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Do they have 12-steps for 12-pack soda addicts?

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I tend to be a skeptic about, oh, everything, so this morning, when I noticed a ridiculous-sounding theory about diet soda on my bottle of Fruitwater (clearly a party with a vested interest), I had to check it out:

"Yes, they have no calories but the artificial sweeteners may trick our bodies into craving more sweets. Know someone who says they're addicted to diet... (you fill in the blank)?"

I do know someone who says that -- me. I drink six Diet Cokes a day, and right now I'm also drinking my words, because it turns out that this whole trick-the-body theory may be kind of true:

Researchers say artificial sweeteners may interfere with the body's natural ability to count calories based on a food's sweetness and make people prone to overindulging in other sweet foods and beverages. ... In the study, published in the July issue of the International Journal of Obesity, two groups of rats were fed either a mix of high-calorie, sugar-sweetened, and low-calorie, artificially sweetened liquids; or sugar-sweetened liquids alone. This was fed to the rats in addition their regular diet. After 10 days, they were offered a high-calorie, chocolate-flavored snack. The study showed that rats fed the mixed liquids ate more of their regular chow after the sweet snack than those who had been fed sugar-sweetened liquids alone.

Apparently, the body figures out that the sweet diet products don't have any calories and goes on to assume that other sweet stuff isn't so high-calorie either. I can buy that -- evolutionarily speaking, it makes sense, since our ancestors needed to be able to find the highest-cal foods in an environment where dinner wasn't always guaranteed. Even if the science is spot-on, though, I have to take issue with this columnist, who provides his own evidence in that he can't "recall ever seeing a thin person buying a twelve-pack of diet Pepsi at the grocery store." Mr. Adams, I weigh 107 pounds, and you're welcome to accompany me on my next trip to CVS, where I will be buying yet another 12-pack of Diet Coke. Maybe also some Fruitwater.

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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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