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10 Year-End Lists for Knowledge Junkies

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This week and next, you'll run across a ton of year-end lists. It's inevitable on the web every year. Looking back at the old year helps us to put things in perspective and clear our minds for the new year. In addition to the major lists, there are quite a few that will feed your brain with something new.

1. Let's take a look back at The Associated Press' Top News Stories of 2007. These are the biggest, according to the U.S. editors and news directors belonging to the AP. But you already know the big stories. Learn something new by checking out The Top Ten Stories You Missed in 2007.

2. The New York Times list of 100 Notable Books of 2007. Surprisingly, there are no science books on the list. But NPR picked up some slack there by recommending their favorite science books of 2007, then posting other's suggestions.

The list of lists continues, after the jump.

3. You can find a slew of best movie lists for 2007. How about The Best 19 Movies You Didn't See in 2007, because it's more useful to have a list that will help you plan your home theater experience of 2008.

4. Don't miss The Top Ten Scientific Discoveries of 2007, according to TIME. Planets and dinosaurs are there, but the biggest breakthroughs are inside of us, such as research on stem cells (pictured). Genetic engineering is such a big story, Wired published a list of The Top 10 New Organisms of 2007.

5. Feast your eyes on the Astronomy Pictures of the Year 2007, from the folks who bring you the Astronomy Picture of the Day. If that's not enough, there's also The Year in Pictures 2007 from the Planetary Society, and Phil Plait's Top Ten Astronomy Pictures of 2007 and a list of runners up from Bad Astronomy Blog.

6. National Geographic brings you the Top Ten Archaeology Stories of 2007. The past year brought a lot of "news" about the ancient past. You might recall these Stone Age lovers that were uncovered in Italy just in time for Valentine's Day.

7. Grist magazine picks the top 15 stories about the environment in The Magnificent '07. I'm glad they had so many stories, because coming in at #15 is the news about honeybees, a subject I managed to write about several times this year.

8. Wired's Top Ten Gadgets of the Year will make you rethink your Christmas wish list for next year. Portability is the keyword for gadgets, as new technology allows you to take your movies, music, books, office chores, and internet activities with you wherever you go.

9. Then for fun, there's Offbeat Stories of 2007, as compilied by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. It's not surprising that three of them involve cats. Of this list, Oscar, the cat who predicts death was probably the most talked-about story on the internet.

10. Fimoculous lists 30 Best Blogs of 2007 That You (Maybe) Aren't Reading. This list will give you something to do in 2008. Pictured is a political map of Europe from 1870, one of the many delights you'll find at the blog Strange Maps. Of course, you are already reading mental_floss, where you can continue to get your knowledge fix in 2008!

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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]