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The Quick 10: Quoth mental_floss "Nevermore."

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Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" is 165 years old this week. That's not bad for a bird with a life expectancy of 40 years (that's in captivity, if you're interested "“ 15 years is the longest a tagged raven has ever lived in the wild). We'll say Happy Birthday to the morbid black bird by dedicating today's Q10 to it.

tenniel_raven1. The first time "The Raven" was published was in the New York Evening Mirror on January 29, 1845. They were quite impressed with it, to say the least "“ in his intro to Poe's piece, founder Nathaniel Parker Willis said it was "unsurpassed in English poetry for subtle conception, masterly ingenuity of versification, and consistent, sustaining of imaginative lift... It will stick to the memory of everybody who reads it." Unfortunately for old E.A.P., Willis gave up editing the following year and the man who took his place was definitely not a Poe fan. Poe actually sued the Evening Mirror for defamation just a year after his hit poem was published and received $225.06 plus his court costs.

2. The amount that he won from the Evening Mirror is about 2500% more than what he earned for "The Raven" in the first place "“ upon its original publication, Poe received just $9.

3. Not everyone was as kind as Nathaniel Parker Willis. In fact, some of Poe's contemporaries kind of hated it. William Butler Yeats thought it was "insincere and vulgar" and Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "I see nothing in it." Aldous Huxley thought it was too poetic, saying that it "falls into vulgarity" by being overly so.

4. Poe took his inspiration from a couple of sources: the talking raven idea was likely borrowed from Charles Dickens' Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of "˜Eighty and the rhythm and meter definitely comes from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "Lady Geraldine's Courtship."

5. In 1858, John Tenniel illustrated "The Raven" "“ that's one of his pieces above. Tenniel is the same guy who did the original drawings for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Tenniel had a knack for the quietly creepy, I'd say.

6. This poem isn't the first time Poe mentioned a lady named Lenore. She first showed up in "Lenore" (go figure) which was published two years before "The Raven." Actually, "Lenore" was a revision of an earlier Poe poem called "A Paean"; the name was added and the title was changed for the 1843 version.

ravens7. The Baltimore Ravens are, of course, named after the famous poem by the famous Baltimorean. The team used to have three mascots named Edgar, Allan, and Poe. Edgar and Allan have since been retired to be replaced with real ravens, but Poe is still fluttering around the stadium to cheer on his team.

8. "The Raven" was an immediate hit, which meant immediate parodies. Pretty soon, not-so-spooky versions called "The Whipporwill," "The Polecat" and "The Gazelle" began making their way through pop culture. "The Polecat" found its way to Abraham Lincoln, in fact, and he found it so funny that he decided to check out the original, which he hadn't read until that point, and memorized it.

manet raven9. Famous impressionist Édouard Manet illustrated the "The Raven" nearly 20 years after Tenniel. You can see his signature upside down at the top in the closing illustration.
10. The success of "The Raven" didn't make Poe financially set. "I am as poor now as ever I was in my life, except in hope, which is by no means bankable," he wrote. Even when his The Raven and Other Tales was published and was a big hit in Europe, he apparently made only $120 from it. And when The Raven and Other Poems was published in the U.S., his take was even less.

Do you agree with Huxley, Yeats and Emerson? Or do you appreciate the macabre ravings of a mad going mad? Me"¦ I'm a fan. But you probably could have guessed that.

If I've put you in the mood to read it, you can find the poem in its entirety here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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