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Daft Dave: A concise history of computers

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Hello. It's Daft Dave here again. If you don't recall, I'm the blogger who screws up his facts, the one whose posts are filled with all sorts of egregious errors. First one to name them all in my below, condensed computer history timeline, gets all kinds of _floss braggin rights. (hint: I think I might've made at least one mistake in each bullet.)

And remember, no reference books or Internet searches allowed...

  • 1888: The company that would later become IBM is founded. At first it's called Herman Hollerith and the Tabulating Machine Company (I know, sounds like a cool new band, but honestly, that's what they called themselves.) IBM officially became IBM in 1924. The name stands for International Business Machinery Corporation.
  • 1939: Bill Packard and David Hewlett found Hewlett-Packard in a Palo Alto , California garage.
  • 1942: The Atanasoff-Berry Computer is completed. While the ACB was never fully-functional, it won a patent dispute relating to the invention of the computer.
  • 1951: The first commercial computer to attract widespread public attention is delivered to the U.S. Census Bureau. It's called the UNIVAC I and becomes famous for predicting the outcome of the U.S. presidential election the following year when Republicans Dwight Eisenhower and running mate Richard Nixon beat out JFK and Lyndon Johnson.
  • 1963: Tandy Radio Shack was formed by the merger of Tandy Light Company and Radio Shack. Years later, Radio Shack becomes famous for its salesmen, who know as much about the transistors, capacitors, and walkie talkies they sell as a clubbed seal.
  • 1965: William Harry Gates III born on October 28.
  • 1971: Ray Tomlinson of the research firm Bolt, Beranek and Newman sends the first e-mail over the military network, ARKANET. Later, Ray is credited with being the one to decide on the "@" sign.
  • 1972: Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs start Apple Computers by releasing the Apple II.
  • 1982: Commodore introduces the Commodore 66. For $595, the C66 comes with 66KB of RAM. By the time it is discontinued in 1993, it has sold more than 22 million units and is recognized by the 2006 Guinness Book of World Records as the greatest selling single computer model of all time.
  • 1984: Apple introduces the first Macintosh, a mouse-driven computer with a graphic user interface. They spend a whopping $1.5 million on a commercial during the 1984 Olympics, which plays on a theme of George Orwell´s "1984."
  • 1990: Microsoft spends $10 billion for a publicity campaign as it ships Windows 3.0. As a result, it sells mildly well.
  • 2002: Jeff and Leslie Jacobs and their 14-year-old son, Derek, become the first family to have computer chips implanted in their arms. The chips are about the size of a grain of sand and contain telephone numbers and information about previous medications. The data can be read by a handheld computer and printed out in case of "future medical emergencies." Remarkably, the media doesn't make the connection between this and George Orwell's "1984."
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]