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The Weekend Links

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>>Most of us don't need any more people nagging us to do this or that, but if nagging is your primary means of inspiration out of laziness, by all means use this site, which promises to hassle you about whatever you choose in a variety of mediums on a set schedule (with, it assures, some unforeseen nagging just to be sure to get the message across).

>>For those of you who might like to live like the Flinstones - where animals are substituted for technology - you may find just what you're looking for in this clip of a rabbit who also works as a perfect letter opener. I will note, however, that I am dubious as to how safe that paper is for the bunny to consume. I mean, we all know what happened to George Costanza's fiancée ...

>>A list of Eight of the World's Most Unusual Plants. I've seen some weird stuff growing in the jungle behind my house, but nothing that interesting. For more, check out Stacy's vintage post on the subject.

>>This is by far my favorite link this week. Forget Mr. Potato Head - try out Mr. Picasso Head. Here's a little something I made the other night. I'd be interested to see some of your own creations, so feel free to send them to, and I'll link to the best ones next week!

>>I certainly can't vouch for the accuracy of the results, but before you consider visiting a shrink for your stress problems, consult Dr. Hello Kitty for a stress test. Yes, you heard right. Try it for yourself!

>>The artistic value of graffiti is oft debated, but these 3D graffiti sculptures are definitely amazing and one-of-a-kind.

>>We've done this before, but here's another great round of Ads versus Reality. I have to say, I'm writing this up around lunchtime, and even the soggy-looking realities are looking pretty tasty right about now.

>>"If they can do it, why can't we?" Or so says Let's Be Friends, a blog featuring unlikely animals getting along together just peachy. A few of these look photoshopped ... or am I just letting cynicism get the best of me?

>>Want to see exactly which parts of the earth art lit by the sun or deep in the shadows right this moment? ... look no further.

>>At first I thought this website on how to fold a shirt was a joke, until I watched it a few times and then tried it. It really does work! And it's kind of a nifty trick.

>>Beautiful but devastating - a volcano eruption coincides with a lightning storm.

>>Spend some time wielding animated 3D shapes and exploring their possibilities here by dragging and clicking on the various objects to the left.

>>I have become a huge audiobook fan of late, and find it a great way to mellow out whilst in traffic or just before bed. Here's a link to free classics on audiobook, although I may not recommend using these while driving. A cure for insomnia, perhaps.

>>All of you in college or recently graduated will be well familiar with this schedule on how to write a paper.

>>Continue to floss your brain at this site, where you can engage in memory tests and other exercises for the gray matter.

I hope everyone has a fantastic weekend! Clean out that Favorites folder and send all your internet arcana, pictures and links to

[Last Week'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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