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Condi Rice, Joe McCarthy & Prince Charles Were Born (and other things that happened November 14)

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November 14, a seemingly uneventful day, has actually seen several interesting coincidences and _flossy events. We've prepared a list from the past 320 years for your perusal.

"¢ Nell Gwyn and Louise Renée de Penancoët de Kérouaille, rival mistresses of King Charles II of England, both died, in 1687 and 1734, respectively.

"¢ Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz died in 1716. He discovered the binary system and calculus (separately of Newton).

"¢ Several musical relatives were born, including Johann Georg Leopold Mozart (1719), Wolfgang's father and teacher and a musician himself; Johann van Beethoven (1740), Ludwig's father and teacher as well as a musician himself; and Fanny Mendelssohn (1805), sister of Felix and a pianist and composer herself.

"¢ The only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll (===>) of Maryland, died in 1832. He outlived all his other co-signers.

"¢ In 1840, Claude Monet, the founder of French impressionist painting, was born.

"¢ Herman Melville published Moby Dick in 1851.

"¢ Nelly Bly, a New York World reporter inspired by Jules Verne, set out in 1889 to travel the world in less than 80 days. Her final tally: 72 days.

"¢ One of the co-discoverers of insulin, Sir Frederick Grant Banting, was born in 1891. He was a doctor, a scientist, and a Nobel laureate.

"¢ Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award-winning composer Aaron Copland was born in 1900.

"¢ The creator of Shrek, William Steig, was born in 1907. Newsweek named him "King of Cartoons;" he also won a Caldecott Medal.

"¢ Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the face of anti-communism in the U.S., was born in 1908.

"¢ In 1915, Booker T. Washington died. His life was full of accomplishments, including an honorary master's degree from Harvard, an honorary doctorate from Dartmouth, and an invitation to the White House. (He was the first African-American to be invited to the White House.)

"¢ British professional wrestler Shirley Crabtree, Jr., aka Big Daddy, was born in 1930. His fans included both Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher.

"¢ Two NASA astronauts were born: Edward Higgins White II (1930) and Fred Wallace Haise, Jr. (1933). White died during an Apollo 1 training accident and was awarded, posthumously, the Congressional Space Medal of Honor and the Purple Heart.

"¢ In 1943, Peter Norton was born. Although he was once a Buddhist monk, he is best known for his line of computer tools, Norton Utilities, and the other programs they spawned. His crossed-arms pose is a registered trademark.

"¢ Charles, Prince of Wales, was born in 1948. His sister, Anne, celebrated her first marriage twenty-five years later, on this same date.

condirice.jpg"¢ Phil Baron, the voice of childhood icons including Piglet, Teddy Ruxpin, and Timmy the Tooth, was born in 1953.

"¢ Condoleezza Rice (===>) was born in 1954. She is the first African-American woman, the second African-American, and the second woman to serve as Secretary of State.

"¢ Also in 1954, Yanni, a self-taught pianist with perfect pitch, was born.

"¢ Children's Book Week, sponsored by The Children's Book Council, kicks off in the U.S. in 2007.

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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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