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'Grammar Vigilante' Is Correcting Street Signs, One Apostrophe at a Time

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When bad punctuation strikes storefront signage in Bristol, England, a self-styled apostrophe avenger springs into action. The BBC reports that an unidentified man has spent years venturing out at night to correct infractions against the English language spotted in public street and retail signs.

Although the man holds grudges against all forms of errant punctuation, he spends most of his time addressing wayward apostrophes using a tool he built himself. Dubbed the “apostrophiser,” it can either add or subtract apostrophes from signs, depending on the correction needed, using adhesive tape. He also carries a ladder.

Often referred to as "the Banksy of punctuation," this human version of Wite-Out says he was lured into a life of mildly invasive graffiti when he decided to scratch out a misplaced apostrophe on a whim in 2003. “It was a council sign—Mondays to Fridays—and had these ridiculous apostrophes,” he said. “I was able to scratch those off.”

Jon Kay via Twitter

While some businesses appreciate the unsolicited correction, others consider the forced changes rude. A shop called Tux & Tails previously identified itself as a “Gentlemans Outfitters” before the rogue corrected it to “Gentleman’s Outfitters.” Owner Jason Singh says the defacing of the sign could cost him thousands of dollars to fix because the paint the man used isn’t meshing well with the vinyl surface. Singh promises to bill the vigilante for the damage if he ever learns his identity.

The BBC did not reveal the man’s name, nor did they appear to hand over any information to authorities. Despite the sketchy legal nature of his work, the vigilante said it was “more of a crime” to leave the incorrect punctuation standing. A half-hour BBC Radio 4 documentary on his work aired on Monday.

The Bristol vigilante isn’t the first of his kind: Two anonymous artists in Quito, Ecuador, have been correcting that city’s graffiti for years, using red spray paint to point out spelling and grammar mistakes. Known as Acción Ortográfica Quito (Quito Orthographic Action), they’ve inspired a rash of imitators worldwide. All of which is good reason to hire a copyeditor before you write in public.

[h/t BBC]

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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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