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The Quick 10: Get Your Johnny Weir Fix Here

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I'm not sure what happened, but somewhere over the course of the Olympics, I've become inexplicably fascinated with Johnny Weir. Maybe it's not so inexplicable "“ love him or hate him, you have to admit he's a rather intriguing character. Here are a few facts about the Russian-obsessed Pennsylvanian.

weir1. He was born in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, which is not too far from my old haunt of West Chester (and the home of QVC). The Weir family packed up and moved to Delaware when Johnny started skating at the age of 12 so he could be closer to his ice skating coach and preferred training rink.
2. The age of 12, by the way, is pretty late to start a career in ice skating and get to the level that Johnny is at. But he obviously had some natural talent "“ the kid landed an axel during his very first week of lessons.
3. Prior to that, Johnny was ice skating in cornfields. He received his first pair of ice skates for Christmas one year when the cornfields behind his house were totally iced over. Lacking a real rink to go to immediately, he laced up and started gliding amongst the frozen stalks outside instead.

4. If you're wondering why he asked for those ice skates to begin with, well, we have Oksana Baiul to thank. He watched her take gold at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics and fell in love. But it wasn't just the obsession of a 10-year-old kid "“ when he grew up to become a talented ice skater, he actually hired the very coach that helped Oksana win her gold medal. He has also helped design costumes for Oksana.

5. He could have been an equestrian. Prior to receiving the ice skates and discovering his love for the sport, Johnny was a pretty involved rider. He and his parents knew he would have to choose one if he was going to seriously pursue either sport, and after much debate he obviously chose skating.

6. He's a Russophile and adores everything Russian. If you've been watching his Olympic events you've probably noticed that he speaks to his coach almost exclusively in Russian. He taught himself to speak and read the language.

7. Wondering about his sexuality? Keep wondering, because he'll never tell. "There are some things I keep sacred," he said once in an interview. "My middle name. Who I sleep with. And what kind of hand moisturizer I use."

8. This might not be too surprising, given his outlandish costumes, but Weir has a thing for fashion. He's good friends with Heatherette designer Richie Rich, who, coincidentally, used to be a figure skater.

9. Yeah, he's got the clothes, the reality show and the unusual music choices, but there's something else that makes him quite unique among figure skaters: he spins and jumps clockwise, whereas the majority of skaters do those things counterclockwise.

10. He loves Lady Gaga.
You might have deciphered that from his "Pokerface" routine, but it goes beyond that. When he went to her concert, he sat in the front row with her mother (who happens to be a huge ice skating fan). And upon his arrival in the Olympic Village this year, he immediately put up a huge Gaga poster in his suite, saying that she "could watch over us." They seem made for each other, don't you think? Check out his Lady Gaga routine:

What do you think about Mr. Weir? Like him? Loathe him? Think he doesn't live up to the hype? Or do you just not care? Let us know in the comments, and have fun watching the Olympics this weekend!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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]