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Lessons From My Broken Toe

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You guys. I think my house is totally haunted by malevolent spirits. People keep falling down the stairs. I fell down the basement stairs last spring and gave myself a concussion (I went to work anyway). My mom fell down the same stairs in May and broke her ankle in two places (she had it fixed and went to Mexico anyway). Friday night, I fell down the stairs that go from the loft to the first floor and broke my big toe (I went to a bar anyway. I did not take painkillers that night though).

While some of you non-believers might say, "Hey, idiot, stop wearing socks on your wood stairs," I prefer to think that evil beings lurk in my 1923 house and randomly push people down the stairs "“ we DO live across the street from a cemetery. My husband tested this theory by running up and down the stairs about four times in a row, but nothing pushed him. Perhaps it's an evil spirit that doesn't like women.

Here's what happened: I fell down the stairs while he was taking the dogs out. He came in and I was sitting on a chair with my foot up on the ottoman, staring at my toe sticking toward my body at a 90 degree angle. "I think I broke my toe," I said.

"Well, they don't do much for broken toes," he told me, and bent down to look at it. He touched the bottom of my foot with his finger. "Uh"¦ does that hurt?"

"YES."

"I think that's your bone." So that sort of changed things. He carried me to the car and we drove to the hospital; he carried me inside and I plopped my foot down on the desk of the woman doing admissions. "I think I broke my toe," I told her.

From there on out, I was kind of the freak show of the hospital. People would do a double take when they walked by the room where I was waiting for the doctor to fix me. A cop stopped in when he saw the strange angle of my toe and he and my husband had a long discussion about dislocated digits. They compared old injuries. Meanwhile I sat there enjoying the drugs they were pumping into me.

Anyway, suffice it to say I learned some interesting things throughout this whole ordeal. Among them:

"¢ When the broken bone sticks out through the skin, it's called an open fracture. Apparently this is rare (yay me!)
"¢ Usually you only need ibuprofen for a broken toe. Me? I'm on percocet.
"¢ The medical term for the big toe is hallux.
"¢ Most people's second toe is shorter than their big toe. Mine is not. This is called "Mitten foot".
"¢ Women have about four times as many foot problems as men. This might be due to the structure of high heels. That's not going to stop me from wearing them, though "“ I love shoes.

This isn't me, but this video essentially shows what the doctor did to my toe to get it back in place. I'm not going to lie; it was kind of cool.

OK, now it's time to make me feel better about my stupidity. Tell me about your freak accidents and ridiculous injuries!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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
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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:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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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]

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