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The Things You're Missing Out On!

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Last month, Jason and I started a side project called Watercooler Ammo. It's a fun newsletter that comes out every Monday-Thursday, and it features one bit of perfectly curated, smile-inducing trivia. If you're not a subscriber, you can sign up here to try it out (you'll like it!). But if you need more convincing, these are just a few of the great stories you've been missing out on:

Long Live the (Part-Time) King!

Up until a few months ago, Peggielene Bartels was a secretary living alone in a one-bedroom apartment in Silver Spring, MD. Then, in the middle of the night, she got a call from Ghana. Her distant uncle-- who had been king of a village-- had passed away, and the tribal elders on the phone wanted to know whether she'd take over.

After a lot of debate, Peggielene decided to wear the crown. Now, she uses all of her vacation days in Otuam, Ghana where she stays in an 8 bedroom palace, and spends her time sorting out the problems of her 7,000 subjects! And while a few of the elders were keen to crown a woman king because they thought she'd be a pushover, Peggielene refuses to let the chauvinism get in her way. She's already rooted out a good bit of corruption. And she's working hard to install computers in Otuam's schools, dig new wells in the region, and bring up the region's literacy rates. While she's a part-time ruler for now, once King Bartels retires from her job in 5 or 6 years, she plans to move to Otuam. As she put it in this wonderful Washington Post write-up "Late in life, God gave me many children. Now I have 7,000 of them and I must raise them the best I can."

The Weirdest Birthday Present Ever

Metro UK is reporting on what has to be the strangest (and creepiest!) kid's birthday gift ever. In Switzerland, parents are flocking to hire "Evil Clown" Dominic Deville to surprise their kids on the week leading up their birthdays. For a fee, Dominic will personally stalk your children-- following them around, leaving notes that he's watching, sending text messages and setting little traps in mailboxes. Then, at the end of the week, the Evil Clown will jump out from nowhere, chase your kid down and then... throw a cake in their face. According to Deville: "Most kids absolutely love being scared senseless." And while that may be true, I think I would have preferred a Nintendo game and an ice cream sundae to all this special attention.

The Time the Army Stopped Niagara Falls

A few weeks ago we were stunned to learn that scientists once actually stopped the falls from flowing. Here's what happened: In 1969, the Army Corps of Engineers were engaged in erosion control efforts at Niagara. Apparently, the force of the falls had been wearing down the rocks and riverbed on the American side, and if left as is, would have caused serious devastation. So, the Army basically built a dam to divert the Niagara River's flow to the Canadian side for 6 months! In the process, they studied the riverbed and "mechanically bolted and strengthened any faults they found." In any case, whatever they did seems to have worked. To redivert the water back to the American side of the falls, the Army corps simply dynamited the dam they constructed. The photo to the left is just one pic of the eerily dry falls, but you can see more stunning photos at this Flickr gallery.

The Height of the Party

If you're into theme parties, check out Hans Hemmert's Same Height Party. The German artist constructed a whole bunch of different-sized foam shoe lifts that he custom-designed for his guests. The result? A party where everyone was exactly 6 feet 7 inches tall, and at one another's eye-level. Of course, while the photos show that Hemmert has a real grasp on the concept, it looks like he could use some help in the appetizers and decor department. Link via the always fascinating Presurfer.

Balloony Tunes

Last week, after finally seeing the gorgeous, animated film Up, we started wondering how many helium balloons it would take to move a real-life house. Luckily, the folks at Wired had the same question. To fact-check the science, the magazine first called a mover that specializes in moving old houses. He determined that the structure would weigh about 100,000 lbs. Then Wired put their calculators to use. According to the article, if you use balloons that are 3 feet in diameter, you'll need about 105,854 balloons. (According to their estimates, the animators in Up drew in about 112,000 balloons.) While it's strange that you can technically move a house with party balloons, what we find even stranger is that there's a crazy subculture of people who enjoy "Cluster Ballooning." Essentially, they just tie a huge number of large helium balloons to a harness, strap on parachute (just in case), and then float to heights of 3,000-5,000 feet. Some cluster balloonists have even hit heights of 20,000 feet! To see pics of people in flight, be sure to click here. And to read more on the science of Up, be sure to check out this delightful piece at

Convinced yet? Go ahead and subscribe to our Watercooler Ammo newsletter here. We promise you won't regret it!

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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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.