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Cufflinks: A Half-Inch of Personality

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The stock market swings up and down, but fashion never fluctuates in corporate America. Every weekday in most big city offices, you'll find a workforce dressed all alike, in business suits in a variety of colors ranging from gray to navy, white shirts, and ties. Oh yeah, there's an occasional skirt, in most cases worn by women. The guys all have close-cropped hair or none at all. On "casual Friday", the suits are traded in for identical polo shirts and dress khakis, which may be cooler, but no more individual than the suits. This regimented fashion leaves little room for individuality. Two tiny spots that allows a man to show a bit of his personality are his cufflinks.
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Once upon a time, cufflinks were plain metal, embossed with initials, or jeweled. Today they fill a need for something, anything to make a man look different from the ten other men he works with, without offending the powers-that-be. Here are just a few ways jewelers and artists are filling that need.

Steampunk

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The latest retro revival goes by the name steampunk, celebrating the Victorian Age when the Industrial Revolution was gearing up and inventions were developed or dreamed up. Etsy seller Rivkasmom makes these steampunk cufflinks (shown) out of watch gears and miniature Italian paintings. Here's another style of cufflinks made from vintage watch parts. Another company specializes in jewelry made from watch parts. In fact, the inspiration for this post came from someone who wrote and said that they had the only cufflinks made from watch parts. I knew better. Cufflinks made from genuine typewriter keys are another classic vintage expression.

Pop Culture

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Is this whimsical or intimidating? Darth Vader cufflinks send a message of some sort...  either the wearer is out to conquer the galaxy, or he's a nerd inside. You may prefer stormtrooper cufflinks. If you identify more with the Jedi, check out the starfighter cufflinks.

215monopoly.jpgWhat could symbolize the world of high finance better than Monopoly game pieces? Here are cufflinks that feature the scottie and the top hat, or the thimble and the iron. Or try cufflinks featuring Monopoly hotels. Monopoly is not the only game in town. Cufflinks are available made of Scrabble tiles, Dungeons and Dragons 20-sided dice, and Lego bricks.

Loyal Fans

215subwaytokens.jpgCufflinks that feature your favorite sports team have been popular for years. Most teams' logos are available on cufflinks. A more subtle yet personal way to revere your team is by wearing an actual, physical part of the sport, like cufflinks made from Yankee Stadium seats. OK, you can get cufflinks made from half the ballparks in America, since even if they use the same stadium for decades, they will buy new seats occasionally. If you'd rather show your loyalty to more than one team, or just your hometown, how about tokens? Get cufflinks made from NYC subway tokens (yes, subways once used coins and metal tokens). Or you may prefer tokens from Chicago or Los Angeles.

Special Occasion

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Well, this is clever. These wedding cufflinks are made from a dollar. What's so clever about that? One link shows Washington's eye. The other uses the first two letters of the word "dollar". Together, they spell "I do."

Geek

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Reveal your immersion in the world of tech with cufflinks made from pieces of parts of things you understand and impress people who don't. Shown are cufflinks made from recycled circuit boards. You can get cufflinks made from real 25 MHz oscillators. Even non-geeks will relate to and respect your cufflinks made of computer keys, or metal resembling computer keys. Here are some more geeky cufflinks.

Political

215ike.jpgOh, you'd better believe that political campaigns have cufflinks available! Choose John McCain cufflinks or Barack Obama cufflinks to show who you favor in the current presidential race. Or go out in "left" field with Chairman Mao cufflinks. Or go retro, with cufflinks made from old campaign buttons.

I know there are plenty of other cool ideas for cufflinks. Tell me about them in the comments!

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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