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Our First Book Winner...

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My resolution should have been to find a panel of judges to pick the winners of these daily contests. The submissions were really great "“ some were ingenious, others laugh-out-loud funny. But before I pick a winner, here are a few of the runners-up:

From JaneM:
I resolve to go back and visit every town I ever lived in every state I lived in (approx 20 towns in 4 states). I will find the most unusual place in that town, photograph it and email it to along with the info about it.

From Andy:
1) Recreate my intricate hand-drawn map of all 1003 rail trails in the USA and get it mentioned by the Rails to Trails Society.

2) Complete my collection of WPA Era Ranger Naturalist Service posters by the NPS. I must visit the park or monument before adding the print to my collection.

From Catherine Ann:
My resolution is to win a free book from mental floss. We could knock this one out real quick now, Mr. English.

From Kaitlyn:
My actual resolution is to say yes to everyone who asks me on a date this year. My sis always says the only way to meet the right guy is to be open-minded and give EVERYONE a chance.

From Anna Wagner:
My resolution is to find an interesting article and send it to someone new every day. It could be from mental floss, but the rule is that it has to be an article that I genuinely think the person would find interesting. I think this is a great resolution because it will expand my circle of reading and will make me think more about the people I spend company with.

From Chris:
My resolution is to compose a symphony... using only an electric -guitar and I don't mean to just write it I also mean to record it.

All the instruments of the symphony will be represent my differently tuned guitars ranging from a tuba represented by a bass guitar with fuzzy distortion all the way up to the piccolo represented by a normal guitar tuned higher than is standard.

All percussion will be represented by either very low tuned guitars or by hitting guitars guitars together.

I intend to make this a full symphony with several movements and probably totaling an hour in length.

[Note to Chris: If you go through with this, let us know and we'll happily feature it here.]

From Mike:
I'd like to ask Kaitlyn if she'd like to have dinner sometime.

But the winner of Dry Manhattan is Kit, whose methodical approach to her resolution makes me feel like she'll go through with it:

January: Read up on the history of the discipline
February: Identification of Eastern (US) bird species
March: Study diet
April: Study Sociability
May: Learn to sketch birds
June: Study Habitat
July: Build a birdhouse
August: Learn Vocalizations
September: Study Mating/Reproduction
October: Learn to whittle a duck
November: Read about the Science of flight
December: Get awesome crow tattoo

Congratulations! I'll be in touch about your prize. Look for the next book contest a little later this afternoon!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


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]