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2 Rings That Make Super Bowl Bling Look Common

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Every professional athlete longs to "get a ring" by winning a championship, and earning a Super Bowl ring is certainly a rare and amazing feat. However, it's not that rare. The NFL has played 41 Super Bowls, and with over fifty people per team, that means that there are at least 2,000 or so player rings floating around out there. Plus, all manner of coaches, front-office staff, and other team employees get rings of their own, too. So while a Super Bowl ring is rare, it's got nothing on these two from European theater:

1. The Iffland-Ring


This ring boasts a rarity that even Tolkien could appreciate: there's only one. The ring originally lived on the finger of German theater icon A.W. Iffland and features his portrait studded with small diamonds. Towards the end of his life, Iffland passed the jewelry on to fellow actor Ludwig Devrient. By tradition, the bearer is the most significant living German-speaking actor, and when he dies his will specifies the next man to wear the ring.

This line of succession hasn't always been so clean, though. According to legend, Albert Basserman, who received the ring in 1911, kept picking successors who died. After he outlived his first three choices, Basserman decided to give up and donated the ring to a museum. However, when he died in 1952, the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education intervened and awarded the ring to Werner Kraub. The current holder, Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, has worn the ring since 1996.

2. Hans-Reinhart-Ring

Similarly, the Hans-Reinhart-Ring is awarded to a luminary of the Swiss theater. It's not as rare as the Iffland-Ring, though, since the ring has been awarded annually since 1957 and each winner gets his or her own ring. Not surprisingly, the ring is named after Hans Reinhart, a wealthy playwright and poet who endowed the program.

Since its inception, the ring has grown to signify the top award in Swiss theater. Laureates have included operatic soprano Lisa Della Casa, the clown Dmitri, and actor and director Benno Besson. Current Iffland-Ring holder Bruno Ganz won the award in 1991, giving him the closest thing Swiss stagecraft has to Tom Brady's ring-encrusted knuckles.

Ethan Trex grew up idolizing Vince Coleman, and he kind of still does. Ethan co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys. His last mental_floss story somehow lumped together Beavis & Butthead and The Puppy Bowl.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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