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5 Things You Don't Know About IKEA (But Should!)

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by Mac Carey

So, just how popular is IKEA? It's estimated that 10% of living Europeans were conceived on an IKEA-produced bed. It's time you learned a little more about the company, its reclusive owner Ingvar Kamprad (who may or may not be worth more than Bill Gates), and his continuing quest to install flat pack, streamlined fixtures across the seven continents.

1. It All Started With a Car

The inspiration for IKEA's design philosophy came when taking the legs off of a chair to fit it into a car. IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad was so irritated by the experience that he developed the concept of flat pack design. The novel packing method had a twofold appeal: it allowed easier shopping for urban Europeans who depended on public transportation, and it also lowered the company's shipping costs dramatically. But the store wasn't an immediate success. IKEA floundered in Sweden for thirty years (THIRTY YEARS!) before finding an international audience.

2. The Company Had Some Dark Secrets

IngvarKamprad.jpgWhile we've written about IKEA cloaking itself as a charitable institution, that isn't the blue and yellow über-store's only dirty secret. While Kamprad today is known as a frugal billionaire who drives a '93 Volvo, eats at middle-class restaurants, and outfits his home entirely in affordable IKEA products, his legacy is tainted by his past involvement with pro-Nazi organizations. Between 1942 and 1945, Kamprad joined, fund-raised, and recruited members for a fascist, Nazi-sympathizing group in Sweden. The news only came out in 1994, when his personal correspondence with fascist Per Engdahl was released to the public. Kamprad immediately apologized for his involvement and claimed it was the biggest regret of his young life. He also wrote to every Jewish employee on his staff to issue a personal apology.

Of course, none of this stopped the information from being a point of controversy when the store first arrived in Israel, but the world seems to have forgiven him. Today IKEA is one of the only international companies to spread to both Israel and Arab countries. In fact, the store is so popular in the Middle East that three people were trampled to death at the store's 2004 grand opening in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

3. The Dining Tables Were Too Small for a Turkey

The beginnings of IKEA in America were inauspicious, with European compact efficiency conflicting with America's "bigger is better" creed. In the 1980s, for example, many customers bought vases, mistaking them for water glasses. They were also wary of a dining room table that couldn't hold the girth of a full size Thanksgiving turkey. IKEA's designers only changed their mindset in how they approached American design after the head of US operations made a stunt of it: He handed out t-shirts to Swedish designers that declared "size matters." They apparently got the message.

4. The IKEA Catalogue Is Bigger Than the Bible

IKEA
The IKEA catalogue was and is the company's greatest weapon in its arsenal. A 300-page missionary text, it goes out to over 180 million people in 27 different languages. Each year, there are more copies of the IKEA catalogue printed than the Bible. A bit of a cult following has also developed around the catalogues, with earnest readers on the lookout for hidden messages in the pictures, such as running references to Mickey Mouse and weird, obscure books on the bookshelves.

5. It's a Hipster Hangout

Despite early stumbles in America, twenty years later, the store has so ingrained itself into our society that a trend amongst urban hipsters is to host dinner parties at the stores. A meal of lingonberry jam and meatballs at the cafeteria for the host and guests, and the living room displays make perfect venues for a round of Taboo and Pictionary. A blog posting chronicling the first party in Sacramento led to a string of copycats across the country. So far, IKEA management doesn't seem to be complaining.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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
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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:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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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]

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