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What I learned in traffic school

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OK, I admit it: I was bad. I needed to make a left turn at an upcoming intersection, there was a long line of cars stopped ahead of me, but the left turn lane was empty -- and the left turn arrow was green. I went for it -- crossing the double yellow lines while I was at it -- and was immediately pulled over. (Every once in a while, traffic cops in LA decide to step into the free-for-all and enforce the basic rules of the road. Needless to say, it's like shooting fish in a barrel.) Anyway, the bad news was, I got a ticket. (And not a cheap one, either.) Good news: traffic school is now ridiculously easy to complete online -- it takes about an hour -- and while speeding through my online course at 20mph over the limit, I learned, almost accidentally, one interesting thing:

How to escape from a sinking car, by the California DMV
Sinking cars are an unusual phenomenon, however, being inside when a car sinks must be one of the most frightening experiences imaginable. You may run off the road into a river or, with changing weather patterns, be swept off the road in a flash flood. By following these steps you can get yourself quickly to safety.

1. Don´t Panic
The key to getting out of a submerged car is to stay calm. Panicking will only make it harder to perform these escape techniques. As long as the keys are in the ignition of a car, the electric windows and lights should work. Even when a car sinks to the bottom of a body of water, the electrical system will still work for a while. Switch on all the car´s lights to help rescuers see where you are.

2. Unfasten your Seat Belt
If you are in the car with children, first free yourself from your seat belt, then open a window, then free the kids´ seat belts and push them out the window first.

3. Roll Down Your Window to Escape
Opening windows may make it easier to open a door. Open the window and get out of the car as soon as you can--if possible, before it starts to sink. If for some reason you cannot get the window down, wait till the car fills completely before you can open the door. If you try to open the doors too soon the water rushing in will impede your escape and could trap you. When the car is filled, the water pressure will be equal on both sides. This will allow the door to open. Before exiting, try to find a pocket of air at the top of the car and take a breath. OR use a small hammer, a Philips screwdriver or center punch, available at most hardware stores to shatter the glass. Strike the window at the bottom or a corner edge. Always try to break a side window. The windshield and back window will not break.

4. Get Out and Swim to Safety
Never sit in the car and just wait. It takes a car 2-3 minutes to sink, depending on the car. If you follow these steps, you should be able to escape the car before it starts to sink.

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

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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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]

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