CLOSE
Original image

Tuesday Turnip

Original image

It's time for another whimsical Tuesday Turnip search wherein I type a random phrase and we see what kind of interesting factoids "turn-up."

Today I typed in "bottled water facts" unearthing the following information from a whole host of different sites:

  • Bottled water -- a $22-billion industry -- is the fastest growing beverage industry in the world. Close to half of the U.S. population drinks bottled water on a regular basis, despite the fact that it can be up to 1,000 times more expensive than the tap.
  • A bottle that holds 1 liter of water requires 5 liters of water in its manufacturing process
  • Aside from the huge environmental strain, these imported waters are expensive for purchasers. It's estimated that a $1.50 bottle of water costs just $0.22 to produce and deliver, leaving $1.28 per bottle in profits.
  • About one-quarter of U.S. bottled water comes from a municipal water source.
  • The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) conducted a study of 103 brands of bottled water (over 1,000 bottles were tested in all) and found that one-third contained synthetic organic chemicals and bacteria.
  • One sample even contained arsenic levels above state health limits.
  • The NRDC maintains that city tap water is required to undergo more rigorous testing and has higher purity standards than bottled water.
  • City tap water can have no confirmed E.coli or fecal coliform bacteria. FDA bottled water rules include no such prohibition (a certain amount of any type of coliform bacteria is allowed in bottled water).
  • Most cities using surface water have had to test for Cryptosporidium or Giardia, two common water pathogens, that can cause diarrhea and other intestinal problems, yet bottled water companies do not have to do this.
  • The plastic bottles in which bottled water is typically sold are made of plastic polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. The manufacture of these bottles can release phathalates, which have been found to cause birth defects in animals, into the environment.
  • Perrier Vittel-a division of Nestlé S.A., the world's largest food company-is the largest bottled water company in the world. Perrier Vittel serves customers in 140 countries on five continents with more than 70 bottled water brands. Its major competitor, the DANONE Group, whose brands include Evian and Volvic, holds the number two spot worldwide in bottled water.
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