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My Ball of Wires

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Some people have a junk drawer. Some people have a shoebox of memories. But not me. I have a Ball of Wires.

The Ball spends its days overflowing a 31-gallon plastic tub. It contains my collection of audio/video, computer, and telephone cables, assembled over a decade of roaming the US, connecting things to other things. The Ball is hopelessly tangled -- it takes a good ten minutes to disentangle any given cable you want from the Ball -- assuming you can find it in the first place. I'm constantly removing cables from the Ball, but somehow it continues to gain mass and needs semi-annual upgrades into ever-larger plastic tubs.

Witness more details of my secret messiness after the jump.

Ball of Wires in Tub

Embedded in the Ball are: several obsolete cell phones, a TI graphing calculator from high school, an impressive array of SCSI cables from old Macs, several dozen RCA/RCA-to-1/4" audio cables, many hundreds of dollars of microphone cables, power cables, USB cables (several flavors), serial cables (Mac and PC), one parallel (printer) cable from a failed PC project, an answering machine, a metal music stand (in two pieces for easy storage), a USB hub from 1998, an assortment of telephone and Ethernet cords, a collection of torx wrenches, an anti-static wrist strap kit, an assortment of WiFi antennas, a Nintendo 64 controller (there used to be two, but one is out on permanent loan), several power strips, several computer mice, several 9-volt wall warts (many now hopelessly disassociated from their appliances of origin), and...well, you get it.

Ball of Wires - Big

My new visitor, Emma the cat, likes the Ball of Wires. It's chewy. Mostly I keep it under wraps (safely crammed in its host container), as it represents a sort of immense to-do item that may never get done. I bet if I spent a day disentangling, I could sort these all out. But how boring would that be? And wouldn't that destroy a handy metaphor?

A friend recently saw the Ball and suggested a good joke: "Just tell people you went wireless."

So what's your secret Ball of Wires? Do you have any special bits of clutter hiding in your home? Do you have any plans to deal with them?

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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]