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10 Awesomely Geeky Birthday Cakes

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1. Dungeons and Dragons

Get your 20-sided dice ready because this massive cake is a feat of artistic cake magic. It was made for a birthday boy that plays in a group of D&D fanatics. The edible sculpture was created by Mike’s Amazing Cakes. If you have time, be sure to check out their website as well, because their gallery is, indeed, awesome.

2. World of Warcraft

Speaking of geektastic cakes based on role playing games, this Horde World of Warcraft cake may not look quite as professional as the D&D cake, but the details on the shield, particularly the wood grain, are pretty impressive nonetheless. From what I can gather, the creator, who made it for her boyfriend’s birthday, only does this as a hobby, not a job. It sounds like she might want to consider changing careers to do this for a living.

3. Super Mario

Here’s another amazing video game cake, starring everyone’s favorite plumber, Mario. This link is definitely worth a look, as the creator, Su Yin, actually details all the work that went into planning and creating the cake, including a step-by-step photo gallery. The work involved in a project like this is pretty incredible.

4. Zombie Girl

I don’t know what’s cooler, the fantastic zombie girl on this cake or the eight-year-old little girl that requested it. While the cake is pretty amazing, made by Barbarann Garrard from rice cereal treats and fondant, how cool is it that a girl that age would prefer a cake showing something crawling from the grave instead of a pony or Barbie?

5. Tom Selleck

What’s scarier than a little girl obsessed with zombies? Naked Tom Selleck. I have to respect the artist who created this bit of wonderment though, it’s pretty cool that she was able to make Mr. Selleck resemble a hunky Disney prince.

6. Indiana Jones

The only things missing from this great golden idol cake by Clever Cake Studio are an Indiana Jones Ken doll and a giant marzipan boulder. Even so, the fact that you can actually switch out the bag for the golden idol allows you to play the role of Doctor Jones without having to worry about death by rock.

7. Dalek

While any Dalek cake would be cool in my book, it’s a whole new level of awesome when you find one that’s over two feet tall and 44 pounds. If you eat it all at once, you’re sure to help the Dalek meet its primary goal to “exterminate!” The site has an incredibly detailed look at the cake’s construction if you’re interested in knowing how something so awesome was actually created.

8. R2-KT

Of course, you can’t talk about geeky anything without mentioning Star Wars. This amazingly realistic R2-KT cake by Mark Joseph Cakes features a ton of cake surrounded by fondant and its legs are made from rice cereal treats.  This site details the creation process, which is pretty intense thanks to the detailed paint job and assembly process.

9. Yoda

This Yoda cake is so realistic that I would be afraid to cut it for fear of suddenly being stunned by the force and beaten up by the little green man. The cake was created by Debbie Goard of Debbie Does Cakes for a seven-year-old’s birthday party. This has to be one of the most delicious of all the cakes here, as his head is made from rice treats, while the body features strawberry cake with Barvarian custard filling.

10. Storm Trooper On The Toilet

What’s nerdier than a regular Star Wars cake? One that also features bathroom humor.  While it makes sense that this was made for a six-year-old, there’s no doubt that many internet geeks will get even more pleasure out of the idea of a stormtrooper going to the bathroom than the child the cake was meant to impress. If you’re interested in getting your own Star Wars potty humor cake, better get on the phone with Aurora Cakes, the company that made this masterpiece.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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