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Missouri’s Hair-Raising Hair Museum

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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 headed to the home of Mark Twain, Harry Truman, and Jesse James—the Show-Me State, Missouri.

When you hear that Independence, Missouri has a hair museum, you’d probably expect to find antique curling irons, display cases full of combs, and any number of photos of the fads and fashions of hairstyles throughout history. But Leila’s Hair Museum isn’t about hairstyles, even if it is curated by Leila Cohoon, the founder of the local cosmetology school. Instead, you’ll find thousands of pieces of art and jewelry made from millions of strands of real human hair.

According to Helen Sheumaker of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and author of Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hairwork in America, the practice of using human hair in art was popular in America from about 1770 until the turn of the 20th century, but its origins go back even further, possibly to the 12th century. Far from a weird or gross artform, collecting the hair of loved ones was seen as a great memento in the days before photography. Many families had large wreaths of hair woven in intricate patterns and delicate motifs, created using techniques that were passed down through generations of women. Some preferred the hair woven into the face of buttons, braided around the band of a ring, woven into dangling earrings, or crushed and mixed with paint to create small brooches called sepias. But there were also bookmarks, cufflinks, hat pins, and even complex, three-dimensional sculptures kept under glass domes for display on the mantel.

At Leila’s Hair Museum, you’ll find more than 600 hair wreaths and over 2000 pieces of hair jewelry, including her oldest piece, a brooch dating back to 1680. She started collecting hairwork in 1956 when she happened upon a hair wreath at an antique store. Her collection grew until she finally moved it to the lobby of her cosmetology school in 1986, and then to its own building in 2005. Aside from admiring the pieces, Leila has learned many of the secrets of this nearly-forgotten art form through reverse-engineering. Today she teaches classes where hair artists can learn 32 of 36 techniques identified in the hair wreaths. She’s still working out the other four, but hopefully she’ll crack them one day. In the meantime, should you ever find yourself in Independence, Missouri, this one-of-a-kind museum is worth a look. 

Have the scoop on an unusual person, place or event in your state?  Tell me about it on Twitter (@spacemonkeyx) and maybe I’ll include it in a future edition of Strange States!    

Peruse the whole Strange States series here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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