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4 of History's Greatest Hoaxes

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1. The "Computer" That Outsmarted Napoléon

the-turk.jpgCenturies before Deep Blue started whuppin' on Russian grand masters, a chess-playing automaton nicknamed "the Turk" was thrashing all manner of chess players. Atop a wheeled wooden cabinet was a seated, life-sized mannequin made of wood and dressed in Turkish garb. The Turk held a chessboard in his wooden lap, and he beat 'most all comers—including Napoléon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin. Premiering in the 1770s, the creation of Wolfgang von Kempelen moved its wooden arms, seemingly without human assistance, around the board. The secret? The Turk's arms were operated by a diminutive chess expert crouched inside the cabinet, who operated gears and pulleys to move the Turk's arms. After traveling the world for almost a century, the Turk ended up mothballed in Philadelphia—where it was destroyed in a fire in 1854. [Photo is of John Gaughan's reconstruction of "The Turk."]

2. Microsoft Buys the Catholic Church!

microsoft-logo.jpgWhile the pranksters are still unknown, few press releases have had the impact of the 1994 doozy sent out supposedly by Microsoft, announcing Bill Gates's purchase of the Catholic Church. As reported, Microsoft not only would get sole electronic rights to the good book, but also would pitch in to the church's efforts, namely by engineering a means for delivering the sacraments online. Needless to say, the prank tricked a few folks. So many customers rang up Microsoft in protest that the distraught company finally felt obligated to clear up the mess via (you guessed it!) another press release. The statement full-out denied the allegations, and further said that it hoped to alleviate customer concerns by declaring that the company had no intentions of purchasing any religious institutions, Catholic or otherwise. Of course, it wasn't long before another "press release" surfaced, this one touting IBM's response to Microsoft: a merger with the Episcopal Church.

3. This Is Your Brain on Bananas

Bananas.jpgWhen the alternative newspaper the Berkeley Barb published a satirical article in 1967 claiming that smoking dried banana peels could lead to intoxication, they never expected to be taken seriously. But the oh-so-square national news media didn't get the joke, and publicized the report throughout the nation. Since then, countless wayward teens have been duped into smoking bananas (which can make you nauseated, but not pleasantly so). The hoax really took off, though, in 1970 with the publication of William Powell's The Anarchist's Cookbook, which covers all manner of craft pleasantries from building pipe bombs to manufacturing LSD. Not surprisingly, it also provides a recipe for turning your banana peels into "a fine, black powder" suitable for smoking. Even though no one's ever gotten high from bananas (although they are a great energy fruit, according to Dr. Atkins!), the Barb's hoax has had a stunning shelf life.

4. The Social Text Fiasco

social-text.jpgIn 1996, the respected cultural studies journal Social Text published several complex and dense articles, mainly because that's what respected academic journals do. But one, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Physics," was a hoax by NYU physics professor Alan Sokal, who sought to prove that academic journals will publish any paper that uses big words. To the extent that Sokal's article is readable, it makes a grandly silly argument about the political implications of quantum gravity. Among other ludicrous assertions, the article claims that physical reality does not exist, that the laws of physics are social constructs, and that feminism has implications for mathematical set theory. It's hilarious, if you like that kind of thing, but it's also utter nonsense. After Sokal revealed his hoax in Lingua Franca, many academic journals beefed up their peer review process.

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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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