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The Time Winston Churchill Went Skinny-Dipping With a Shark

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AFP/Getty Images

In the winter of 1941-42, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill embarked on a diplomatic mission to North America, which included a widely-acclaimed address given to the U.S. Congress on December 26. But as Churchill’s lengthy visit wore on, he grew understandably exhausted and decided a break was in order. Looking to get away from it all, the “British Bulldog” flew down to a private villa in Palm Beach, Florida that January for a brief vacation, during which a very strange incident occurred.

Shortly after his arrival, Churchill chose to go for a swim in the Atlantic Ocean ... after adamantly refusing to put on a pair of swim trunks. According to one witness, he looked “like a huge, well-adjusted, and slightly over-bottled baby.” Though no civilians were in sight, longtime bodyguard Walter Thompson begged Churchill to reconsider, saying “You could be seen through [spyglasses], sir.” “If they are that much interested,” the Prime Minister replied, “it is their own fault what they see.” 

Suddenly, a large shark began lurking dangerously close to the world’s most powerful skinny-dipper, to the alarm of Churchill’s companions. “They said it was only a ground shark"—actually a very diverse group, only some species of which are dangerous to humans (for more info, head here)—"but I was not wholly reassured," he recalled years later. “It is as bad to be eaten by a ground shark as by any other. So I stayed in the shallows from then on.” 

The big fish eventually wandered off, at which point Churchill boasted, “My bulk has frightened him into deeper water!”

Years later, Parliament held a discussion about the development of artificial "shark repellents" (which sadly didn't involve Adam West's Batman). Possibly remembering his experience in Florida, Churchill declared, “You may rest assured that the British government is entirely opposed to sharks.”

Primary photo courtesy of Vintage Everyday.

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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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