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5 Surprising Things Joel Stein Now Knows About Masculinity

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Joel Stein's new book Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity hit stores yesterday. On Friday, we're going to give away a copy. For now, here are a few things he learned about the world of masculinity while researching the book.

When you put off learning how to be a man for 37 years, a lot of things shock you. Like that real men don’t smile. Or talk. Which made learning from them more difficult. But by watching and listening and focusing on not getting hurt, these are some surprising facts I learned about the world of masculinity.

1. You Cannot Shoot A Turkey You Happen Upon
Part of becoming a man included learning to hunt my own food, but I quickly discovered there’s a hunter’s code you cannot break. It’s considered way beyond bad sportsmanship to kill a turkey you see. That’s not “the game.” The game is to pretend you’re a hot female turkey that wants to have sex with a male turkey by making horny turkey noises and scratching the ground in really slutty ways. It's only when an excited male turkey approaches you for sex that you are then allowed to shoot him in the face. This is far more civil. I am not sure turkeys see it that way.

2. Being Choked Out Doesn’t Involve Choking
While training to go a full round with UFC fighter Randy Couture, I was choked out twice, professionally. I learned that being choked out doesn’t actually involve any choking. Instead, the choker aims to block the chokee’s blood from traveling through the carotid artery, causing the brain to lose oxygen and shut off. This is supposed to be nicer, but I don’t know. Both times, I feigned falling asleep to get out of it. And both times it hurt like hell.

3. The Current Health Care System Doesn’t Work… for Firefighters

During my 24 hours with a house of firefighters in Los Angeles, I only got to go to one fire. And it was at a sushi restaurant. After it closed. Yes, they brought the arson unit in. But mostly they spent all day on ambulance calls. When they take someone to the hospital – and they have to take anyone who calls 911 and asks to go to a hospital no matter how much they actually don’t need to go to a hospital – the firefighters have to wait not only while the person gets checked in, but until they see a doctor. I also learned that firefighters are indeed much better looking than you or me, and I don’t think that’s how we should be selecting our life savers. Restaurant hostesses, sure. People who save our burning homes, no.

4. Lamborghinis Are Hilarious
Part of becoming a man meant driving a Lamborghini Superleggera for three days. Obviously. And what you may not know is a Lamborghini makes anyone who sits in it giggle. Everyone from my three-year old to writer friends couldn’t help giggling when the Lambo took off like a rollercoaster. It’s also the only car - to my knowledge - that comes standard with a fire extinguisher in the back. Though, to increase my manliness, I have now put one in the back of my yellow convertible Mini Cooper, next to the baby seat.

5. The Easiest Way To Get a Break In Boot Camp: Fainting
After less than three hours in army boot camp at Fort Knox, before I had done any physical activity whatsoever, I fainted. Admittedly, it was a Kentucky summer, I had barely slept, people were screaming at me, and no one had told me not to lock my knees. After fainting, however, everyone stopped yelling at me, plus I got to drink a Pedialyte and sit by a refreshing fan. For anyone starting boot camp, I recommend fainting as soon as possible.

Stop by Friday for your chance to win a copy, or order yours right now.

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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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