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History of the World: The Iceman Cometh

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Can you imagine? You're out for a nice, refreshing hike, enjoying nature, when you stumble upon this:

oetzi

Uhhh. I know what my reaction would be, but it's not exactly appropriate to print on mental_floss. Anyway, that's what happened in 1991 when two German tourists were out for a hike on Similaun Mountain in Austria and spotted this corpse. They figured he was a recent murder victim; there had been a rash of them in the region at the time. But the guy had actually been murdered thousands of years ago. The Austrian government pried him out of the ice with a jackhammer, doing some damage to the body in the process. And when people walked by, curious as to what was going on, they had no qualms about letting them take pieces of clothing and other objects as souvenirs.

Eventually, it was decided that Oetzi (AKA Ötzi, named after the Ötztal Alps where he was found) was actually found on Italian soil, so if you want to pay him a visit, check out the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy. Oetzi was so well preserved because of the ice, scientists were able to study the contents of his intestines, take a hair analysis and investigate under his remaining fingernail. Pretty amazing, considered his death happened in 3300 B.C.-ish.

Random trivia not found in the book: Brad Pitt has a tattoo of Oetzi's outline on his forearm.

Picture 4.pngIt's the greatest deal in the history of history books! Our first hardback, The Mental Floss History of the World: An Irreverent Romp Through History's Best Bits, hits stores later this month, and we're so excited that we've teamed up with the fine folks at Amazon.com to give you a special deal. Pre-order the book before October 27th and we'll throw in 6 FREE MONTHS of mental_floss magazine! Just click here to get the deal now.


For more about the book, check out our FAQ.

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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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