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Erin McCarthy

These Days, Libraries Are About More Than Just Books

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Erin McCarthy

Most sessions at SXSW go like this: You go to a room in a hotel and find a seat in a conference room, where someone speaks for 45 or so minutes while you dutifully take notes; this is followed by a 15 minute Q&A session. But it was immediately clear when I arrived for Libraries: The Ultimate Playground that this was not how this particular session would be unfolding. The room was set up with a few stations where the crowd—librarians, lovers of libraries, and more—could talk about the challenges facing libraries and what they’re doing to be about more than just books. There were chips and beer, poster board displays, and an actual sandbox. Within two seconds of sitting down, I was bopped on the head by a playground ball (which brought back a lot of elementary school memories…but that’s a post for another time). Obviously, I would not be taking notes during this particular hour. Instead, I left my laptop in my bag, circulated between stations, and learned all about two creative ways libraries are diversifying.

Embracing the Maker Movement

According to Tina Coleman of the American Library Association, making is something libraries have been doing for years with their teen crafts and scrapbooking circles—they just didn't realize it. "That all falls within the make rubric, so a lot of libraries are starting to realize that they can use that as a way to expand into bigger things like robotics or partnering with their local maker or hacker spaces," Coleman says. "Maker spaces are starting to show up inside libraries, and [libraries are] building relationships with maker communities." Chicago Public, for example, has a space where people can engage in digital making, using equipment to craft mix tapes or using software to record their own music or edit a video.

Other libraries are looking into how they can use 3D printers in maker spaces and to help communities. "They’re exploring the options of doing things like, you know, 'I broke this piece of my bed, and it’s going to cost me $40 if I order it online. Can I just print it because somebody already did the work of creating a file?'" Coleman says. "That's the kind of thing [libraries are thinking about]: Pop down to your library, print something out. Sort of like the old photocopier system that all of us probably remember." Other things some libraries are looking into having in their maker spaces: soldering stations, laser etching and cutting, and more. "I think it’s really going to depend a lot on what each library finds out that their community cares about," Coleman says.

Crossing the Digital Divide

Rural areas face many challenges, including limited access to wifi. Enter the Library Box, a project by Jason Griffey, Head of Library IT at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. This portable, private digital distribution system is a router that connects to a battery pack, and acts as a self-contained webserver. "Basically, it’s closed circuit," says Cindy Fisher of the University of Texas at Austin Libraries. "He did it so that when you’re in a space where you don’t have wifi but you have files that people need to be able to download, [you can use this]. You can't, as a user, upload to it on the fly, but it's got a USB card so [librarians] can take it out and load [information] on here, so users can download ebooks, music, a web archive, web pages, video, all that stuff."

The materials needed to create a Library Box cost just $40, and the code is all open source. During SXSW, the devices were deployed on pedicabs, so riders, using nothing but their smart phones, could download books as they traveled to their destinations. "We were like, 'These could totally go on pedicabs along with books to show that libraries are both digital and physical!'" Fisher says.

These Library Boxes aren't just good for areas that lack wifi; Fisher thinks that it also has applications for travelers going to conferences. "Let’s say that you’re going to a conference and you have a lot of stuff that you want people to be able to download, but you know that the wifi network is just not going to be as fast as you want it to be," she says. "This is super fast because it’s a direct connection. [Library Boxes] take the availability and speed of the internet and close it off a little bit [so people can] curate it and make it accessible [to the people who need it]."

Learn more about how the Library Box works by watching the video below:

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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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