CLOSE
Original image
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Mysterious Life and Death of Kaspar Hauser

Original image
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On May 26, 1828, the citizens of Nürnberg (Nuremburg), Germany, received quite a surprise when they found a teenage boy wandering around town, alone and mumbling nonsense. At first, he wouldn’t say much—only that his father was once a cavalry officer, and he wished to be as well.

During a visit to the local police station, the boy wrote his name—Kaspar Hauser—and, over time, was able to explain a little bit about where he came from. He had been held alone in a cell for an unknown amount of time by an unknown person. The captor provided Hauser with bread, water, a wool blanket, and toys: two wooden horses and a dog. Local schoolmaster Georg Daumer took Hauser in and worked with him on various subjects, such as reading, writing, and drawing—the latter of which Hauser showed a natural talent for.

The boy had been in town for a year and a half when his story managed to get even stranger: He was supposedly attacked in Daumer’s home. He claimed the man who had once held him captive returned and slashed him with a razor, saying, “You still have to die ere you leave the city of Nuremburg.” Several months later, Hauser was shot by a pistol that he accidentally discharged. Both incidents happened to come after he had been accused of lying, leading some to believe that he was harming himself on purpose to generate sympathy.

The final incident occurred on December 14, 1833, when Kaspar returned home with a serious chest wound. He said that a stranger had given him a bag, stabbed him in the chest, and fled. The bag contained a note written in mirror writing:

Wikimedia Commons // Onkel X // Public Domain

Translation:
Hauser will be
able to tell you quite precisely how
I look and from where I am.
To save Hauser the effort,
I want to tell you myself from where
I come. _ _.
I come from from _ _ _
the Bavarian border _ _
On the river _ _ _ _ _
I will even
tell you the name: M. L. Ö.)

Hauser died from the stab wound three days later. As with the earlier wounds, people believed the wound may have been self-inflicted, and that Hauser had punctured deeper than he had intended. He may have also written the strange note himself—it was folded in a peculiar triangular shape Hauser was known to use, and the writing itself contained spelling and grammatical errors he commonly made in his own writing.

To this day, Kaspar Hauser’s origins remain a total mystery, though one theory has been debunked: Some speculated that Hauser was the lost hereditary prince of Baden. The real prince, son of Charles, Grand Duke of Baden and Stephanie de Beauharnais, supposedly died in 1812 when he was not quite three weeks old. The theory was that the Countess of Hochberg had the boy hidden away so her own sons could ascend to the throne instead. In 1996, a Hauser blood sample was compared to samples from Baden family descendants. The samples did not match, disproving the “lost prince” theory.

The epitaph on Kaspar’s tombstone in Ansbach, Germany, pretty much sums up his strange, short life: “Here lies Kaspar Hauser, enigma of his time … mysterious his death.”

Wikimedia Commons // Michael Zaschka // Public Domain 
Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
quiz
arrow
Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
Original image
SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES