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You know him, you love him... Michael Stusser!

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Good day! Michael Stusser, here, with another This Day in Blogstery!

Luke_Perry.jpg Plenty of history went down on this day, most of which you learned in 9th grade, then purged to make room for that flippin' chemistry chart and the 206 bones in the human body. In 1689, Peter the (Not So) Great became tsar of Russia. In 1868, Thomas Edison patented his very first invention (he'd go on to file 1,000 more) "“ the electric voice machine. (Not surprisingly, he had no messages.) In 1936, the first radio quiz show, "Professor Quiz," premiered, though contestants were vying for quarters, rather than a million bucks. In 1975, Saturday Night Live premiered (with George Carlin as host), and Bill Clinton wed Hillary (Rodham). Even though I'd like to devote the entire blog to Luke Perry (born today in '66), we'll concentrate, instead on the year 1726, when the great Benjamin Franklin returned to Philadelphia after three years in England, brimming with ideas for a new nation. Young Bennie was only twenty years old, but an old soul "“ and soon had developed the concept of a lending library so common folks could read books, which were too expensive in those days most people to own. He went on to write a few books of his own (including one of the first autobiographies"¦egotistical fellow"¦) and signed a few key documents later in life. Here's a condensed conversation with Ben Franklin from The Dead Guy Interviews. For the full, in-depth interview with Mr. Franklin, you'll have to buy my book - but it'll be worth it "“ or a penny saved isn't a penny"¦.Well, maybe the penny is a bad example of saving, but you get the drift"¦

The completely En-lightning interview after the jump... 


Benjamin Franklin (Jan 17, 1706--Apr 17, 1790)

51hxFy7FRnL._SS500_1.jpgFounding Father, super-inventor, scientist extraordinaire, philosopher, printer, diplomat, and author, Benjamin Franklin had more roles than Tom Hanks and Morgan Freeman combined.

Born in Boston, Big Ben was the 15th of his father's seventeen children. Not letting school get in the way of his education, Ben quit school at age ten and then apprenticed at his brother's print shop, before setting out on his own. In 1729 he bought the Pennsylvania Gazette and turned it into the most popular rag in the colonies. Franklin proved to be the greatest writer of the 18th Century, espousing common sense and hard work with a healthy dose of humor. In addition to one of the first autobiographies ever written, he wrote political essays (many on treating the Native Americans fairly), and Poor Richard's Almanac (1732-57). Full of weather forecasts, jokes and proverbs, the almanacs were almost as popular as the #1 seller at the time, The Bible.

Ben lived on and off in England for eighteen years, mediating conflicts on behalf of the Colonies before hitting France to gain support for the Revolutionary War. He spent nine years in Paris, chowing croissants, flirting with the ladies and getting crucial aid from Frenchie to back our bid for independence. Of course, Doc Franklin helped craft both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and his elder statesman seasoning came in handy when tempers flared and calmer heads had to prevail. For a man with so many titles he was, above all, a public servant. As French philosopher Turgot put it, "He seized lightning from the skies and the scepter from tyrants."

Michael Stusser: Poet, scientist, philosopher, inventor "“ you must have gone to Harvard or something.

Ben Franklin: Two years of grammar school, the rest was learning on the job.

MS: Get out!

BF: I just got here.

MS: No, it's a phrase that -

BF: Know what it is, young man. In fact, I coined a few phrases in my time: "The worst wheel of a cart makes the most noise." Heard that one?

MS: Not exactly.

BF: How "˜bout: "Fish and visitors stink after three days." That's mine. So's, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

MS: Somehow you prevented yourself from getting electrocuted: June 15, 1752, the story goes, you ran around with a key on a kite in an electrical storm "“ that's nuts!

BF: How else are you going to demonstrate that lightning is electrical? And to be honest, I got the charge from a storm cloud "“ not full-on lighting. I'm no idiot.

MS: What other inventions did you tinker with?

BF: Well the kite-trick led to the lightning rod, which was a good one, but I also came up with an odometer.

MS: But there weren't any cars.

BF: Yeah, we strapped "˜em to wagon wheels to clock horse's road time. That was a big seller. (He rolls his eyes.) Course there's the Franklin Stove. That kept the little ones from falling on their faces into the fire, so I got a lot of good pub there. And as I kid I invented some flippers.

MS: For swimming?

BF: No, for horseback riding. Of course for swimming! I was a helluva athlete in my day and would do laps in Boston Harbor. I swam the Thames River when I was across the pond "“ freaked the Londoners out.

