Original image


Original image

Sometime soon—like maybe even by the end of this year—the empire will be a thing of the past. Not what they stand for, mind you, but the actual .com nomenclature... at least if most of us have our way. Already, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers [ICANN] has rolled out .xxx.

Up until recently, .com was the most valuable suffix on the Internet. You’ve all heard stories, I’m sure, about people buying up dozens, hundreds of random .coms with the hope of selling them for profit. And, indeed, people have been making serious money off their foresight. When I was looking to buy the domain for the last company I worked for, the guy squatting on it was asking $50,000. The saddest thing is, if we had not been so scrappy, we would have shelled out the bucks for it with the thinking that no one takes you seriously if you’re a .net or a .biz. Never mind that, and have all proven that notion wrong. Big venture capital-backed start-ups actually build entire products around .coms that are available vis-à-vis those that are not.

But soon, that will all change. This site, for example, will be able to purchase mental.floss, or even That’s the idea behind .Whatever. Conceivably, one could buy any suffix they wanted. There are issues still to be sorted out, however. Like, what’s Pepsi going to do when someone registers or even P.epsi? It could cause brand owners monumental financial damage, to say nothing of the trademark legal nightmare waiting in the wings. But, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a step in the right direction. The .com class war has always irked me. Why should a domain be off-limits to someone just because they can’t afford to pay a squatter?

Of course, this all might be a non-issue in a few years when the entire Internet is app-based and the Web browser is dead. And that might be the best solution of all. Facebook on my iPhone, for example, is domain-free—it’s just an app and I really have to say I prefer it that way. But until the walled-gardens overtake the Interwebz, .whatever is exciting. Hey, the kids think so too, right? Look how long they’ve been chanting “whatever” to every other point someone makes!

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
Original image