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How Random are Scratch-Off Lotto Tickets?

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I'm not a lottery player -- I don't like throwing my money down a statistical hole in the ground -- but I'll admit that on occasion I have been the recipient of a scratch-off lottery ticket, and I have scratched it, and haven't won anything. What a bummer. But I recall one occasion as a kid when a friend of mine received 20 scratch-off tickets ($1 each) as a birthday present. He "won" $15 and was very excited about the affair. Two things about this bothered me: first, that his total birthday gift was actually less money than had been spent to give it to him; and second, that he actually sat there, scratching away and trying to figure out whether each card was a winner. "Why not just hand the tickets back to the cashier and have 'em scanned, to see if they're winners?" I asked. "Because it's fun!" he answered -- and this, apparently, is the answer to both of my objections. There are people (apparently many people) for whom the scratching off, and the thrill of winning little monetary rewards, is really enjoyable. So my friend was actually pleased that he got both his $15, as well as the exciting experience of scratching off 20 cards. I still don't get it, though I see it every day. (See the HBO documentary Lucky for a good overall look at lottery systems, winners, and losers.)

Yesterday, Jonah Lehrer posted a fascinated Wired story called Cracking the Scratch Lottery Code in which an MIT-trained statistician finds mathematical flaws in a particular scratch-off card in the Ontario Lottery, allowing him to predict winning cards about 90% of the time. Here's a snippet:

[After winning $3 on a scratch-off ticket, Mohan Srivastava] decided to take a lunchtime walk to the gas station to cash in his ticket. "On my way, I start looking at the tic-tac-toe game, and I begin to wonder how they make these things," Srivastava says. "The tickets are clearly mass-produced, which means there must be some computer program that lays down the numbers. Of course, it would be really nice if the computer could just spit out random digits. But that's not possible, since the lottery corporation needs to control the number of winning tickets. The game can't be truly random. Instead, it has to generate the illusion of randomness while actually being carefully determined." ...

That afternoon, he went back to work. The thrill of winning had worn off; he forgot about his lunchtime adventure. But then, as he walked by the gas station later that evening, something strange happened. "I swear I'm not the kind of guy who hears voices," Srivastava says. "But that night, as I passed the station, I heard a little voice coming from the back of my head. I'll never forget what it said: 'If you do it that way, if you use that algorithm, there will be a flaw. The game will be flawed. You will be able to crack the ticket. You will be able to plunder the lottery.'"

What happens next is actually very surprising.

(Photo courtesy of Chris Winters, who writes: "Breakdown was: $58 in cash (left), 15 free tickets (center, not yet redeemed), the remainder losers (right)." Photo used under Creative Commons license.)

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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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