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Iowa's Hobo Convention

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Thinkstock

If you want to learn about someplace, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home.

This week we’re heading to the Midwest to prove that there’s more than corn in Iowa.

National Hobo Convention and Museum

Hobos—transient workers known for hitching illegal rides on freight trains—got their start in the mid-1800s, just as the railroad became a powerful form of mass transit. At one time, there were thought to be hundreds of thousands of hobos crisscrossing the country, hopping off the train to look for temporary employment at nearly every stop. With so many strangers coming to town, local governments often passed powerful vagrancy laws to keep hobos moving along to the next stop. One night at a hobo “jungle” (campsite) in Ohio, someone hit upon the idea of starting a union, because a person couldn’t be prosecuted for vagrancy if they were carrying a union card. So Tourist Union #63 was founded (so-named because there were 63 hobos around the fire that night), allowing entrance to anyone as long as they paid their dues. In order to collect payments, enlist new members, and form a stronger bond, an annual hobo convention was organized and held in various cities across the country, before settling in Chicago for many years.  Then, in 1899, the railroad town of Britt, Iowa approached the Union and invited them to move the convention to the small town in order to boost the local economy.

Not unlike the Olympics, the National Hobo Convention starts with the ceremonial lighting of a fire. This campfire will remain ablaze throughout the entire second weekend of August as it has for 113 years. During the convention, special events like the hobo parade, a memorial at the hobo cemetery for those who have “caught the Westbound,” meals of Mulligan stew, and the naming of a new Hobo King and Queen—complete with the traditional Folger’s Coffee can crown—give these throwbacks to a bygone era a sense of community that they often miss in their travels. 

In 1949, at one of the the largest conventions ever, an estimated 1800 hobos came to Britt. In 2013, there were more tourists looking to be a part of the festivities than there were guests of honor, a good illustration of the waning days of the hobo lifestyle. So if you’ve ever longed to hear tales of the open road from someone named Oklahoma Slim, Harmonica Spike, or Cinderbox Cindy, you better hop a ride to the 2014 convention.  But if you miss the convention, you can always stop at the Hobo Museum inside the old Chief Theatre in downtown Britt to learn more about hobo history.

See all the entries in our Strange States series 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
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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