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How The Los Angeles Dodgers Helped to Snuff Out Communism

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2011 has been a difficult year for the Los Angeles Dodgers. With the owners going through a messy divorce (who gets the house? Who gets the team?) and attendance down, the Dodgers filed for Chapter 11 as Major League Baseball stepped in to assume day-to-day operations of the team. But all this pales by comparison to the drama surrounding the move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles and the site known as Chavez Ravine where Dodgers Stadium was built.

In the Beginning

Chavez Ravine was comprised of three neighborhoods: La Loma, Palo Verde and Bishop, which covered about 315 acres north of downtown Los Angeles in the hills Elysian Park. The largely Mexican community developed quietly over the years as immigrants made their way into LA pursuing the American Dream—a better life, a chance for prosperity. At ?rst idyllic, life in Chavez Ravine changed pretty quickly after the city identi?ed the area as a “slum” with substandard housing, prostitution, juvenile delinquency and dirt roads. They saw the neighborhood as ripe for development with the help of the federal government urban renewal programs that would enable them to build freeways and affordable housing. Families living in Chavez Ravine were told they would get priority to move into the new housing development once it was built. That’s when the real trouble started.

The Dodgers Trump Communism

By 1951, certain politicians and businessmen in LA decided that a baseball team would be more economically bene?cial to the city than public housing and they moved to kill housing project plan, which was seen as espousing abhorrent "communist ideals.” Although many of the families by this time had moved out, 12 families refused to leave.

The city was now in legal possession of the land and wanted to transfer it to private corporate interests. Seeking a better location for his team, Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley struck a deal with the city, giving him Chavez Ravine as part of a sweet incentive package to bring the Brooklyn Dodgers to LA.

Outraged former residents of Chavez Ravine forced the city to put the matter to a vote in 1958. But the referendum to bring the Dodgers to LA won by a margin of less than 2%. This put the city in a pickle. Not wanting to seem like communist sympathisers (I joke, of course), the city decided to evict the remaining families and used force and bulldozers to show that protests would not be tolerated. Fourteen sheriffs were needed to get the last family off the property. This was way before national BREAKING NEWS dominated 24-hour cable news stations, which didn’t yet exist, but the forced eviction was still caught on camera and aired on local news stations that night. Tensions between dark-skinned people and light-skinned people escalated. The Chicano communists lost. The Irish business owners won. A dark cloud moved over Chavez Ravine that, some say, haunt the Dodgers to this day.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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