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Weekend Links: The Spookiest Places On Earth

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What were your favorite literary characters intended to look like? Casting directors will have their own ideas that sometimes do (and many times don't) add up with what we imagined in our minds. But what did the authors intend? "The Composites" takes literary descriptions and plugs them into law enforcement software to get an idea of the faces as described. Very weird and definitely in the uncanny valley!
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It may not be near Halloween, but it is dark and wintry, and a good time to snuggle up reading about the 10 Most Terrifying Places on Earth (eeeek!)
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For my fellow weather nerds (or anybody looking to get the most accurate forecasts), Slate did a thoughtful piece on one of my favorite sites, Weather Underground, and how they have built the most comprehensive "micro" weather site in America. (Side note: I used the Readability link because I LOVE Readability - it's free and amazing for browsing news!)
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Nostalgia time: here are 48 pictures from the 90s that perfectly capture the decade. Big thanks to my friend Ryan for these, who said "My favorite is probably Madonna, Sting and 2pac at dinner together." For me it's probably the Lisa Frank shout out. Maybe JTT.
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Or, going back even further, how about a look at skateboarding in New York in the 1960s? I give people grief for having selective amnesia about the "good times" in the past, but this really does look like a pretty good time all around.
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This video of a historic bridge being demolished in mere seconds is cool … and then a little sad. For all of the planning and work and struggle that goes into building a bridge, it's astonishing how quickly it can be turned to dust!
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So … what exactly happens to the Coke in Coca-Cola? (And as a side-note, the beverage was invented by Dr. Pemberton in my hometown of Columbus, Georgia, not Atlanta! Though Dr. Pemberton did move there and that's when it really took off. It's a point of pride for Columbus, I can't just let it slip!)
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From the Department of Procrastination: strange physics-based interactive objects to play around with - you can click "random" at the top bar for more!
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For those of you who have watched multiple HBO shows (or in my case … all of them …) you'll probably notice quite a few familiar faces. You can thank the "HBO Recycling Program" (in the form of a handy interactive chart) for that - or some very smart casting directors who know how to hang on to talent! And completely unintentionally, I seem to have brought things full circle.
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Stay tuned - more links tomorrow! In the meantime, send your submissions to FlossyLinks@gmail.com

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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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