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How the Titanic Almost Sank Hershey

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In 1894, Milton Snavely Hershey founded the Hershey Company. It wasn’t his first foray into the candy field, but you might be able to guess that it was his most successful.

In 1905, the company opened a factory that could mass produce chocolate, allowing Milton and his employees to market and supply their tasty wares nationally.

By 1907, the Hershey Company had so many employees that an entire town was needed to house them all. The result, Hershey Park, included a swimming pool, a ballroom and even rides. It quickly became a tourist destination.

By 1911, the Hersheys were rich enough that they decided to spend the winter in Nice. Figuring they might as well enjoy themselves when they headed back home to deal with business in April, Hershey put a $300 deposit down on a luxurious return trip: a stateroom on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. The first-class accommodations the Hersheys were planning on rivaled some of the finest hotel rooms in the world. The $3,000-$4,000 suite included a sitting room, a couple of bedrooms, dressing rooms, a private deck and a private bathroom. Some even had fireplaces.

Most stories say that Mrs. Hershey fell ill a few weeks before they were scheduled to come home, forcing them to make different travel arrangements. One version of the tale tells that a crisis at the plant caused Milton to head back home more than a week early. The company simply states that Hershey “[Found] it necessary to return earlier.”

No matter the reason, instead of stepping foot on the fated ship, the chocolate magnate and his wife sailed out on a German luxury liner called Amerika instead. They arrived home several days before the Titanic met its iceberg doom. In a strange coincidence, as the Amerika made its way back across the ocean, it sent a message to the Titanic, warning of large obstructions in the very area where the ship eventually went down.

Hershey wasn’t the only VIP who decided not to sail. J.P. Morgan also had a room booked and canceled at the last minute, as did Mr. and Mrs. Henry Clay Frick and George Vanderbilt II. Morgan had some last-minute business to attend to; Mrs. Frick injured her ankle; Vanderbilt supposedly refused to go based on a premonition his wife had. The premonition failed to save their luggage and their driver, Fred Wheeler, both of which perished in the crash.

Deposit photo by Chris Knight

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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