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The Quick 10: Happy Birthday, Oprah!

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Yes "“ the world's most powerful woman (according to some reports, anyway) is celebrating the big 5-6 today. Even if you're not a big fan, you have to admit, the woman's done pretty well herself. Oprah hasn't kept too many secrets about herself over the years, so I'm avoiding the big shockers that she has revealed on air "“ the child she had at 14, the sex abuse she suffered at the hands of relatives. These are just a few fun facts about O.

oprah and ebert1. If things had been just a little bit different, she could have been Oprah Ebert. Doesn't have a great ring to it, does it? The talk show host and the film critic went on a few dates in the "˜80s before deciding they worked better as friends. It's Ebert who convinced Oprah she should syndicate her talk show, though. During a date at the Hamburger Hamlet ("My treat," Ebert said) she asked his advice. He told her what he was making to do his syndicated show, then told her to double it, since she wouldn't be using a co-host, then told her to double it again, because her show would be an hour instead of 30 minutes, then told her to multiply that by five since she would be on all week, then told her to double everything because her ratings would be better than his. That's when Oprah decided to syndicate.

2. You've probably heard the story that Oprah's name was supposed to be "Orpah" after a character in the Book of Ruth, but it was spelled wrong on her birth certificate, and so she became Oprah. Well, that's not entirely true. According to Oprah herself, her birth certificate really does say "Orpah," but no one could pronounce it. Somehow the "R" and the "P" always got switched, and eventually "Oprah" was just easier.

3. Even Oprah's theme song boasts a rich history. Musical heavyweights who have composed lyrics or music for her opening tune include Paul Simon, Quincy Jones and Patti LaBelle. In 1999, Oprah took voice lessons so she could sing her own theme song, "Run On." She made a music video for the song as well.

4. Only one author has ever turned down the opportunity for his book to be featured as one of Oprah's Book Club books "“ Jonathan Franzen. Oprah chose Franzen's novel The Corrections to be featured in 2001, and initially he accepted. Then he decided that having Oprah's logo on his cover might alienate him from a male audience and rather insulted the intelligence of the people who read the books featured in her club by saying, "It's a hard book for that audience." Ouch.

pageant5. She won the Miss Fire Prevention Contest when she was 17. She claims she was the only African-American in a pageant full of fair-skinned girls with auburn hair, so she wasn't really banking on winning. When they got to the Q&A portion of the contest, she wasn't really concerned about giving the cliché "world peace" answer. She responded to the question, "What would you do with a million dollars?" by saying, "I would be a spendin' fool. I'm not quite sure what I would spend it on, but I would spend, spend, spend. Spendin' fool." Apparently the judges liked her humor and candor, because Oprah won. And now she has a million dollars many times over.

6. But not all critically-acclaimed authors shun the power of Oprah: in 2007, she was granted the first-ever onscreen interview with the notoriously private Cormac McCarthy when she chose The Road as one of her Book Club books.

7. Oprah's idea of heaven? "A great big baked potato and someone to share it with."

8. When Oprah opened her own studio, she was only the third woman in history to do so. The two before were Mary Pickford and Lucille Ball, so it had been quite a while since a woman had the pull and capital to do so.

regiment9. The Oprah studio might be haunted. In the early 1900s, the land her studio complex in Chicago occupies today obviously wasn't a television studio "“ it was Chicago's Second Regiment Armory. When the SS Eastland overturned in the Chicago River in 1915, nearly 850 people died. The Armory was turned into a makeshift morgue where the hundreds of recovered bodies were brought for identification. These days, employees of Harpo Studios report seeing an apparition they call "The Gray Lady" and hearing phantom laughter at night.

10. The first-ever "The Oprah Winfrey Show" was called "How to Marry the Man or Woman of Your Choice." Ironic, considering the fact that she says she and longtime boyfriend Stedman Graham will never marry, despite dating since 1986. Although they were once engaged, they later decided that they would rather have a "spiritual union" and that a traditional marriage would never work with the craziness of their lives.

Will you be devastated when Oprah goes off the air next year? Or will you not even notice? I'm in the latter category "“ although I'm very impressed with Miss O as a businesswoman and a person, I've never really gotten into her show.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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