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Should you sleep with your pets?

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I know what you're thinking, you dirty birds -- no, not that way. I mean, should you share the Tempurpedic with Rover and/or Fluffy -- and if you choose to, what consequences could it have? It's more of an issue these days, as our domesticated animals' habitats have migrated from back yard to porch to sleeping inside and finally, in some cases, the bedroom. (Though I'm sure a fair share of old prospectors preferred to bunk with the dog rather than freeze their way through a winter in an unheated shack alone. Slate tells us that "the rock group Three Dog Night takes its name from the supposed [Australian] Aboriginal practice of judging the coldness of an evening by the number of dogs required to keep warm.")

We certainly don't need our pets to keep warm at night anymore. Nevertheless, a recent survey found that about 62% of American pet owners keep their dogs and cats inside at night, and about half of those allow their pets to share the bed with them. Confession time: I'm one of the latter. That said, we've just got one little Tonkinese kitty (pictured above, in bed of course; how can you resist?), who doesn't go outside, devour mice or do anything particularly unsavory, as cats go -- but one overriding issue, cleanliness aside, remains. Cats are nocturnal creatures. The cat spends most of her day sleeping in our big red Ikea Poang chair, and when night comes, it's time to stalk, skulk, run and play -- even if her playmates are trying to catch their forty winks. The last thing you want when you're deep in dreamland is a cat pouncing on your stomach. (On the other hand, a little purring ball of fluff can be a great sleep-inducer. So does the good outweigh the bad?)

With dogs, it can be even worse: bed-sharing becomes a dominance issue. Once you allow a dog in the bed, according to some animal behaviorists, your role as leader of the pack is greatly diminished. (Not all experts agree about this, and anyway, most hard-core pet sleepers wouldn't care if you told them their pets were poisoning them in their sleep -- the animals are like a security blanket.)

I spilled my guts a little, now it's your turn: who sleeps with their animals? Of those who do, who's woken up regularly by the cat or the dog -- and doesn't bother changing their sleeping arrangements?

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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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