Not that that makes it easy. He still had to internalize his system through years of practice, and he had to remember the stories. Still, it shows there are all kinds of ways to explore the infinite mysteries of pi, and that word lovers need not be left out of the fun.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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© Nintendo
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Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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