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Forbidden Friday: Seven Deadly Sins to Enjoy before Sunday

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Today I'm in New York, my favorite city of sin (sorry, Vegas), so to honor my surroundings I thought I'd parcel out some goodies from our book Forbidden Knowledge: A Wickedly Smart Guide to History's Naughtiest Bits. First up, under the deadly sin of Pride, something Manhattanites know absolutely nothing about:

World Leaders Obsessed with Their Own Images

7mausoleum.gifMausolus: For 24 years, Mausolus ruled over the city-state of Halicarnassus in what is now Turkey, and he spent a lot of time building up the city. So, maybe it was only fitting that in his final years Mausolus built a monument to himself. Mausolus' self-styled memorial wasn't finished until a few years after his death "“ with his wife, Artemisia I, carrying on the work. But when it was done, it was one of the fanciest tombs the world has ever seen: 140 feet high, 12,000 square feet, and tastefully adorned with tons of giant statues. The tomb stood for 16 centuries before it was toppled by earthquakes. But Mausolus' wish to be remembered did come true. His name is at the root of the word for "grand tomb:" mausoleum.

Two more egomaniacs after the jump...

Nicolae Ceausescu: Starting in 1965, Ceausescu was dictator of Romania, and boy did everyone know it. Portraits of the man hung everywhere, along with billboards extolling him as the "Genius of the Carpathians." Further still, images of him and his wife (the deputy prime minister) adorned postage stamps, and scores of books they allegedly wrote were crammed on bookstore shelves. But Ceausescu's biggest monument to himself was "“ insert ironic chuckle here "“ "the People's Palace." The second-largest building in the world, after the Pentagon, in terms of area, the complex required the razing of a good part of downtown Bucharest in the late 1980s. Not surprisingly, the "people" weren't impressed. After a revolution and a one-day trial, the "people" took the First Couple out on Christmas Day, 1989, and shot them.

Saparmurat Niyazov: What can you say about a guy who becomes his country's first president and promptly begins calling himself the "Turkmenbashi," or "father of all Turkmen?" That he has a golden statue of himself in the capital city that rotates so the face is always toward the sun? That his image appears on all the currency? That a book he wrote is the foundation of the educational system? That he renamed one of the months of the year after his mother? Well, yes, if the guy in question is Niyazov, who has been president of Turkmenistan since the Central Asian country broke free from the Soviet Union in 1991. Oh, did we mention the palace of ice he wanted to build in the middle of a desert? We're not kidding.

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]