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Every Item in Nickelodeon's 1992 Time Capsule

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In 1992, Nickelodeon got together with the Kids World Council (also known as "minors who were allowed to call in and vote") to decide what was most important to kids at the time. Then they assembled those items, put them in a big orange time capsule, and buried it in front of Nickelodeon Studios in Universal Studios. Here's a list of everything inside:

1. Movies

Home Alone and Back to the Future on VHS.

2. CDs

Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em by MC Hammer and Michael Jackson's Dangerous album.

3. A Nintendo Game Boy

Image credit: William Warby/Wikimedia Commons

4. Rollerblades

5. Reebok Pump sneakers

6. A jar of Gak

At the request of a remarkably sub-par Dr. Emmett Brown impersonator, who showed up in a real DeLorean and fake hair.

7. One of Joey Lawrence's "Whoa! 92" hats, which he stopped by to present

8. News reports

Girl standing atop Soviet tank in Red Square during the Communist hard liners’ coup attempt in August 1991. © David Turnley/CORBIS

Coverage of the AIDS crisis, Desert Storm, and the end of the Soviet Union.

9. Books

A world atlas, history book, comic book, phone book, the Orlando TV Guide for the week of April 30, 1992, and a copy of the Book of Endangered Species

10. An issue of Nickelodeon magazine

11. A Nicktoons t-shirt featuring Ren & Stimpy

12. A piece of the Berlin Wall

13. A Barbie doll (not this one)

14. Pencils

15. A skateboard

16. A baseball

17. Twinkies

Image credit: Flickr user WaffleWhiffer

18. A stick of bubble gum (though no one seems to know which kind)

19. Photos of things too big (or alive) to fit inside

Including bicycles, planes, trains, cars, politicians and celebrities.

20. A videotape

Which was a recording of the live ceremony, shot by a girl named Vicky who stood onstage to operate the Kid Cam.

21. The camera recording the tape

This appears to have been unplanned. Mike O'Malley and Joey Lawrence both looked baffled about how to remove the tape from the camera, so the whole setup was tossed in at the last minute.

Image credit: UmmYeahOk/FlowerMound.net

After Nickelodeon Studios closed in 2005, the time capsule was moved to Nickelodeon Suites Resort in Orlando. It will be removed and opened April 30, 2042 -- 50 years after it was first buried. We promise full team coverage that day.

And of course someone has uploaded footage of all this to YouTube:

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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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