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The Weekend Links

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"¢ My mom likes to talk about the "good ole days." But were they always so good? Here are 10 Creepy Old Ads to make you think twice before hopping into that time machine. (Thanks Janice from Atlanta)

"¢ Who was the Mona Lisa named after? Madd Zapper (are you a Zappa cousin?) sent in an article on this intriguing discovery.

"¢ Breann from Bloomington, Illinois, sent in this vintage link for Viking Kittens. If you haven't seen it before, give it a look. I can no longer hear the song without seeing bobble-headed kitties valiantly crossing a lake.

Our friends at YesButNoButYes have put together their Top Ten Trends for 2007. It really was a year for ugly fish, I'll give them that.

"¢ Brett Favre may soon lead the Packers to the Super Bowl, but did you know he was originally drafted by the Falcons? I happened to catch a guy wearing his Falcons jersey last week, and I wept openly. If you've spotted a ridiculous jersey, snap a pic and send it to Our own Ethan Trex runs a website called Straight Cash, Homey that aims to become the internet's #1 resource for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf-esque jerseys.


"¢ This link on Ads vs Reality made me consider bringing my lunch from home. We know that advertisers use all kinds of tricks to make fast food look delicious, but imagine their campaigns if they stuck to the real thing. (Thanks Suzie from South of Boston for the link)

"¢ Parody songs are a genre I typically avoid, but this Harry Potter tribute song to the tune of "Hey Delilah" made me chuckle. Reader Erin says she most identified with the lyric, "Ohh what you do to me / even though I'm 33..."

"¢ Say whoa unto us, the television fan, for what cometh. With the ongoing writers strike, be prepared to be inundated by reality shows. Some will be good, some will be bad, and some will be about...Webster?

"¢ Flossy reader Patrick from Elberton, Georgia, is mighty talented "“ and legally blind! He made the above origami peacock, which I think could rival some of the paper art made by Physicist Robert Lang. The best I can make is a fortune teller, and some eight-year-olds have told me "it's not all that." Patrick also sent in this incredible video on sand art. The obvious question for Patrick -- how are you reading

"¢ Imagine a website where someone does a live performance of a Garfield strip, shows the strip, and then continues on to Garfield/Jim Davis-related fan abstraction pieces ... in all of its ridiculous, hilarious glory, it lives! (This one came from my co-worker Kevin, who keeps me very entertained.)

"¢ Wikipedia offers a list of U.S. College and University Endowments (only those over $1 billion need apply). Harvard wins with $34.9 billion. Emory, my alma mater, comes in with a paltry (ha) $5. What do schools do with these war-chests? Some are finally going to start spending.

"¢ Are you looking for new ways of self-promotion? Or perhaps you have trouble keeping your fan base aware of your latest trends? Here's an idea: Daniel Felton puts out an Annual Report. On himself. (Via

When Gilbert Arenas scores, he screams "Hibachi!" When Jack from Will & Grace gets excited he sometimes exclaims, "Sarah Jessica Parker!" What did an ESPN announcer cry out when Kevin Garnett scored on a dunk? Find out here, and see some other suggestions for the spontaneous invoking of names.

"¢ And finally, this shirt is not new, but it is hilarious...


Let's end with a question: What's the greatest "“ and by greatest, I mean cheesiest "“ shirt you own?

I want to thank everyone who sent in links "“ keep 'em coming! You can reach me at (Feel free to send photos of your cheesy shirts, too.) Looking forward to hearing from you!

[Last Weekend's Links]

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]