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There's a Tear in British Beer"¦

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Gone are the days of Guinness is Good For You; welcome to the socially responsible recession era world of O'Doul's. In a market trend that almost defies logic, beer sales in the UK have been on the decline for the past few years "“ while sales of non-alcoholic beer have steadily increased.

Though Britain still reigns among the booziest of the Western European countries, sales of beer in off licenses (convenience stores, basically) and supermarkets has declined 11 percent in the first quarter of 2009, more than double the decline of beer sales in pubs and bars for the same period. Overall, the British beer market has dropped a whopping 8.2 percent in this last quarter, the sharpest dive since 1997, and has fallen 7 percent since 2006. The only bright spot, albeit a dim one, in the otherwise gloomy beer outlook is that traditional cask ales have maintained a small but steady increase over the last few years.

But while it's all tears in their beers for brewers, off-licenses and pub owners alike, the makers of non-alcoholic brews, such as Cobra Zero, have a reason to celebrate (responsibly, of course): Sales of non-alcoholic beer rose 9 percent in the last year and a massive 23 percent since 2006. It's still a tiny portion of the entire beer market, but brewers are beginning to take notice, perhaps, in the way beer manufacturers jumped on the low-calorie, low-carbohydrate wagons when they came around.


Marketing directors, especially those of the companies selling non-alco beers, attribute the rise to the growing availability of good non-alco beers and better tasting choices, while independent market researchers have pointed to the inundation of government messages encouraging responsible drinking. Reports on who's buying the non-alco beer vary: Bavaria, one manufacturer of the beer, says their drinkers are "image conscious 18-34-year-old men," although the company also sponsors UK pregnancy websites. Cobra, however, says their biggest fans are older men, between the ages of 45 and 60.

In other booze news, UK sales of alcopops, those nauseatingly sweet pre-mixed cocktails of the kind you drank when you were a teenager making the jump from candy to liquor and hadn't yet discovered adult alcoholic beverages could be just as rewarding and even tasted better, have tumbled drastically over the last decade. Sales, which had been previously fueled by young drinkers, have dropped 14 percent in the last year, while the market shrank from roughly £800 billion in 2005 to around £405 billion now.

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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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May 23, 2017
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