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Why Can't You Pump Your Own Gas in Oregon and New Jersey?

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My fellow Flossers Jason English and Chris Higgins will never know the joy of getting out of the car to fill their own gas tank. No, it's not mental deficiency or a lack of opposable thumbs — they simply live in states where it's illegal to do so.

Jason lives in New Jersey, where the state legislature decided in 1949 that "because of the fire hazards directly associated with dispensing fuel, it is in the public interest that gasoline station operators have the control needed over that activity to ensure compliance with appropriate safety procedures."

Higgins lives in Oregon, where a similar law was passed in 1951, supported by a whopping 17 declarations rationalizing the prohibition of "any person other than the owner, operator or employee [of a dispensary where class 1 flammable liquids are dispensed at retail]" from using "pump, hose, pipe or other device for dispensing the liquids into the fuel tank of a motor vehicle or other retail container." Violating this law can get Higgins and his fellow Oregonians slapped with a $500 fine.

New Jersey and Oregon don't trust people to not blow themselves up while pumping gas, and the states would rather leave the job to professionals.

gas-attendant.jpgLong ago, all gas stations were full-service. The first self-service station opened in California in 1947, and the idea caught on across the country. Only Oregon and New Jersey, for their litany of reasons (which you can read in full here and here), decided to keep doing things the old way.

That's all well and good, but pumping gas is a lot safer today thanks to advances in both automobile and gas pump technology. Because of this, many people in both states think that its time for the ban on self-pumping (tee hee) to be lifted. Both laws have been challenged in court, and Oregon motorcyclists won a small victory in 2001 when a law was passed allowing them the option of fueling their own bikes.

I live in Pennsylvania and don't own a car, so I'm largely indifferent to the matter. The self-serve bans seem a little silly and archaic, and I know from driving in Jersey that full-service can mean a long wait at the gas station. On the other hand, full-service gas stations create some jobs and keep my co-bloggers warm when the tank is empty on a winter night. Where do you stand on the pumping debate?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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
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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:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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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]

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