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The Legacy of Sadako

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Sadako Sasaki was two years old when the atom bomb was dropped on her hometown of Hiroshima, Japan in 1945. Sadako's home was about a mile from the epicenter, and her family survived. When she was an eleven-year-old school athlete, she began to experience weakness, lumps on her neck, and spots on her legs. Sadako was diagnosed with leukemia, with a life expectancy of a year. She spent the next eight months in a hospital.

During that time, she heard about the Japanese legend that says if you fold a thousand paper cranes, your wish will come true. Sadako began folding cranes whenever she could get paper or other materials. Some versions of Sadako's story say she failed in her attempt, and that her friends completed the thousand cranes, but most historical sources say she completed her mission, and made 1300 cranes. Sadako died on October 25, 1955.

But Sadako lives on, after the jump.

Sadako's friends and classmates published a book containing her letters in order to raise funds for a memorial to Sadako and other children who died in the wake of the atomic bomb. Donations came in from 3,100 schools in Japan and from nine other countries. The Children's Peace Monument, featuring a statue of Sadako holding a crane, was offically unveiled on May 5, 1958 in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.
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There are display cases surrounding the monument in Hiroshima containing the many paper cranes (around ten million a year) still offered by people all over the world. The Children's Peace Monument accepts cranes by mail. Here are intructions for making an origami crane.
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At least two children's books were written about Sadako,
Sadako Will Leben (Sadako Wants To Live) by Austrain author Karl Bruckner in 1961, and Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by American author Eleanor Coerr in 1977 (also available on video). Rasul Gamzatov wrote his epic poem Zhuravli (The Cranes) in honor of Sadako. It was later adapted into a popular Russian song. The jazz-fusion band Hiroshima have a song called Thousand Cranes inspired by the story. 1000 Cranes Business Consulting named their company after the Sadako story.

There is also a statue of Sadako in the Seattle Peace Park. The Peace Park was built by Dr. Floyd Schmoe with money he received as a recipient of the Hiroshima Peace Prize in 1988.
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In 1989, elementary students at Arroyo del Oso School in Albuquerque designed and created the The Children's Peace Statue. The statue is on display at the Ghost Ranch in Santa Fe.
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The Sadako Peace Garden in Santa Barbara, California was dedicated in 1995. The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation holds a Sadako Peace Day event every year in August.

Another Sadako-inspired organization, The World Peace Project for Children in Washington state was founded in 1997 to promote communication between children of different cultures. Their projects include a children's peace choir and a peace club.

Sadako's Cranes

There are more tributes to Sadako on YouTube, if you can handle the emotions.

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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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