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That Kid From Superbad Ain't Got Nothing On Me

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I find it kind of hard to write an introduction for myself, so I'll do it from the perspective of my dog (Patton, the little one): "I don't like this article very much because I - hey, your breath smells like pizza. Do you have any left? Can I have some? Seriously, you don't have any left? I can smell it still. OK. Fine. Anyway, I don't have opposable thumbs so I can't doodle, but - hey, is that a crumb on your sleeve? It doesn't look like food, but it might be food, so I'd better try. Hmm. That definitely wasn't food but I wouldn't say no if you had some more. What was I saying? I'm suddenly so tired. I think I'm just going to - zzzzzzzz...." -Patton Conradt

That Kid From Superbad Ain't Got Nothing On Me
by Stacy Conradt

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If you didn't know me very well, you might think that I'm on meth. Or uppers. Or some sort of behavior-altering drug. See, the problem is this: I cannot sit still. I mean, if I'm sitting at a computer writing or something, sure. But I can't just sit and watch TV or watch a movie (except in a theater when I am pretty much forced to). I have to be surfing the Internet, writing an article, knitting, crafting, something. It drives my husband insane.

So, in meetings and/or classes I tend to make lists, take notes, doodle, fill the spaces in words and numbers in. I just can't sit still. I've been told that doodling and the like makes it look like I'm not paying attention, but in reality, keeping my hands busy allows my brain to concentrate on what I'm hearing. If my hands aren't busy, my mind wanders. I make mental lists, think about groceries we need, things that need to be mailed, bills that need to be paid, what needs to get done"¦ it's endless. So the doodling is actually a good thing.

Turns out, though, my scribbles put me in good company. It's been documented that Keats liked to doodle flowers in his medical notebooks and Ralph Waldo Emerson doodled scrolls and decorations all over his composition books.

Some people even make a good living from their doodles.

Dennis Hwang

The name Dennis Hwang might not ring a bell, but I bet you know his work: he's the guy who does Google logos for special occasions. Christmas, Valentine's Day, Easter, Fourth of July "“ you already know he does those. But did you know that he doodles for lesser-known "holidays" too? You can see a whole archive of them at the Google Holiday Logos page.

Sergio Aragones

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Sergio Aragones has been professionally doodling in the margins of MAD magazine since 1963.

Shel Silverstein's

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Shel Silverstein's books just wouldn't be Shel Silverstein's books without his drawings.

Check out a few more famous doodlers below:

George Washington

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(that's his checkerboard work)

Twiggy

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Ronald Reagan

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Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York

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Richard Pryor

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Patrick Stewart

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John F. Kennedy

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Richard Nixon

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Elton John

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You can usually tell my mood by what I'm doodling: loops and scrolls mean I'm happy or in an OK mood; squares and sharp angles mean I'm agitated or stressed. I don't typically doodle people or things"¦ just random shapes and squiggles. Are you a doodler? What do you doodle?

Check out the rest of our College Weekend festivities.

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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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