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Weekend Links: Aerial Photos of the World's Busiest Airport

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I'm almost positive I have posted this link before, but you should be watching it more than once! Be sure you have the HD option selected and are in full-screen mode for this Earth Time Lapse from Space, from a NASA flyover. Look at the storms! So beautiful and amazing.
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What do vinegar and the fainting couch have in common? Per 19th century customs, vinegar was used to revive ladies (like smelling salts) as well as help mask the stench of the putrid streets (I think I would hate the smell of vinegar more, honestly). In fact, there are a ton of vinegar-related customs I had no idea about! I feel a Dietribes coming on ...
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Geeky YouTube Videos Longer Than 10 Hours. If your YouTube video lasts for more than 10 hours, consult a doctor … you may be insane. Does anyone have a record for how long they've let one (or more??) of these play? I think that the ambient engine noise could be good to sleep to … if you wanted to dream you were lost in space.
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Scenes From Above: Atlanta's Massive Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Stunning.
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What makes the moon magnetic? Researchers believe that a massive asteroid, whose impact left a 1,200-mile-wide crater, may explain why parts of the moon's surface have a magnetic field but others don't. I'll admit that I missed that lesson, I think.
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Video game art: The Legend of Zelda expressed in watercolors.
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My law school friends have gotten a kick out of Flossy friend Ethan Wood's video series. Here's my favorite, iHate Law School, Siri, but there are many more great videos in the sidebar so check 'em out!
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Light the smoke. Has anyone ever tried this? Mental_Floss is not responsible if you set yourself or your home on fire!
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A big thanks to everyone who sent in links this week - keep 'em coming! Via raven or pony express or even regular ole email, at 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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