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Since I can't stop writing about inventions...

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... and since you can't buy the Inventions back issue at the online store (it's one of my favorites, but sold out, unfortunately), I figured I'd do another post from Maggie Koerth's wonderful cover story. This one's on Band-Aids and the ridiculous reason we have them. Enjoy!

Earle Dickson, his clumsy wife, and the story of the BAND-AID

(IN CASE YOU'VE FORGOTTEN): It's that thing that usually sports a lovely dinosaur print while clinging to the knees of tow-headed grade-school ruffians. BAND-AIDS are also very handy for adult injuries, but you never really see anyone older than 13 wearing them—even the ones without cartoons. BAND-AIDS, it seems, are something relegated to the backwaters of childhood. Now that you're a big kid, you're far too cool to display to the world that you can, in fact, be injured. But your foolish pride is single-handedly diminishing the importance of this invention, and contributing to the downfall of one of America's greatest achievements. Don't you think it's time to heal this wound?

YOU SHOULD THANK: hardworking Johnson & Johnson employee Earle Dickson "¦ and his wife. After all, it's like they say; behind every great man is a woman who burns herself a lot.
IT ALL STARTED: in 1920, when Dickson wed his sweetheart, Josephine, and quickly discovered she wasn't exactly Little Mary Homemaker. Turns out, she had a rather unnerving habit of kitchen klutziness. Every day, Dickson would come home to find another cut or burn that needed patching up. He was sympathetic at first, but as time passed, the score increased to Kitchen: 500, Josephine: 0, and he grew more and more frustrated. Finally, Dickson came up with a way for his wife to fix her wounds without having to wait on him. He took a roll of Johnson & Johnson surgical tape and spaced out squares of gauze down the length of it. To keep the tape from sticking to itself, he covered it in a layer of removable crinoline. Forever after, when Josephine injured herself, she simply cut a length from the roll and patched up the damage. Thus, BAND-AIDS were born. No word on the final outcome of Josephine vs. Kitchen, but we're hoping no news is good news.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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:


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]