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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
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]