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The Quick 10: 10 Alterations to the Hollywood Sign

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What's a girl to do for fun after the Grammys and all of the post-Grammy parties are over? Well, if you're Ke$ha, you round up a limo, a group of friends, some sheets and some spray paint and you go deface the Hollywood sign (maybe. We'll get to that in a second). Even though the sign is a bit challenging (and illegal) to get to, it hasn't stopped various groups of people from altering it for publicity stunts or political purposes. Check out Ke$ha's maybe-defacement and nine others:

1. Ke$hawood. Although there's video of Ke$ha and her friends doing their thing, most blogs are now reporting that it's an edited video and there's no way that they managed this stunt. Even the Hollywood Sign Trust says it didn't happen, as far as they can tell. You can read about all of the reasons it's a fake video over at Entertainment Weekly, but you can look and see for yourself:

2. Holywood. When Pope John Paul II visited L.A. in 1987, taking over Dodger Stadium to celebrate mass, someone covered up one of the "˜L's, declaring that Hollywood had gone holy... if only for the weekend.

3. Ollywood. Earlier that year, a similar simple modification was made when the "˜H' was hidden. The reason? Oliver North and the Iran-Contra hearings.

4. Jolly Good. When Virgin Atlantic started a non-stop flight from L.A. to London in 2000, the sign proclaimed "Jolly Good" to mark the occasion.

5. Holli Would. Well, it still said "Hollywood," but to promote the 1992 movie Cool World and its main character, Holli Would (voiced by Kim Basinger), a giant Holli was plopped on top of the letter "D." Ugh.

6. Hollyweed. In January, 1976, the California state law on marijuana was loosened, prompting supporters (or was it detractors?) to "rename" the city.

CALTECH7. Caltech. In 1987, Caltech left a friendly little hello on the sign. The Time blurb on the prank says the students who did it used a cherry picker to hang their plastic sheets, making Ke$ha's feat seem even more unrealistic.

8. Perotwood. During Ross Perot's presidential bids in 1992 and 1996, the sign was changed to support him.

9. Go UCLA. USC and UCLA pull out all of the prank stops when their football teams play each other. This included 1993, when Bruins fans showed their support by risking life and limb to drape the sign.

10. Raffeysod. Although the Hollywood Sign website claims the meaning of this mysterious message is unknown, it's believed that a band named "The Raffeys" were trying to make people talk about them and drum up a little publicity in 1985. Hey, it worked for Ke$ha.

So, what do you guys think about the video? Fake, right?

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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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