15 Awesome Kickstarter Projects

I love the site Kickstarter, which enables people to raise funds for all kinds of projects, from indie comic books to clothing lines to theater performances. Every time I browse through the projects, I notice just how many of them are the kinds of projects our readers would love--educational yet playful, quirky and scientific, fan tributes to favorite comics and books. I've gathered up some of the best flossy projects here, in order of how much time remains on each project; if any of them strike your fancy, just follow the widgets over to Kickstarter to place a pledge (starting from just $1).

The LEGO Truck

The Goal: Fund repairs to the light-up LEGO Truck, which makes appearances at Burning Man and Seattle-area events

Funds Needed: $3,375

Favorite Reward: LEGO Truck T-shirt for $50+ pledges

Splurge Reward: For $500+, LEGO Truck appearance at a private event, a special afternoon cruise in the LEGO Truck at Burning Man, plus all the other rewards, which include stickers, LEGO jewelry, music, and the T-shirt

I Am Big Bird Documentary

Goal: To make a documentary about Caroll Spinney, the man behind both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch for the last 40+ years, and the last of the original Sesame Street puppeteers

Funds Needed: $100,000+

Favorite Reward: A digital download of the film and the film's soundtrack, plus access to the production blog, for $20

Splurge Reward: For $10,000+, a private dinner for you and a guest with Caroll Spinney in New York, plus all of the other rewards, which include tickets to the premiere, copies of the film itself, and a poster

Rise: An X-Men Fan Film

Goal: The production of a non-profit, fan-created X-Men film made by seasoned Hollywood professionals

Funds Needed: $38,700

Favorite Reward: Early online screening of the film before its Hollywood premiere for all backers who pledge $1 or more

Splurge Reward: For $10,000+, you receive an executive producer credit and a featured cameo in the film (with airfare included!), plus all the other rewards, including a memorabilia prop, studio tour, tickets to comic con 2013, and an invitation to the Hollywood premiere

Out of Print eReader Jackets

Goal: Production of ereader book jackets that look, feel, and wear like real books, made by the oldest bookbinder in the U.S.

Funds Needed: $15,000

Favorite Reward: The Kindle Fire jacket of your choice, from the initial collection, for pledges of $40+

Splurge Reward: For $85+, two iPad jackets of your choice from the initial collection

Fight for Space: A Documentary About NASA & The Space Program

Goal: To create a documentary about the U.S. space program

Funds Desired: $100,000 (they've already reached their minimum needs of $65,000)

Favorite Reward: HD digital download of the film, plus a "thank you" credit in the film and on the website, for pledges of $10+

Splurge Reward: For $10,000+, you receive an executive producer credit in the main titles of the film, as well as all the other rewards, which include copies of the film, invitation to the premiere, a meeting with the crew, an interview to be included the film, and a photo book

Children's ABC Wallet Cards

Goal: Production of credit-card-sized non-toxic indestructible plastic alphabet cards for toddlers to use for play and education

Funds Needed: $12,570

Favorite Reward: The entire deck of cards and a custom wallet to place the cards in, plus digital download of the artwork, for $32+

Splurge Reward: For $500+, dinner and dessert with the project creator (Marie-Claire Camp), hand-drawn thank you cards from her toddlers, and a comic strip starring you and your family by her husband, along with the deck of cards and digital artwork download

Remote Rover Experiment

Goal: Testing of prototype moon rovers, with the eventual goal of sending one to the moon

Funds Needed: $100,000

Favorite Reward: For $15+, pilot the latest prototype through realistic mission challenges, receiving a test pilot certificate and digital recording of your performance afterward

Splurge Reward: With $10,000+, you cover the cost of one Asimov 2.5 series rover prototype, whose color and label will be customized to your desires. Of course you'll also get to pilot the rover, and you'll receive footage from the production, assembly, and testing of the rover.

