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Paul Conradt

Andrew Carnegie

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Paul Conradt

For years, every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. From garden-like expanses to overgrown boot hills, whether they’re the final resting places of the well-known but not that important or the important but not that well-known, I love them all. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles (cemetery and/or tombstone enthusiasts) out there, I’m finally putting my archive of interesting tombstones to good use. See all the Grave Sightings posts here.

For a guy worth about $310 billion, Andrew Carnegie’s grave is pretty modest—but that’s fitting for the man who gave away the vast majority of his fortune while he was still alive.

A (very) quick overview of Carnegie’s storied life: Born in Scotland in 1835, Andrew and his very poor family moved to the U.S. in 1848 and settled in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. His family’s poverty stuck with him, and he vowed to help others when he was in the position to do so. “It was burnt into my heart then that my father had to beg for work,” Carnegie later wrote, “and then and there came the resolve that I would cure that when I got to be a man."

Library of Congress

He made good on that promise, or at least tried. After a bunch of small odd jobs—changing spools of thread in a cotton mill, serving as a telegraph messenger boy—young Andrew began rising through the ranks of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company and made a series of good investment decisions, including establishing a steel mill. He opened his own steel plant in 1875 and continued to grow his businesses and holdings over the next 26 years. In 1901, he sold Carnegie Steel for an absolutely unprecedented $480 million, making him (at the time) the richest man in the world. But he didn’t believe in keeping that money, and in fact wrote “The Gospel of Wealth” that explained his beliefs on how wealthy people could and should use their fortunes for the betterment of society.

Among other things, Carnegie’s money built 2509 libraries worldwide, founded or established large trusts at several universities, constructed Carnegie Hall in New York, funded 7000 church organs, and started a $10 million pension fund for teachers. Which is not to say that Carnegie didn’t have his faults. According to various accounts, he was needlessly cruel to people, valued efficiency over the safety of his steelworkers, and authorized Henry Frick to do whatever was necessary to squelch a labor strike at one of his mills in 1892. Nine workers ended up being killed by Pinkerton agents.

Paul Conradt

Joseph Wall, one of Carnegie’s biographers, theorized that "Maybe with the giving away of his money, he would justify what he had done to get that money." And he certainly did give it away. By the time Andrew Carnegie passed away from complications from pneumonia at the age of 83 in 1919, he had given away about 90 percent of the wealth he had amassed over the years. His headstone at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York, is made of stone from Skibo Castle, Carnegie’s home in Scotland.

See all the Grave Sightings posts here.

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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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