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In the Beginning: Pre-order it today!

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In the Beginning's hitting stores in little over a week, and we're serving up another sample below. Enjoy!

The Vacuum Cleaner

51yai+MKH5L._AA240_.jpgHow can we put this politely "“ the first vacuum cleaners kinda sucked.

The Original Clean Sweep
You could say that H. Cecil Booth invented the first suction-powered vacuum cleaner . . . or you could say that he was the first suction-powered vacuum cleaner. Having seen early models that simply blew the dust around without capturing much of it, Booth was unimpressed and decided to try an experiment.

Sitting in a posh restaurant in London one day in 1898, he turned around, put his mouth on the upholstered seat, inhaled, and promptly choked on the huge amount of dust he sucked in. (We can't imagine what the wait staff made of this.) Perhaps, he thought, a filter would be in order "“ so he continued the experiment at home, covering his lips with various fabrics and taking giant gulps of detritus off his floor. Satisfied with the results he got with a handkerchief, he finally moved on to using a form of suction that wasn't, you know, his lungs. In 1901 he patented a giant machine, about the size of a refrigerator, that used a pump and a long, flexible hose to suck up dust. Despite its obvious drawbacks "“ it required two people to operate it and had to be wheeled through the streets on a dolly "“ the vacuum cleaner was a hit. The royals commissioned Booth personally to clean Westminster Abbey for the 1901 coronation of Edward VII; a few years later, the machine helped put an end to a Navy hospital epidemic of spotted fever (the germs were lurking on dust particles).

Vacuums Get Some Fans
The vacuum, useful though it was, remained a luxury for only the very rich until 1908 "“ when a decidedly not-very-rich, and until that point failed, inventor named James Spangler

improved on it out of necessity. Spangler was a janitor at a department store, and part of his job was to clean the carpets.

images16.jpgUnlike Booth, he didn't much enjoy inhaling dust "“ he was violently allergic. Already in debt, Spangler couldn't quit his job. Instead, he built himself a makeshift mini-vacuum with an electric fan motor, a soap box, some tape (to cover the cracks in the soap box), and a pillowcase. Unbelievably, it worked, and his friends were impressed enough to lend him some money. A wealthy Ohio businessman named William Hoover was impressed, too "“ he bought the rights to the design after his wife started raving about Spangler's invention, which she'd purchased to clean their mansion.

Getting Handy with the DustBuster
Technically, Carroll Gantz, an industrial designer who used to work for Black & Decker, is the guy who invented the cordless hand vacuum. But the DustBuster also owes its existence to the agency responsible for the smoke detector, the Jaws of Life, and freeze-dried ice cream "“ that's right, NASA.
According to the agency's records, astronauts in the Apollo program "needed a way to drill down beneath the moon's surface, as much as 10 feet, to collect core samples. Like everything else that went to the moon, this drill had to be small, light weight and battery-powered. . . . A computer program was used to design the drill's motor to use as little power as possible. That computer program, along with the knowledge and experience gained in developing the drill, provided a strong technology base for developing battery powered tools and appliances." Among those appliances was the cordless hand vac, introduced in 1978.

Can't wait the 9 days for In the Beginning? Pre-order your copy at any of these fine stores today: Amazon, B&N, Borders, Books-A-Million. Oh, and if you e-mail us your proof of purchase at, we'll send you an autographed sticker to place in the book!

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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]