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The Weekend Links

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"¢ You know those weird foods at the grocery store that you can't imagine anyone eating? Here's a guy who dares. Flossy reader Erin has provided us a great link to Steve, Don't Eat It!

"¢ For more of the same, Tasha from The A.V. Club decided to eat a Cheeseburger in a Can.

"¢ Recently, one of my coworkers was introduced only by the name of his podcast -- as in, "This is Ed Loves Bacon." In the future, will we just be a domain name? Some parents are preparing. [Via]

"¢ If you do get the dot com name of your dreams, here are 9 signs you shouldn't hire THAT Web Designer. to set up shop for you. And if you ARE that web designer, take note!

"¢ Spend some time over at the Flickr Song Chart Pool, via YesButNoButYes. Also from YesButNoButYes: New York's ominous maple syrup smell is back. Any theories?

"¢ Looking to slip away into slumber to some soft, soulful tunes? This site offers free, downloadable sleepytime tunes for your listening pleasure. (Thanks to Ellen in Birmingham!)

"¢ Mangesh and Jason rent office space in a New York building. Before yesterday, the only person they knew on the floor was the guy who has loudly proclaimed on numerous occasions that "MySpace is the next big thing" and slips "add value" into every sentence. But they just found out that Clive Thompson of Wired and The New York Times Magazine is another fellow tenant. Here's a look at why solitary workers can be more productive from Clive's blog.

"¢ Inspired by Miss Cellania's post on Coney Island, here is a link to Side Show World, which focuses specifically on strange animals ... step right up!

"¢ Speaking of interesting creatures -- "Who needs the telly when you've got a dog like this?" Check out this story from the BBC about one very talented spaniel (with plenty of stories in the comments about other gifted pets).

"¢ It's mental_floss's policy to stay away from overt politics and endorsements of Presidential candidates ... except for this one, of course.

"¢ Is Roger Clemens' "I should have a third ear coming out of my forehead" the craziest sports quote so far this year? It's only the beginning of March, but ESPN Page 2 has already started the 2008 Absurd Quote Power Rankings. See what they have so far, or suggest your own as weeks go on (surely there will be so many more to follow).

"¢ The 'I Read Mental Floss' Facebook Group is stalled at 1,649 members. Can we get that up to 1,700 by Monday?

"¢ An SNL revue in Vegas?

"¢ From, A Very No Country Birthday. Could anything be scarier than Anton showing up as the entertainment for your kid's soiree? He does know how to do a coin trick ...

"¢ I'm 6'1" and terrible at basketball. But if I were British, the government wouldn't be deterred "“ officials are seeking out their tallest citizens to compete for a place on their Olympic teams.

Many thanks to all who sent in links this week. Remember that photos and shameless plugs are always welcome! Send all submissions and suggestions to Have a fantastic weekend!

[Last Weekend's Links]

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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]