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The Weekend Links

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Science Fairs were the bane of my existence. At my Catholic school, the priest even once said during Mass, "... and the parents did a great job on their kid's science fair projects this year." Zing! Anyway, if you're looking to relive aspects of your childhood, this link to ridiculously funny science fair experiements made me laugh out loud and forget the pain. (Via GorillaMask.net)

My boss is obsessed with IKEA and can spend hours there looking for just the right cabinet for our office space. Reader Edward has sent in this link about a man's experience living in IKEA. The video shorts are hilarious, especially the "Ikea word scrambles." What store have you dreamed of making your abode?

We sometimes live and die by our faithful animated heroes in video games. I'll even take it further and admit I used to have a crush on Link. But not all are fictitious friends are lovable - here's a list of the 15 most annoying characters in video games.

Anyone who's worked in an office or lived in a condo/co-op knows the plague of passive-aggressive notes and memos that occasionally paper one's desk or community bulletin board. PassiveAggressiveNotes makes it an art. Here's a great example of a particularly persnickety postscript.

Casting directors don't always get their big-name choices for a film. Sometimes that can be a very good thing. Here are a few times when second choice casting turned out to be first-rate.

Flossy reader Jane has helped me out of the winter doldrums by offering up two helpful vacation planning sites: ricksteves.com (from PBS) and petergreenberg.com (from The Today Show) -- take a moment to wistfully plan a Roman Holiday you may never take, or use it for a real vacation I will probably be jealous of.

The Oscars are coming up, and so are the Razzies. For those of you who may be unfamiliar, the Razzies celebrate the very worst in film from the previous year, handing out the gold-spray-painted, $4.89 statuettes. Today the winners will be announced! Check here for a list.

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11 Interesting Photos that Look Photoshopped ... but aren't. The images may, however, be manipulated by lens and perspective. And believe it or not, that dog is real (read about it here).

For those of you in college or simply looking to do research (and not, like me, looking up "muscle dog" in the Google search), Weekend Links faithful Dail suggests you start with the New York Times Newsroom Navigator, the paper's own highly selective and constantly changing list of websites to help jump-start your info-gathering.

If only I had been so talented ... an animated wall drawing that is guaranteed to impress.

From Slate, the Poetry of Roger Clemens -- haikus taken from the congressional hearings. Want more baseball? Check out umpbump.com, where you can discuss at length Reed Johnson's facial hair, or write your own caption to Daisuke playing football.

Once again, special thanks to all who sent in links this week. I do appreciate your scouring -- keep it up! Remember that photos and shameless plugs are always welcome; otherwise I'll just keep pimping out my own stuff. Send all submissions and suggestions to flossylinks@gmail.com. Have a great 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
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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