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2 Random Things I've Been Meaning To Show You

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Here are two not-at-all-timely topics I meant to cover months ago.

1. Senator John Warner's Son's Wedding Announcement (from January)

Earlier this year, Senator John Warner's son got married. The Times was there. And the author of the announcement sounds intent on breaking them up. Here are some of the highlights...

"Mr. Warner was surprised he had much in common with a schoolteacher."

"Nevertheless, he wasn't interested in a second date with her. Then, one year later, tired of young, temperamental beauties, he called. Ms. Hamm wasn't miffed and agreed to see him. 'I feel strongly that you never want to close any doors,' she said. 'You never know.'"

"Through it all he remained a die-hard and distinctive bachelor, sometimes picking dates up in his 1936 Packard or his 1966 Aston Martin. But he grew to dislike breaking hearts as much as he hated eating tofu. 'Johnny never wants to let anyone down,' said Jill Mullen, a friend."

"He also became disillusioned, always questioning the motives of the women he dated. By the time he was in his early 40s, he had broken two engagements and pretty much given up hope. 'A lot of women in New York and L.A. are in it for the dollar, not for a healthy relationship,' he said wearily."

"He, on the other hand, was unsure about Ms. Hamm, whose family founded the Hamm's Brewing Company, which was based in Minnesota. She was nothing like the wild supermodels and party girls he had been dating. Ms. Hamm has unflashy clothes, jewelry and ways and is the opposite of high-maintenance."

"The bride, meanwhile, looked completely natural in her sleeveless gown and her hair pulled back as if for tennis."

2. David Bowie Introducing Ricky Gervais at the High Line Festival (from May)

When I saw Ricky Gervais perform at the Madison Square Garden Theater, David Bowie was on hand to introduce him. The result was memorable. The video is not great, but thanks to YouTube user Lopyj, you can listen along at home and pretend you just had really bad seats.

If you're not an Extras fan, here's the scene Bowie recreated...

As audience-participation exercises go, this ranks atop my admittedly short list, one spot above the Tomahawk Chop in 1991 (I was eleven) and four-hundred places higher than any "Who's Your Daddy, Battier?" chants in Cameron Indoor Stadium roughly ten years later.

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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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