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The Story Behind the Giant Inflatable Union Rat

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© Bob Krist/CORBIS

??If you're from a town with a strong union presence, you know that if new commercial construction happens without union labor, protests often follow. Burly guys in work boots and union shirts will take to the streets to wave signs, pass out flyers, and draw attention to whatever business has offended them. Sometimes they'll bring a special guest—a giant inflatable rat with sharp, menacing buckteeth and claws, beady red eyes and a belly scattered with festering blemishes and swollen nipples.

This year, the rat—which the Labor Heritage Foundation calls an "effective piece of street theater"—is old enough to grab a beer with guys when they've had their fill of picketing. That's right, "Scabby the Rat" (as he was dubbed by his creators) has been uglying up the sidewalks in front of union-unfriendly businesses for 21 years.

The Rat Pack

Scabby was born in 1990, when the Chicago bricklayers union contacted Plainfield, Illinois-based Big Sky Balloons and Searchlights. The bricklayers were looking for something big and nasty to get their point across at a protest. When Big Sky owner Mike O'Connor showed them his sketch, their criticism was succinct: "It's not mean enough."

© Big Sky Balloons

O'Connor added bigger, pointier buckteeth and a pink belly bristling with gross-looking nipples. The bricklayers loved it. (Big Sky also makes Greedy Pig and Fat Cat protest balloons.)

Scabby quickly caught on with other unions. The rat business began booming and Big Sky was taking orders from all over the country. Most of the rats went to the East Coast, and most of those went to New York City, with the local chapter of the masons' union getting their hands on the first one. Soon, there were at least 30 Scabbys in the five boroughs; 13 of them once reunited for a rally in Union Square.

Today, Big Sky continues to sell 100-200 rats a year, from the compact 6-foot model ($2,000) to the enormous 25-footer (about $8,000). The most popular size is the 12-foot model, which conveniently fits standing in the back of a pickup and gets attention without breaking New York and other cities' ordinances dictating the height of inflatable displays.

So far, Scabby has had a heck of a 21st. Federal regulators ruled that union activists have the legal right to display the rats outside companies during labor disputes. And the New Jersey state Supreme Court similarly ruled that the use of the rats in labor protests is protected speech under the First Amendment, overturning a township ordinance that banned any inflatable signs not being used for a store's grand opening.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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