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Bowling for Garment Workers

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by Kelsey Timmerman, author of Where Am I Wearing?

In my global quest to answer the question "Where Am I Wearing?" I picked my favorite items out of my wardrobe and traced them back to where they were assembled. I went to Bangladesh for my boxers, Cambodia for my All-American blue jeans, Honduras for my favorite T-shirt, and China for my flip-flops.
In addition to visiting with workers in their apartments, at their villages, and outside of factories, I always tried to find other ways to interact with them. Here's a glimpse at the experience:

The Thrill of Thrill Rides

I took 19 kids and one old farmer to an amusement park in Bangladesh for the price of a single entry ticket for a child into Disney World ($67): There are two roller coasters in Fantasy Kingdom: a big one that would be a weenie one at any other amusement park, and a weenie one that would be a child's ride at any other amusement park. When I pointed to the big one, the kids cheered. On the way, we passed a group of adults on the weenie coaster. We pointed and laughed. As we walked, some of the kids started hopping. The sun-baked stone was torture to bare feet, but they didn't complain. They just skipped.

For some in Bangladesh, $67 is more than a month's wage. Maybe I should have done something more practical for the kids with my money. After all, every kid deserves to have shoes and a shirt. But if while walking by on their way to work or while picking through trash, they look up at the park's high-arched gate, and remember the roller coaster and how their stomach was in their throat and the wind in their hair, and escape just for a bit, it was money well spent.

We live in a turbulent, imbalanced workd. It can be depressing to think about. But we all have the right to a little fun. For a few hours, we were the kings and queens of Fantasy Kingdom. And we had a blast.

Bowling in Cambodia

bowl.jpgRolling a three-holed ball down a narrow wood lane is not intuitive. Balls aren't lowered gently onto the lane, but heaved from the hip, echoing like gunshots. The lane and shoe rental cost me $27, but I'm afraid splintering the floor could cost much more. I wait by the foul line and give pointers, which is kind of like the swim coach I once had who couldn't swim. What I lack in actual technical knowledge, I make up for in enthusiasm. When Nari gets a strike, I teach her what I feel to be the most important part of bowling—the celebration, which is part jig, part 80s dance moves, and a lot of high fives and fist pumps.

Strikes, spares, gutters, smiles, giggles, dances, and indifference, bowling with this group of 20-something girls is like going bowling with 20-something girls anywhere. It's hard to see it sitting in their crowded room talking to them about my Levi's. But here at Superbowl, with Justin Timberlake singing over crackling speakers to an empty bowling alley, one floor beneath the Levi's country office where their orders come from, I'm able to see that they aren't garment workers. They're just girls.
In the past I didn't give much thought to where my clothes were made or who made them. But after riding a roller coaster with garment workers, bowling with them, meeting their families, and sharing bowls of rice prepared over gas stoves during power outages, I can't help but care.

Wednesday's Entry: The People Who Make Our Jeans

Go out and buy Kelsey's fascinating new book today at Amazon.com. (Seriously, it's great!) And if you want to see what Kelsey's been up to today, check out his website whereamiwearing.com.

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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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