Drift Studio Map-Printed Modular Furniture

Goal: Acquire cartography software and map data for 20+ cities in order to create a online customization process for map-printed modular furniture

Funds Needed: $7,500

Favorite Reward: 11.5"x11.5" plywood panel map art featuring your choice of their full color maps for pledges of $50+

Splurge Reward: If you fund the entire campaign ($7,500+), you'll receive a large custom piece (or combination of pieces) tailored to your needs and space, which will be personally installed and signed by the owners of the company

The Raven: An Animated Steampunk Adaptation

Goal: The production of an animated short film adaptation of Poe's The Raven in the world of steampunk

Funds Needed: $7,500

Favorite Reward: For just $1 (or more), you'll get a digital copy of the film

Splurge Reward: One backer will be able to pledge $5,000+ to receive an executive producer credit plus transportation and accommodations to visit the set during filming, as well as all the other rewards, which include copies of the film, a poster, and a T-shirt

"Hydrophobia" Gallery Prints

Goal: To produce six 60"x40" photographic prints to display in a college gallery

Funds Desired: $800 (her minimum need for $647 has already been met)

Favorite Reward: For $20+, your choice of photo as either an 8"x12" or 8"x10" print on glossy or lustre finish paper

Splurge Reward: One backer who pledges $800+ will receive 2 signed and numbered 20"x30" aluminized prints

Book Riot's Start Here: Read Your Way Into 25 Amazing Authors

Goal: To publish a book, in print and digitally, that tells readers how to read their way into 25 different authors

Funds Needed: $25,000

Favorite Reward: Digital copy of the book plus a personalized book recommendation based on your public profile on a social media network for 25 backers who pledge $15+

Splurge Reward: For $750, an approximately 10-word entry on the book's dedication page, 2 tickets to launch pre-party meet-and-greet hour, guaranteed inclusion of your choice of author from the candidates list, 2 tickets to the launch party, a bookshelf print, a web chat, copies of the book, and more

Pie Time Clock App

Goal: To develop and launch an app for iOS called Pie Time that teaches kids the concept of time and time management through the use of a pie visual

Funds Needed: $5,000

Favorite Reward: For $100+, you get a download of the app for yourself plus for every student in your child's grade at school

Splurge Reward: For $5,000+, a 2-night retreat in Santa Barbara, including transportation from Los Angeles, to sample gourmet local pies and discuss projects with the developer, as well as all the other rewards, including the apps for the students at your child's school, 2 hours of consulting/production/tutoring from the developer, and the inclusion of your ideas for background themes

The Little Women Graphic Novel Project

Goal: To produce and publish a graphic novel of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel, Little Women

Funds Needed: $6,000

Favorite Reward: For $25+, a signed copy of the book, in paperback and PDF, including content exclusive to Kickstarter backers, as well as back-only updates on Kickstarter featuring the process, videos, and downloads

Splurge Reward: For $500+, an original hand-painted full-color 8"x10" illustration of the March sisters, the 8"x10" pencil drawing from which the color illustration will be made, signed paperback copies of all the other books by the creator (Dani Jones), physical & digital copies of the graphic novel, and more

"I'm Smarter!" Trivia Game App

Goal: The development and release of a trivia competition game app for iOS and Android

Funds Needed: $15,000

Favorite Reward: For $5+, download of the game (for iOS or Android)

Splurge Reward: For $2,500+, round-trip domestic airfare to Boston to meet with the creator for dinner/drinks to discuss the project and potentially help plan and host a launch party / trivia tournament, plus acknowledgement as a co-creator (along with all the rights, privileges, and honors), as well as all the other rewards, which include downloads of the app and "I'm Smarter" hoodie, mug, T-shirt, and shot glass

The Adventures of Ned the Neuron

Goal: The development and production of an interactive electronic activity book about the brain, The Adventures of Ned the Neuron, for kids ages 7-11

Funds Needed: $25,000

Favorite Reward: The book (as app or PDF) plus either a Ned the Neuron T-shirt or totebag for $30+ pledges

Splurge Reward: For pledges of $10,000+, the creators will fly you to the San Francisco Bay Area (from anywhere in the US) this fall and provide 2-night hotel accommodation so you can attend the book launch party and meet the team, plus all the other rewards, including a neuroscience workshop/party for your kids led by the author (Erica Warp, a Neuroscience PhD), a one-of-a-kind drawing of you as a neuron character, 25 digital copies of the book to the school of your choice, and a signed limited edition hardcover copy of the

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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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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]