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IQ-tips timewarp trip: Television

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You guys seemed to appreciate last week's IQ-tips on remote control etiquette so much, it gave me an idea: how about we take a journey through the etiquette of our past, an IQ-tips timewarp trip. Many of you have probably heard of Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Book of Etiquette, but have you ever read it?

If only for the laughs, it's worthy of a full week's worth of posts, I thought. So, in place of my usual themes (Tuesday Turnip, Thingamajig Thursday, etc.), I'll be spending the better part of the week dipping into Vanderbilt's classic guide to gracious living, starting today with some tips from her chapter on Home Entertaining, more specifically, the use of television.

Remember now: we've just turned back the clock to Nov 13th, 1950!

The hostess with a television set should never assume that her guests are willing or eager to look at it. It is safer to assume that callers came to talk with their friends, not to enjoy their television. They probably have a set at home they could have turned on.

If unexpected guests arrive during the course of a telecast that the family is obviously enjoying, the hostess may say, "We like this program and look at it each week, so I hate to shut it off, but perhaps you would like to see it? If not, let's go into another room and any of the others who care to may join us."

It is certainly not fair, for example, to drag father away from a championship boxing match, if that's what he's glued to, to help entertain Mr. And Mrs. George, who just dropped in from the next block. What probably happens is that Mrs. George and the hostess retire from the din and the two men have their television.

If the hostess, on the other hand, has television in mind as a means of entertaining expected guests, she should tell them so in advance. If they consider a whole evening of watching television lost, they have an opportunity to refuse the invitation. They wouldn't hesitate to say they don't feel like a movie. They may even be quite frank and say, "We hardly ever turn on our own set, expect for a program or two we occasionally enjoy. Please ask us some other time when you're planning something else."
Guests who do accept a television invitation are ill-mannered, however, if once settled they keep up a continuous chatter that prevents the others from hearing what's going on. Trying to keep up conversation while watching television is impossible they should be still and look and listen or remove themselves thence.

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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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