Original image

How To: Not Buy Land In the Yukon

Original image

Step 1: Use a Cereal Company as Your Realtor
Back in the Golden Days of Radio, the Quaker Oats Company sponsored a program called "The Challenge of the Yukon." Essentially the sort of story that Dudley Do-Right would later be created to mock, "Challenge" revolved around the adventures of a brave and true Mountie and his thematically named dog, Yukon King. But, with the advent of television, ratings for the show began to slump. Hoping a change of venue would do a world of good, Quaker ponied up the cash to transfer the show to TV. Along the way, they decided that they needed a way to make kids care about the Klondike again. Their solution: Pint-size plots of real estate.

Step 2: Stake Your (Square Inch) Claim

In 1954, Quaker executives decided that the best way to drum up press for "Challenge of the Yukon" would be to actually give away bits of said Yukon to cereal customers. Certainly a far better prize than your average cheap, plastic thingamabob, deeds to square-inch tracts of Yukon Territory land could be found in every box of Quaker puffed rice and puffed wheat cereals. The company actually sent a contingent of be-suited execs up to Canada to buy a 19-acre plot of moose pasture. (Along the way, one of the businessmen reportedly got frostbite.) Quaker divvied the land up and, because binding deeds would have been too much of a pain for the Canadian government to deal with, printed up pseudo-deeds in the name of the Klondike Big Inch Land Company.

Step 3: Fall Behind On Your Payments

The promotion, and subsequently the show, was a major hit. Hundreds of thousands of boxes of cereal flew off the shelves and children across America became land-owners. However, once the campaign ended, it became clear that nobody knew what to do with the land. Sure, plenty of kids wrote to Quaker asking about making improvements (one reportedly even sent a toothpick fence he wanted erected around his portion), but there's really not a lot you can do with a square inch—even the person who managed to amass 10,000 shares still had much less than an acre. Eventually, Quaker just stopped paying the taxes on the land and the Canadian government sold all 19 acres for a little more than the equivalent of $251. By contrast, the current collector's price for a Big Inch Land Company deed is somewhere around $50.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
Original image
Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]