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Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

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If you're a girl who likes programming, who are your role models? Too few and far between, says UK-based freelance software consultant and tech blogger, Suw Charman-Anderson. Which is why she's named March 24, 2009, Ada Lovelace Day, the first of what could become an annual Internet event.


Ada Lovelace Day is meant to be an international day of blogging to highlight women in technology "“ more than 1000 people have pledged to write a blog post today focusing on women and their contribution to technology. Charman-Anderson called for the day after observing the feelings of disempowerment experienced by her female friends in the tech industry, and after recent research showed that women need to see positive female role models more than men need to see male role models.


The day was named after Ada Lovelace, daughter of the poet Lord Byron and the Countess of Lovelace, who is considered the world's first computer programmer.

Born in 1815, Lovelace's childhood was spent largely separated from her famous father and bedridden with a series of life-threatening illnesses. Through those illnesses, Lovelace continued her education and by the time she was 17, her remarkable mathematical abilities began to emerge. All the while, she was a regular Georgian lady, who enjoyed dancing, was often at Court and was considered charming by many who met her.

It was through her relationship with Charles Babbage, philosopher, mathematician, and the inventor of the Difference Engine and the Analytical, that her true mathematical genius shined. The two engines, which sadly remained on-paper concepts or half-finished physical attempts during Babbage's lifetime, were essentially the first programmable computers. Lovelace wrote an algorithm that would calculate Bernoulli numbers "“ a series of rational numbers "“ for the Analytical Machine, making her the world's first computer programmer.

Lovelace died in 1852, at the age of 36, of uterine cancer, and until relatively recently, her impact on mathematics had been somewhat ignored. If Ada Lovelace Day takes off, however, modern female pioneers in the world of technology, like Lovelace, won't be ignored for long.

Being "in technology" is defined loosely as doing anything that involves using tech in an innovative or creative way, and is certainly open to interpretation. Thus far, Ada Lovelace Day has managed to reach some pretty lofty blogs, including Ian Douglas of the Telegraph, Naomi Alderman's blog at the Guardian. And of course, mental_floss.

Any ladies in technology want to weigh in? Anyone you'd like to shed the light of admiration on today?

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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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