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William Blake was born, Washington Irving died, and William Penn (finally) became a citizen

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Sit back, relax, and enjoy the fun and the fascinating events of November 28 throughout history.

-In 1520, Ferdinand Magellan (===>) and his crews became the first Europeans to sail from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean after they navigated their three ships through the South American strait to reach the Pacific.

-William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway paid £40 in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1582 for their marriage license.

-An organization that later became known as the Royal Society was formed by 12 men at Gresham College in 1660. The society, which serves as the academy of sciences for the United Kingdom, is supposedly the oldest such society still in existence today.

-Jean de Thévenot died in 1667. Born in France, he traveled extensively throughout Europe and the East and was a polyglot skilled in Turkish, Arabic, and Persian.

-William Blake, the poet, painter, and printmaker, was born in 1757. In 2002, a BBC poll declared him #38 of the 100 Greatest Britons.

-The co-author of The Communist Manifesto, Friedrich Engels, was born in 1820. The social scientist and philosopher also edited the second and third volumes of Das Kapital after Karl Marx's death.

-The first woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D. was born in 1853. Helen Magill White attended Swarthmore College, where her father was president, for undergraduate study, and received a doctorate in Greek from Boston University in 1877.

-Washington Irving died in 1859. The author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Rip Van Winkle, and biographies of George Washington and Muhammad, Irving was one of the first American writers to earn acclaim in Europe.

-Queen Mother Wilhelmina of the Netherlands died in 1962, after ruling the Netherlands for 58 years, longer than any other Dutch monarch.

-William Penn and his wife, Hannah Callowhill Penn, were made honorary citizens of the United States in 1984, over 250 years after their deaths.

-Russell Alan Hulse, who was born in 1950, and Enrico Fermi, who died in 1954, both received Nobel Prizes in Physics.

-Many members of royalty were born, including Manuel I Komnenos (1118), Greek Byzantine Emperor; Margaret Tudor (1489), wife of James IV of Scotland; Sophia Magdalen (1700), queen of Denmark and Norway; Alfonso XII (1857), king of Spain; Mary Lilian Baels (1916), wife of King Leopold III of Belgium; and Prince Hitachi of Japan (1935).

Does the 28th of November hold special significance to you?

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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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