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Meet our "Prairie Home" companions!

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We had so many entries in the "tell us why you're above average" Prairie Home Companion DVD contest that we couldn't pick among them -- so, as predicted, we had to draw them out of our favorite Minnesota-y woolly hat. (It looks like the one at left.) And the five winners are...

1. Cindy Smith: "I consider myself an above average mental flosser because of the above average amount of time I put into my life... I work full time, go to school at night for a degree in physics, oil paint, glass paint, write poetry, make my own Halloween costumes and am in the process of raising a wonderful 14 year old son, who is also above average (and whom I'm sure will love this movie). BTW, my son reminded me to say that there is actually no such thing as 'average' -- it is just a number that approximates an arithmetic mean. So everybody is either above-average or below-average... but nobody is average. We probably deserve a copy just for knowing that."

2. Mary Korns: "I was an above average child and that's the Lake Wobegon requirement. Now I'm still above average because if I weren't I'd be dead. At 82 I'm past the average check-out date."

3. Larry Fisher: "I'm above average because I'm still smiling after experiencing the following over the past two weeks: My brother had 2 heart attacks and went cold turkey from his addictions during his convalescence; I fell while visiting my brother's apartment and broke my arm; I attended my friend's funeral; my washing machine died, and I couldn't disconnect the old one so they could install the new one because my arm's broken; mothers of small children have started pointing at my cast and saying, 'See what happens when you're not careful?'"

4. Connie McKinney: "1. Even though I don't always get to church, I start the day with Luther's morning prayer and my devotional; and 2. At pot lucks I try to take more than I eat and always make sure one is a casserole. 3. I'm an underpaid social worker, so I do the whole faith PLUS works thing, even though the works is just extra credit, I know. 4. I don't lie very often, just when I want to win contests."

5. Kathy Wilcox: "I deserve a copy of the DVD because, not only do I know what IMDB (Internet Movie DataBase) stands for, I read it regularly for tidbits like this: 1. Cast members did their own performing including singing and playing instruments. 2. Meryl Streep's mother-in-law helped her practice the Midwestern accent necessary for this role."

Clearly these five also have above-average luck (at least where this contest is concerned; we're not sure about poor Larry otherwise). Folks, if you haven't already, send us your addresses, and we'll get your DVDs on their way.

For the rest of you, this week's new contest will be announced a little later today...

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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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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iStock

Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]

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