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Last Chance to Get 3 Free Issues of mental_floss When You Pre-Order Our New Book!

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It's smarter than your old history teacher, funnier than the founding fathers and more American than Betty Crocker cradling an apple pie!

If you can't tell, we're really excited about our new book, The Mental Floss History of the United States: The (Almost) Complete and (Entirely) Entertaining Story of America. The cover is great! The contents are great! And we can't wait for you to get your hands on it!

In fact, we're so eager for you to check it out that we've convinced Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-a-Million, Borders and every other online retailer to partner with us on this super deal.

But Hurry!

All you have to do is pre-order the book at your favorite online bookstore before October 5th (TOMORROW!), and then copy and paste your e-receipt here and we'll send you a three issue subscription to mental_floss for free!

Want to add the free subscription to your current subscription? Not a problem. Want to give the free subscription away to a friend? Also not a problem! We've made everything really, really easy. All you have to do is order the book, and then click here.

USA! USA!
Of course, with a special this special, you may have some questions. We've tried to answer most of them below.

THE FAQs

Can I add the three free issues to my existing subscription?

Yes! We'll happily tack on three additional issues to your current subscription. Once you've bought the book, just click here for the deal.

Can I keep the book, but send the subscription to a friend, or vice versa?

Yes! We've made this really easy. Simply send the book wherever you'd like (keep it, or send it to someone else). Then, once you get your e-receipt, just copy and paste it into the form here. Then fill out the rest of the form to tell us whether you'd like to keep the free subscription for yourself, or want it to go somewhere else.

Does this free magazine deal apply only to U.S. subscriptions?

Yes. Unfortunately, we can only send the free subscriptions to addresses within the United States.

Can you really judge this book by its cover?

Yes! We put a heck of a lot of effort into making the cover interesting. But we've put even more effort on every page. Just skim this book and you'll learn all sorts of things your history teachers forgot to mention, from the Alabama town that refused to join up with the Rebels during the Civil War to the actual origins of baseball, to one of the dirtiest deals the CIA ever made (it's with the mafia!). But if you just want to stare at the cover, you can see that right here.

Does this deal really end on October 5th?

Sadly, yes. This whopper of a deal only applies to pre-orders.

Do you have any History of the United States content at mentalfloss.com for me to peruse?

Yes! Throughout September we'll be highlighting fascinating content from the book and creating fun quizzes to help you love history as much as we do. Just look for it here.

Is mental_floss magazine really that good?

Yes! Newsweek calls it "A smart (-alecky) read." The Washington Post calls it "delightfully eccentric and eclectic." And it's been praised everywhere from the LA Times to the Wall Street Journal. This year we've tackled The 50 Most Interesting Places in the Space-Time Continuum (including what it's like to look inside a black hole, inside a barrel with Houdini, and the Supreme Court's nuclear hide-out bunker), The United States of Amazing (wonderful tales of Amish baseball, an immigrant hot sauce maker and other stories that will make you proud to be an American), and The 10 Issue (the world's greatest 10 lists, from 10 Things You Didn't Know about Afghanistan to 10 Provocative Questions about Raising Chickens!) Plus, every issue is packed with fascinating science stories, incredible bios, evocative arts features, and a spinning the globe section that's chock full of lush photos and vivid travel stories. If you love to learn, this magazine's made for you.

And if I have other questions?

Yes, we figured you might! Just write us at threefreeissues@mentalfloss.com, and we'll get right back to you.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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iStock

Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]

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