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I Generate Far Too Much e-Waste

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I don't know about you, but I'm a guy who fancies himself fairly savvy when it comes to resisting the Pavlovian lure of consumerism; I can walk through a mall for two hours without purchasing a single thing, flip through a copy of Skymall without once imagining one of its products enhancing my life and feel no urge to open my wallet when I hear Christmas music. There is one siren song, however, that I can't resist: that of the shiny, new (likely Apple-branded) electronic gadget.

For instance: my phone is fine. I have seven months left on my Sprint plan. Yet I find myself lingering over, imagining what my life would be like if I could surf YouTube from anywhere I wanted. At this rate, before long I'll have two or three old cellphones I couldn't bring myself to throw away moldering in drawers, along with a Palm Pilot or two, at least one portable video game system, an old CRT monitor, a 486 PC from 1994, a 40gb hard drive, and God knows what else. And the pile just keeps getting bigger.

LifeHacker, however, has heard my plight (and that of my wallet), and has a number of suggestions for the chronic e-waster. Namely, ways in which you can recycle, revamp and reuse your old devices without having to throw them away or buy new ones. For instance:

"¢ Before you toss that old iPod into a drawer in favor of a shiny new Touch or Nano, check out this list of handy iPod applications that just might breathe a little added functionality into your trusty old jogging partner you didn't realize it had. (Hey, it's given you so much, it's time to give back.)

"¢ Convert your old wireless router into a communications powerhouse by installing this Linux firmware -- it'll boost your WiFi signal bigtime, giving you expensive router performance at no added cost.

"¢ Instead of buying a new computer -- which I'm lamentably tempted to do every time my current Mac takes too long to load Photoshop or runs out of hard drive space -- try a few simple things first.
- Add hard drive space. Running out of space is the number one complaint given by people who go looking for a new computer, but hard drive space is getting cheaper all the time. You can buy an external drive on the cheap, or an internal drive for even less and install it yourself.
- Upgrade your RAM. More RAM -- and faster RAM -- can mean dramatic improvements in system speed you never imagined possible. Try it before you ditch the old compy.
- Make more room on your hard drive. The number one computer mistake I see people making -- even extremely computer-savvy 3D animator friends of mine, among others -- is running their hard drives at near-capacity. Your system will run faster if you've got 10% or so of your hard drive freed up.

Anybody got any tips on how to solve the biggest problem -- resisting the lure of the new and shiny?

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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]