Original image
Getty Images

The Surprising Source of New York's First Environmental Problem

Original image
Getty Images

Was it the automobile? Was it lead from paint? Was it poor water conditions? No — it was horse pollution.

Treating a Dead Horse

Near the end of the 19th century, cities were completely riddled with horse manure. Worse still, carcasses filled the streets. In the late 1880s, New York City was occupied by 1,206,299 people, and about 170,000 horses for transportation. Because the horses were commonly overworked and abused, the average streetcar horse had a life expectancy of about two to four years. Often, they'd die on the street, here owners would either abandon the bodies, or dump them into nearby rivers or bays.

In 1880, New York City removed 15,000 dead horses from the street. Chicago removed 9,202 horse carcasses as late as 1916. Moving the 1,300 pound carcasses was no easy task — special trucks that hung low to avoid excessive lift had to be made. Think today's traffic is bad? An 1886 article in the Atlantic Monthly described Broadway as congested with "dead horses and vehicular entanglement."

Shift Happens

It's estimated that each horse produced 15-30 pounds of manure per day. Remember, the horse population in New York City was about 170,000 in the 1880s. That means there were 3-4 million pounds of manure piling onto city streets each day.

In 1894, the Times of London estimated that every street in the city would be buried 9 feet deep in horse manure by 1950. A New York editorial estimated that horse manure would rival the height of Manhattan's 30-story buildings by 1930. Also, each horse produced about a quart of urine daily. That makes about 40,000 gallons per day in New York and Brooklyn.

Thankfully, change was on the way. The first international Urban Planning Conference was held in New York in 1898. The topic of the conference: how to deal with horse pollution. Luckily for them, the automobile was beginning to usurp the horse's role for transportation. Though experimental motor cars had been around for quite some time, the cities had previously banned them or limited their use for reasons varying from cars frightening children and horses, to cars being "rich men's deadly toys." The most well known regulation was Britain's Red Flag law, which required all cars to be preceded by a man of foot carrying a red flag.

The horse pollution crisis in the 1890s, which ignited fears of pollution and traffic jams, coupled with the rising prices of hay, oats, and urban land, led governments and urban city dwellers to embrace the automobile. By the early 1900s the horse had become unprofitable and a great environmental hazard. The car, the modern-day environmentalists' nemesis, was, at the time, a savior.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
Original image
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]