CLOSE
Original image

Thingamajig Thursday: the Brannock Device

Original image

It's time for another Thingamajig Thursday. Today I'm naming that silvery metal thing you stick your foot in when you go to the shoe store. It's called the Brannock Device because it was--surprise, surprise--invented by one Mr. Brannock... Charles F., to be precise.

Some interesting facts via The Lemelson-MIT Program:

As a Syracuse University student, young Brannock wanted to find the best way to measure the foot. He played around with the idea for a couple of years and finally built a prototype using an Erector set. In 1926 and 1927, Brannock patented the device and created a company to build it.

Some other interesting things worth knowing about this particular thingamajig:

* It comes in a variety of colors! (green, purple, red and black.) * In addition to different models for men and women, adult and children, there are also Brannock Devices for ski boots! * During WW II, the Army hired Brannock to make sure boots and shoes fit soldiers. * Advised to make his devices out of plastic, ensuring that they would need to be replaced every couple of years, Brannock refused and would only make them from durable steel. * Today, most shoe stores don't get rid of their Brannock Devices for 10 or 15 years, until the numbers finally wear away from so much use.

Okay, so now we've reached my favorite part of Thingamajig Thursday, the part where I ask you all to come up with a better name for the thingamajig, because, let's face it, the Brannock Device is about as original as a new reality TV show on Bravo. So lay 'em on us!

      Original image
      iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
      technology
      arrow
      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
      Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
      entertainment
      arrow
      What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
      May 26, 2017
      Original image
      Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

      Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

      One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

      A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

      In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

      [h/t TV Guide]

      SECTIONS
      BIG QUESTIONS
      BIG QUESTIONS
      WEATHER WATCH
      BE THE CHANGE
      JOB SECRETS
      QUIZZES
      WORLD WAR 1
      SMART SHOPPING
      STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
      #TBT
      THE PRESIDENTS
      WORDS
      RETROBITUARIES