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3 Random People I'm Glad I'm Not

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wildfier.jpg1. The 10-year-old boy who started the Buckweed Blaze

On October 22, 2007, a stunned-looking 10-year-old boy and his parents were seen frantically trying to beat a small brushfire down with towels. The boy, whose name has obviously been withheld, started the fire while playing with matches behind his family's trailer home.

Now, when I was 10, I, too, liked to play with matches. I even set a corner of our basement on fire once and was promptly taken to the local firehouse where I was reprimanded and shown a movie on the dangers of playing with matches. And while there was some guilt associated with the fire in our basement, it certainly paled by comparison to what this poor 10-year-old in Agua Dulce, California must now feel. Because, no, he and his parents never were able to beat that fire out, and, yes, it was one of the 15 biggies that recently scorched Southern California. In this particular fire, 38,000 acres were lost, 15,000 people evacuated, 63 structures (21 of them homes) destroyed, and three civilians and two firefighters were injured.

My suggestion for this poor boy on how he should get on with his life: consult The Barnyard Guide for Raising Formidable Cattle, by Kate O'Leary

keith_michael.jpg2. Keith Michael "“ the only designer ever to be kicked off Project Runway

With my favorite (and only!) guilty pleasure back on the air, I've had Project Runway on the brain these last few weeks. While the new season hasn't disappointed yet, I'm not sure anything can top the drama of last year's Keith Michael incident. Poor guy was caught with how-to pattern making-type books in his room (a colossal no-no) during the competition and called on it by the show's co-host, Time Gunn.

Gunn also fired off a round at Michael for breaking additional rules, such as wandering off the production for several hours without permission and logging onto the Internet. After Gunn asked Michael to pack his bags, the cheating ex-contestant had this to say: "I didn't expect this. "¦ My image has been tarnished forever, I'm off the show, and I'm going to be a laughing stock to my friends"¦ the kind of sad part is that I never used those books to give myself any unfair advantage."
Oh, yeah, right Keith. Sure you didn't. And Bill Clinton never had "sex with that woman."

My suggestion for Keith Michael on how he should face his friends again: speak to Woody Allen, who once admitted he was kicked out of college for cheating on his metaphysics exam by looking into the soul of the boy next to him.

steve-bartman.jpg3. Steven Bartman "“ the guy who almost caught that foul pop-up

Ahhh, yes, October 14th, 2003—an evening Steve Bartman surely wishes he could live all over again. It was the 8th inning and the Cubbies were up 3-0 over the Florida Marlins in the National League Championship Series. Mark Prior, one of the Cub's aces, was on the mound pitching one of the best games of his young career. With one out, he was five outs away from sending his team to the World Series for the first time since 1945 (the Cubs haven't won the Series since 1908, don't forget).

Luis Castillo, who was batting for the Marlins, popped up in foul territory down the left field line. The Cub's leftfielder Moises Alou sprinted over to catch it when, suddenly, the then-26-year-old, now-infamous Bartman reached out and tried to nab the ball as a souvenir, possibly preventing Alou from making the grab, which would have been the second out of the inning.

The Marlins went on to score eight runs that inning after Castillo walked. They ultimately won the game, the series, AND the World Series, beating the New York Yankees 4 games to 2.

Bartman was attacked by fans within seconds and ushered out of Wrigley by security officers. He then issued the following statement after the game: "There are few words to describe how awful I feel and what I have experienced within these last 24 hours. I've been a Cub fan all my life and fully understand the relationship between my actions and the outcome of the game"¦ To Moises Alou, the Chicago Cubs organization, Ron Santo, Ernie Banks and Cub fans everywhere, I am so truly sorry from the bottom of this Cub fan's broken heart. I ask that Cub fans everywhere redirect the negative energy that has been vented towards my family, my friends, and myself into the usual positive support for our beloved team on their way to being National League champs."

In his defense, poor Bartman was really only doing what most fans would have done in the same position. And unlike many fans, he turned down a pantload of movie and talk show offers in the ensuing days (as well as a job with the Florida Marlins!), which would have brought him a lot of money along with the fame he had already achieved.

Still, as a die-hard baseball fan, there's no one associated with the game I'd rather not be than Steve Bartman who will forever be the team's 2003 scapegoat.

My suggestion on how he should go about showing his face in Chicago again: consult The Barnyard Guide for Raising Formidable Cattle, by Kate O'Leary

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]