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The Secret Inner Workings of Netflix

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The economy is stagnant and many businesses are struggling to stay afloat, yet Netflix consistently shows a profit. Well, what better way to temporarily take your mind off of job hunting and bill paying than to watch a movie? And if that movie is delivered right to your mailbox so that you don't even have to get dressed to retrieve it, that's just icing on the cake. But where exactly do those Netflix DVDs come from? How do they get to your home so quickly? These questions and more are answered below, but keep it quiet, please; the Netflix folks are very big on secrecy.

Netflix has 58 warehouses nationwide, and each one is non-descript and unremarkable. There is no outside signage or even a corporate color scheme to give the slightest hint to the rest of the industrial park what lurks inside those concrete walls.

The company has good reason to keep its presence on the down low: each warehouse contains not only millions of DVDs, but also some very sophisticated and expensive sorting and processing equipment. Aside for the theft potential, Netflix is also trying to avoid having customers showing up on their doorstep trying to return or rent discs.

netfUnmarked Netflix trucks are dispatched to the local main post office at 3:00AM six days per week to pick up cartons of returned DVDs. (Thus, getting your disc in the post early in the day doesn't mean you'll get your next movie any faster; there is only one pick-up per day.) The incoming cartons are handed off to employees who open each box and then spend their entire eight-hour shift taking a disc out of the box, removing it from the envelope, making sure that the title matches the sleeve, wiping it down in one motion and inspecting it for scratches or cracks, and then placing it in one of two bins (one for good discs, one for rejects). Seasoned employees perform this sequence about 650 times per hour, which makes them susceptible to repetitive stress injuries. As a precaution, there is a mandatory stretching/callisthenics break every 65 minutes. [Photo credit: Matthew J. Lee]

Discs that pass inspection are loaded into a machine that scans them (at the rate of 30,000 bar codes per hour) and generates an email confirmation to the sender that the disc has been received. The discs are then scanned a second time, during which process the system checks to see if the DVD has been requested and, if it has, it is automatically sorted by ZIP code. A separate machine inserts and seals the discs into envelopes and a laser printer zaps the address onto the front of the mailer. The machine stuffs and seals about 3,200 envelopes each hour, which are then packed into cartons. Come 5:00PM, the cartons are loaded into trucks and hauled back to the post office, completing that final curve in the Netflix circle.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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iStock
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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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iStock

Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]

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