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Celebrating the Golden Lobes at IdeaFestival

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Greetings from Louisville! Will, Mangesh and I are here for IdeaFestival. Yesterday, Mangesh spoke to some of the nation's smartest middle schoolers, who grilled him in a lively Q&A. We embarrassed ourselves at an adult spelling bee last night. And this afternoon there's a panel featuring some of our Golden Lobe Award winners. Here's a little bit about archaeologist Patrick McGovern, composer Tristan Perich, and high school student Sejal Vallabh, who lucky IdeaFestival attendees will get to meet today.

Golden Lobe: Nerdiest Beer (2011)

Of the hundreds of bottles of beer on the wall, only one provides a history lesson in every pour. And for that, you can thank brewmaster Sam Calagione and molecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern.

For the past decade, these Indiana Joneses of the brewing community have dedicated themselves to whipping up the tastiest beers in history—all of history—and they’ve got the archaeological evidence to back it up.

The story starts in 1997, when McGovern began investigating crockery samples from the tomb of King Mita, the Turkish royal who inspired the King Midas myths. After running a chemical analysis on some of the king’s cups, McGovern realized that the man with the golden touch liked his ale. Determined to figure out what the king’s beer tasted like, he took the analysis to Sam Calagione of Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewery. Together, the pair sought to reconstruct the 2,700-year-old beverage using authentic ingredients such as Muscat grapes, saffron, and honey. The result? An ancient ale they dubbed Midas Touch Golden Elixir.

Incredibly, this old-fashioned beverage has become a modern-day hit. Dogfish Head describes the drink as “somewhere between wine and mead.” But the beverage isn’t just popular at bars; it’s also a hit with critics. The drink nabbed a silver medal at the 2005 Great American Beer Festival and a bronze at the 2008 World Beer Cup. The success has also inspired Calagione and McGovern to dig deeper for historical recipes. Today, Dogfish Head offers an entire Ancient Ales series. The line includes Chateau Jiahu, based on a spiced beer found in 9,000-year-old crockery from northern China, and an Aztec beer called Theobroma, which was recreated using residue from 3,000-year-old pottery in Honduras. The former contains rice flakes and chrysanthemum flowers; the latter boasts notes of cocoa, chili, and annatto. And while we have no idea what annatto is, we’re not questioning it. Each sip just makes us happy that history is repeating itself.

Golden Lobe: Highest Achievement in Low Fidelity (2011)

At first glance, composer Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit Symphony looks like a regular CD in a jewel case. It’s actually something much, much cooler. There’s not even a compact disc in the case! Instead, Perich’s package includes a battery, a tiny circuit, and a headphone jack. When a listener slips his headphones into the slot, a handcrafted circuit performs a five-movement electronic symphony that Perich has programmed in low-fidelity, 1-bit audio.

In addition to being just flat-out neat, the technology behind Perich’s symphony subtly questions the way listeners receive their music. Whereas a normal CD or MP3 file plays back music that’s already been recorded, Perich’s circuit takes the composer’s source code and actually performs the music with electronic pulses each time it’s switched on. Technically, you’re not listening to a recording at all; you’re being treated to a live performance as the electricity pulses out of the microchip.

What keeps Perich’s project from being just another interesting-but-academic exercise? The music is amazing. The work is no mere collection of Atari-esque bloops and bleeps. Rather, the composition rewards listeners by delivering on the symphonic promise of its name, piling up familiar minimalist sounds to create stunningly lush and upbeat movements. If the Mario Brothers were classical music fans, this is what they’d listen to. And they’d shell out a few gold coins to do it, too.

Golden Lobe: Blind Ambition (2012)

In the summer of 2010, high school sophomore Sejal Vallabh was interning in Japan when she saw her first game of blind tennis. Developed in 1984, today nearly 300 people compete in Japan’s blind tennis tournaments, diving and lunging for balls, embracing a sport built for the sighted. But why hadn’t the sport translated abroad? Upon returning home, the teenager from Newton, Mass., started Tennis Serves—a charitable organization dedicated to advancing blind tennis in the U.S. Vallabh’s first coup was convincing Perkins School for the Blind to offer lessons. Here’s how the game works: Blind tennis is played on a badminton court, with the net dropped to ground level. But in lieu of a standard ball, players use a large foam ball that jingles. Those with limited sight get two bounces to get to the ball, while the fully blind get three. Although some institutions have been slow to embrace the sport, Vallabh is working hard to advance the cause. Today, Tennis Serves has three national chapters where volunteers give lessons to the blind. And while she hopes to get the game recognized by the Paralympics soon, Vallabh’s primary focus is simpler: giving the visually impaired an opportunity to enjoy the sport she loves.

For more about IdeaFestival, visit their site or follow along on Twitter.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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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.

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