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The Quick 10: 10 Things You Didn't Know About Colin Powell

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Mangesh very astutely pointed out the other day that Colin Powell is a guy you hear about a lot politically, but it seems like most of us don't know much about him personally. Turns out he's pretty fascinating, and he has a great sense of humor. If you've got a little time to kill, check out this interview with Larry King. It takes a while to get to the funny stuff, but near the bottom he swears that he TiVos Larry King every night and calls Larry a Luddite (Larry: "What's a Luddite?") in the same breath. He also talks about how he made Pottery Barn angry.

powell1. In the late "˜50s, Powell was posted in Gelnhausen, Germany. They now have a street named after him: "General-Colin-Powell-Straße".

2. If you have ever noticed a red wagon pin on his lapel, it's not just a whimsical style choice "“ it's the logo of his organization, America's Promise. It's a charitable organization with the goal of helping children in the U.S. succeed in various fields.

3. When Powell was in Vietnam, he fell victim to a punji stick booby trap. He was leading his unit when his right leg fell into a shallow hole; his foot was pierced by the stick. The simple trap is a stick whittled razor-sharp, then smeared with animal feces (the intent was to cause infection and fever). The stick was so sharp it went right through his boot and into the bottom of his foot, which had swelled up by the time he got back to camp. It was infected, but he was treated and the wound healed effectively.

4. He served in Germany at the same time as Elvis and met him twice.

He said, "When I met him, he was out in the field just as dirty and tired as the rest of us from doing his job. We were in this wooded area north of Frankfurt and I was driving along in my Jeep and somebody noted that, there he was. When I got out of my Jeep and walked over to him he saluted and what very proper and what struck me was that he looked just like another GI. He was shorter than I expected."

5. As a member of the ROTC, Powell joined the Pershing Rifles, a fraternity and drill team famous for their precision routines. Even after he achieved great success in the military, he kept a pen set that he had won in a competition on his desk.

6. Speaking of the ROTC, very few generals have come from there (as opposed to a military academy). Powell was also the first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to ever come out of the ROTC.

7. When he was in his teens, Powell got a job at a baby furniture store. They had just gotten in a bunch of cribs and grabbed the first kid on the street to see if he would help out for a little extra cash. It was Colin Powell, and he did such a great job that they hired him for 75 cents an hour. While there, he picked up some Yiddish used by the shopowners and drops it into his speeches from time to time.

8. His parents were immigrants from Jamaica "“ they settled in Harlem in 1937 and later moved to the South Bronx.

9. He loves TiVo.

10. His bachelor's degree from City College of New York was in geology. And he wasn't a great student "“ he gave a commencement address at Marymount University in 2006 and admitted that he had a "C" average.

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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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