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Sticks and Stones May Break Bones...

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The only time a nickname has ever offended me was in kindergarten, when my teacher started calling me Jason the Mason. See, Jason the Mason was a brick-working pig from a book we were reading. I didn't take kindly to being called a pig, so I broke down in tears. Now, with 15 more years of experience under my belt, I've learned that words really will never hurt me, so I was more excited than weepy when a friend turned me on to the drawbacks section of babynamer.com. Babynamer is a site run by the Oxygen network ostensibly for new parents, but I found it plenty interesting. Even though it's got tons of information about every name, from origin to alternate spellings to namesakes, the highlight is the drawbacks, which lists the most creative ways to make fun of someone's name. These lists can prepare children for all kinds of bullies, be they oddly creative ("˜Caterer' for "˜Kaitlyn'), cruel (the Mitch page is obviously ruthless) or remarkably intelligent ("˜Anatomical John,' a reference to famed anatomist John Hilton).

Because I know all the bullies who read our site want more ammo, here are some drawbacks for Mental Floss writers, courtesy of babynamer.

David- Crazy Davey, Dave the Slave
Becky- Becky the Techie, Beckalini
Chris Higgins- Rye Crisp, Chris Piss
Will- Will the Pill, Iron Will
Jason- Space Case Jase, Jaywalk
InternJason- InternSpace Case Jase, InternJaywalk
Sandy- Sandy-tized for your Protection, Sandy Beach
Maggie- Mag-a-Rag, Maggie who Brings her Lunch in a Baggy

Mangesh, Ransom and Miss Cellania all escaped without any drawbacks, but feel free to suggest some in the comments.

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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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