MS: And finally, bi-focals, were your invention.

BF: I was 83 years old and could see the peas on my plate, but not the gal seated across from me! So I had a glass-cutter slice my two pairs of glasses in half and clamp "˜em together. Problem solved.

MS: You started the first public library (1731).

BF: At the time, books were quite expensive. Got to read to succeed.

MS: Didn't you also develop the first Colonial Post Office?

BF: And the hospital, insurance agency, and police force"¦

MS: Wow!

BF: As well as the first volunteer fire department.

MS: Did you know you're on the hundred dollar bill?

BF: I am?

MS: Oh yeah. Franklins are a sign of bling, man.

BF: OK. Bling. Sure.

MS: But Ben Franklin was also Richard Saunders.

BF: Richard Saunders was the pseudonym I used for the Poor Richard's Almanac. I'm happy to admit I was also Mrs. Silence Dogwood "“ advice columnist in my brother's paper. Never wore a dress though.

MS: You were married for 44 years. What's the key?

BF: Living on separate sides of the Atlantic. HA! No, Deborah and I made each other happy. Even when we were apart for years at a time we kept in close touch "“ she'd send home-cured bacon to London and I'd mail her silk and pottery.

MS: No offense sir, but you didn't see her for the last nine years of her life.

BF: Well she was afraid to sail, and I didn't get around to coming home. I do feel badly about that.

MS: Now, is it true your initial instinct in regard to independence was to make sure you didn't piss off King George?

BF: I wanted to placate the British, but also establish colonial representation in their parliament.

MS: Plus you offered to pay for all the tea we dumped in Boston Harbor.

BF: No reason to go to war over tea. "Safety first," I always said.

MS: You lived in London for almost twenty years. Ever think of staying?

BF: Oh yeah. For the crumpets and dentistry alone. I was at King George III's coronation and really thought we could do well as part of the British Empire.

MS: What changed?

BF: A couple things: First, the Brits were thinking of ringing my neck after I printed letters by the royal Governor of Massachusetts that showed how he was screwing over the colonies. And second, a war broke out.

MS: Your own son was on the wrong side.

BF: Illegitimate son, but yes, William had his own strong mind. I also think he wanted to keep his job, which was pretty cush (royal Governor to New Jersey) in case the Yankees lost.

MS: You guys ever kiss and make up?

BF: I disinherited the punk. Does that count?

MS: Let's move on, eh? What was it like to sign the Declaration of Independence?

BF: It was incredible and nerve-wracking. I remember saying, "We must all hang together or we shall all hang separately."

MS: By the time you went to the Constitutional Convention you were 81 years old.

BF: Say what, sonny?

MS: I say, "BY THE TIME "“"

BF: I heard you the first time. Too bad the youngsters didn't listen to any of my ideas "“ and I had plenty!

MS: Such as?

BF: I didn't think you should have to own land to vote, that's for sure. I also didn't like the idea of paying government officials salaries "“ they should be elderly gents, maybe retirees, with no other agenda than helping the citizens, ya know?

MS: That's a bit unrealistic.

BF: And the president should be a one-termer! Serve your four years and get out!

MS: This I can get behind. Even with your differences, you wrote a statement at the end of the convention that everyone rallied around.

BF: What I did was let them know democracy's not pretty. I said my piece about not having my ideas listened to "“ NOT A SINGLE ONE OF "˜EM "“ and let folks know I understand free men are bound to disagree. Compromise is necessary, and so is acceptance. The will of the majority may not be perfect, but in this case it would have to do.

MS: Only Founding Father to have signed the Declaration, the Treaty of Paris, and the Constitution.

BF: And the oldest.

MS: Speaking of which, you wrote your own epitaph.

BF: Ha! Yeah, I was deadly sick when I was 20, and thought I was going to need it.

MS: May I read it?
The body of B. Franklin, Printer
(Like the Cover of an Old Book
Its Contents torn Out
And Stript of its Lettering and Gilding)
Lies Here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be Lost;
For it will (as he Believ'd) Appear once More
In a New and More Elegant Edition
Revised and Corrected
By the Author.

BF: Sounds about right.

MS: Thought you'd like to know that it's now a tradition to toss a penny on your grave at the Christ Church Burial Ground.

BF: Didn't anyone hear me when I said "A penny saved is a penny earned?"

MS: Yeah, but we've got credit cards now. Pennies are kind of a joke.

BF: They add up, son. That's the whole point.


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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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