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The Weekend Links

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"¢ Let's kick things off with 10 Historic Monuments Dedicated to Great Geeks.

"¢ From Denise, a cool video about the significance of images seen by the Hubble telescope. Perhaps it will transport you back to those planetarium field trips of old, first agog at the sheer vastness of space. It may make you feel insignificant, that we're all just grains of sand in the universe, but don't worry—some grains of sand can be pretty darn interesting.

"¢ I'll let Eric explain this game in his own words: "Warning: not recommended for people who have governments, constituents, nuclear power plants or mob bosses waiting on them. For everyone else, though, this is mighty addicting." My score was pitiful ... under 100. We'll leave it at that. Any high scores out there?

"¢ It's been pretty rainy and dreary here in Atlanta for the past week, but thanks to Andi's link for 101 Things to Do When You're Bored, I've made my afternoons much more interesting.

"¢ From CollegeHumor, a list of Firefox Extensions You Probably Didn't Know About. Some might not be suitable for work. But if you're stuck working on a Saturday, your boss should look the other way.

"¢ A sundry of great links from Flossy reader Josiah: first, alliteration gone too far—a story written only in words beginning with the letter W. If this doesn't drive you a little mad, or at least thinking in an Elmer Fudd voice, I don't know what could.

"¢ A fantastic, informative video from the Onion News Network on how to pretend like you care about the election.

"¢ I think working in an environment with these 3D wall paintings would have me running into a lot of walls...


"¢ From Jan, 24 unforgettable advertisements, including the skin cancer awareness ad above. The PETA "human meat" display is not for the sensitive. But as for the others ... if only so much innovation and thought went into other things, imagine!

"¢ Also from Jan, "The Secret Language of Cocktails," or, What Your Cocktail Says about You, none of which are particularly positive, which perhaps indicates something more general.

"¢ From our own Flossy intern Kristen, a link to an alarm clock so vicious it starts calling random numbers from your phone when you ignore it in favor of slumber. If any of my friends got this horrid thing I would demand they remove my number at once. If waking up is really that big of a problem for you, perhaps try changing your sleep patterns.

"¢ Whitney Matheson of USA Today PopCandy fame is at Lebowski Fest. Here's her Lebowski Fest FAQ, and keep checking back for her live updates.

"¢ Here's an unusual stop-motion animation sent over by Michael from The Daily Tube.

"¢ Friend of the Floss Wil Wheaton will be guest starring on Criminal Minds.

"¢ My friend Kevin sends me a plethora of great links during the week, but this one caught my fancy to share—a video on why cell phones are evil, as revealed by someone who microwaved theirs. So what if they used some animation tricks? We know it's close enough to the truth.

"¢ No doubt most of you guys have tried this before, but I find it just as weird now as when it was first shown to me—Larry shares with us the old foot movement trick on his blog. Putting my foot in the air didn't do much, but shuffling it around on the floor in a circle worked like a charm. Could anyone resist its powers?

"¢ One of my best link-finders, Angie, has lead me to this site of pictures made from typography. Great for all your font-philes and word worshipers out there.

"¢ Feeling lonely? Or just looking to take over the world? Here are some key excerpts from Dale Carnegie's influential How to Win Friends and Influence People.

"¢ I know there are quite a few web applications similar to this one where you can create your own snowflake, but I found this particular site pretty stellar and fun to play with.

"¢ Finally, this ole thing just to make your head spin.

Hope everyone had a great 4th of July last week, and that you have a crackerjack weekend coming up! Remember to send all links, internet arcana, pictures, and shameless plugs to, or add FlossyLinks to your Google Notebook.
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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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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]