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The Weekend Links

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We all know that spelling in the English language is a convoluted subject at best, a point made rather clear in this clip, where 102-year-old Ed Rondthaler gives a convincing argument in his quick English spelling reform lesson.

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Ok, Flossers: agree or disagree? Here are 10 geeky movies on which to raise your kids. Sad to say I've only seen a few. Does anyone have suggestions for ones left off the list?

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Another round of Steve, Don't Eat It! featuring Cuitlacoche. Warning: obviously not safe if you have just eaten. I find it hard to believe things like these exist and are consumed by people without irony!

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Slate.com recently took an informal poll to determine which Netflix movies sat on readers' shelves the longest before they were watched. Check out the results here. Any confessions from you guys? I'll admit, Rashomon sat on my shelf for at least 4 months before I popped that baby in.

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Glass blowing has always fascinated me - it seems like such a magical art. Check out this video where a guy makes a glass cat in less than 2 minutes.

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20 of the world's strangest endangered species. It doesn't even pay to be a cute animal anymore - no one is safe!

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In college, my Saturdays were often spent on the couch watching countless hours of Mythbusters marathons. Never failing to impress, Adam and Jamie have done it again - this time creating a machine that can draw a Mona Lisa in 80 milliseconds at NVIDIA's show. Be sure to watch until the very end where they replay it in slow motion. Amazing!

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The Sartorialist is a great photo blog if you're looking to see what crazy, amazing, and often inspired outfits people are wearing on the streets these days.

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From Jan, a photoshop "simplicity" contest for a $500 Apple gift card. According to pattern, it seems most everyone could use a much simpler phone and computer to start.

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Because there can never be too much discussion about the Dark Knight ... an article on Game Theory in the opening scene of the latest Batman film.

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Friend of Mental_Floss Regator.com just launched their site, which is most definitely worth a look. It's a blog aggregator (get it?) that features hand-picked stories from the internet each day, with users voting on the content. It's a great way to find out the best of the best! (For instance, I just found this gem on there).

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If you're as upset as I am and countless other HP fans that the next Harry Potter movie has been delayed until Summer 2009, you will get a major chuckle from this video on the subject. Never have subtitles been so unexpected (and apt!)

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From Joanna, this site allows you to input text or a URL to see which words appear most frequently, and arranges them in an aesthetically pleasing way. Full disclosure: my OS isn't upgraded enough for the Java applet, but I'd be interested to see what comes up when you put up mentalfloss.com. Can someone try and link to it?

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A note from Jason: This is long overdue, but we need to crown a winner of the Wow Us With Your First Lady Facts contest. Congratulations to Jean Butler! Here's her entry:

Harriet Lane was the first First First Lady to have a warship named after her - the Revenue Cutter Harriet Lane, commissioned in 1857. The Revenue Cutter was the forerunner of today's US Coast Guard. Harriet Lane was the niece of our only bachelor President, James Buchanan and served as his hostess. She became such a huge fashion and social icon of the day, that she was referred to as America's First Lady. Thus began the tradition of referring to the President's wife/hostess as the first Lady.

Jean, I'll be in touch about your prize—Cormac O'Brien's Secret Lives of the First Ladies: What Your Teachers Never Told You About the Women of the White House (published by Quirk Books). Thanks to everyone who entered. We promise the next contest will not take 9 days to judge. Back to you, Allison.

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Is it an office supply or a crazy weapon? Find out here.

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Finally, have some fun with this collection of tongue twisters.

As you all bask in the cerulean resplendence of the forthcoming autumn this weekend, try not to forget to keep sending in those links! You know the drill: FlossyLinks@gmail.com.

[Last Weekend's Links]

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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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