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Be Amazing: Survive the Witness Protection Program

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Whether you're looking to start your own religion, 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! And because we've extended our (amazing) book + t-shirt for under $20 deal through Friday, here's one more lesson from the book.

YOU WILL NEED:

"¢ Assistance finding housing in your new community
"¢ $60,000 a year in subsistence payments
"¢ 1 reasonable job opportunity
"¢ Identity documents
"¢ Counseling (naturally)

(Don't worry, all this comes standard with the Witness Protection Program.)

Created by the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, the Witness Protection Program does exactly what the movies say—hide witnesses from vengeful thugs by giving them new identities. Since its inception, some 17,000 people have used the program—and no witness who followed the program guidelines has ever been harmed. In that spirit, we've provided this helpful list of "don'ts" guaranteed to make any government-funded moving adventure a little more pleasant.

Don't: HIDE OUT IN ENGLAND

Actually, the chances are pretty slim. To be in the Witness protection program, you have to be, well, under protection, in this case by federal marshals, who don't travel abroad. Even so, you should take our advice to heart because, unlike America's federally organized system, Great Britain's version of the Witness Protection Program is handled by individual police forces—and, apparently, this does not always work out for the best. In 2000, Alan Decabral, a witness to a gangland murder, was shot in a parking lot after living under Kent police protection for less than a year. And another witness, Thomas McCartney, charged police in Northern Ireland with failing to even give him his promised identity papers. Part of the problem is that most British police forces don't require witnesses to sever ties with former friends—let that be a lesson to you.

Don't: COMMIT YOUR OWN CRIMES

Seventeen percent of all protected witnesses commit a crime while under protection—including the first one. Joseph "The Animal" Barboza became the first person to use the WPP after testifying against the mafia in 1968. Given the name "Joe Bentley," he was moved to California where the FBI enrolled him in cooking school. But, in 1971, he ended up on trial for first-degree murder. The trial, and the ensuing conviction, blew Barboza's cover and he was shot in 1976, shortly after being paroled.

Don't: INVITE YOUR "OLD FRIENDS" TO VISIT

Life in a new city can be lonely sometimes, but it's probably best not to call up the old buds you left behind. Unfortunately, Brenda Paz, a 17-year-old witness against a notorious nationwide gang called MS-13, did just that in 2003. According to a 2005 article in Newsweek, Pas was hiding under a new identity in a Minnesota Embassy Suites hotel room when she invited two-carloads worth of MS-13 members to come check out the hotel's hot tub. Within days, she was dead.

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

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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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