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Inauguration Kitsch For Sale

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Every inauguration of a new president brings out the kitsch, the manufactured collectibles of the moment. But this inauguration has more marketing opportunities than any before. As Stephen Colbert says, "Barack Obama can sell crap. I mean worthless crap." Anything and everything with the words Obama, inaugural, commemorative, or collectible is on sale and flying off the shelves. There is, of course, the same type of memorabilia you recall from past inaugurations. There are commemorative coins, plates, photographs, videos, t-shirts, and buttons, as well as the coffee mugs and caps you've come to expect from any big occasion. Look a little further, and you'll find that anything you can buy, you can now buy with Barack Obama's name on it.

There is an amazing assortment of food items hooking onto Obama's inauguration. L.A. Burdick created a box of chocolates for each presidential candidate in the 2008 election, and sold more of the Obama boxes than any other. Now they have the Obama Boxes on sale with in a wooden box with a gold wax seal and red, white and blue ribbons as an inauguration commemorative package. Old Pueblo Sauces has issued the Barack Obama Inauguration Hot Sauce. Ben & Jerry's traditionally names an ice cream after any large occasion, usually with a pun. The flavor of the inauguration is Yes, Pecan. Go ahead and groan, they are expecting it.


The assortment of Obama light switch covers will remind Americans that they have a new president every time they turn on the lights -in every room of the house! Could this be an incentive to save energy by using those switches more often to turn off the lights and save energy?


For your next keg party, you'll be proud to pull out your Obama Inauguration Souvenir Collectors Stein Mug, available in several designs. You can even change the design and slip your own name in there somewhere! They'll go well with your inaugural plates, shot glasses, and stemware.

This model airplane is a replica of Barack Obama's campaign plane. Only 100 were made, and only 90 were ever available to the general public for sale. However, the price has been marked down to $149.99, so they must not be selling as fast as expected.


So far, I haven't heard of a commemorative inaugural perfume, but the scent called Yes, We Can has been spotted in stores. No word on what it smells like, although you might guess that it smells like "change".

150obama_smartrip.jpgBuy a permanent, rechargeable fare card from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority with a picture of Obama on it to commemorate the inauguration. A card with $10 worth of train or bus rides will cost you $20, or you can get one with no value for only $10.


For $30 (or two for $50), you can display your Presidential Inaugural Plates on the front of your car, but I seriously doubt there will be many of these on the road six months from now.


The US Postal Service doesn't issue stamps with the image of a living person, but that doesn't stop them from issuing an official souvenir for the inauguration. For $14.95, you can get an envelope with images of Barack Obama and Joe Biden on it, with a special color postmark of January 20th. Because of the postmark, they go on sale today.


Obama souvenirs are not limited to the United States. In Japan, Obama face masks are hot. The Obama Phone is big in Kenya.


This only scratches the surface of the Obama kitsch available. Some push the envelope of taste, like this candle holder. Some I don't even want to link here, but you can search for "Obama sex toy" if you wish. Where will you store all these wonderful souvenirs? In your new Barack Obama Inaugural Keepsake Box, of course!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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