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Not your typical ghost town

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It may not seem like much today, but at the turn of the century the boomtown of Rhyolite was the talk of Nevada. Gold was discovered there in 1904, and by 1907 the town had 10,000 residents, three railroads stopped there and by comparison the tiny desert outpost of Las Vegas was little more than a waystation for people on their way to Rhyolite.

Unlike most boom towns, though, Rhyolite was more than a tent city and a few scattered structures -- assuming their town was destined to be the next major city on the ever-expanding map of the American West, they built Rhyolite to last. It featured a grid of streets, a railroad depot, a two-story schoolhouse, a three-story concrete bank, and at least 50 saloons. (This proliferation of watering holes explains why Rhyolite boasted three houses made from cemented-together beer and champagne bottles, one of which still stands.)

The bottle house:

As a result, a number of structures remain, and wandering its now-desolate streets one gets a sense of what it must've been like to live here. But just as quickly as Rhyolite boomed, it went bust: in 1908, the mines began to peter out, and the double-whammy of the San Francisco earthquake (1906) and the financial panic of 1907 effectively dried up investment money which might've searched for new mines. By 1910, the population was down to 675, they turned the lights and power off in 1916 and by 1920 just twenty people eked out their lives in there -- in the dark -- some of whom are buried in its cemetery. (The ghost cemetery of a ghost town; yes, it's as creepy and evocative as it sounds. See pictures.)

A wooden grave marker in Rhyolite cemetery:

These days, Rhyolite is the site of occasional movie shoots (a scene from Michael Bay's The Island was shot here) and serves as a potent warning to would-be investors of every stripe: before you build in concrete, test the market with a tent city first.

More pictures after the jump!


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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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