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Sneak Peek #7: Heating Your Home With Bunnies

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The new issue's almost here (stay tuned for the big cover unveiling later today!), but we can't stop the show and tell just yet! Here's a sneak peek at our Spinning the Globe tour of Sweden. The story covers so many things, from how Sweden's socialism actually works, to why Swedes don't really like ABBA, to why 1950's nostalgia is taking the country by storm.

Of course, one of the other things we cover is how the nation is way ahead of the rest of the world in terms of green living. But they've angered quite a few people with one of their new policies. Here's the scoop:

Bleeding Green

Screen shot 2009-11-17 at 6.07.27 PMA big part of Sweden's national identity is a deep commitment to protecting the environment. Every year, Sweden pours millions of kronor into environmental programs, far exceeding European Union targets for cutting carbon emissions and recycling. For citizens, that means much more than just sorting paper from plastic. For example, in the early '90s, officials in Stockholm decided to turn the industrial area of Hammarby Sjöstad into the greenest neighborhood in Sweden. Today, residents of Hammarby use half the water as other citizens in Sweden, and the little water they waste goes toward generating power. Their garbage is collected through vacuum tubes that send it to treatment plants, where it is recycled or turned into fuel. Hammarby is 40 percent more eco-friendly than your average Swedish suburb.

Of course, some believe that these greening strategies go too far. Recently, the city of Stockholm was having trouble with rabbits, which were overwhelming the green spaces and plant life. So, the city hired teams of sharpshooters to pick off the bunnies. Ever waste-not, want-not, the government had the bodies frozen and shipped to a heating plant, where they were converted into biofuel. The dead bunnies now heat Swedish homes "“ and animal rights activists are protesting.
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To get the full story, be sure to pick up the new magazine on newsstands. Or better yet, pair the subscription with a brand new mental_floss T-shirt and save yourself some money. Click here for 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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