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It’s Cherry Blossom Time!

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No matter how hard you are working, or how rushed you are, you need to take just a few minutes today to go outside and look at the cherry trees. If you’ve looked and cannot find any cherry trees where you are, feast your eyes on the beautiful pictures of blooming cherries from the far corners of the world.

Photograph by Miya.m.

In Japan, the arrival of cherry blossoms begins in February in Okinawa and spreads north to Hokkaido by May. The blossoming of sakura is tracked nationwide the way the U.S. tracks peak fall colors. The tradition of hanami, or “flower viewing” often includes picnics and festivals to welcome spring.

Photograph by Mike Powell and Jeurgen Horn.

Jeurgen Horn and Mike Powell, travel bloggers who are living in Tokyo temporarily, are excited about the sakura, or cherry blossoms. Parks, paths, cemeteries, river banks, and anywhere a tree can grow you’ll see beautiful delicate flowers. It’s a signal for everyone in Tokyo to get out and enjoy the nice spring weather -and take pictures of the beauty!

Photograph by Mike Powell and Jeurgen Horn.

For a short period at the beginning of April, the word “sakura” was a prominent noun in approximately 75% of the sentences I heard. Because when Tokyo’s cherry trees bloom, there’s no talking about anything else. You’re either chatting about the blossoms, planning your picnic in the park, sitting in a rowboat on a pond ringed by cherry trees, or strolling along a path while the petals flutter to the ground around you like the sweetest, most fragrant snowfall imaginable. In any case, “sakura” is the topic of conversation.

Photograph by Mike Powell and Jeurgen Horn.

The trees of Tokyo even look awesome lit up at night. You can see videos and many more pictures at For 91 Days.

When you think of cherry trees in America, you probably think about the beautiful trees planted along the Tidal Basin in Washington D.C. The National Park Service has declared that they have reached their peak bloom today, but they will continue to look glorious for the next few days. If you can get to Washington this weekend, you’re in for a real treat.

In 1885, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore returned from a visit to Japan and tried to convince officials in Washington that there should be cherry trees in the nation’s capital. Her plan got nowhere at first, but she kept it up for decades. Dr. David Fairchild planted cherry trees on his own property near Washington as an experiment, and also gave away tree seedlings. By 1909, First Lady Helen Taft was open to the idea of planting cherry trees along the roadway, and initiated the first plantings. Japanese consul Mr. Midzuno heard about the plan and offered 2,000 trees as a gift from the city of Tokyo. The first trees that arrived in 1910 were infested and had to be destroyed. Officials from both nations were embarrassed, but the mayor of Tokyo, Yukio Ozaki, was determined to make it right, and sent over 3,000 new trees to Washington. They were planted in the spring of 1912. Over the years, more cherry trees have been added for genetic diversity, but branches from the original 1912 planting are still being grafted and propagated.

Photograph by Estoymuybueno.

The National Cherry Blossom Festival continues through this Sunday in Washington. The Japanese Street Festival is Saturday as well as the National Cherry Blossom Parade and other events.

Photograph by Flickr user myllissa.

Another cherry blossom festival is happening now in Jinhae, South Korea. The town on the southern coast is estimated to have 340,000 cherry trees, the largest number in one city on earth! The Jinhae Gunhangje Festival concludes today.

Here is where I was going to put a picture of my own lone cherry tree, but it’s not fully bloomed yet, and I cannot find a picture from previous years. Oh, I know I have some, but my files are bulging with uncategorized pictures, just like a set of shoeboxes full of prints. So instead, I’ll just go outside and enjoy the spring flowers.

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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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