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The Weekend Links

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"¢ Jan from Atlanta (quickly becoming one of my favorite Flossers) has sent in these pictures of money being folded in ways that look like celebrities. Pretty darn cool.

"¢ Steve C has pointed out that we at mental_floss love us some parasites. If you can't get your fill, check out this article, with an amazing video at the bottom of an ant losing its head.

"¢ Apparently, listening to Sean Paul can give you seizures. I don't know about you guys, but I can think of a few other bands or artists that might be potential culprits. (Thanks Jaclyn)

"¢ In case you were wondering, here's a detailed explanation of how snow makers work. If your main concern is not ski trails but the economy, here's a detailed explanation of interest rates.

"¢ Not many of my close friends have gotten married, so I have thus far avoided the dreaded Bridesmaid Dress Debacle. Here are pictures of people who haven't been so lucky.

"¢ Dail from My Favorite Place (St. George Island, Florida) has sent in this little distraction regarding cow abduction. What really gets me are the pictures and information, i.e. the time some people have put into this faux cause. Like this site, which is one of my all-time favorites.

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"¢ Another clip from the Why We Write series. This one is from Cindy Chupack, one of the writers of Sex and the City.

"¢ Certainly most of you have had trouble with things breaking down, and with repairmen who don't always know the best way to, well, repair. Kevin's friend had a similar problem, when a repairman fixed her lack of hot water by using an extension cord. In the shower.

"¢ I really love cheese. And I'm in good company "“ Ricky Gervais is known for eating hardly anything but cheese sandwiches. For those who can't get enough, behold! A drum-set made of cheese. Bonus points to anyone who can send in an mp3 of it being played. (Thanks to Edward, who was also the 19th person to send us a link, winning himself a free mental_floss t-shirt! We'll be in touch.)

"¢ If you have Seasonal Affective Disorder, you will not want to move to Barrow, Alaska, where the sun hides out for a full three months. Here's a video of the first glimpse of sun the other day, as well as an interview with a resident who claims it's really not all that bad.

"¢ According to MarketingForGood.net, Barry Diller has spent $140 million to convince you to switch from Google to Ask.com. I'm guessing you didn't. How would you have spent that $140 million more effectively?

"¢ Some things just shouldn't be said, some things just shouldn't be worn (see Bridesmaid link above), and some things just shouldn't be gummi. Have some dignity!

"¢ If you thought the ads I posted last weekend were scary, take a gander at this bad boy. Not really scary so much as awesome.

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"¢ Speaking of scary "“ Teddy Bears, inside out. Definitely not cool for anyone looking for childhood nostalgia time.

"¢ Now, if you're in the mood for some cute cuddly things, you need check out a blog dedicated to pictures of snoozing pupppies. Awww.

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"¢ Have you joined the "I Read Mental Floss" Facebook group? It's kind of a big deal.

"¢ NPR did a report on famous six-word memoirs (such as Hemingway's "For sale: baby shoes, never worn"). But, as Flossy reader Swapna points out, as good as the famous ones are, some of the reader comments are even better. Does anyone feel inspired to post their own?

"¢ And finally, Jason recently announced the "mental_floss reader photo of the week" contest. If you have a Flickr account, you can tag pics you think we should see (the tag: "flossphotos"). Looking through the submissions, I don't quite know what to think. Jason voted this photo his favorite:

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Courtesy of Old Man Musings, who also has a blog. Jason's runner-up is from regular commenter fixedgear (see it here). But you guys should take a look at the good (and really weird) submissions, and let us know who you think deserves the title. [Note: You can put links in the comments if you omit the 'http://www' part.]

Keep the links coming! Email me at flossylinks@gmail.com. Enjoy the weekend!

[Last Weekend's Links.]

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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