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Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

Recreating a 1900-Year-Old Glass Fish

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Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

In Begram, Afghanistan, a storeroom was found containing 180 ancient glass vessels. Archeologists date the collection to around 100 AD, due to similarities with Roman glass work of that time. But some of the pieces in the Begram collection are very odd, most notably a series of glass animals clearly produced by glassblowing (in which an artisan blows air through a tube into a blob of glass, inflating it), which was a brand new technique at the time. From the British Museum Blog:

However, some of the vessels found at Begram remain something of a mystery and these include as many as twenty-two which are in the shape of fish and other creatures. Three of these are shown in the exhibition. They were made by inflating the glass while it was hot and adding trails of glass to the body, and sometimes in a different colour, to create very distinctive fins. The composition of the glass resembles that of Roman glass made in Egypt yet there are no known parallels, either complete or fragmentary, for these vessels from the Roman world. ...

... the implication of the fish-shaped vessels from Begram is that some was fashioned into glass vessels by someone who had picked up the basics of glass-blowing and set up shop in a world where this was a complete novelty. It is not difficult to see how even the cheapest and most mass-produced types of Roman glassware were given exorbitant prices in places like India or Afghanistan in the first century but imagine the response when someone says they can make a vessel that looks like a fish, is unknown even in Rome and, to cap it all, rests perfectly on a table as its fins act as supports.

In other words, we can imagine that an enterprising glassblower picked up the basics of the technique in the Roman world, hit the road, and made some awesome fish in Afghanistan. 1,900 years later in 2011, the British Museum put them on display.

Glassblowing is a special form of art, requiring lots of practice, speed, confidence, and a really hot furnace (not to mention plenty of spare glass in various colors and a variety of hand tools). I have only personally seen glassblowers at work at Blenko, the famous West Virginia glass company (indeed, as I write this I'm drinking water from a blue Blenko pinch glass). Watching the video below, I recognize all of these techniques. It's just wild to think that some of the earliest blown-glass pieces ever created have managed to survive nearly two millennia.

In this video, Bill Gudenrath of the Corning Museum of Glass makes a rough replica of the Begram fish using modern glassblowing techniques, to demonstrate how a modern glassblower would make this kind of piece. While it's not all that difficult for a skilled glassblower today, imagine pulling this off 1,900 years ago -- and what you could charge for this kind of work.

Read a bit more from the British Museum Blog for the full story.

(Via The Kid Should See This.)

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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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May 23, 2017
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