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What's the most Romantic thing you've ever done?

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This is going to be one of the posts where I ask you to share your stories in the comments, like back when you all shared your nerdiest moments in life. The idea for the post came to me while I was reading Hector Berlioz’s biography not too long ago. When he was young, he learned that the woman with whom he had been romantically involved had married someone else while he was away, studying music in Rome. Enraged, he set out with a pistol and the intention of a double murder suicide. Now that’s crazy Romantic with a capital R. There's a big difference between capital R Romantic and lowercase romantic. We're not talking candles and mood lighting here. When you listen to Berlioz's music (remember the post about his Symphonie Fantastique?), you hear all that wild Romanticism. Of course, there are other famous artist stories, right? Like the one about Van Gogh cutting off his ear and giving it to the prostitute.

Mine is tame (and maybe even lame) by comparison, but, I’ll get the ball rolling here by telling you the short tale: I was once living on a tiny island in the middle of a small lake in northern New Jersey. To give you an idea of how small the island was, there were only two houses—mine and an older, married couple’s. I had rented it for the summer to get some quiet, away from the armpit that is Manhattan in July. So there I was, two days into the respite, writing away, in the peace and quiet of a little cabin on a little island in the middle of a little lake in the little state of New Jersey.

Suddenly, my girlfriend called me in the middle of the night from Tarrytown, New York, sick as a dog. I could hear how badly she needed some TLC, ASAP (more than I needed my R&R, FYI). So I got in a little paddleboat and made my way to shore. From there, I took a taxi to a bus stop. The bus took me to Port Authority in Manhattan where I took the subway to Grand Central. From there, I took Metro North up the Hudson rail line to Tarrytown and another taxi from the train station to the house where my girlfriend was housesitting for a week. The whole trip took a little longer than four hours, but it was well worth it when I saw the look on her face.

Your turn! Leave your interesting or creative responses in the comments below...

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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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