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SNEAK PEEK #1: The Truth about Chickens

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Our ninth annual 10 Issue hits newsstands next Tuesday, and to celebrate we'll be previewing it here all week. This year's 10 issue includes a whole range of wonderful lists from 10 ways Video Games will Change Your Life (they can make you rich and help you find love!), to 10 Things You Definitely Don't Know about Afghanistan, to 10 Ridiculous Feats of Literature. Plus, we've got stories on outsider artists, the wild wild west, and so much more.

Here's a sneak peek at one of my favorite stories from the issue by author Megan Wilde: 10 Provocative Questions about Chickens... Answered!

How do I hypnotize a chicken?

Screen shot 2010-02-24 at 2.48.04 AMThe chicken mind is easy to control, and chicken handlers have found several ways of hypnotizing chickens. Three methods known to make a chicken very, very sleepy are: 1) holding a chicken's head under its wing and gently rocking its body, 2) holding a chicken upside down and wiggling a finger in circles around its beak, and 3) staring intently into a chickens' eyes. Chickens will stay spellbound for several minutes, or even hours, until a loud noise snaps them out of their trance. Scientists think this state is a form of tonic immobility, a defense mechanism in which animals "play dead" in order to shake off a predator. Hypnotized chickens can so resemble inanimate objects that Vice President Al Gore recalled using them as paperweights and doorstops during his childhood days on the farm.

I've heard roosters don't have penises. Is that true?

For all our talk of the birds and the bees, this answer somehow tends to get glossed over. It's true that roosters don't actually have penises. Instead, a rooster's reproductive organs are neatly packed inside its cloacal vent. When he's ready to mate, the rooster grabs hold of a hen's neck and jumps on her back. When their vents touch in what's called a cloacal kiss, the rooster deposits sperm into the hen. Hens release about one egg a a day, and one mating can fertilize her eggs for up to a week. Even if there isn't a rooster around, however, hens will still lay eggs.

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Of course, that just scratches the surface! We also cover whether chickens like the taste of chicken, whether chickens are magical (they are in some cultures) and what exactly is a gizzard. For the rest of the story, pick up a magazine on newsstands this Tuesday. Or better yet, pick up a subscription and a t-shirt when you order the magazine right 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
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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