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In Praise of Cheap Coffee

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With prices for a simple cup of coffee approaching $4.00 at some national coffee-tailers -- and my own addiction to espresso leading to a recent home appliance purchase that cost as much as a low-end HDTV (check it, sucka) -- it's high time to look back with nostalgic fondness at the cheap coffee of the past, some of which is still being served.

Where can I get this cheap coffee, you ask? If you live in Los Angeles, you're in luck; there are several spots. A little Googling found a few more spread around the country -- rare finds worth a visit if only to shake the owner's hand and say, "thanks!" (By the way, if you can find a cheaper cup, let us know. We're there.)

25-cent coffee

There are at least two places to get coffee for a quarter these days: McDonald's, provided you're a senior and can prove it, and a little joint in Phoenix, Arizona called Chloe's Corner. (Unlike most cheap-coffee emporiums, where the price of coffee is a holdover from days gone by, Chloe's opened recently, in 2005. It's called retro-chic, apparently.) Pictured at right: not McDonald's.

20-cent coffee

20-cent coffee is a little harder to come by: apparently, it's not a number that appeals to restaurant owners. As of this Googling, however, there were just two places I could find that offered it: Ethiopia (where, like everything probably, the Macchiatos are cheap), and at Portland, Oregon's Pearl Street Bakery -- though unfortunately this seems to have been a temporary promotion (but I bet if you go there and guilt-trip them about it, they'll cave and give you some 20-cent coffee anyway).

15-cent coffee

coffee.jpgAlhambra, California's The Hat has been around since 1951, and their coffee has been $0.15 ever since then. (At right is a snap of their menu to prove it.) But what The Hat is really proud of is their pastrami (their website claims that Hat customers "consume 15 tons of pastrami every year"), and their over-the-top specialties like Pastrami Chili Cheese Fries with Pickles and Tomato special, which will not only blow your gut, but your mind, as well:

9-cent coffee

now_photo4.gifOne major benefit of living in Los Angeles is Phillipe the Original, now the oldest restaurant in the city (circa 1908) and one of several claimants to the title of "inventor of the French Dipped sandwich." Their coffee is and always has cost just nine cents. I'll let Pulitzer-winning food critic Jonathan Gold tell you more:

"Sawdust on the floors, clown pictures on the wall, long communal tables crowded with cops, politicians and recent parolees from the nearby county jail, Philippe is so much a relic of prewar Los Angeles that sometimes it feels as if it isn't really a part of Los Angeles at all, as if it belongs to an older city without neon, chrome or arugula. The French-dipped sandwiches of lamb or beef are wet and rich, with something of the gamy animal pungency of old-fashioned roast meat. There is an oddly wonderful selection of wines by the glass — try the Silver Oaks cabernet sauvignon. And if you enjoy the sight of eyes bulging and nostrils flaring as people encounter depth charges of ultrahot mustard in their sandwiches, there's even something of a floor show."

Photo by Ryan of Losanjealous.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]