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King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV is dead, long live the king

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The king of Tonga, whose name is in the headline of this post (you don't think I'm actually typing that again, do you?) recently passed on. He was identified in this great Telegraph obit as "the world's only Methodist sovereign and for many years, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the world's heaviest" -- check out the awesome evidence at left -- but we at mental_floss remember him for another record of sorts: he was responsible for "history's most minor act of colonialism." From our How-To Issue:

How to Colonize a Nation

Supplies Needed: 1 nation (preferably with a weak government), 1 invading force, 1 ceremonial brass band (optional), plenty of moxie

Step 1: Pick a target

Admittedly, this step used to be easier back in the 18th century, when it was open season on any landmass -- no matter how large -- provided you had guns and the other guy didn't. Nowadays, though, you should probably stick to colonizing tiny nations that can't fight back. Luckily, the Pacific Ocean is home to plenty of these. In fact, it's estimated there are more than 20,000 islands in the Pacific, many of which are simply ripe for the plucking. Need more inspiration? Consider the case of The Republic of Minerva, a would-be libertarian paradise established in 1972 by Nevada businessman Michael Oliver. Minerva's governing principle was the absence of income taxes. Instead, Oliver opted for a system that gave businesses and individuals special incentives for contributing to the government (sort of like a high-stakes version of the PBS pledge drive). Of course, this also meant Minerva had no standing army.

Step 2: Make a good impression

If you really clinch this step, you might not have to fire a shot at all. Just ask Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, the king of Tonga, a nation located roughly 260 miles east of The Republic of Minerva. About five months after Michael Oliver founded Minerva, King Tupou arrived to greet -- and conquer -- his new neighbor. Reports of history's most minor act of colonialism vary, but it apparently involved one of more of the following: a military gunboat, a convict work detail, a rowboat manned by the king, and a royal ceremonial brass band. At any rate, the invasion was successful. On June 21, 1972, the Minervan flag was hauled down and the atoll became part of the Kingdom of Tonga, under whose domain it has remained for more than 30 years.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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