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7 Outrageous Items Spotted at the 99¢ Only Store

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If you live in California, Nevada, Arizona or Texas, you probably know all about the 99¢ Only Stores, where nothing is over 99¢, ever! It's a great place to pick up light bulbs, cleaning supplies, crackers, greeting cards, and office supplies, all for under a buck. But man-o-man are there some random, hilarious finds if you've got some extra time to kill.

Here are a bunch I spotted today:

1. Fear Factor Test Tube Acid Bath

From the package: Slimy gummy sharks and worms in sour ooze

Noteworthy: Never mind that Fear Factor has been off the air for a couple seasons now. An acid bath candy? Also on the shelf, I spotted Fear Factor Gummy Frog's Legs with crunchy candy bones.

IMG_3915.JPG2. Mag Sheath Magnetic Knife Holder

From the package: Frees your hands to reposition animal - No more stabbing knife in the dirt - It's like having a third hand!

Noteworthy: Hey, who could argue with a third hand for 99¢. But watch out! On the back the packaging warns: DO NOT WALK while using Mag Sheath and there's a man walking in the international circle for Do Not. Yikes!

IMG_3925.JPG 3. Not-So-Sloppy Joe
From the package: Naturally Fat Free Sloppy Joe Sauce

Noteworthy: Also printed on the jar: When you hold up a sloppy joe made with Not-So-Sloppy-Joe sloppy joe sauce, there are no drips. It's that rich and thick. Er, yum?

IMG_3919.JPG4. 'N Sync Magnets

From the package: Official Tour Merchandise

Noteworthy: I bought two 12-packs of these babies for under a buck. Foolish? Just wait until the reunion tour. I'll sell each individual magnet for the 99¢! Booyakasha!

IMG_3921.JPG 5. Professional Bull Riding Micro-Icons

From the package: Also comes with a PBR trading card
Noteworthy: This is one in a series. I had no idea PBR existed, or who J.W. Hart was until I saw this toy. I looked J.W. up online and discovered he's made $1,354,462.18 to date riding bulls. I guess when I make that much as a writer, I'll get my own Micro-Icon?

IMG_3933.JPG 6. Du-Rag Tiger Visor Rag
From the package: Distributed by J-Land "100% Polyester"

I see it says Item No. 2020 on the upper right hand corner of the package. You suppose that's why the model is bespectacled?

IMG_3935.JPG 7. Warning Sign

Okay, so this wasn't for sale (I asked), but you have to wonder if the 99¢ Only Store actually thinks the legal drinking age is 30 in California. I mean, clearly they don't know the difference between your and you're when they say "your buying alcohol," so...?

Have the equivalent of a 99¢ Only Store in your neck of the woods? What's it called? And what's the craziest thing you ever spotted there?

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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