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A new class from a trivia master

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Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip debuts tonight at 10pm on NBC. Set your TiVos. As an esteemed member of the Netflix community and a big Aaron Sorkin fan, I screened the pilot episode earlier this month. But I'm no TV critic, and you're not here to read TV reviews.

I bring up Studio 60 because Sorkin deserves a masters in trivia. On Sports Night and West Wing, he managed to inject an amazing amount of peripheral knowledge into his stories. Here's an example, from one of his previous trivia vehicles:

From Sports Night:
Sam Donovan: Do you guys know who Philo Farnsworth was? He invented television. I don't mean he invented television like Uncle Milty, I mean he invented the television.

In a little house in Provo, Utah. At a time when the idea of transmitting moving pictures through the air would be like me saying I've figured out a way to beam us aboard the Starship Enterprise.

He was a visionary and he died broke and without fanfare.

The guy I really like though was his brother-in-law, Cliff Gardner. He said to Philo, "I know everyone thinks you're crazy, but I want to be a part of this. I don't have your head for science, so I'm not gonna be much help with the design and mechanics of the invention. But it sounds like in order to do your testing, you're gonna need glass tubes."

See, Philo was inventing a cathode receptor, and even though Cliff didn't know what that meant or how it worked, he'd seen Philo's drawing and he knew they were gonna need glass tubes and since television hadn't been invented yet, it's not like you could get 'em at the local TV repair shop. "I want to be a part of this", Cliff said, "and I don't have your head for science. How would it be if I taught myself to be a glassblower? And I could set up a little shop in the backyard. And I could make all the tubes you'll need for testing."

There oughta be Congressional medals for people like that.

I've looked over the notes you've been giving over the last year or so, and I have to say that they exhibit an almost total lack of understanding of how to get the best from talented people.

You said before that for whatever reason, I seem to be able to exert authority around here. I assure you, it isn't because they like me. It's because they knew two minutes after I walked in the door that I'm somebody who knows how to do something. I can help. I can make glass tubes. That's what they need.

For people with a thirst for peripheral knowledge, Sorkin's your guy.

Though he's set the bar for trivia pretty high. If I have one complaint about the Studio 60 pilot, it's that there weren't enough random asides. Here's hoping they reappear in episode two.

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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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