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Four Celebrities You Wouldn't Expect to Testify Before Congress (but still did)

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With baseball's steroids scandal hitting Washington, Roger Clemens is among the stars being asked to testify before Congress. If you're thinking that Congress maybe has better people to talk to than aging baseball legends, you're probably right. But that hasn't stopped them from inviting some decidedly non-political faces to meet with them. Here's a look at some other names you wouldn't expect to see on Capitol Hill.

Elmo

Can you tell me how to get, how to get to K Street? In one of the more bizarre Congressional visits, the Muppet Elmo of Sesame Street and Tickle-Me fame spoke to the Education Appropriations Subcommittee to lobby for increased funding for school music programs. Dressed in a suit with a snappy red tie, Elmo appeared because he wanted to make sure that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play." A fellow lobbyist praised Elmo's appearance because it represented the feelings of children everywhere, but he did neglect to recognize that most children can speak independently and aren't controlled by wires.

Jewel Kilcher

jewel002.jpgFolksy musician and poet Jewel is probably the most authoritative of the celebrities on this list, but that doesn't make her Congressional appearance any less surprising. She spoke to the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support on the issue of youth homelessness. Among the goals of the meeting was to name November National Homeless Youth Awareness Month. Jewel represented the charity Virgin Unite, but was really called because of her experience as a homeless youth in San Diego. Video of her address is available here.

Kevin Richardson

kevin richardson.jpgUnless one of the New Kids on the Block had a successful senatorial run that I'm not aware of, it's safe to say Kevin Richardson is probably the only boy band member to appear in the Capitol. The former singer/heart-throb testified about, of all things, mountaintop removal mining. Richardson's appearance infuriated Ohio Congressman George Voinovich, who boycotted the hearings because he felt they were becoming a sideshow merely to promote glamour. It should be noted that Richardson actually did have some credibility on the issue, since his environmental group has actively fought the mining strategy. However, Richardson ended up almost entirely agreeing with Voinovich when he admitted that he was trying to just attract media attention to the issue.

Christie Brinkley

christie brinkley.jpgSupermodel Christie Brinkley, famous for her Sports Illustrated covers and inspiring Billy Joel's Uptown Girl, testified before Congress in 2002. Besides boosting the hotness factor of Capitol Hill by a significant margin, she was there to discuss the risks of nuclear reactors. Not only are they terrorist targets, she said, but she and then-husband Peter Cook feared for their children's lives since they lived near three reactors. She admitted that she even kept potassium iodide pills stowed away to counter the effects of radiation. Brinkley has continued the fight against nuclear power, even recently taking it to the UN.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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