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How You Organize Your Home Library

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For someone with a degree in Library Science, I'm really bad at organizing a home library. Until yesterday I only owned two bookshelves (one of them half-sized), but had perfected the art of book-stacking (and book-cramming -- placing more volumes above the regular row of books...), so each shelf holds twice its normal complement of books.

So yesterday I bought a new set of bookshelves -- they're the "LACK" series from IKEA. I'm faced with a new challenge: how to organize all these books? Looking around the web, there seem to be a few major options -- but I'm wondering how you have dealt with this challenge?

Here are the options I'm currently considering:

Library Software

Delicious Library (a Mac application) can easily import my smallish library, including CDs and DVDs. It scans barcodes using my computer's built-in camera and looks them up on Amazon, retrieving cover art and details about the item. This app also helps me lend items to friends, including setting "due dates" and tracking who has not returned something. Very nice, and $40 (for Mac only, screenshot above).

LibraryThing is a web application that catalogs your books online, incorporating some social networking features -- like you can look up former flosser (now prominent novelist) John Green's author page and even see his personal library contents. It's free for people with up to 200 books, and cheap ($25 for a lifetime membership) after that. My friend Lyza switched from Delicious Library to LibraryThing when her library grew too large to practically manage with the desktop LibraryThing looks like a very scalable option.

Shelving Methods

There are various ways to shelve books -- you can do it with Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress Classification...but both of these are pretty heavy for a personal collection.

The aforementioned John Green organizes his home library using an idiosyncratic method derived from both broad and narrow categorizations of his collection. Check out this complete tour with sections including "First Editions of Books About Conjoined Twins."

So let's hear it: how do you organize your home library? I'd love tips as I start assembling my new shelves and uncramming the old ones!

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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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