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UFO sighting -- for real!

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Astronauts on the space shuttle Atlantis, due to come home tomorrow, have apparently spotted an alien flying saucer unidentified flying object:

NASA engineers are checking into a baffling sight of a mystery object below the shuttle that mission control spotted at about 2:45 a.m EDT Tuesday with a video camera in the shuttle's cargo bay. The object, which circled the Earth in the same orbit as the shuttle and is of undetermined size, probably came out of the shuttle's cargo bay because some jets had just been fired, shaking the orbiter, NASA spokesman Doug Peterson said.

The astronauts are some of the most credible people to ever spot a UFO, but they're hardly the most famous. The list includes Christopher Columbus (not known for his ability to correctly identify large unknown masses), Alexander the Great, Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh, and quite a few more recent luminaries:

John Lennon: "John Lennon had a UFO sighting which occurred when he was with his personal secretary, May Pang, in New York. As May Pang recounts in her book, the 'large, circular object [was] coming towards us. It was shaped like a flattened cone and on top was a large, brilliant red light... When it came a little closer, we could make out a row or circle of white lights that ran around the entire rim of the craft.'"

Jimmy Carter: "In 1969 ... [Carter] described an object appearing in the west at 7:15 on an evening in October. It was about thirty degrees up, and sometimes 'as bright as the moon.' It varied from the size of a planet to the apparent size of the moon and appeared to be 900 to 3000 feet away. A close examination of the report by UFO skeptic Robert Sheaffer discovered that, because Carter was with members of the Lions Club on the day in question, the actual date of the incident must have been January 6th, 1969. By using a star chart Sheaffer was able to establish that Venus was in the precise location described by Carter."

Dan Aykroyd: "One occurred on Martha's Vineyard, he said, where he sighted 'high altitude, glowing magnesium discs travelling at 20,000 miles (32,190 km) an hour at 100,000 feet (30,480 metres) ... wing to wing, edge to edge.' ... 'The second was a telepathic experience,' he said, which happened at a lake retreat in Canada. 'I was asleep with my wife and I woke up about 3 a.m. wanting to go outside into a field and look at the sky,' he said, telling his wife, 'They want me to see. They want me to see.' She told him to forget it. The next morning, he said, newspapers and radio reports from across the region were filled with eyewitness accounts from some of the estimated 12,000 people who saw a pink spiral in the sky. The military later said it was a Chinese rocket, Aykroyd said, but he believes he was being summoned and regrets ignoring the call."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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