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Ten "trials of the century"

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From the floss archives: a look back at ten "trials of the century" and why they all deserve that dubious honor.

1. 1906: The State vs. Harry Thaw
Harry Thaw, the trust-funded son of a Pittsburgh industrialist, shoots Madison Square Garden architect Stanford White in the face "“ during a show at Madison Square Garden. Claiming White raped his wife, his lawyer wins an acquittal by arguing Thaw suffered from "dementia Americana," afflicting any American male whose wife's purity is violated.

2. 1924: Leopold and Loeb
Wealthy college boys Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb murder a teenager just for fun, their "perfect crime" foiled when Leopold leaves his glasses with the body. Lawyer Clarence Darrow gives a 12-hour speech in their defense, sparing them from hanging.

3. 1925: The Scopes Monkey Trial
Darrow, the era's reigning liberal heavyweight, leaps to the defense of Tennessee schoolteacher John Scopes in the then-and-now legendary "Monkey Trial." Darrow loses the case despite much grandiose speechifying by he and prosecutor William Jennings Bryan; Scopes is fined a measly $100 for teaching evolution despite a state law banning it (though he never pays); and 75-plus years later we're still arguing about monkeys. Good work, guys.

4. 1945: The Nuremburg Trials
An international tribunal decides the fate of two dozen high-ranking Nazis. Journalists expecting monstrous defendants are surprised by the ordinariness of baddies like Hermann Goering, remarking on "the banality of evil."

5. 1970: Fun for the whole Family
Charles Manson and his merry family of murderers are convicted in highly-publicized proceedings, further courting media attention by carving giant X's into their foreheads.

After the jump: they just keep comin'!

6. 1976: Patty Hearst
Newspaper heiress Patty Hearst is convicted of robbing a federal bank as part of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army, coverage of which sells a lot of newspapers. Coincidence? Or genius?

7. 1982: John Hinckley, Jr.
John Hinckley, Jr., not-quite assassin of president Ronald Reagan, successfully pleads insanity, causing several states to re-write laws regarding the insanity plea. Though he is now famous, Jodie Foster still cruelly refuses to date him.

8. 1992: Rodney King
A not-guilty verdict for LAPD officers charged with beating black motorist Rodney King sparks devastating riots in Los Angeles, killing 58 people.

9. 1995: OJ
Trial of the Century of the century? Let us break it down: the crime was sensational, but Harry Thaw's moreso / Cochran was compelling, but no Clarence Darrow / its racial implications were troubling, but not like Scottsboro. Word.

10. 1999: The Clinton Impeachment
"Slick" William J. Clinton is (at least) the eighth US President to engage in sexual misconduct while in office, the first to be forced to discuss it under oath, and his impeachment is the last of the 20th century's Trials of the Century.

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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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May 23, 2017
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