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The Quick 10: 10 Things 300 Didn't Tell You

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It was, um, a lot of years ago today (480 B.C., to be exact) that King Leonidas and the Spartans were defeated by Xerxes' army at Thermopylae. Well, that's according to some accounts. Some historians say that we can't be sure exactly what day in late summer the Battle of Thermopylae happened, but for our purposes today (namely, a timely Quick 10) we'll stick with the ones who have agreed on August 11.

10 Things 300 Didn't Tell You

1. We often hear the epic battle called the Battle of Thermopylae, but the truth is, there were lots of Battles of Thermopylae, including one in WWII. In 1941, the British Commonwealth set up their defenses in the same pass that was used in 480 B.C.

2. However, that pass is a lot bigger than it used to be. At the time of the historic stand against the Persians, the pass is estimated to have been no bigger than 30 meters. Now, due to silt deposited by rivers over time, the coastline of the Gulf has grown by at least three miles.

3. Another reason this Quick 10 is particularly fitting right now: according to "The Father of History", Herodotus, the Battle occurred while the Olympic Games were going on. Of course, Herodotus also earned the nickname "The Father of Lies", so you may want to take that with a grain of salt.

4. We don't really know how many warriors there were on either side, but if you agree with Herodotus, there literally millions of Persians vs. 7,100 Greeks. It's pretty widely agreed that his estimation is ridiculous "“ it was probably closer to 200,000 Persians total (including warriors who didn't make it to the battle at all).

5. Some of those perfect quotes from the movie are the real thing. If you've seen 300, you no doubt remember a Persian warrior telling a Spartan warrior that the Persian arrows would be so numerous they would blot out the sun. "Then we will fight in the shade!" was the Spartan's response. Supposedly, this is a real quote from a Spartan named Dienekes.

6. Likewise, Leonidas was thought to have really said "Come and get them!" when the Persians told the Spartans to surrender their weapons.

7. Those Spartans sure are quotable. Another quote that has perhaps lasted thousands of years is the Queen's response to the messenger who asked why Spartan women were allowed to speak amongst men. "Because only Spartan women give birth to real men," she said. Plutarch, a Greek historian, recorded this memorable line in the Moralia under "Sayings of the Spartans".

8. The poet Simonides wrote an epitaph for the 300; it was engraved on a stone and placed at the point of the Spartans' last stand. The original no longer exists, but a copy was made. It has been translated many different ways "“ here are a few of them:
"¢ Stranger! To Sparta say, her faithful band
Here lie in death, remembering her command.
"¢ Go tell the Spartans, thou who passest by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
"¢ Stranger, tell the Spartans that we behaved as they would wish us to, and are
buried here.
"¢ Go, stranger, and to Lacedaemon tell
That here, obeying her behests, we fell.

9. Literally, Thermopylae means "hot gates". It was so named becaues of the sulfurous springs there; the narrow pass served as a gateway to them.

10. The person buried in Leonidas' tomb may or may not be Leonidas. While most of the Spartans were buried where they fell, it was custom to bring the King home and give him a proper burial. However, they didn't get the body until 40 years later (the Persians got to him first). Obviously, the body was just bones at that point, so it was impossible to know if they actually belonged to Leonidas or not.

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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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