Original image

Leonard Stringfield, Ufologist

Original image

How to spot a UFO from the ground: Look up. Do you see something that you cannot identify? You have spotted a UFO. Leonard Stringfield did a little better than that. Back in his Air Force days, he was a passenger on a cargo plane flying from Ie Shima to Tokyo on official business when he looked out of the window and saw something he could not identify. Several somethings. Several “brilliantly white, like burning magnesium” somethings.

“I remember looking out through one of the portholes,” he wrote, “and to my surprise, seeing three unidentifiable blobs of brilliant white light, each about the size of a dime held at arm’s length.” Leonard Stringfield had spotted a whole squadron of UFOs. If that wasn’t enough, the UFOs (presumably) caused the plane’s instrument needles to move like wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube men. Then the cargo plane’s engines faltered, and it started losing altitude. But when the pilots ordered everyone to prepare to bail, the UFOs ascended into the clouds. The plane recovered, the instruments settled down, and everyone survived. 

Stringfield discounts theories that the UFOs were some kind of secret new aircraft. “No nation, in defeat or in victory, in my opinion, would have been so foolhardy as to use a secret weapon during the delicate period of surrender.” He concluded that the objects “could not have possibly been earthmade.” It’s probably a coincidence that space aliens might have been interested in humanity’s first offensive use of atomic weaponry. (Hiroshima and Nagasaki had only just been bombed three weeks before.) But maybe the aliens were a scouting party. I don’t know. What I do know is that Leonard Stringfield didn’t let this thing go. Not after he received word a few years later of strange bodies recovered from suspicious wreckage in a tiny town in New Mexico. 

He started a newsletter called ORBIT where he could get the word out and maybe collect a few stories. His modest plans changed when a major radio broadcast mentioned his work. “Twenty-four hours later—with the first impact of mail—the life of Leonard H. Stringfield was changed! What had been a simple pursuit erupted into the brute of big business. I ate my dinner at the telephone and entertained guests while I typed. Bookkeeping nearly replaced romance, and my only rest was in the sanctum of the bathroom.”

Six thousand letters had suddenly poured in, and ORBIT went big. Even the Air Force wanted a part of it. Stringfield’s first book, Inside Saucer Post, 3-0 Blue [PDF], details his cooperation with the Air Defense Command, in which he was to report any sightings that might warrant the military’s attention. He notes in the book that his house was designated a “UFO reporting post” (its codename was 3-0 Blue) and his telephone line was made secure. (The Air Force would later disavow the partnership, though Major General John Samford, director of the National Security Agency, wrote Stringfield thanking him for “the interest which you and your organization, as well as others, have taken in the Unidentified Flying Object program... A continuation of this assistance is indeed welcome.”) 

The thing about Leonard Stringfield is that he wasn’t some kook living in an RV with the windows covered in tin foil. He was systematic and did sober, serious investigations and built an impressively detailed database of unexplained sightings. He was instrumental in forming a community of UFO observers and in establishing and keeping honest the organizations that formed around the phenomenon. Among the associations of which Stringfield was a part: Civilian Research, Interplanetary Flying Objects (CRIFO, which he founded); National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP, which is still around); the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON, which is of course still active as any fan of the X-Files can attest); Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS); and the University of Colorado UFO Project.

He died in 1994 of lung cancer. In 2012, his 60 volumes of papers were donated to MUFON, which is now in the process of digitizing them. If the mystery of UFOs is ever solved, we can thank Leonard Stringfield for his hard work. If it isn’t solved, we can’t say he didn’t try.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
Original image