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The Integratron

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I've recently been informed of something awesome: The Integratron. It's a big wood-and-fiberglass dome in the Mojave Desert, built by UFO contactee George Van Tassel upon the instructions of friendly Venusians. Built as a "rejuvenation machine" (a sort of mechanical fountain of youth), the Integratron's dome is supposedly constructed atop an "energy vortex" and shares design features with the Tabernacle of Moses and the King's Chamber inside the Great Pyramid of Giza. From the Wikipedia page on Van Tassel:

Meditating beside Giant Rock in 1951, Van Tassel claimed to have been transported astrally to a huge alien space ship orbiting the earth, where he met the all-wise "Council of Seven Lights." In 1952 Van Tassel reported he had been visited in the flesh by human-appearing, friendly space aliens from Venus, who suggested that he attempt to build a structure aimed at extending human life, to help people take advantage of the wisdom acquired through age. It was of course the Integratron, and it became his apparent obsession for the next 25 years. The structure actually was finished by 1959, but seemed completely non-functional; Van Tassel tinkered with it fruitlessly for the rest of his life.

It was supposedly a domed time/energy machine built partially upon the theories of Nikola Tesla. Created to recharge and rejuvenate people's cells, at the behest of an advanced entity with which Van Tassel communicated telepathically, for a coming "Lord" from outer space, it was however not without its risks, according to Van Tassel's theory. An overcharge could make a person spontaneously combust -- or even explode. The wood structure lacks a rotating metal apparatus on the outside which was to be the functioning part. Now it is simply an empty all wood dome, lacking even metal screws or nails. In recent times New Agers have declared the structure a power spot and claim to be rejuvenated by staying there, and experiencing sound baths inside.

Behold, the mighty Integratron
Beneath the Integratron.

Indeed, you can visit the Integratron to try out its powers for yourself. There are various events at the dome, including Sound Baths in which visitors are "bathed" in sound produced by nine quartz crystal "singing bowls." Apparently it's pretty awesome...there's even a Facebook group called I went to the Integratron and good things happened.

You can read an account of a visit to the Integratron, check out photos of the Integratron on Flickr, or read more about it at Wikipedia.

Have you visited the Integratron? Did good or bad things happen? Share your experiences in the comments (or tell us about other neat places!).

(Photos courtesy of Flickr users grabadonut and Alhazred, used under Creative Commons license.)

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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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