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Ridiculous Board Games: The Winner

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When my computer quit on me last week, the last thing I wanted to think about was picking a winner in the Ridiculous Board Games t-shirt contest. So I fired up an old laptop and passed the buck to three friends who happened to be on IM.

And finally, after receiving a series of nagging text messages, my guest judges have come to a consensus. The winner of a brand new mental_floss t-shirt is...

Janet from Virginia!

Title: What did the Dog/Cat eat?

Object: Guess what the dog/cat ate by looking through the vomit, guess the most correct answers and get to the vet first, YOU WIN

1. Players choose owner pawn to move
2. Opposing player selects a vomit card and shows the player the picture
3. Player guesses objects eaten and moves ahead as many spaces as objects guessed correctly
4. Read squares for additionally moves

Squares include:
"¢ Pet re-ate vomit before you could clean it up. Move back 2 spaces.
"¢ Not all of whatever that is came back up. Move back one space.
"¢ Pet threw up all and is happy. Move ahead 2 spaces.
"¢ Vomit was only on the kitchen floor "“ easy clean up. Move ahead 1 space.

First player to get your pet to the vet wins!

Testimonial: "I play the live version of this game weekly, thanks to a cat named Scooby and a dog named Kaylee. It makes for great laughs and good fun." "“Janet in Virginia

Janet is not new to the winner's circle. Back in June, she placed second in our "count my change" contest, earning free admission to our Law School in a Box (currently out of stock). We'll be in touch about adding a t-shirt to your trophy case. Thanks to everyone who played -- a lot of heated debate went into this decision. The profanity-laced kind.

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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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