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Let Me Tell You What That's Like

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New feature here. We'll see how it goes.

I love my sister but she's the worst. When I was nine, I fell out of our treehouse and broke my collarbone. Angry at the attention I was getting, she jumped from the same treehouse and broke both legs (she still walks with a limp). I'm getting married next month. She's bound to pull something and I want to warn people. What's a good analogy for our relationship?

"“ Kate
(City Withheld), Texas

luna15.jpgYour sibling rivalry reminds me of the space race. Did you know that while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were traipsing around the lunar surface, a Soviet spacecraft "“ Luna 15, at right "“ slammed into the Moon? Sounds like something your sister might do if you were an astronaut and she ran a rival nation's space program. This will work especially well if your friends are still harboring Cold War resentment.

I tried and failed to get a former colleague a job with my new company. He was passed over for a less experienced guy with "more potential." People raved about this guy like he was the iPhone. But after months of lackluster work, he was caught trying to steal a scanner. After a tearful admission to HR, he was escorted out by the rent-a-cops that patrol our office park. A more humiliating fate I cannot imagine. I feel so vindicated. What parallels this clown's fall from grace?

"“ Theresa
Atlanta, Georgia

darko03.jpgDrop this line at your next office happy hour: "Glad we finally got rid of Darko." Darko Milicic was a highly touted prospect before the 2003 NBA Draft. The Detroit Pistons selected him #2 overall, ahead of future stars Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh. Talk about hype. Hindsight is 20/20, but it's also often hilarious. This is from ESPN analyst Chad Ford back then:

"Darko is really one of a kind. He runs the floor, handles the ball, shoots an NBA three and plays with his back to the basket. So you can slot him at the 3, 4 or 5. Okay, a few other guys can do that, too, but what sets Darko apart is his toughness in the post "¦ Fact is, Darko plays in attack mode at both ends of the floor. The more you push, the more he pushes back."

Darko did not push back hard enough. In parts of three depressing seasons with the Pistons, he never averaged more than 1.8 points or 6.9 minutes a game. Now he's with the Orlando Magic (and improving, I must admit). And in his defense, he was never accused of stealing company property.

Does a third-party candidate actually have a chance to win in 2008?

"“ Ralph
Essex Fells, New Jersey

Hmmm. I think you misunderstood the concept. Asking me this question is like asking spelling bee contestants whether or not they'd make good pirates. An interesting query, yes. But altogether inappropriate for the venue.

Hope you enjoyed the pilot episode. If you'd like to have something Analogized, email us here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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