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Gift-Giving Strategies

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With the holiday shopping season upon us, it's time for me to think about giving gifts to friends and family. In the past I've tried some different strategies, but I'm wondering if the mental_floss audience can help me figure out what to do this year! Here's a roundup of past strategies:

Wish lists - these days it's typically the Amazon wish list, but generally this strategy involves asking each person what he or she wants, then buying something. Pro: people get stuff they want, and I get to pick how much I spend. Con: not everybody has a wish list, and sometimes it's spendy. Also: Mom and Dad sometimes just ask for "a hug," which is hard to mail.

Here, enjoy my taste in music - I've given out a couple of favorite albums to pretty much everyone in my family -- notably Bob Dylan concerts from the mid 60's and anything by Vince Guaraldi. These are recordings I love, and love to listen to with family, but you never know if they're going to mean much to someone else. Pro: might be a big hit, and makes you look like you know stuff about music. Con: might end up collecting dust, and/or your family may feel obligated to play it when you're around.

Gift cards - I was going to buy my brother some new music for his birthday this year, but I realized that he probably had most of what I was going to buy him. After a few probing questions (like "Do you have the new Feist?") I realized that, indeed, he was way ahead of me and had already bought everything I could think of. So I just gave him an iTunes Gift Card. Pro: broad choice for the giftee. Con: picking a dollar value can be dicey.

Make something - I'm worst at this, but it may actually be the best strategy. I haven't really made gifts for people since I was a kid, as I'm not sure what to make. But this year I'm looking at making MOO Cards from digital photos. Pro: giftee says "awww," and it's cheap. Con: time spent to make stuff.

Gift of the Magi - only applicable if you're in a relationship where one of you has long hair and the other a prized watch. Pro: touching/heartfelt. Con: tragic.

So let's hear it. What gift-giving strategy works best for you? Also: bonus points if you have a story of a horribly failed gift.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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