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The world's biggest balls

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It was a roadside phenomenon that grew into a country-wide craze; now it seems that every state in the union lays claim to at least one or two record-breaking balls. What compels people to make their balls so big? We may never know -- we can only admire them, and pay homage. Which is just what this list intends to do. So without further ado, here are the world's biggest balls of:

TWINE

Some pertinent stats: It weighs nearly 18,000 pounds, just shy of nine tons. It has a circumference of 40 feet. It also has its own mini-museum -- more of an enclosed gazebo, really -- in Darwin, Minnesota, where creator Francis Johnson spent four hours a day winding it for 29 years, from 1950 to 1979. The town celebrates "Twine Ball Day" every August. (But all is not well in twine-ball town; a controversy has brewed for years over whose ball is biggest, Darwin's or the one on display in Branson, MO, built by millionaire J. C. Payne of using a system of pulleys. The Guinness Book certified the latter as the largest, but Darwinians claimed that Payne cheated by using machines.) By the way, these are only the largest balls of twine built by one person; the largest community-built ball resides in Cawker City, Kansas, where every year a "twine-a-thon" is held in which townsfolk gather 'round the ball and help it grow.

PAINT
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Michael Carmichael has spent twenty-eight years painting a baseball, which has nearly 20,000 coats on it to date and weighs at least 40 pounds. The town where it resides, Alexandria, Indiana, is also home to the world's largest hairball, which was found in the sewers some years ago and was (an apparently true) feature in the National Enquirer. Even more amazing, the huge ball of paint was identified by the Dept. of Homeland Security as a "distinguished heritage site" which helped qualify Indiana for a slice of its annual terror defense budget.

BARBED WIRE
Sitting in an open field in Texas is the world's largest ball of barbed wire, wound together over 30 years by the same mad genius who created the Guinness-recognized twine ball (see above), J.C. Payne. Weighing 21,000 pounds and measuring 11.5 feet in diameter, it's probably also the world's largest tetanus hazard.

POPCORN
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Constructed in a popcorn factor in Sac City, Iowa (doesn't that seem like cheating?), Guinness recognized this ball as the world's largest in 2004. 910 lbs. of popcorn, 1500 lbs. of sugar and 690 lbs. of syrup went into making the seven-foot-tall, 3,100 pound treat.

RUBBER BANDS
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Oregonian Steve Milton created the world's largest ball of rubber bands with a little help (and about 175,000 rubber bands) from his friends at OfficeMax. It weighs in at 4,000+ lbs and stands 5.5 feet high.

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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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