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How the Indy 500 Came About

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Sunday, the annual Indianapolis 500 race will be held at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The speedway is celebrating its "centennial era" from 2009-2011, so this race is not officially referred to as "the 94th", even though that is the number of the event. Some races were skipped during wartime. The three-race, two-year celebration commemorates the opening of the speedway in 1909 and the first 500-mile race in 1911.

With a seating capacity of 257,325 people, Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the largest stadium in the world. In its 100-year history, only Brooklands in England was ever bigger (and it closed in 1939). Germany tried to build a bigger stadium for Nazi party rallies, but the construction of the 400,000-seat Deutsches Stadion was interrupted by World War II and it was never completed. The chariot racing venue Circus Maximus in ancient Rome could hold as many people, but hasn't been used in quite a long time. Image by Rick Dikeman.

Carl G. Fisher caught the first wave of the automobile industry. He owned a bicycle shop, but went on to open what many consider the first automobile dealership in the US. He and his partners bought 328 acres to open a vehicle testing facility near Indianapolis. Fisher is pictured second from the right; Henry Ford is on the left.

The 2.5 mile track was first paved with crushed stone and tar. This proved to be a mistake as soon as racing began.

The first day of car races at the new speedway in August 1909 ended with two deaths during one five-mile race. By the end of the weekend, one driver, two mechanics, and two spectators were killed. Fisher had to replace the crushed stone surface to make the track safer, so 3.2 million paving bricks were installed. The speedway therefore earned the nickname "the Brickyard". A few of these stones are still on the track.

The Indy 500 was born to accommodate the spectators. Fisher and his partners calculated the maximum amount of time people would be willing to spend at the track to arrive at the 500 standard. They figured seven hours would be the most they could ask for, and that meant 500 miles at the speeds of the day. The first 500-mile race held at Indianapolis was on Memorial Day in 1911. It was officially called the "International 500-Mile Sweepstakes Race", a name kept until 1919.  Forty cars participated in the race. Thirteen laps in, a multi-car pileup occurred, and for a time no one was keeping track of who was ahead! The eventual runner-up Ralph Mulford crossed the finish line first, according to some accounts, but was directed to take three "safety laps" to ensure he completed the requisite 500 miles. In the confusion of the race, little attention was paid to the number of laps each car completed in what order.

The declared winner of that first 500-mile race was Ray Harroun, driving a car he designed, the 6-cylinder Marmon Wasp. His car engendered even more controversy, as Harroun drove without a passenger. Yes, race car drivers at the time normally had a mechanic with them, to monitor the vehicle performance and keep tabs on the other drivers.  But Harroun, a 29-year-old automotive designer, used a newfangled gadget he invented called a "rear view mirror", and his car didn't even have a passenger seat!

Speedway founder Carl Fisher went on to other big projects. He spurred the construction of America's first transcontinental road, the Lincoln Highway, in order to bring people to the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915. The road was dedicated in 1913. Fisher then turned his attention to building the Dixie Highway from Indianapolis to Florida. But why would anyone want to go to Florida? Fisher worked to make the state a tourist destination by buying swampland and developing it into Miami Beach. Fisher sold his share of the Indianapolis track to Captain Eddie Rickenbacker in 1927.

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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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May 23, 2017
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