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Some Boxy Facts for Boxing Day!

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Happy Boxing Day to those Flossers who celebrate it! On a more generic box-ing note, we've packaged a few boxy facts for your consideration:

Crate Expectations

What's the difference between a wooden box and a wooden crate? Not very much to the average consumer, but the U.S. Government has a different take on the situation. There are no less than five different official standards that dictate the specific style and construction of the container to allow it to be called a "crate." To summarize all the legal mumbo-jumbo, it appears that a "crate" is sturdier and more intricately built than your average "box." A container may be constructed of wood and look like a crate, but if it doesn't have a secure lid and is not able to be stacked and sustain X amount of weight atop it, it's a box, not a crate.

The First Jack-in-the-Box

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We know you've long been wondering which came first: Jack in the Box the hamburger chain or jack-in-the-box the kid's toy. Well, you can stop scratching your head! The first jack-in-the-box toy was manufactured in the early 1500s by a German clock-maker. It consisted of a wooden box with a hinged metal lid and a hand crank on the side. The "jack" that popped out was based on the Punch character of the then-popular Punch and Judy shows. In fact, jack-in-the-box wasn't the toy's most common name. It originally went by such names as "Johnny Jump-Up" and the "Punch Box."

Box-fest at Tiffany's

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Tiffany & Company introduced its distinctive blue boxes in 1837. In fact, they commissioned a company to develop a unique shade of blue strictly for use in their packaging, brochures, and shopping bags in order to give their products a "signature." The company became so protective of the color that a rule was established in 1906 "“ no one could buy an empty box; indeed, no official Tiffany box could leave the store without an item purchased from the store enclosed. Their investment paid off, as any woman lucky enough to receive pricey jewelry as a gift will immediately recognize the "little blue box" as a genuine Tiffany product.

The Origin of the Juice Box

The modern juice box evolved from an invention produced by Swedish entrepreneur Ruben Rausing. In 1963 Rausing was experimenting with more efficient methods to ship milk to retail outlets and he came up with the Tetra-Brik, an aseptic rectangular carton. In 1980 Ocean Spray became the first U.S. company to use Rausing's technology to sell individual servings of juice in a box.

Gateway Cow Boxes

Screen shot 2009-12-26 at 12.10.46 PMTed Waitt started a business in 1985 using his parents' farm house in Sioux City, Iowa, as his base of operations. His original business model was selling peripheral equipment to Texas Instrument computer users, but he soon learned that he could make more money by building and selling whole computers rather than components. With a $10,000 loan from his grandmother he founded Gateway, Inc. The packaging for all of Gateway's products featured a Holstein cow motif in tribute to the cattle ranch that gave him his start.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.