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Sibling Rivalry: How'd You Torment Your Brothers & Sisters?

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Every Friday, I post a series of unrelated questions meant to spark conversation in the comments. Answer one, answer all, respond to someone else's reply, whatever you want. Very casual. On to this week's topics of discussion...

1. My sister and I always seemed to get along. Sure, we had our moments—like the time I broke the gigantic candy cane our neighbor had given her (English Family Trivia: That neighbor would later go to jail for trying to kill his wife. Store it away.) But our childhood was nothing like the combative early years my wife spent with her brother. Soon after coming into the world, he had to put up with a two-year-old sister hurling books into his crib. She beat him with a wooden spoon and he punched holes in her wall. But through it all, they're extremely close. No harm, no foul. (Well, some harm. But wooden spoon welts eventually fade away.)

My wife is pregnant with our second child, which should sufficiently shake up the lives of Charlotte and Bailey (pictured). So I'm in the mood to hear about all the crazy things you did to your siblings, and vice versa. Did they forgive you?

These next few questions are from the archives. Because response to the Friday Happy Hour is way, way up in 2010 (thanks guys!), I'm hoping people haven't seen these questions, or that they weren't very memorable the first time around...

magic-hour.jpg2. Back in middle school, I was rapid with the record button. Between 1991 and 1993—my definitive VCR days—I taped nearly every episode of Saturday Night Live, Cheers and Seinfeld, plus rare treasures like "A Concert for Life" and the 1992 NFL Pro Bowl. Sadly, I was unable to locate any episodes of The Magic Hour, which I distinctly remember recording in 1998.


Today's second topic: what's the most intriguing VHS tape you still own? [I'm not looking for movies you bought in VHS format. Rather, stuff you've taped from TV or shot yourself.]

3. A couple years ago, I wrote something called "Fictional Sitcom Employers For Which I'd Like To Work." The list included Spacely Sprockets (three-day work week/three-hour work day), the Malibu Sands Beach Club (or any Malibu establishment willing to also hire all my friends) and Mr. Drummond's company (they weren't the best corporate citizen, but I feel like I could have made a difference). What fictional sitcom employer would you like to work for?

4. Growing up, my town's intramural basketball program had one really intense referee. He fancied himself a professional, and wasn't above hitting eight-year-olds with technical fouls.

One time, in third grade, an errant shot bounced up onto the stage (the gym was an all-purpose room, provided those purposes were basketball, physical education classes and school assemblies). I hopped up to retrieve it and walked back toward the court. At that moment, the ref blew his whistle, spinning his arms in an exaggerated manner. "Traveling!" he exclaimed. I was not very good at basketball, but I could see the boundary line and knew the stage was beyond it. "I never stopped play," he barked, using every ounce of his limited power. "Only I decide what's out of bounds."

So today's last question is this: What's your best, worst or most absurd youth sports memory?

Have a great weekend, and Happy Easter!

[See all the previous Friday Happy Hour transcripts.]

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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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