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A Bovine Gift from the Heart

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Last week we had seven cow tales, but here's one that can't be told in just a simple paragraph. The story of the Masai village of Enoosaen and their gift of cattle is a story you won't forget.

The Masai people (also spelled Maasai) live in Kenya and Tanzania. They are semi-nomadic and require large swathes of territory to graze their cattle. Livestock, mainly cattle, is the lifeblood of the tribe. A man who has many cattle and many children is a rich man; more of one and few of the other spells trouble. Cows provide their nutrition: milk and cheese, blood, and occasionally meat. More often, sheep and goats are used for meat and cows are saved for milk and calves. Cows are used as an exchange medium. A man will trade cattle for a bride, and the number of cows given is a symbol of how wealthy he is and how much he wants to impress his in-laws. It may be the largest purchase of this life. Image by Flickr user ddepauw1.

In traditional Masai culture, young boys herd cattle. Young men become warriors and protect the cattle (and in the past, steal cattle). Older men own cattle. But with modernization, education is also important. The Masai have taken charge of the tourist trade and use the proceeds to support schools. A young Masai warrior named Wilson Kimel Naiyomah had a dream to become a doctor and serve his people. The tribe sold cattle and raised $5,000 in 1996 to send Naiyomah to college. Administrators at The University of Oregon read of the sacrifice the cattlemen of Enoosaen, Kenya, made, and offered a scholarship. Naiyomah went to Oregon and then later transferred to Stanford in pre-med. Naiyomah happened to be visiting Manhattan when terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center in 2001. He absorbed the horror of that day along with everyone in the city, as well as the rest of America. When Naiyomah returned to his home for a visit in 2002, he found that although some Masai had heard of the attack, they only had a vague notion of what happened, since electricity had only been available to the village of Enoosaen for a short time and there were few radios.

Naiyomah told the story from his perspective as a witness and informed student. The villagers were horrified. They had trouble understanding how buildings were tall enough to cause death if one jumped from them, but they understood what 3,000 dead meant -that would be most of their village. The entire tribe anguished over the tragedy. They felt they had to do something to help the United States in their time of need. Naiyomah offered one of his cows and asked the elder to bless it. The elders responded by also donating cows as gifts to America.

"The cow is almost the center of life for us," said Mr. Naiyomah. "It's sacred. It's more than property. You give it a name. You talk to it. You perform rituals with it. I don't know if you have any sacred food in America, something that has a supernatural feel as you eat it. That's the cow for us."

The gift was meant to help Americans through their time of sorrow. Image above by Flickr user deepchi1.

Families donated 14 head of cattle to present to the United States. Naiyomah  contacted the deputy chief of mission of the United States Embassy in Nairobi, William Brancick, to present the gift. Brancick flew to western Kenya, then drove another two hours to reach Enoosaen for the gift ceremony in 2002. He thanked the people of the village, but explained that the logistics of transporting the cattle would be prohibitively expensive. The cattle stayed in the village awaiting a decision on what the Americans would do with them. See video footage from the day of ceremony.

By 2006, the American herd numbered 21 head. Michael E. Ranneberger, the new US ambassador to Kenya, arrived at Enoosaen to inspect the herd. He announced the plan: the cattle would stay in Kenya, and their offspring would be sold to provide educational opportunities for Masai children. The Americans kicked off the program by providing 14 high school scholarships for village children. But how to identify which cows are American? The Masai mark their cattle with a notch in the ear. Each owner has a distinctive notch, so the US cattle had to have their own mark. Ambassador Ranneberger was asked to select a mark for the American cows. After some thought, he decided on two simple rectangles, which symbolize the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Image by Guillaume Bonn for The New York Times.

Naiyomah was contacted by author Carmen Agra Deedy to collaborate on a children's book about the Masai's gift of cattle. The result is 14 Cows for America. The picture book, illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez, was released in 2009 and is now a best seller.

The experience has changed life for Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah. He completed his MS in Biological Sciences at Stanford, and has switched gears from medicine to diplomacy. He is now a Rotary World Peace Fellow and is studying at the Rotary Center for International Studies at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. His goal is to become "a peacemaker", although he is plenty busy doing other things as well. Image by Rotary Images/Alyce Henson.

Naiyomah worked to set up a system for clean water in his village, and helps to support orphans in both Kenya and the US. He founded the America Africa Nuru Foundation to bring educational opportunities and modern infrastructure to Enoosaen. The foundation is working on establishing a hospital for the village. Naiyomah is on the Board of Directors. As of 2009, the American herd of cattle in Kenya numbered 40 head.
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Special thanks to Bullwinkle, whose comment on last week's cow post inspired this article.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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