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10 Things You Might Not Know About the Nobel Prize

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There's no red carpet or twerking involved, but it's an exciting time: Nobel Prizes are being announced this week. Who knows? Maybe you almost won.

1. The story goes that Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, was inspired to establish his awards in 1864 after a French newspaper mistakenly ran his obituary, entitled "The merchant of death is dead." Nobel didn't want that to be his legacy. (Whose obituary was supposed to run that day? Nobel's younger brother Emil, who died while experimenting with nitroglycerine in their father's factory.)

The Nobel Prizes are awarded December 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel's actual death. In 1896, he died of a stroke at the age of 63.

2. The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo and presented by the Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, while the other Nobel Prizes are awarded in Stockholm and presented by the King of Sweden. Why? Because Nobel planned it all out in his will:

The prizes for physics and chemistry shall be awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences; that for physiological or medical works by the Caroline Institute in Stockholm; that for literature by the Academy in Stockholm; and that for champions of peace by a committee of five persons to be elected by the Norwegian Storting.

3. Notice that Nobel didn't mention economics? That's because the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences is not a Nobel Prize. It's technically the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. Sweden's central bank created the endowment in 1968.

4. Nobel Prize winners take home a diploma, a gold medal, and some cold, hard cash. Last year's winners were awarded $1.1 million. But being a Nobel laureate? Priceless.

5. Organizations can win the Nobel Peace Prize, but only individuals can be nominated for the others.

6. Well, sometimes the prize is shared, but never by more than three people. (For teams larger than three, the committee will choose who gets left out. Ouch!) If two people win, the money is equally split. If three people win, the awarding committee chooses how to divide the prize.

7. Nobel Prize nomination records are kept sealed for 50 years after the award is given. Winners don't know they're nominated until they win. So go ahead, assume you almost won the Nobel Prize.

8. All kidding aside, there's one group that will never be nominated: the deceased. There are no posthumous nominations, which means that Eleanor Roosevelt, James Joyce, and Mahatma Gandhi will never enjoy their time in the Nobel spotlight. Gandhi was so close to winning—he'd been nominated a number of times and had just been nominated a third time days before his 1948 assassination. Geir Lundestad, director of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, called Gandhi's absence, "The greatest omission in our 106-year history."

One small comfort: If you're awarded the Nobel Prize but die before the December 10 ceremony, you're still a winner.

9. Nobel originally intended to give awards for contributions made during the preceding year. But that occasionally meant honoring ideas that weren't actually proven. Like Johannes Fibiger's 1926 discovery that parasitic worms cause cancer. (Uh, they don't.) Now most scientific discoveries and innovations are honored after they've stood the test of time. Let's hope that if they do, you're still alive.

10. Nobel laureates are required to give a public lecture within six months of accepting their award. Most of them fulfill the obligation during Nobel Week in Stockholm. Then, at the end of the week, they get to party. The Nobel banquet includes live music, a three-course dinner, dancing, and a strict dress code. Men must wear "a black tailcoat with silk facings, sharply cut away at the front, black trousers with two rows of braid down each leg, white stiff-fronted shirt, white stiff wing collar attached to the shirt with collar studs, white bowtie, white low-cut waistcoat, black dress socks and black formal shoes." Women have it a little easier—with no restrictions on the color or design of their evening gowns. Long gloves and a shawl are optional.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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