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DeviantART member billy-008

9 Cute and Clever Snowmen

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DeviantART member billy-008

Now that we've reached the end of February, it's time to round up our favorite snowmen of the season before we bid them goodbye. Oh, we won't miss the cold weather at all, but it's nice to have the photographs of clever snow sculptures – after all, in August when we're sweltering under the sun, we can pull these up and admire them again!  

1. Snow Goon

Well, that's what happens when you live near a nuclear reactor. Redditor IrishmanErrant works at MURR (The University of Missouri Research reactor). He and a friend built this snowman. Or is it snowmen?

2. The Sikhest Snowman

Somewhere in England, this work of art emerged from the snow this winter. The Sikh dress and accessory details are right, but seeing a snowman with arms bared to show off his muscles makes me feel just a little cold.

3. The Snowdog and Model

Photo credit: Flickr user Ferlinka Borzoi (Deb West).

Snowmen don't really have to be men – or even human! Mychtar the borzoi (also known as the Russian wolfhound) posed with the snow sculpture made in his likeness. This photograph became the family's Christmas card that year.

4. Lego Minifig

This giant minifig snowman was built in Denmark, the home of the Lego Group. Yes, minifigs are normally yellow, but yellow snow tends to turn people off.

5. Dead Hand Snowman

DeviantART member billy-008 and a friend spent five hours building this snow replica of the character Dead Hand from the Zelda game "The Ocarina of Time." Lucky that he got a good photograph, as someone came along shortly afterward and kicked its head off. The nerve of some people!

6. Snowman Workout

Yes, he lifts, but he really should work on those legs. And maybe give up smoking.

7. Phone Booth Snowman

Surprise! There are still public phone booths in some places. And when one rings, you are still bound to answer it. Even if you are a snowman.

8. Snow Skull

Snow as an art medium can be made to express almost anything, until your fingers freeze off trying to finish the project. I love the gold tooth in this snow skull that probably started out as a Christmas tree ornament.

9. Phoenix Snowman

Phoenix, Arizona, got a bit of a snowfall last week. That's a bit unusual, and Charlotte Shaff documented the appearance of an actual made-from-snow Arizona snowman, as small as he is. Notice it isn't even cold enough to wear a coat!  

See more snowmen in the previous posts 11 Geeky Snow Creations We Love and 15 Snowmen You Wish You'd Made

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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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