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Magazine Sneak Peek!: The Strange Case of Arthur Conan Doyle

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As a 3rd grader, I was obsessed with Sherlock Holmes. I walked around the neighborhood trying to solve cases. I took all of the mystery books out of my elementary school library. I even dressed up as the legendary detective for Halloween 2 years in a row. So, I was thrilled when Ransom Riggs suggested doing a spread on author Arthur Conan Doyle in the magazine. What I didn't realize was what sort of amazing stories Ransom would come up with. Here are two of my favorites, plucked from our latest issue: one on Conan Doyle's love for adventure and the other on his inspiration for Holmes.

A Need for Speed

conandoyle.jpgConan Doyle harbored such a compulsive need for adventure that it almost killed him on several occasions. He loved hot-air ballooning and racing fast cars (though, luckily, never at the same time), and as a young man, he made a habit of embarking on absurdly dangerous voyages. In 1880, while traveling on an Arctic whaling ship, he fell overboard into the icy waters so often that the captain nicknamed him "The Northern Diver." Conan Doyle was also an ardent patriot who wrote impassioned defenses of Britain's involvement in unpopular wars. In fact, after World War I broke out in 1914, Conan Doyle tried to enlist in the British Army. Of course, at age 55, he was considered too old to serve.

The Truth about Sherlock

In creating his most famous character, Arthur Conan Doyle found inspiration in a lecturer he had as a young medical student—a Scotsman named Dr. Joseph Bell. In fact, inspiration is too mild a term; personality theft is more like it. The doctor was a legend among his students for performing astounding feats of deduction as a kind of parlor trick. For instance, after a moment's conversation with a country woman during class, Bell turned to his students and said:

You see, gentlemen, when she said good morning to me I noted her Fife accent, and, as you know, the nearest town in Fife is Burntisland. You notice the red clay on the edges of the soles of her shoes, and the only such clay within 20 miles of Edinburgh is the Botanic Gardens. Inverleith Row borders the gardens and is her nearest way here from Leith. You observed that the coat she carried over her arm is too big for the child who is with her, and therefore she set out from home with two children. Finally she has dermatitis on the fingers of the right hand, which is peculiar to workers in the linoleum factory at Burntisland.

The speech reads like it was plucked straight from a Conan Doyle story, but in truth, the author lifted his style from Bell.

But that just scratches the surface! Curious what else is in the magazine? Then pick up the new issue of mental_floss magazine here. Or take advantage of our latest offer and pick up a t-shirt with your subscription for just a couple of dollars more.

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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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