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More Than Just a Toaster

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In a world where computers, music players, game systems, and automobiles come and go, we manage to become attached to our toasters. This simple appliance makes our bread warm enough to melt butter and crisp enough to hold honey or jam. An oven or even a stovetop will do the same thing, but you'll rarely find a kitchen that doesn't have a toaster.

Your Childhood Friend

The Brave Little Toaster is the hero of the book and movie (and their sequels) about a group of appliances that are not merely machines, they are old friends. The way Toaster and his owner feel about each other gives us a clue about our fondness for toasters: for many people, using a toaster is our first childhood cooking experience. And there's nothing like eating bread you toasted yourself when you're four years old.

Toast Imprinting

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Mom used to imprint faces on soft bread with a spoon or knife, which would show up on toast and make kids eager to eat breakfast. Now there are specialty toasters that will brand your bread with all kinds of symbolism. The Hello Kitty Toaster is one example. You might prefer to have your toast embossed with a pirate's skull and crossbones, with the Totenkopf Toaster SKULL-Toast.

Toaster Casemod

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Like building a better mousetrap, we tend to tinker with even the most perfect machines. the toaster is no exception. Adam Bertram made a computer casemod with a vintage toaster. The result: smiles for everyone who sees it.

Computer Toaster

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A few years ago, the NetBSD Project combined a working computer with a working toaster! The heat didn't affect the computer and the toast is just what you need while coding or surfing the 'net.

The Toast Cannon

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Besides the ability to cook by ourselves, as children we were impressed by the pop-up action of our toasters. Freddie Yauner took that fascination to the limit with the Moaster CO2 gas-powered toaster. This is the world's highest-popping toaster, certified last month by the Guiness Book of World Records when the machine launched toast 8.5 feet (2.6 meters) high.

Transparent Toaster

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The Inventables Concept Studio proposed making a more beautiful toaster by giving it transparent walls. A lovely idea, but years later, it's still a concept.

Roller Toaster

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Designer Jaren Goh developed the Roller Toaster, the smallest toaster ever, since it doesn't have to hold the bread. Push your bread in on one side and it "rolls" through while the hot element toasts it from side to side. I can't find it for sale anywhere.

The Toaster as Art

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Our beloved toaster can be an art medium. North Carolina artist Joel Haas made this Toaster Mutt from an old toaster and other kitchen implements. It's still a functioning toaster!

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Toasters are also art subjects. Kevin O'Callaghan of the Manhattan School of Visual Arts recycled 39 old Yugos into an art project, part of which is the Yugo Toaster.

Toaster Museum

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The Toaster Museum Foundation has been so popular online that the management is looking for a permanent space to display toaster and toaster history in the real world. You can read about the history of the toaster at the Cyber Toaster Museum and see pictures of thousands of different toaster styles from the past 100 years. You'll probably find a picture of the toaster you remember using when you were a kid, or maybe even the toaster you use now!

Now excuse me, I think my breakfast is ready.

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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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