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Happy Birthday, Blue Jeans!

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In 1853, with the California Gold Rush in full swing, a 24-year-old German-Jewish immigrant named Levi Strauss arrived in San Francisco. Strauss' brothers ran a dry goods business in New York City, and he headed west to open a California branch. He brought plenty of rough canvas for making tents and wagon covers, but his early customers told him he should have brought pants, since a good strong pair was hard to find in mining towns.

Strauss started making pants from the canvas, but miners complained that they chafed. Strauss switched to a softer twilled cotton cloth, originally made in Nîmes, France, called "serge de Nîmes" (which would later become known as denim) and did brisk business selling these pants to miners.

Jacob Davis, a Latvian-born tailor from Reno, Nevada, was a regular customer of Levi Strauss & Co.'s wholesale house. In 1870, a woman came to Davis' shop asking for a pair of pants, "made as strong as possible," for her husband, a large man who tended to wear his pants out quickly. Davis decided to reinforce the pocket corners, where pants receive a lot of stress, with some of the copper rivets he used to attach straps to horse blankets. The woman and her husband liked the pants, so Davis decided to make more and market them. Within eighteen months, he had sold over 200 pairs of riveted pants and was beginning to worry that someone might steal his idea. He needed a patent, but didn't have the $68 needed to apply for one, so he sought out a business partner. (Davis was apparently familiar with both the patenting process and not having a lot of money. He had previously applied for patents for a steam-powered canal boat and a steam-powered ore crusher, and when he first settled in Reno he lost all his money when brewery he had invested in went under.)

In 1872, he wrote to Levi Strauss, described the success of riveted pants and asked if Strauss would like to apply for, and hold, the patent with him. Strauss agreed, and on May 20, 1873, the two men received U.S. Patent No. 139,121 from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for an "Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings."

Though Genoese sailors had been wearing denim trousers as far back as the mid-18th century, that patent was the beginning of jeans' domination of style across the world. Today we wish blue jeans a happy 136th birthday with a few trivia nuggets:

"¢ Levi Strauss' jeans, both pre- and post-rivet, were dyed with indigo because (1) indigo was inexpensive and readily available, and (2) dark blue denim hid dirt and stains well, which was great for Strauss' miner customers. The seams were sewn with orange thread to match the color of Davis' copper rivets.

levis.jpg"¢ Early jeans had the rivets on both the front and back pockets, but because of complaints that they scratched saddles and chairs, the rear ones were covered up in 1937 and removed in 1967. Today the rear pockets are strengthened by reinforced corner stitching.

"¢ The double row of stitching across the back pockets of Levi's jeans "“ known as the Arcuate stitching design "“ has been there since the earliest pairs made in 1873. For a few years, the design was hand painted on the pockets of each pair of pants when the government rationed certain materials, like thread, during WWII.

"¢ A pair of Levi's 501 jeans is composed of 1¾ yards of denim, 213 yards of thread, five buttons and six rivets and requires 37 separate sewing operations during manufacture.

"¢ In 1997, Levi Strauss & Co. paid $25,000 for a pair of 100-year-old jeans found in an old Colorado mine. This oldest known pair of Levi's jeans went on display in the company museum.

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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]