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Vimeo / Vince Clemente

Video Premiere: A Man, a Plan, a Palindrome

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Vimeo / Vince Clemente

Mark Saltveit makes palindromes. He also edits The Palindromist, the world's greatest (and quite likely only) magazine devoted to palindromes.

In this short film, we learn the story behind one of Saltveit's greatest palindromes, which won him the 2012 World Palindrome Championship. It's an epic tale of playful palindrome-writing, and I'm proud to premiere the film here for the first time online. (This film had its first public screening on Saturday at Will Shortz's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.) Enjoy:

A note for regular mental_floss readers: Fellow writer Arika Okrent featured Mark Saltveit just last month, in an article about Bletchley Park codebreakers who were also palindromists.

Kickstarter for a Full-Length Palindrome Film

Director Vince Clemente has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a full-length film about Saltveit and other master palindromists leading up to the 2017 World Palindrome Championship. There's also a Facebook page for the film.

Q&A with Director Vince Clemente

First off, full disclosure, I know the director of this film—he was Producer on a certain Tetris documentary I love, and we're working on a separate documentary together. Here's our discussion about the short film above.

How did you learn about Mark Saltveit?

I was eating dinner and I overheard Mark telling someone else that he was the Palindrome World Champion. I knew at that moment I had to have a conversation with him. You don't hear that statement and not have a million questions to ask. So I did, and we exchanged numbers. At this point I knew I wanted to film him and just see what would come of it. I knew something was there.

What made you realize that Saltveit would be a good candidate for a documentary?

You really couldn't ask for a better subject for a documentary film. Mark has it all. He's great on camera, open, excited, charismatic, interesting, articulate, expressive, friendly, funny, and just has a wealth of knowledge.

Tell me about how you made the film—was there travel involved, how many days did you shoot, that kind of thing.

The original short was filmed over the course of 3 days. Mark and I picked a weekend where he had a couple things going on and then I flew up to Portland. The original idea was to show up and just see what would happen. The editing and animating took a while to get to a place where I thought it was perfect.

Do you have a favorite palindrome?

Well, besides the one featured in the short film, I'd have to pick Jon Agee's "Go hang a salami! I'm a lasagna hog!"

You've worked on films before that deal with niche hobbies and passions, like Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters, dealing with the world's best Nintendo Tetris players. Do you have any hobbies or passions that would be considered a little unusual?

I spent years collecting every game for the Nintendo Entertainment System just because I simply wanted to play each game. So, now I have every game ever made for the NES library, with its original box and manual, besides one, Stadium Events. Something I've been eyeballing for a while, it's just a little too crazy in price. I do own the PAL (European) version though.

There's a lot of animation in the short film. How did that come about?

There is no doubt that this film has to be full of fun! So including animations was a no-brainer. Palindromes plug themselves directly into the imagination. You wouldn't hear "Taco Cat" and not think of some cat wearing a taco costume and start laughing.

What's next for this film?

The short film has done so well that now we're expanding it into a feature film! We've begun a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to follow all the top palindromists we can find leading up to the next championship in 2017. You honestly wouldn't believe the history of palindromes. It's a story that hasn't been told and really needs to be. The goal is to film all these great palindromists while we pepper in the history of palindromes. Poof, you have an amazing documentary film!

Where to Find the Film Online

A Man, a Plan, a Palindrome is on Kickstarter, on Facebook, and the film itself is on Vimeo.

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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.