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Amazon / ThinkGeek
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11 Fantastic Gifts for Geeky Grads

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Amazon / ThinkGeek

Have a loved one who recently graduated high school, college, grad school, or a secret wizarding academy? Show your support with just the right gift.

1. OWL TAPESTRY; $34

No college dorm room is complete without a tapestry. Skip the usual kaleidoscopic designs and opt for something unique; Society6 has a whole slew of options, including this lovely bunch of owls. 

Find it: Society6

2. BEETLEJUICE HANDBOOK FOR THE RECENTLY DECEASED; $15

In Tim Burton's world, dearly departed characters can get a sense of what to expect from the afterlife with the help of the Handbook for the Recently Deceased. Give the notebook version of the book to your grad and he or she can fill in whatever tips might be helpful.

Find it: ThinkGeek

3. GHOSTBUSTERS PLAYING CARDS; $10

Help your favorite grad pass the time between cram sessions with Albino Dragon's officially licensed Ghostbusters playing cards, which are decked out with original illustrations. Each face card has a different character from the classic ‘80s comedy, including Slimer, Peter Venkman, and Winston Zeddemore.

Find it: Amazon

4. BB-8 DESK LAMP; $30

All-nighters can be conducted under the soft glow of a BB-8 lamp, minus the concentration-breaking sound effects. The lamp comes in two sizes: 25.5 inches or 16 inches tall.

Find it: ThinkGeek

5. EXPLODING KITTENS; $20

Exploding Kittens is a popular card game for anyone who likes cats, explosions, and The Oatmeal website. The party game comes with 56 illustrated cards and allows for up to five players (or up to nine with the expansion pack). As the most-backed Kickstarter project of all time, it's practically guaranteed to be fun. 

Find it: Amazon

6. LOMOGRAPHY INSTANT CAMERA; $137

This retro camera lets users takes instant photos while feeling like an old-timey newspaper photographer—or Peter Parker. It comes with a flash, a close-up lens attachment, and two shutter speeds.

Find itAmazon

7. SCHRÖDINGER'S CAT PLUSH; $19

Is this cat pillow dead or alive? You won't know until you cuddle up with it. One side features a happy, living cat while the other side depicts a ... well, you can figure out the rest. 

Find it: ThinkGeek

8. UNICORN ONESIE; $25 - $28

This blue kigurumi lets the wearer pretend to be a unicorn while being super comfortable. It's perfect for lounging around the dorm or a new apartment. 

Find it: Amazon

9. THE LORD OF THE RINGS DOORMAT; $30

A doormat that features a warning from Gandalf may not be the most welcoming item to put outside your front door, but at least it'll keep out the Balrog.

Find it: Amazon

10. DOCTOR WHO STEIN; $40

This officially licensed stein is the perfect container for throwing back all kinds of interdimensional drinks. It has a lid and enough room for 50 ounces of liquid.

Find it: Amazon

11. STAR WARS TOTE BAG; $70

Whether your grad is with the Rebels or the Empire, this bag has the right patches on either side to match his or her current alliance. The twill and faux leather tote has a document pocket on the Imperial side that closes with a magnetic snap. There's also an interior pocket with a zipped pouch for transporting important memory drives across the galaxy.

Find it: ThinkGeek

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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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