CLOSE
Original image

Be Amazing: Move a Whole Town

Original image

Whether you're looking to become invisible, swallow a sword, quit smoking, find Atlantis, buy the Moon, sink a battleship, perform your own surgeries, or become a ninja, our new book Be Amazing covers all the essential life skills! This week, we'll be excerpting a few lessons from the book.

Hibbing, Minnesota, was a mining town. Established in 1893, it quickly became the largest of several cities built on the Mesabi Range iron-ore deposits. Known as the "richest village in the world," the town grew to a population of 20,000 by 1915 and boasted opulent hotels, decorative Victorian banks, and all the cultural amenities of "big city" life. But, in 1912, a geologic survey revealed that Hibbing was actually closer to the iron ore than any of its founders had anticipated—as in, right on top of it. Clearly, something had to give, and in an area where iron was king that something was obviously going to be the city of Hibbing.

Lust for iron aside, the locals weren't quite ready to raze the town and start over from scratch.

Balancing greed with thriftiness, they simply decided to reuse what they already had—moving the bulk of the town two miles to the south and out of the way of the strip mining machines. Amazingly, for an era when heavy construction equipment was still just a twinkle in a foreman's eye, this plan actually worked. Hibbing survived and the awkwardly placed iron mine, now known as the Hull-Rust, is the largest open-pit mine in the world today, covering 2,291 acres and producing 1.4 billion tons of ore. Granted, your hometown might not sit on top of a veritable gold mine of, well, iron, but if you don't try moving it you'll never know for sure.

YOU WILL NEED

"¢ A town
"¢ Horses
"¢ Logs
"¢ Chains
"¢ A very understanding citizenry

Step 1: LOSE THE FOUNDATION

It was just holding you down anyway! Mary Jane Finsand's book, The Town That Moved, explains how the citizens of Hibbing slowly jacked up their public buildings and homes high enough that they were no longer connected to the foundations beneath.

Step 2: GET ON A ROLL

Giant trees from the nearby forest were felled and stripped to become rollers, which were laid one after another beneath each building. Chains attached the building to a team of horses. As it moved across the line of rollers, workmen would bring the end log around to the front. Hey, we just said the process worked . . . not that it was fast! Moving began in 1919, but the final building didn't make the journey until the 1960s.

Step 3: BE SAFE

The people of Hibbing trusted the movers not just with their possessions but also with their lives. Many houses were actually moved with all the furniture and residents riding inside. Lucky for them, the movers had a pretty solid success rate. Of the 200 buildings moved, only one didn't survive the trip.

Picture 14.png

Want the new book plus a new mental_floss shirt for under $20? Here are the details.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
quiz
arrow
Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
Original image
SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES