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The Weekend Links

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If you're feeling in a political mood, check out some of these vintage Presidential Campaign Commercials as far back as 1952, from the Museum of the Moving Image. The one for Eisenhower is pretty catchy. I wish animation was used more in campaign ads today!

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What if you found your beach home no longer on the beach ... but half a mile inland, fully intact with the pictures still hanging on the wall? That's what happened to one Texas resident.

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From Merinda (via Wil Wheaton's twitter) 5 Thoughts on the Popularity of Steampunk. (Find out what steampunk is, and take a look at a steampunk-inspired computer)

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I felt the need to copy this email for the full effect: "I live and work in Northern Minnesota in the tourism industry. It's this time of year, fall, when the leafers come out; those who flock from the cities to drive way below the speed limit, on our 2 lane highway, which has practically no passing lanes, and stare at the leaves changing colour...it drives me absolute bonkers! So when we came across this youtube video today at work, it's no surprise that we all cried laughing! So I thought I would share with you all as well. Enjoy! Jamie"

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From ESPN Page 2, help the Cubs get closer to greatness by playing Curse Breakers.

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Flossy reader Ryan sent in a strange link this week that ended up fascinating me more than I ever expected. Basically, a wiki for industrial and construction equipment, chock full of information. Today I learned about the Loader Backhoe AND the reefer trailer (not what you think).

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From Micle, 35 of the most unique and creative sofa designs. Hmm, I'm not sure the giant tiger matches my decor ...

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Chase away the impending winter doldrums by taking a look at some truly beautiful Spring-evoking work by Dale Chihuly, currently featured at the NY Botanical Garden.

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Pick a picture, any picture, that best describes how you feel about a said situation, and let this site give you a personality work up! (Thanks Jane!)

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From Jan, If you consider yourself a beer-guru on your way to achieving brewvana, see if you have ever experienced the symptoms outlined here to be a true brew master.

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It can be tricky to follow all of the ins and outs, jabs and cracks of a rap battle. Luckily, this one has been translated.

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Keep an eye on the end of the world (*cough*) I mean, see what CERN, that ole Large Particle Accelerator, is up to these days.

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A plethora of interesting "how things work" questions answered.

Thanks for all the links submissions this week! Keep sending 'em in to FlossyLinks@gmail.com. Have a great weekend!

[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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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