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Dietribes: I Have a Tooth to Pick With You

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The Washington Post had this to say about the toothpick, which I really think says it all: "A satirist once described a fictitious journal, titled 'History's Splendid Splinter,' which was devoted to scholarly essays on the wooden toothpick's 'role in social history, patterns of forestry, and the evolving technology of toothpick manufacture.' Henry Petroski, who quotes this dig at minutiae-obsessed pedants, gets the joke but refutes it, insisting that even the most insignificant objects can reward our close attention with new revelations."

"¢ "The toothpick was first used in the United States at the Union Oyster House. Enterprising Charles Forster of Maine first imported the picks from South America." That fact that, "to promote his new business he hired Harvard boys to dine at the Union Oyster House and ask for toothpicks," proves that everything is about marketing!

"¢ This little wooden tool can have many other uses - Madame de Lafayette utilized a toothpick (and watery pine soot) to write a biography while imprisoned during the French Revolution.

"¢ From the Annals of Too Much Time: Amazing toothpick sculptures plus a video. Truly "the essence of patience."

"¢ Check out this patent for a tongue toothpick from 1923 that looks exceptionally painful.


"¢ Not all toothpicks are created equal - traditional Japanese toothpicks are pointed at one end, and have grooves that allow it to be broken off to indicate that it has been used. If the unsightly nature of the "discarded" part is your problem, try Martha Stewart's clever solution. Discarded toothpicks can also help you to grow your own avocado tree!

"¢ Try this parlor trick of turning a group of toothpicks into a star without touching them (there's clearly some magic to it ... surely one of you brilliant readers can help determine if it's real or not?)

"¢ Toothpicks can also be dangerous. According to the Sherwood Anderson Foundation, "Anderson died of peritonitis in the Canal Zone a year or so later while on his way to South America. He'd swallowed part of a toothpick, some think at a party while devouring hors d'oeuvres and quaffing martinis before his ship left New York. By the time he got to the Canal Zone and into a hospital at Colon, it was too late."

"¢ Sort of like creating your own needle in a haystack, find the actual beard among the 2000 toothpicks placed within. And of course, a response video with even more beard toothpicks!

"¢ If you always have to have a toothpick, be environmentally friendly and do some investing all in one with a pick made of gold. Find other fancy models here.

"¢ Can a toothpick influence an election? Consider the Putin Toothpick "“ or get a set with his black Lab, Koni!

Pay by the toothpick at an Orange County Tapas restaurant.


It's important to floss (of course), so it's good to keep a toothpick handy. Any avid users out there?

Hungry for more? Venture into the Dietribes archive.

"˜Dietribes' appears every other Wednesday. Food photos taken by Johanna Beyenbach. You might remember that name from our post about her colorful diet.

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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]