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The Woot-Off

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Woot is hands-down my favorite place to buy strange things on the Internet. The idea is simple: one thing per day, one price, cheap shipping. They put up a new thing each day, slap a price on it (generally a low-low price), and sell it until they run out, or until tomorrow comes (specifically, "tomorrow" occurs at 11:59pm Central Time in the U.S.). The items are all over the map, though typically they're electronics of some sort -- MP3 players, laptops, television sets, speakers, thumb drives, and so on -- though occasionally you'll see items like the Mediocre 6 Piece Luggage Set ($39.99) or the infamous Random Crap ($1) -- the latter being a bag containing up to three random crappy items (Woot writes: "In return for your money, you'll get some kind of bag and some quantity of crap. We promise nothing more than that. You should expect even less.").

So why do I love Woot? Because they're funny and they're honest. They make a business out of selling slightly obsolete (or refurbished, or discontinued, or just sort of mediocre) stuff at a good price. They also routinely write the best product descriptions in the world. Here's an example: below I'll reprint the entirety of their product description for the Sunforce Solar AA Battery Charger offered on October 25, 2007 ($4.99):

Looks like the longhairs and the eggheads were right. The planet really does seem to be heating up. Temperatures and ocean levels will continue rising in the coming years - and if you're smart, so will your personal net worth. Here are a few tips for profiting from the coming global catastrophe:

* People always say beachfront property is so valuable because nobody can make more of it. Wrong! Right now, you can get a three-bedroom bungalow in the town of Jackson, Alabama (elevation 772 ft.), a hundred or so miles from the Gulf of Mexico, for around $40,000. But what happens when the ocean levels rise, all 400,000 residents of coastal Mobile (elevation 10 ft.) need a new place to live, and you're sitting on a brand-new piece of oceanfront real estate? Name your price!

* Consider pursuing an advanced degree in dermatology, oncology, or another skin cancer-related field. With every new hole in the ozone layer, demand for those services keeps going up, up, up. Ch-ching!

* Think "outside the big picture". Sure, you could just plant some orange trees in Maine and wait for the profits to roll in. But somebody's going to need to protect those orange groves from mobs of starving looters - and they're going to need bullets to do it. Hoard ammunition, explosives, armor, and weapons now, for resale in the post-cataclysm world. They aren't getting any cheaper!

* Concentrated, portable energy will be at a premium after the collapse of civilization. Turn the sun's brutal radiation into $$$! The Sunforce Solar AA Battery Charger can juice up 4 AA batteries at once, with no AC connection needed. Today's Sunforce owner is tomorrow's battery mogul. The planet's future is going to be sunnier - with the Sunforce Solar AA Battery Charger, so is yours!

Pure poetry.

So it's with great joy that I point you to the current Woot-Off, a rare event during which Woot deviates from its one-thing-per-day model and instead sells a backlog of leftover or small-lot items. The items go up for sale and are sold until stock runs out -- then another item appears. Nifty flashing lights and a sales progress bar let you know something special is going on, and you can follow along in the Woot Forum as fellow Wooters complain about each new product.

To announce this latest Woot-Off, loyal Wooters received a "leaked" memo yesterday. It's really a joy to read. Check it out:


Attention Woot employees -

We are now entering the final phase of preparations for the Woot-Off planned for midnight tonight. This is when we depart from our usual deal-a-day model and sell one product after another, offering a new deal as soon as the previous one sells out. For some reason, Woot members like chrishiggins continue to have high expectations for this event. We must make every effort to ensure that they feel disappointed and betrayed.

All workers should be physically and mentally straining to make this Woot-Off a success, like every muscle in a wolf's body strains to capture and devour its prey. We expect total compliance with the following objectives:

* Make sure the stables are thoroughly cleaned and the horses properly groomed and shod. As you know, Commander Rutledge prefers to lead us on horseback during Woot-Offs. Charge!

* Customer Service department: all vacation requests for this week and next are approved. If you have not filed a vacation request, take one anyway.

* The little green pills in the kitchen are there to keep you alert and working. Take as many as you need. Officially, Woot does not believe in the concept of "overdose".

* Take at least one of our servers offline, just for laughs.

* Go to the landfill and dig up some more Sansa media players. If you see any Digipro Graphics Tablets (and you will), grab those, too.

* Place crap bags in company latrines so those orders can be "filled". To this end, the company will provide free lunch today from El Feo, the filthiest burrito joint in Dallas. Do your worst, guys.

* Neutralize all negative thinking among our members. We simply cannot tolerate any more posts like "do not want" or "Woot-Off killer". If electronic means like word filters and IP bans do not work, we must reactivate the rapid-response teams to physically eliminate all threats to our reputation.

* Last time, spot checks revealed that approximately 25% of products shipped are broken, incomplete, or excessively dirty. This is unacceptable. For this Woot-Off, defective shipments must make up at least 40%.

* Remind SmartPost that there's no need to hurry on these orders. Prompt delivery makes our customers spoiled and argumentative. Let them learn humility and gratitude while they wait.

Above all, we must strive to make this Woot-Off even more tedious, disappointing, and lucrative than the last one. The employee who achieves the most toward this end will be rewarded with one brown Zune. Second place: two brown Zunes.

Forward into battle! Remember: to give one's life for Woot is glorious!

Larry Stalin
eCommerce eKommissar
Woot, Inc.


All hail our new Woot Overlords.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]