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A little better ... but how much?

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I drove by it three or four times before I realized what it was: a gas station. Unrecognizable as such from a distance, BP's new Helios House gas station -- of which there are a few in Los Angeles -- aims to be, as the billboard rising above it proclaims, "a little better." It's green in just about every way a building can be green (excepting the fact that its sole function is the sale of fossil fuels). But hey, at least they're trying! Here are a few of the stations innovative features (via Treehugger):

Water: Helios House exceeds current environmental standards for on-site collection, filtration and distribution of water; canopy collects rainwater for irrigation; rain and site water are filtered to prevent hydrocarbons from polluting groundwater.

Heat: Helios House is designed to minimize the "heat island" effect. The green roof is landscaped with drought tolerant plants, reducing the need for heating and cooling systems, minimizing rainwater runoff, and re-oxygenating the air through CO2 absorption (carbon sink).

Light: 90 solar panels produce enough energy to power two to three homes which is equivalent to just over 5,000 lbs/year of CO2 generation reduction. Energy-efficient lighting in the canopy area uses 16 percent less electricity than traditional stations.

Materials: The site utilizes farmed wood from renewable sources; bathroom tiles utilize 100 percent recycled glass; signage is made from stainless steel scraps from the project; all stainless steel used on site is recyclable.

Cell Phone Recycling Center. Cell phones can be dropped off at Helios House, where they will be safely recycled instead of going to a landfill.

LED Lighting. Light emitting diode bulbs are used in signage and throughout the station, saving about 50 percent of the energy of fluorescents or metal halide bulbs. LEDs also last 60 percent to 80 percent longer than conventional bulbs.

Photocells and Timers. Lighting throughout the station uses multiple circuits and sensors to automatically switch electric lights on or off as needed through a 24 hour cycle. This will save about 400 kilowatt hours (kwh).

Natural Light. The design of Helios House makes use of natural light as much as possible, saving about 1,400 kilowatt hours each year.

Low VOC Paint. Ordinary paint releases VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) into the air. The paint in Helios House is Low-VOC and better for the air.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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