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The Analogist Redux

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I used to have two cats, until one disappeared. Ever since this happened, my other cat has been wandering aimlessly around the house, pretty much useless. Is there anything else like this out there?

Anna
Lubbock, TX

woodsharmon.jpg This reminds me of the relationship Tiger Woods had with his former swing coach, and not just because a tiger is one of the four species of cat in the genus Panthera (tiger, lion, jaguar and leopard).

Tiger split with Butch Harmon in 2002 after the U.S. Open. Before the parting of ways, Woods had won seven of the previous eleven major championships, which is like your cat's general attitude before becoming useless. Without Butch -- your other cat in this analogy -- Tiger was basically wandering aimlessly, not winning another major title until 2005.

But it's important to remember that Tiger eventually returned to his previous unbeatable form, winning tournament after tournament, buying a $39 million Florida home with his supermodel wife, and becoming a father. If this analogy holds, your cat will be fine (in three years, tops).


I just realized why my new boss seemed so familiar. Though we didn't go to the same school, she had a bit of an, um, reputation in high school (I attended a parochial school in the same town in the early 1990s and she's a few years older.) I'm not sure how much of it was true, but she sure dressed the part, and I know she never graduated. Now she's a completely different person, married, very driven and a great boss. I'll carry her secrets to my grave. Or at least my exit interview. What's an analogy for her change, and my feigned ignorance?

Tommy
Manhattan, Kansas

Your suspension of disbelief is similar to the way viewers treat repeat actors on the same sitcom. For example, on The Golden Girls, the same actor who played Rose Nylund's lover Miles also appeared in season one as Arnie -- another of Rose's male suitors. That Miles was actually in the Witness Protection Program is confusing and rather ridiculous, but irrelevant. The actor (your boss) and the show in general (your company at large) are both best served by your playing ignorant.

jefferson_index.jpgAnother example: Ted McGinley, who starred as Jefferson D'Arcy on Married...with Children for seven seasons, played Peggy's husband Norman Jablonski in the 1989 Christmas episode ("Whoa, Jablonski!"). Ted was fully accepted into our living rooms as Jefferson, unless of course your parents didn't allow you to watch this program. We acted like his previous role never happened. Just like you're doing with your boss' (mildly) scandalous past.

If you're not a Golden Girls or Married...with Children fan, this analogy also works with The Cosby Show "“ Denise's husband Lt. Martin Kendall previously appeared in season two as Sondra's date Darryl, a pre-med student Cliff Huxtable found preferable to Elvin and his wilderness-store-in-Brooklyn dreams.

When it comes to awkwardness prevention and sitcom enjoyability, feigned ignorance is bliss.

If you missed the first installment,
catch up here. Or email us a situation to be Analogized.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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