No Small Tales: 70th Birthday

When I teach my fiction classes, I always tell my students: Write what you know. Of course, I didn't make this up; it's a cliché by this point, but one that makes sense. Even if you're a 55-year-old male who grew up in Spain and you're writing a story about a 93-year-old woman who spent her entire life in Alaska, you've got to bring what you know about life, your own experiences, to the character if you want your reader to be able to connect.

Carolyn Sun knows a lot about Korean families. She's Korean, 1st generation, and has spent a lot of time writing about her experiences growing up in what she calls a "crazy, neurotic family."

She also knows a lot about Korean customs, like special birthdays. For instance, a 60th birthday in Korea is cause for a major celebration. Every 60 years, the Chinese Zodiac cycle repeats, so if you're born in the year of the Tiger, when you hit 60, it's the year of the Tiger all over again. Koreans call it the gahngee cycle.

In Carolyn's touching and hilarious story, "70th Birthday," a girl is asked by her father on the occasion of his 70th birthday (also a big one in the Korean tradition), to write a 10-page letter filled with all the best memories she has of her childhood. But what's a girl to do if she can't recall a one?

Give "70th Birthday" a read and find out. And for more great short stories, head on over to, our partners in this feature.

70th Birthday

by Carolyn Sun

It's a few days before my father's 70th birthday.

I'm on the phone with my younger sister, Jenny.

"Have you written yours?" Jenny already knows what I'm talking about.

"No," she responds, "have you?"

"No," I say, glumly. "I'll come up with something."

We're both silent. We've been having this same conversation for the past eight months. The fact that we're having that same, boring conversation in the first place is my fault, too. I shouldn't have asked my father THE QUESTION. Here I thought I was being a good daughter at the time.

You see, eight months ago, I'd been feeling pretty flush, financially. I didn't own a pimp cup with my name in diamonds, but still, I had a steady, full-time job teaching English, and for the first time in my life, I'd actually seen money in my bank account that wasn't a gift from my family. I'd felt proud of myself.

It then occurred to me: I could actually buy my father's love for the first time in my life for his birthday! He was turning 70, a big deal in a Korean's lifetime. Like the Jews, Koreans have set aside big deal birthdays that are expensive and require elaborate parties and expensive gifts.
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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]