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The Book Report: Meet Michael Stusser!

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Allow me to introduce myself: I'm Michael Stusser, a columnist for mental_floss magazine, ParentMap, and author of The Dead Guy Interviews, Conversations with 45 of the Most Accomplished, Notorious and Deceased Personalities in History  "“ my first book.

stusser-lincoln-.jpgThe genesis of The Dead Guy Interviews came about after running into Beethoven at a RiteAid. I was trying to use one of those damn photo machines (straightforward my foot) and the Boy Genius was refilling the batteries in his hearing aid. Well, it looked like Beethoven, anyway (must have been the ruffled collar and bouffant that threw me off"¦). Point is, it got me to thinking: what if I could track down the most famous folks in history and ask obnoxious and intrusive questions about their lives: Did Napoleon really have a complex, or was he just French? What was up with Thomas Jefferson's hypocritical stance on slavery (not to mention the DNA tests), and did Washington inhale? Might Frida consider a brow wax or J. Edgar Hoover a bigger bra size? And what the heck was da Vinci thinking with the whole ear episode? Edutainment, you might call it, but with a little theatre and pop-off pop-culture thrown in for good measure. If you ever wondered what it would be like to have dinner with anyone in history "“ now you'll know.

I've been asked by the good folks at mental floss to write a series of posts to introduce the book "“ and keep folks informed of important historical landmarks they may have left off their DayPlanners.

More after the jump...

Sadly - when it comes down to it - we're just not all that "book-smart." We're fuzzy on the facts. We have trouble telling the Bill of Rights from a Bill of Lading, astronomy from astrology, or Madonna from, well, Madonna. Most people think Hercules is a pro wrestler, and Descartes  a snail or dessert wine. While people love to feel smart, they'd prefer not to have to work for the knowledge. We're active people without a lot of time on our hands. It's the same reason fast food, insta-photos and dry cleaning are so darn popular. We want it all, we want it quickly, and - if possible - we'd like it supersized (no mayo).
Today's historical/hysterical lesson is an interview with the fabulous "“ and controversial Charles Darwin. On this date in 1935, Professor Darwin  reached James Island on the Galapagos archipelago on the HMS Beagle. (That's not a dog, it's a ship). His research here led to the theory of evolution, where Chuck postured that Eve did not come from Adam's rib. But we'll leave that up to you and your local PTA. In honor of this historic event "“ I'm allowing you to sit in on a condensed interview with Darwin from my book. For the full, in-depth interview with Mr. Darwin, you'll have to buy my book. But it'll be worth it "“ or I'll be a Monkey's Uncle.

Enjoy - and see ya tomorrow for more bloggery.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]