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Saving Gas the Low-Tech Way

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As the price of gasoline creeps inexorable skyward, politicians and moguls seem increasingly stumped as to what to do about it. The most pro-active (sounding) solution floated recently is the summer-long Clinton-McCain gas tax holiday, at best a controversial idea. Less talked about are the low-tech solutions echoed by ecogeeks and envirowonks, which sound practically Depression-era in their approach compared to election-year bandaid solutions. They may sound so simple they're stupid, but it's hard to argue with the numbers.

Skip the French Fries

Unless you're driving a biodiesel vehicle, you don't want fries with that -- in fact, the super-sizing of Americans' waistlines since 1960 has cost the nation a fortune in gas money. A new study from the University of Illinois found that Americans weigh an average of 24 lbs more per person than they did in the 60s, and a heavier ride needs more gas to push it around. The extra gas required, multiplied by the three trillion miles Americans drive every year, equals about one billion gallons of gas expended since 1960.

Slow Down!

Truckers are leading the way on this one -- according to US News, some trucking companies are cranking back their fleets' speed limiters in response to $4/gallon diesel. The results are impressive: by setting the maximum speed of their trucks at 62mph versus 65mph, Con-Way Freight, one of the nation's largest trucking firms with 8,500 rigs, estimates it will save more than three million gallons of gas per year. Don't expect a national 65mph speed limit anytime soon, though -- after all, it was Congress who repealed the 70s-era 55mph speed limit, designed to reduce fuel consumption during that generation's gas crisis.

Quit Buying So Much of It

As the price of gasoline skyrockets, the laws of supply and demand come sharply into play -- eventually demand drops, just as it did in 2007. In response to pain at the pump, Americans actually drove ten billion fewer miles in 2007 than they did in 2006, at a savings of about 500 million gallons of gas. As prices climb further, expect to see savings climb, as well.

Bring a Friend

Carpooling is up the last few years, but it hasn't exactly caught on like wildfire. According to a study from Edison, SoCal's power utility, if every one-passenger car trip became a two-person carpool, we'd save eight billion gallons (and $24-ish billion) per year. So start making friends, people.

Of course, there are high-tech ways to ease the gas crunch too, like building more intelligent traffic lights, developing alternative fuels and increasing vehicle gas mileage standards. But those things require politicians and initiatives and money and bureaucrats; on the other hand, you can driver slow and carpool with little fear of a filibuster.

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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]