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How To: Build a "Dynasty"

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Leadership skills
Innovative ideas
Worshipful subjects
Descendants to carry on your dream

First, Found Your Empire
Irna Phillips wanted to be a Hollywood star, but her acting coaches felt she had a face meant more for radio. Fortunately for Irna, this was 1930, back when radio-acting jobs were plentiful and didn't necessarily involve the words "prairie," "home" or "companion." She went to work for Chicago's WGN station, where, less than a year later, she was asked to develop a 15-minute daily program about a family. The result was "Painted Dreams," which followed the loves and adventures of a wise Irish matriarch, her grown daughter and young, female border. Still trying to break into showbiz, Phillips provided the voice for the mother and several other minor characters, but her skill at concocting elaborate stories and tortured love lives would quickly eclipse her acting credentials. Within a few years, Phillips was in-demand throughout the radio world. By 1943, she had five programs on the air, was pulling in a salary equivalent to more than $2 million, and was writing more than 2 million words a year. Her melodramas, sponsored by cleaning product companies like Proctor and Gamble and aimed at housewives ages 18-49, became known as "soap operas."

Second, Solidify Your Power
Beyond simply creating daytime entertainment's longest-lasting genre, Phillips also pioneered nearly every convention and cliché that went along with it. Her soap operas featured organ music to punctuate dramatic moments, she pioneered the open-ended serialized style and weekly cliffhanger ending that kept listeners coming back for more, she even created the first medical melodrama—inspired by her own chronic hypochondria that prompted near daily visits to doctors and hospitals. And, in 1937, she created a particular drama that would go on to become the world's longest running entertainment program and the world's longest continuous story—"The Guiding Light." Originally, the "guiding light" in question was the lamp in the study of a small-town reverend, which served as a beacon to his frequently emotionally beleaguered parishioners. On "The Guiding Light," Phillips pioneered what was to become another standard part of soap opera fare, plots that tied directly to pressing (and salacious) social concerns. Phillips wrote to the leaders of organizations like the Red Cross, Child Welfare, and The American Legion to find out what social problems they wanted to educate her audience about. Often, the organizations actually sent her individual case histories, which she wove into the plots. In fact, during the 1940s, "The Guiding Light" featured radio's first (and soap history's first of many) illegitimate pregnancy. When soap operas made the jump to television, Irna Phillips went with them. "The Guiding Light" hit the boob tube in 1952, where the plot transitioned into a completely unrelated story about the lives of a German-American family living in a Las Angeles suburb and introduced the first scheming, prima-donna character, former model and occasional husband-killer Meta Bauer.

Dynasty.gifThird, Hand The Reigns To A New Generation
Despite her success, Phillips wasn't completely at home in the television genre. When NBC attempted to run the first color TV broadcast of "The Guiding Light" in 1953, Phillips deliberately set the entire episode in a surgical ward, where nearly everything—from props, to costumes, to the walls—was either black or white. The episode was a flop and Phillips ended up single-handedly pushing back the adoption of regular color broadcasting by almost a decade. But while Phillips may not have been totally comfortable in the television world, her heirs certainly were. Throughout her career, Phillips employed various assistant writers who later went on to create famous and long-running soaps of their own. In fact, nearly every soap on daytime TV today was created by Phillips or by one of her disciples.

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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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