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Strange Things Roommates Insisted on Displaying

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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. I'm off today, so I've taken some past Happy Hour topics that generated fun comments, but not a lot of comments. Second time's the charm...

1. We've already discussed our craziest roommates. But let's be a little more specific and talk about crazy decor. What's the strangest thing a roommate of yours has insisted on displaying? For me, it was an eight-by-ten picture that hung in the kitchen. A baby picture of my roommate being breastfed. A nipple was visible. Had we been part of a reality show, the FCC would have levied a fine.

2. As the wise George Costanza once observed, "Great couples always have a great story about how they met." But is the opposite true? Think about the worst relationship you've ever been in. Did the way you met foreshadow the drama, heartbreak, doom and/or gloom that would follow?

3. A few years ago, I wrote about the dangerous history of Action Park, a now-defunct New Jersey amusement park legendary for being unsafe. I still get the occasional email from someone wanting to share his or her near-death experiences. But I'm sure Vernon, New Jersey, did not have a monopoly on treacherous theme parks. Did you have one near you?

4. The merciful people who put out my high school's yearbook did not ask seniors to provide inspirational, poignant or otherwise meaningful quotes to run beneath our class photos. I have no idea what I would have selected. There's a good chance Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger or Happy Gilmore would have been involved.

A friend of mine who graduated in the mid-1990s wasn't so lucky. He showed me his yearbook, and about half of the guys used Jim Valvano's "Don't Give Up, Don't Ever Give Up." (Him included.)

Maybe you put a little more thought into your senior quote. Either way, we'd love to hear it. What was your high school yearbook quote? And if you're up for it, here's another question: what would your quote be if you were graduating today?

[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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