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The Weekend Links

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"¢ From Jan, a list of the Craziest Shoes from Around the World. The dog ones are by far the creepiest, although they definitely have some competition in this collection.

Beer myths debunked, from Paul. Apparently untrue: my belief that drinking a pint of Guinness is equivalent to eating a loaf of bread. Although my stomach still kinda stands by that one.

"¢ As exam season approaches, consider this humble procrastination tool from Amanda, who sends us a great link to a site full of fun games with wonderfully soothing music.

"¢ A story about The Wind, and how he overcame his loneliness.

"¢ Reader Lexi has a blog full of interesting and provocative photography. To start, some beautiful pictures of people serenely floating. Being stuck in an office as summer approaches, these definitely make me wistful for the beach.

"¢ Rain is in the forecast for us this weekend. Here's a fun way to spend an afternoon indoors: how to dye yarn with Kool Aid.

"¢ From the AV Club, 15 things Kurt Vonnegut said better than anyone else. So it goes.

"¢ Ah, it's (finally) time for the NFL draft! As I spend 15 hours in front of the TV watching the drama unfold, read Tuesday Morning Quarterback's mocking of all the mock-drafts that lead up to this event. Still in the spirit? Read about the biggest draft busts here...

...then take our 'Name the Last 20 #1 Picks' quiz.

"¢ My friend Andrea sent this to me just as I was compiling this list, and I felt I should include it, mostly to ask you all ... can anyone tell me exactly what it is?

"¢ The 2008 Fortune 500 was announced this week. Think you can guess the top ten American corporations? Here's a little quiz.

"¢ New favorite person Angie has once again sent in a plethora of great links (and I encourage all of you to follow her example!) We'll start with this one: Where's Waldo on Google Earth? Everyone's favorite disappearing wanderer has a new home ... somewhere in Canada!

"¢ Recession? What recession? Pirates are finding business to be booming.

"¢ Fantastic array of staged photos that play on the "death by chocolate" concept, including death by oreoes, lifesavers, etc. May not be for the sensitive.

"¢ Speaking of fantastic color, here's a link to the beautiful and soothing Sony Bravia commercials that aired in the UK. I would love love love to be there for the next one they film. Anyone have any leads?

Kiwi animation video that will exploit the gambit of your emotions from contentment to sadness at seeing the little guy truly get what he wants.

"¢ Thanks to my friend Reena who, in response to last week's video on a similar subject, sends me this jewel of another talented youngster playing music in a fun way.

"¢ Peruse pictures from an earlier time, with a website devoted to vintage Sears, Wards, JC Penny and other retailers' Christmas catalogs, which, like all things old (except people), creeps me out just a little.

Thanks once again to everyone who sent in such great links this week ... I feel like the ball is definitely rolling on this. Don't stop! Clean out your bookmarks and send them my way:

[Last Weekend's Links]

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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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