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Meet Your Candidates for People's Tribune

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Okay, folks, the real election season may be coming to a close but ours is in full swing. Below are your three candidates for People's Tribune. You'll be hearing more from them later in the week, but for now, let's do the whole meet-and-greet, grip-and-grin thing:

Tucker Steele
Campaign slogan: "I will establish a meritocracy throughout the land, at least until I can figure out how to get campaign contributions."
Speech! Speech!: As a longtime reader of mental_floss, I know I would make a fantastic "People's Tribune." I know I can represent readers by personally revealing the solutions to P ≠ NP, the location of Hoffa's body, and why people are stilling flying to Vegas and dropping $100 on a Celine Dion ticket. As JFK once said, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country," and while you are asking your country a question, please promote me, Tucker Steele, for PEOPLE'S TRIBUNE.

Mike Landau
Campaign slogan: "I know more useless information than anyone on the face of the planet."
Speech! Speech!: I am working on my Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Georgia. I have 23 consecutive years of education. I think I'm losing my mind. I would really like to win something. Please select me as the Tribune.

Lyssa (we're assuming she goes by one name, like Beyonce)
Campaign slogan: "Lyssa! Helping people since at least 10 o'clock this morning."
Speech! Speech!: Why should I be your candidate? Since "'cause I said so" only works with my sister's kids and a wussy ex-boyfriend, here's why! 1. Some might categorize me as a lurker. I say that I'm just so sneaky, you don't notice me participating. My ninja-like commenting skills go unnoticed by the untrained eye. And who doesn't love ninja skills? "Vote Lyssa, she's stealthy!" 2. I'm diverse! I love art, literature and science, but I am also known for sending friends gross facts and icky bug pictures to ruin their lunch. "Lyssa. Representing Shakespeare AND things you want to poke with sticks." 3. I'm full of great ideas! You want free healthcare? I propose Cooperative Preventative Healthcare Plan 2006! Every time you see a co-worker doing something that might potentially damage their health, you point a rolled up newspaper at them and go, "NO. No. BAD." (But you don't smack them with it. Cause that's mean. And you could cause a bruise or pull a muscle, defeating the purpose of Cooperative Preventative Healthcare Plan 2006.) ... Great ideas, diversity and ninja skills. You can't beat that with a nun holding a yardstick.

Start making your pro and con lists now; voting takes place on Wednesday. No hanging chads, we promise.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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