Original image

The big D

Original image

OK, this might be a tad unsavory, but I promise, it gets flossy on down the line. You see, I've been sick the past few days. (Apparently there's "something going around" Los Angeles; I guess we're a bit more connected than we think we are.) It started out as your average fever-with-chills, with some loss of appetite (I know, I know: feed a fever and drink like a fish -- thanks, Mom) and a side-order of Texas-sized headache every time I tried to get out of bed or do anything besides light blogging or watching Sopranos re-runs. The last time I was this sick, I got food poisoning at John Green's wedding, though I didn't realize it until about midway through the ceremony, whereupon I promptly passed out during his vows. That was both the only time I've ever lost consciousness that quickly, and the single most embarrassing moment of my young life. (Though I'm sure something will come along to top it one of these days.)

Food poisoning, of course, runs its course fairly quickly in comparison to some viral infections, which is what I surmise is going on within my war-wracked shell of a body. Not having much recent experience with the latter, I was expecting the worst to be over when my fever subsided yesterday and I began to gradually get my energy back. Then came the second wave: the big D. That's right: diphtheria. (Just kidding, the other D.)

It may sound comical to we Westerners, with all our adequate access to hygienic sanitation facilities and clean drinking water, not to mention our joking grade-school rhymes ("When you're comin' round first, and you feel something burst ...") -- but the big D is far from a laughing matter in developing nations. Here are some sobering facts:

"¢ It's the cause of 5 to 8 million deaths in the developing world annually, particularly among small children and infants.
"¢ The inability to properly separate drinking water from contaminated sewage is a major cause of infection.
"¢ As evidence of how seriously the sanitation issue is, yesterday in Delhi, India representatives from 40 nations gathered to participate in a "World Toilet Conference." They hope to identify inexpensive technologies that can help bring proper sanitation to nearly half the world's population.
"¢ According to estimates, 2.6bn people around the world lack access to a hygienic toilet.
"¢ In India alone, more than 700 million people have no access to toilets which have proper waste disposal systems.
"¢ In 1991, a cyclone claimed more than 139,000 lives along the Bangladeshi coast. The same year, 300,000 Bangladeshi children died from diarrheal dehydration.
"¢ The best rehydration formula is a mixture of water, salts and a bit of sugar -- essentially, Gatorade. (Why aren't we sending Gatorade to developing nations instead of dumping it on football coaches' heads?)

If anyone's brave enough to share their own stories about the big D, I'm sure they'd make me feel a heckuva lot better!

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
Original image
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]