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Pigeons as messengers, from spying to stocks?!

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This week we're thrilled to have guest blogger Courtney Humphries posting with us. Courtney is the author of Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan...And the World and today she's riffing on why the U.S. military has awarded pigeons medals, the strange role they've played in financial journalism, and what they've got to do with Noah's Ark. We'll let her take it from here:

Pigeons in a Time of War

pigeonssoldiers.jpgWe don't think of pigeons as being particularly useful in recent history. Sure, they were invaluable as messengers to the Greeks and Romans in ancient times. Pigeons, after all, could outpace messengers on foot or horseback, particularly over rough terrain. And in wartime, they could convey messages from distant outposts to a central command, or to send a message into a city under siege, as they did during the siege of Paris at the tail end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.
But what's really surprising is the role they've played in America's history, and the fact that the invention of telecommunications didn't put pigeon messengers out of business. The birds still proved incredibly useful in war, since telegraph wires get cut and phone lines can be tapped. When World War I broke out in Europe, pigeons were well established as a means of reconnaissance in France, Belgium, and Germany. Eventually, pigeons became official members of militaries and honored as such, even receiving medals for their service. Britain and the U.S. both expanded their pigeon operations in World War II: at its peak, the U.S. Pigeon Corps had three-thousand enlisted men, one-hundred fifty officers, and fifty-four-thousand pigeons.

Pigeons for Peace (and Business!)

The birds have proved useful in peacetime as well. Pigeon posts were used to carry mail in the Middle East as early as the 5th century BCE. In the 1800s, Paul Julius Reuters, the founder of the famous wire service, flew pigeons bearing news and stock prices between Brussels, Belgium and Aachen, Germany, where there was a gap in telegraph communications, besting the railroad's time by two hours. The competition for pigeons that could fly financial news led breeders to develop faster breeds. Eventually these culminated in the modern Homing Pigeon, a breed that is flown in races all over the world.

Although these birds are often portrayed as scouts, soldiers, or athletes, from a pigeon's perspective it is only doing one thing: trying to get home. Pigeons have a natural ability to find their homes, which humans have exploited for their own purposes. Homing pigeons are trained from a young age to fly back to their lofts for food even if they are taken far away; some birds have been known to return even after being away for years. Perhaps that's what's most impressive about pigeon communication systems; they rely on messengers who can only travel in one direction.

Of course, the birds often dubbed "rats with wings" do have one other messenger tale that can't be overlooked. One of the first examples of the pigeon as messenger is in the Biblical story of Noah's Ark, in which the dove (or pigeon—the two names were actually interchangeable) returned to Noah bearing a branch that signaled it had found land.

superdove.pngWant more stories about pigeons? Click here to purchase Courtney's wonderful book Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan...And the World. And be sure to check out Thursday's post on Eating Pigeons by the Forkful.

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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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