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Goldberg Contest Winner

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Last Saturday, we announced our first-ever "Feel Art Again" contest, challenging our readers to design Rube Goldberg devices. Entrants were asked to "draw as complex a device as you can think of for a very simple task. The more complex the device or the funnier the device/task/situation, the better." And the winner is....

The Winner: Victor

"My design is for a cheese powered well. The clock has a knife as the minute hand so that every hour it cuts a slice of cheese off that falls into the basket in front of the hampster. The hampster then runs in his cage which has a wedge wrapped around it so that it pumps the bellows for the fire under the tea kettle. The fire makes the water boil and the steam goes through a pipe outside to push against a paddle wheel. As the steam turns the paddle wheel the gears on the wheel turn another gear which in turn turns another gear that turns a spindle the raises and lowers a bucket into a well."

ThePrize.jpgVictor wins a copy of Secret Lives of Great Artists: What Your Teachers Never Told You About Master Painters and Sculptors by Elizabeth Lunday, who writes the "Masterpieces" column for mental_floss magazine. You can pick up your own copy from Quirk Books.

Honorable Mention: Therese

GoldbergHonorableMention.jpg"This is a Wind-Powered Page-Turner. The user sits in the comfortable armchair. He can either place his copy of mental_floss magazine (or other reading material) into the holder that attaches to the sides of the chair or hold it in his hand. When he is ready to turn the page, he simply pedals with his feet on the pedals that extend out from the bottom of the chair. The pedals are attached to a bar that rises and falls as he pedals, in turn powering a gear that, in turn, powers a fan. The wind from the fan is directed, by means of an attached funnel, toward the magazine. The burst of air coming through the properly adjusted funnel will turn the page. This enables the reader to keep his hands free for drinking and snacking... and may even help prevent carpal tunnel syndrome that could result from repeated page-turning."

Thanks go out to everyone who entered! If you'd like to see more "Feel Art Again" contests (or just drawing contests in general), let us know in the comments.

To learn more about Rube Goldberg, read our two Saturday posts: The Incomparable Rube Goldberg and Rube Goldberg, part 2. To watch some Rube Goldberg devices in action, head to Jason English's video-packed post.

"Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at feelartagain@gmail.com with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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