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The Missing Links: That Second That Screwed Up the Net

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The Internet Doesn’t Want You To Miss One Single Second
You’ve wasted hundreds, thousands, tens-of-thousands, probably hundreds-of-thousands of precious seconds on the internet (not the time you've spent on mental_floss, of course). So why should the internet care if you want one of those tiny little seconds back?

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Where Do Criminals Disappear To?
When you hear about criminals fleeing the United States to avoid prosecution, you don’t imagine them fleeing to Russia. And guess what -- you’d be right. Only three times has an extradition from Russia to the US happened since 2011. See where people are actually hiding out.

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Germans Love ALF
ALF and 28 other American cultural entities found greater popularity overseas.

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You Never Reach A G-Force of 7 On the Kitchen Floor
This past weekend the X Games made the childhood dreams of countless kids spring brilliantly to life when they built and conquered a 66-foot tall looping Hot Wheels track.

Check out this link for video of the track in action.

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Turn Your Dog Into A Corkscrew
Your hot dog that is. Before your frankfurters hit the grill, make sure you give them a nice spiral cut. This video explains how and why. Although, if your hot dog becomes a good “conversation piece,” you need some new friends at your cookout.

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Long Live the Laughs
In my opinion, comedy films still exist and new ones are being made every year. For one writer, however, the movie comedy is dead. And he spreads the blame for that across SNL, YouTube, Judd Apatow and even Batman.

To prove that comedic films are not a thing of the past, I offer the following tweets from Neil deGrasse Tyson, who went to see the new film Ted - and made an academic pursuit of it:

In other words: as long as you get the placement of the stars in the sky correct, you'll get no argument about the scientific implausibility of a stuffed animal that walks and talks.

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...And Laughs After Death
I personally would like to be cremated. But I do see a lot of comedic value in a tombstone. As some people have proven, there are a lot of funny possibilities. Headstone QR codes offer up an even greater array of possibilities than ever before. Just imagine if people could scan a code on your grave marker and be taken to a YouTube clip of you speaking to them from beyond the grave.

And if you’re not someone with a totally perversely-macabre sense of humor, I suppose you could have the QR code redirect you to something sentimental too.

The possibilities are endless. How would you use yours?

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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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