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Wake up with freedom fighters

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Generally speaking, if I haven't had my morning cup of coffee yet, it's too early to talk politics. But now there's a new way to stir up political controversy and get my cup o' mud at the same time -- all without saying a word.

"Brewing with the fresh-roasted beans of Contra Café will show you that drinking coffee is about more than getting a caffeine fix. It's about experiencing a beverage of exceptional taste and vibrant flavor, handcrafted for you by former freedom fighters deep in the mountains of Nicaragua!"

Bedecked with photos of Ronald Reagan and Oliver North as well as quotes from Commie-hating coffee lovers, the Contra Café website proudly announces that the Contras are back -- and this time they mean business. (Agri-business, that is.) Now that the CIA no longer supports their paramilitary activities, they're counting on a new generation of American drug addicts java-heads to help them turn Kalashnikovs into ploughshares. Let's run the numbers on the Contras and their coffee, all mixed up for ironic emphasis:

  • The Contras' farms sit between 3,200 and 3,700 feet in altitude in Nicaragua's Jinotega coffee-growing region.
  • The Nicaragua conflict claimed an estimated 60,000 lives. The Contras were frequently accused of being responsible for multiple political assassinations, kidnappings, and the widespread use of torture.
  • Each of the Contra farmers manages their own small farm of 1-2 acres. This attention to the smallest details ensures that every cup of Contra Café has zero defects and perfectly balanced flavor.
  • Contra raids caused extensive damage to crop fields, grain silos, irrigation projects, farm houses and machinery. Numerous state farms and co-operatives were incapacitated; other farms still intact were abandoned because of the danger.
  • To protect the delicate Arabica trees from the fierce mountain sun, the Contra farms are covered with a thick layer of shade trees. Besides enhancing the taste of the coffee, this shade provides a habitat for hundreds of native species of birds and animals.
  • The Sandinistas accused the Contras of conducting a campaign of indiscriminate terror. For example, the Sandinista government claimed in November 1984 that since 1981 the Contras had assassinated 910 state officials, attacked nearly 100 civilian communities and caused the displacement of over 150,000 people from their homes and farms.
  • Depending on how strong you want to brew your coffee, one 16 oz. bag of Contra Café makes 40 cups of coffee, which is $0.25 per delicious cup. Contra Café is available $10 per 1 pound bag, or $9 per bag if you join Club Contra.
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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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