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50 Reasons to Subscribe to mental_floss (#42, One Scheming Princess)

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The Scheming Princess Behind the Fall of the Roman Empire

by Mark S. Longo

Everyone goes through a rebellious phase. You know, that moment when daddy's little girl decides that booze, boys, and the beach are a lot more fun than the old man ever was. And, if you're lucky, you'll be able to look back on those years and laugh. If you're less lucky, you spent those years on a reality show, so for the rest of time, millions of strangers can look back on them and laugh instead. But, hey, it could be worse. You could be responsible for the fall of Western Civilization, just like Justa Grata Honoria, the Roman princess whose wild ways and (literally) naked ambition set off a chain reaction that culminated in the destruction of the Roman Empire.

Barely Regal
Smart, conniving, and ruthless, Honoria possessed all the attributes befitting a Roman emperor, except for that pesky Y chromosome. As a young girl, she watched as her dimwitted six-year-old brother, Valentinian III, was crowned emperor of the Western Roman Empire, while she was set aside to await a suitable marriage. Hardly content to lead a quiet and chaste life, Honoria rebelled with aplomb, sleeping her way through the royal court while still in her teens.

Although her after-hours habits caused quite the scandal, they failed to satiate her need for attention and power, so Honoria set her eyes on the throne. Employing her ample charms, she seduced her brother's royal chamberlain, Eugenius, and together, they plotted to murder Valentinian and seize power. But, alas, their scheme was soon exposed. Eugenius was executed, and Honoria was sent to a convent in Constantinople.
Life as a nun was a fate worse than death for Honoria, but even that couldn't quell her ambition. She spent her years at the nunnery plotting one escape attempt after another. Finally, out of sheer desperation, she turned to sources outside the empire. Her savior would have to be powerful enough to defy Valentinian and risk open war with Rome. Only one man fit that description: Attila, king of the Huns.

Attila the Hubby
Honoria got the barbarian's attention with a mutually beneficial proposal: If Attila would rescue her, she would marry him, and he would get half of the Western Empire as her dowry. Of course, Honoria was in no position to rightfully offer any portion of the Roman Empire, but she was betting that, after marrying her, Attila would conquer the whole Empire, and she'd become queen to boot.
Attila had secretly been planning a move against Rome for years, and Honoria's letter gave him the perfect opportunity to strike. Wasting no time, he told Valentinian that he planned to marry Honoria, and demanded the dowry he'd been promised. Naturally, Valentinian refused, and Attila used his status as a "wronged husband" to invade Roman territory in 451 C.E. The Hun armies quickly swept through the Empire, destroying everything in their path, and eventually they arrived in Rome. Like all the other cities before it, Rome would also have been annihilated were it not for the famine and disease that devastated the Huns during the invasion. Rome survived Attila's assault with the unlikely help of another nomadic enemy tribe, the Visigoths, but the Western Empire never recovered. Within a generation, the armies of the Goths, Franks, and Huns had overrun the area.

The Princess Bride
Ultimately, Honoria became neither Roman empress nor barbarian queen. Attila never rescued her, and she was eventually sent back to Rome and left to her brother's justice. Not wanting to cause a scandal by having her executed, and unwilling to send her back into exile where she could scheme again, Valentinian settled on a suitable third option. After years of struggle, Honoria finally suffered the fate she had been dreading all along: She was married off to an elderly Roman senator, and the rest of her life went unrecorded by history.

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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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