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The Weekend Links

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"¢ From Angie, human beach sculptures, an installation which "consists of 100 cast iron figures which face out to sea, spread over a 3.2 km stretch of the beach. Each figure is 189 cm tall and weighs around 650 kg. As the tides ebb and flow, the figures are revealed and submerged by the sea." A little creepy, to be sure.

"¢ Paul has sent in one of the most mesmerizingly cool sites ever. The British Library offers a program called Turning the Pages, where you can explore delicately preserved pieces of literature electronically, including some of the first "books" ever made.

"¢ Also from Paul, a website extensively devoted to creative mailboxes. I even spotted one from my hometown of Columbus, Georgia. Who knew?

"¢ From Holly, an oldie but goodie: movie remakes with bunnies. Speaking of, don't ever forget about this site to help you after a long, hard day. And if you don't think I'm going to seek out that pygmy hog in real life, you are mistaken.

"¢ The Art of Manliness has selected 100 Must-Read Books: The Essential Man's Library. Get a jump on your Father's Day shopping.

"¢ Here's a list of 6 terrible movies Hollywood almost made. Here's an idea for another list: 600 terrible movies Hollywood DID make. Although I am glad we were spared these few at least.

"¢ Dawn has sent in two helpful links for our Flossy pleasure. One is Seat Guru, "a site that not only has all the seating charts of most airlines (including international airlines!) it also reviews particular seats on each type of plane the airline uses. There is also a comparison chart that shows the different seat pitches in different airlines." Also, a site I've used before (although you would think I could easily calculate a distance like "2 blocks before she runs out of breath"), Map My Run—where you can map out your run/walk, calculate distance, and check to see where there's water, restrooms, etc., even if your route doesn't stay on conventional paths or streets.

"¢ Reader Tony from Tennessee has sent in a link to his stamp blog, where in this article he details a story about incredible postal workers aboard the Titanic. Kudos to Tony, who makes stamp collecting interesting indeed!

"¢ I don't know about your guys, but here in Atlanta I have a long commute wherever I go. Here's a fun Argentinean commercial that shows what people would rather be doing on their commute than sitting in a car. I might be thinking about this two-minute vacation to the Chattahoochee River, located right here in Georgia.

"¢ From Jan, two links to the new collaborative Flickr group called Word Time, which was set up to "share the variations in our pronunciations with weekly lists of words." See an example from the first week, and learn how to participate yourself.

"¢ Stuck inside on a rainy weekend? This eco-friendly Canadian site has projects, scavenger hunts, and activities for kids.

"¢ This week's video from The Daily Tube ("the best new videos on the Internet") looks at Japanese bicycle parking.

"¢ Inspiring news: a 78-year-old man just bowled a perfect 300. The catch? He's legally blind. He suffers from macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in older adults. Read about Dale Davis' amazing story here.

"¢ Have some time on your hands? Peruse through 50 of the Greatest Commercial Parodies. Some you might not remember, but all are pure gold.

"¢ After reading yesterday's post on memorable commencement addresses, reader Bill Eccles sent in this graduation photo.

"¢ Friend of the Floss Noah Brier has been getting a lot of press for his Brand Tags project. "The basic idea of this site is that a brand exists entirely in people's heads. Therefore, whatever it is they say a brand is, is what it is." Happy tagging!

"¢ Finally, two pictures—a soothing and intriguing creation found by from my friend Kevin, and one to make you laugh from Pat.

Hope you guys have a fantastic weekend! Keep sending me links, pictures and all manner of internet arcanum at FlossyLinks@gmail.com.

[Last Weekend's Links]

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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