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The Quick 10: Woolworth's Five and Dime

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On July 17, 1997, Woolworth's closed their doors for good. Not that there were many doors to close "“ the company had been slowly selling off pieces of the company and shutting down individual stores for more than a decade. To commemorate the ex-giant, here are a few facts about the company that used to be the biggest department store chain in the world.

FW1. The first Woolworth's "“ everything cost a nickel - was a complete and utter failure. It opened in Utica, New York, in 1878, and was closed within a year; some reports say it was so disastrous it failed within weeks. F.W. (pictured) tried a second store, this one in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He added 10 cent items to the list of goods sold and the higher-priced items allowed him to successfully operate the store.
2. There was a little friendly competition in the family "“ F.W. Woolworth's cousin, Seymour Knox, ran a similar chain of stores called S.H. Knox and Co.'s 5 & 10 Cent Stores. Knox had more than 100 stores in the U.S. and Canada before agreeing to merge with his cousin in 1911.

NEWYORKbuilding3. The now-iconic Woolworth Building in New York City was finished in 1913 and at 792 feet, it was the tallest building in the world (until 1930). It cost $13.5 million to build, and supposedly Woolworth paid for the whole thing in cash. It's now only the 15th tallest building in New York.
4. Seafoam salad was popularized at the Woolworth's lunch counter. It sounds absolutely disgusting to me, but maybe you guys like it: it's lime Jell-O, cream cheese, pears, maraschino cherries and whipped cream. You can also make it with orange Jell-O, if you prefer, or substitute pineapple for pears and add mayo and nuts. Ugh. The only way you could make it worse for me is by adding coconut flakes to the mix.

5. Although the Woolworth stores have closed, the Woolworth Company remains "“ it's just called something different now. You're probably familiar with it "“ it's Foot Locker, Inc. In the "˜70s and "˜80s, the company bought or created a bunch of specialty stores to boost sales and expand the business, from Champs Sports to Northern Reflections to a timepiece store called Best of Times. This included Foot Locker. When it became clear in 2001 that Foot Locker was its best-selling brand, Woolworth changed their name from Venator (which it had adopted upon closing all of its five-and-dime stores) to Foot Locker, Inc.

lunchcounter6. The Woolworth lunch counters were home to some of the most famous civil rights protests during the 1960s. On February 1, 1960, four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University sat down at some stools reserved for whites only at the Greensboro Woolworth's lunch counter. They were refused service, so they refused to leave. More people joined them every day, and eventually the owner closed the store for a few weeks because of a bomb threat. That very lunch counter desegregated a few months later on July 26, 1960. A section of the lunch counter, which closed when the store closed in 1993, now resides at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. An International Civil Rights Center and Museum is planned for the spot in Greensboro where the vacated building stands.

7. In 1979, The Guinness Book of World Records declared that Woolworths was the largest department store chain the world.

8. The Woolworth building in New York has been a pretty popular spot for movies and television shows. It can be spotted in Enchanted as the building that Narissa scales with Robert in her clutches, it's one of the buildings that is destroyed by the Cloverfield monster, and it's the headquarters for Mode magazine in Ugly Betty, among others.

RF529. Barbara Hutton, Frank Winfield Woolworth's granddaughter, was sort of the Paris Hilton of her day "“ a socialite who was famous just because of her family. But there was a lot going on behind the money. Her mother, Woolworth's daughter Edna, committed suicide when Barbara was just six. Barbara was shuttled around to various family members after that. She inherited $50 million on her 21st birthday and then went through a string of husbands, including abusive ones, freeloaders and Cary Grant (who did not ask for a penny when they divorced, by the way). Her only son died in a plane crash in 1972 and it's said that she kind of lost it after that; by the time she died seven years later, it's rumored that she had dwindled away all but $4,000 of her fortune.
10. Brits might be familiar with a Woolworths that is still in operation today; that company used to be owned by the same company as the U.S. Woolworths. Since 1982, it has been operating as its own entity, however, and stayed alive even when the ones in the States closed. That has since changed, though "“ the company announced last year that it would be closing and shuttered its last windows on January 6 of this year.

Do any of you remember going to Woolworth's? I'd love to hear your experiences, so share in the comments if you have any!

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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