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Highlights from the Iowa State Fair

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We were driving on the interstate yesterday evening and saw a funnel cake stand speed by. "There goes the last of the State Fair," my mom said. Yep, the Iowa State Fair closed out another successful year on Sunday, so I thought for today's Quick 10 I'd provide you with some of the highlights "“ in no particular order, mind you.

1. Butter Shawn Johnson. The tiny, 4'9" Olympic medal-winning gymnast is from West Des Moines, so she's a pretty big deal in these parts (we also have track and field Olympian Lolo Jones). Every year, the butter cow sculptor does something in addition to the butter cow, usually something that corresponds with current events. Last year when the last Harry Potter book came out, a whole magical scene was created out of butter. So, this year's tribute to our local Olympian was a no-brainer. Shawn comes complete with an American flag and a balance beam.

porkchop2. Pork Chop on a Stick. Oh, man. This is the juiciest, yummiest pork chop in the history of time. And I don't even like pork chops. It's $6, which might seem a little steep, but when you think about the price you would pay for a chop like this in an upscale restaurant, the $6 is so totally worth it.

3. Pioneer Hall.

My friend Bridget refuses to go in Pioneer Hall because she has an aversion to antiques. Yeah, if you have a problem with old stuff, Pioneer Hall is not for you. It's part flea market, part showcase, part dance hall, part demonstration. You can peruse old record albums, see if one of the vendors has that piece of Depression glass you've been looking for, flip through some postcards from the 1920s, and watch a blacksmith do his thing.

I was fascinated by the blacksmith, but if dancing is more up your alley, there's always this:

4. Ugly Cake Contest.
Yeah, this is in the same building your typical State Fair food competitions "“ best pie, best jam, best cookie, best everything-under-the-sun. But this is my favorite. It's geared specifically to kids who compete to see who can make the most revolting, unappealing cake ever. This one didn't win a blue ribbon, but personally, it took the cake for me. Yuck.


5. Big Boar and the Big Bull. Big Bull. "Tiny" the bull weighs 3,012 pounds. You can tell exactly how big he is by comparing his head with the head of that little girl in the background. I'm pretty sure he was heavily sedated.


"Freight Train" the big boar"¦ well, he's just a really massive pig. It appears to spend most of its time napping. I caught it snoring, actually, but by the time I thought to turn the video on, I think it had quieted down. See for yourself:

6. Fried Hostess Cupcake. Well, fried anything from this stand, really. You can get fried Twinkie, fried Ho Ho, fried Oreos, fried Snickers. I think the Twinkie is the best, but we felt like we should try something new this year. Paul had the Hostess Cupcake; I had a Bloody Mary. Mmm. Only at the State Fair is this normal. Well, State Fair and maybe tailgating.

bloody inset

7. Garrison Keillor. Unfortunately I missed this, but I would have liked to see the "A Prairie Home Companion" Rhubarb Tour when it made a stop at the State Fair this year.

8. Fried Pineapple. Every year, there's a lot of hype around the newest food item. Last year it was the Hot Beef Sundae "“ a mound of mashed potatoes with gravy to look like syrup, shredded cheese "sprinkles" and a cherry tomato on top. This year, it was the fried pineapple. Sounds kind of nasty, but it tasted a lot like pineapple upside down cake. This is my husband biting into the fried pineapple"¦ be warned, it's not the neatest thing to eat.

butterfly9. Butterfly Garden. I hear the butterfly garden at Iowa State University's Reiman Gardens makes this one pale in comparison, but I've never been there, so I enjoyed myself at this version of the butterfly garden. There were thousands of butterflies hanging out in here, snacking on rotten bananas, attaching themselves to unsuspecting people, scaring and/or delighting little kids.

saddle10. Miniature"¦ stuff. I realize this is crafty, kitschy and weird, but I always enjoy checking out the miniatures. I mean, you could just buy a dollhouse and decorate it with stuff you can buy at Hobby Lobby and enter that, but some people really go all out. This lady actually created a 1:32 scale saddle. I'm not sure why, but it's fascinating.

tattooOh, and 10.5: People Watching. I'm going to be... objective, here, but let's just say there's no shortage of mullets and muffin tops, often on the same person. This dude to the left is really proud of his heritage. It says "Corn Fed Bad Ass", in case you can't see it. So, those are my State Fair highlights. I didn't get to experience the cow chip throwing contest or the beard-growing contest or anything like that, and I missed the giant vegetables. I always like to see onions that are the size of my head (I have a really large noggin, so that's no small feat). There's always next year.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]