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Hannah Keyser

Behind the Scenes at Pop Chart Lab

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Hannah Keyser

Every week at Pop Chart Lab's downtown Brooklyn office, the staff of 14 —up from just two founders in 2010— sits down for an editorial meeting, where they discuss the next three months of production. And since they try to release a new product every week, there are usually 12 different projects to talk about. If you've seen their stuff, you know these range from beer maps to dog diagrams to cheese charts.

“It’s a combination of stuff that people are interested in and stuff that has a lot of data,” Co-Founder and Editorial Director Patrick Mulligan says of picking new topics to tackle. For the Visual Compendium of Baseball Uniforms, released today, the inspiration came from an earlier hit.

"We did basketball jerseys in May, and it was really successful—one of our most successful releases of the spring," says Marketing Director Rachel Mansfield. And although they already have several different baseball-themed posters in their catalog, it seemed like a natural fit.

Typically, the team tries to establish a format—will it be a visual compendium, a taxonomy, or a map?—along with the topic. But sometimes, figuring out how to present the data is the tricky part. "We’d been trying to do a cocktail chart for a long time and couldn’t figure out a way to do it," Mulligan says. "We had the problem where there are some ingredients that are in everything and some ingredients that are only in some things." Eventually, the team realized that at least in that sense, cocktails are like candy bars, for which they had already designed a poster based around different types of chocolate in the center. "Once we did that we were like, wait a minute, this will work for cocktails. So now it’s become a house style of a chart," Mulligan says. (Meatballs almost got the same treatment but that one never panned out.)

The baseball uniforms chart, like its basketball inspiration, wouldn't be quite so difficult. With the format established, the team dove into research, scouring databases and compiling old photographs, looking for anything iconic or especially weird. For basketball, the chart had included a handful of jerseys worn by fictional teams, but when it came to baseball, they found such an abundance in the Majors, Minors, Independent, and Negro Leagues that they had more than enough historical options to choose from.

Once the list was sufficiently whittled down—121 uniforms in total, dating from 1869 to the current season—illustrators took over. Although colors in the actual jerseys may differ in shade and tonality, for the sake of aesthetic continuity, the team establishes a palate of standardized colors—a single dark red, grey, yellow, etc.

While working on the layout of the poster, the team was inspired by sheets of old baseball cards and went through several different iterations to make their depictions more stylistically similar. It was during this process that pants were added.

Even the title script got a dose of inspiration from baseball memorabilia; it was redrawn based on a vintage game ticket.

With everything laid out in proper homage to America's pastime, the poster looks just about finished, and if you click on over to the site today, you can pre-oder it.

But there's a chance that if you do, the version you receive will be ever so slightly different—for the better. Each Pop Chart Lab poster is released a week before the first batch gets printed, and in that time, fine media organizations such as mental_floss write about it, and fine readers such as yourselves might be inclined to comment if they spot a glaring error or oversight. Pop Chart Lab appreciates their active fan base and so they actively seek out these critiques—and if something seems valid, they'll make a change to reflect that.

For instance, you can't tell now, but when the Fantastical Fictive Beers poster was first released, fans spotted one major omission: Schraderbräu, from Breaking Bad. Enough people clamored for it to be included that the PCL team went back in and added it—and even gave the commenters their due. "We like to tell them, 'Thanks for the feedback, we updated it,'" Mansfield says.

Of course, it's probably not worth it to comment on every missing uniform from the past several centuries of baseball, so unless there's a spelling error, the team can probably wrap the design stage of the Visual Compendium of Baseball Uniforms. But that just means it's on to the next thing for the folks at Pop Chart Lab. Broadway fans in particular should keep an eye out for an upcoming poster and, a personal triumph for the team, there will soon be a wine taxonomy to match their Very, Very Many Varieties of Beer.

"People have done versions of a taxonomy like our beer one with wine, but they do it based on taste, which is sketchy because it’s not quantifiable in any way," Mulligan says of this particularly arduous undertaking. "We found a way to do it based on genetics instead."

He bought a big old book full of wine genetics, and at press time, the information was being distilled into a sprawling chart of grape-colored bubbles.

Hannah Keyser

All photos courtesy of Pop Chart Lab unless otherwise noted.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]