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Happy Birthday Mr. Larson!

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Mr. Gary Larson, the genius behind "The Far Side," is turning one year older today. And since I *still* to this day look at the Comics page and long for images of smoking dinosaurs, naughty cows, and bespectacled matrons with beehive haircuts, I figured I'd honor the notorious Mr. L with a few facts culled from Wikipedia and Salon.

  • Gary Larson is probably the only cartoonist to have a louse named for him (the Strigiphilus garylarsoni). In response, Larson claimed: "I considered this an extreme honor. Besides, I knew no one was going to write and ask to name a new species of swan after me. You have to grab these opportunities when they come along."
  • As a kid, Larson and his older brother used to "kidnap" reptiles, flood their backyard and fill it with frogs and insects (to try and make a swamp of it), and dump buckets of sand all over their basement to try and turn it into a desert.
  • According to Salon, "Comics page readers regularly voted "The Far Side" both their favorite cartoon and their most disliked cartoon." Editors often took the cartoon out of their newspapers because it received so much complaints, and then got even more complaints, so they'd slip it back in.
  • Gary Larson once got trouble for offending The Jane Goodall Institute. In one of his more celebrated cartoons, two chimps are grooming each other when one finds a human hair on the other, and asks, "Doing a little more "˜research' with that Jane Goodall tramp?" The Institute was so offended by the cartoon that they had their lawyers draft a complaint to Larson's syndicate. When Jane Goodall heard about it, though, she admitted enjoying the cartoon, and since then all profits from that strip have gone to her society.
  • The Dayton Daily News has twice accidentally switched the captions on "Dennis the Menace" and "The Far Side" cartoons. And while the switch didn't do much for Larson's cartoon, it drastically changed the tone of "Dennis the Menace." Particularly when Dennis told his mother, "I see your little, petrified skull ... labeled and resting on a shelf somewhere." The punch line was originally supposed to be uttered by one of Larson's Neolithic fortune-tellers.

Click here (or here) to read more.

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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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