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The mental_floss newsletter

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Yesterday I mentioned the "I Read Mental Floss" Facebook group, and membership shot up to 1,300*. Guess the existence of this group was a secret. We had no idea you had no idea.

So it stands to reason you might not know about our weekly e-newsletter. Each edition includes a "Beat Our Fact" contest, highlights from the blog, fascinating trivia from Sandy & Kara, and a letter from Mangesh or me. If you're interested, there's a box in the right-hand navigation that looks like this:

Scouts.jpgHere's an example, from October.

Greetings, Flossers!

"Should we change into the Boy Scout uniforms here, or wait 'til we get to Central Park?"

This was the hardest question I'd ever been asked.

Let me back up. mental_floss has a book coming out next year called BE AMAZING "“ a how-to guide with tips on tasks like starting your own country and traveling through time. Our publisher wants a publicity photo of founding flossers Mangesh and Will, and Mango had a few different ideas for poses to test. Since Will lives in Birmingham, I'm his stunt double.

One idea was dressing up like Boy Scouts. With our photographer waiting in Central Park, we mulled our options. We could 1) Change in our office, then journey 3.3 miles in tight-fitting Scout outfits "“ including cut-off green pants; or 2) Travel in plain clothes, find a private tree, and take turns changing behind it.

We chose the second option and struggled to find a dressing area. This I know: if you're going to change into a Boy Scout disguise in the wooded section of a public park, you don't want to get caught halfway through. Especially not with a Little League field in the background. But the sun was setting on our photo shoot. So, I hopped a fence and set a wardrobe-change speed record, which Mangesh subsequently shattered.

The pictures came out wildly embarrassing, in a wow-I'm-glad-I'm-only-the-stunt-double/I-probably-can't-run-for-office-now kind of way. But if the photos do get out, I've got a plan. And that plan starts with reading the "travel through time" chapter in BE AMAZING.

But hey, all in a day's work.

Cheers!
Jason

And here's a sample of Sandy & Kara's trivia, from another newsletter...

Peculiar Political Presents
by Kara Kovalchik & Sandy Wood

:: In 1972, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev made a vehicle exchange with U.S. President Richard Nixon. Dick got a Volga 70 Hydrofoil, while Leo was presented with a brand new Cadillac. The Soviet Premier had taken Nixon out for a ride on the Moscow River in his own Volga after a summit meeting, and the President had been impressed with the 40-knot-per-hour speed of the craft. At the premier's request (and to be fair to the other two major U.S. automakers), Nixon later gifted Brezhnev with a Lincoln and a Chrysler.

:: If you think all unusual diplomatic gifts come from foreign sources, then you don't know Monterey Jack. An interesting wedge of history comes to us courtesy of the folks from Cheddar, er, Cheshire, Massachusetts. They wanted to express their gratitude to President Thomas Jefferson for his dedication to religious freedom. So, led by Baptist minister John Leland, Cheshire citizens collected the milk from 900 cows, pressed the curds, and created a 1,235-pound, four-foot wheel of cheese. Was the President bleu? Not at all; he personally received the cheesy gift at the White House doorway on New Year's Day 1802, and invited the couriers to join him in a cheese-tasting.

:: Pasha Mehmed Ali, the Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt, was eager to develop a working relationship with King Charles X of France in 1824. He decided that an exotic animal might be the perfect gift, so a giraffe calf was painstakingly transferred via a series of boats to Marseilles. From Marseilles, she walked to Paris, wearing a coat and specially-made boots to protect her from the elements. (A coterie of keepers walked beside her, every step of the 550-mile trek.) When the entourage arrived in Paris, citizens lined the streets, as they had never seen such a creature before. The king was suitably impressed with his gift and ordered a special home, the Jardin des Plantes, to be built for her.

:: When Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi came to Washington to meet President George W. Bush in 2006, the president presented the Elvis-mad PM with a 1954 Seeburg R100 jukebox, loaded with classic 45 records of the 1950s and 60s. He also treated Koizumi to a tour of Graceland, including the off-limits-to-the-general-public upstairs area. Did Koizumi present Bush with a suitable Japanese gift in exchange? Well, yes, but with an American flair. Bush received a large portrait of Yankee slugger Babe Ruth that had been taken during a visit to Japan in 1934.

If you wouldn't mind getting facts like these delivered straight to your inbox, look for this rectangle on the right...

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*Think we can hit 1,426 today? That's Mangesh's lucky number.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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