Original image

Forbidden Friday: Envy

Original image

Oh, the list of blogs we envy: Boingboing, Gawker, Engadget, the HuffPo"¦ Cory, Jessica, Pete, Arianna, link to us! We'll love you forever, when we're not cursing you for being so huge!

Er, sorry, the following folks' inferiority complexes must have rubbed off on us:

bigmama.jpgMusicians Who Always Felt Cheated

Big Mama Thornton: In 1953, while playing at New York's Apollo Theater as part of the "Hot Harlem Revue," Thornton was asked by composers Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller to record a song they had written for her. Thornton recorded "Hound Dog" and the single quickly sold nearly two million copies. As we all know, though, a young rockabilly recording artist with Sun Records named Elvis Presley also recorded said song and the rest is history. For her recording of "Hound Dog" and the two million copies sold, Thornton received one chek for a whopping total of $500. Of course, that wasn't her only hit. Big Mama's song "Ball and Chain" became a huge hit for her in the 1950s. However, most of us remember that tune as the version recorded in the 1960s by another booming voice -- Janis Joplin's. Like so many African American artists before her, Big Mama Thornton never received the financial and historical rewards she was due.

Two more nice guys who finished, well, not first after the jump.

Johnny Rotten: (Editor's note: Okay, "nice guy" was a stretch.) In 1975, the 19-year-old John Lydon met a young entrepreneur, Malcolm McLaren, at McLaren's fashion boutique in London called Sex. McLaren, who was putting a rock group together, was on the hunt for a lead singer. Happy to oblige, Lydon accepted the position even though he'd never sung before -- and somehow Britain's most notorious punk group, the Sex Pistols, came into existence. With his outrageously rude manner and his total lack of personal hygiene, Lydon was soon dubbed Johnny Rotten. Because of their lyrics, the group was sooned banned on British radio, but they still garnered a huge following. Of course, they garnered huge egos as well. Rotten soon became disenchated with McLaren's management style and inability to move the group to a higher level of stardom. At the same tie, he didn't feel that he was receiving his just due as a top performer, and after a concert in San Francisco in 1978, Rotten officially broke up the group, claiming that all of rock and roll had been played and now it was officially dead. The legal system, however, was not. Johnny Rotten eventually reverted to his given name and, teaming up with the other Sex Pistols, successfully sued McLaren for $1.44 million in back royalties.

George Harrison: Known as "the quiet Beatle," George Harrison, who was the youngest of the lot, was also arguably the best musician among the Fab Four. Having attended school in Liverpool at one time or another with both Paul McCartney and John Lennon, Harrison started jamming with the two, forming a group called the Quarrymen, later to become the Silver Beetles, and eventually just the plain old Beatles. Harrison, who played lead guitar and occasionally sang lead ("Roll Over Beethoven"), was the first Beatle to get invovled in Eastern religion. However, over the years, he found it more and more difficult for the group to take his compositions seriously and feature them on the albums. Interestingly, some of Harrison's works such as "I Need You," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Here Comes the Sun," and especially "Something," are considered among the Beatles' greatest hits. By 1970, Harrison's resentment of his second-class status within the group had grown to the point that it became one of the factors that caused the Beatles to disband.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
Original image