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Armchair Field Trip: The World's Largest Truck Stop

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You probably know that Iowa grows a lot of corn. You probably know that the Field of Dreams was filmed here. You might know that Ashton Kutcher is from Iowa, and you might know that Buddy Holly's fatal plane crash was in Iowa. But you probably don't know that Iowa is home to one of the strangest attractions in the U.S. It's the World's Largest Truckstop, located on I-80 between Iowa City and Davenport. Just how large, you ask? Well, it sits on 220 acres, which is about twice as big as Disneyland. Only 75 acres are developed at this point, but the potential for expansion is there.

The I-80 truck stop didn't start as such a behemoth, though. It opened in 1964, when I-80 was still in its infancy, or at least in its toddler stages. It was just a tiny white building stuck smack in the middle of a cornfield "“ two diesel pumps and a restaurant.

semi mural

It grew as I-80 grew and now employs 450 people. The town the truck stop calls home, Walcott, has a population of about 1,500, if that tells you anything. I'm sure people from outside of Walcott work there too, but it goes to show you that it's a pretty huge employer in the area. (Lots of crazy photos after the jump!)

I've been roadtripping a lot lately, so I've had the pleasure of hitting up the I-80 truck stop two or three times in the past two weeks.

Here are just a few of the delights that this wonder offers:

"¢ Several full-sized vehicles. I counted at least five "“ one semi with a mural painted on it, one semi cab, one old-timey car in the restaurant, one truck and another old-timey car hanging from the ceiling. There may have been more.
"¢ A dentist's office.
"¢ A movie theater.
"¢ A chiropractic clinic.
"¢ A barber shop.
"¢ A custom shop, so you can trick out your truck with embroidery, custom vinyl and laser engraving.
"¢ 24 private showers.
"¢ A restaurant that serves about a million cups of coffee and 90 tons of meat every year.
"¢ A car wash for semis (so, technically a semi wash?) that even cleans the engine. A 15-minute wash will set truckers back about $50.
"¢ 75,000 unique items to bring home to your loved ones. And when I say unique, I'm really not kidding:
nunchuks
You know. Nunchucks. Because you never know when you are going to have to defend yourself against a surprise ninja attack.

general lee
I guess these are knives in the shape of guns... with a portrait of General Robert E. Lee engraved on the handle. Why not?

truckers gone wild
Speaks for itself, I think.

presidents playing poker
Those, in case you're wondering, are jewelry boxes with pictures of various Presidents of the United States playing poker together. And the jewelry box plays "God Bless America" when you open it.

alfalfa
Incredibly creepy Buckwheat-like doll... I guess for truckers to purchase and bring home to their kids? Thanks for the nightmares, dad...

Oh, there are more pictures from my stop here, but I'll let you decide if you want to see them.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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