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Remembering Susan Tifft

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Have you ever had someone make a major impact on your life without fully realizing it? Mangesh and I were saddened to hear about the death of one such person, Ms. Susan Tifft. Susan died yesterday after a 2.5 year battle with cancer.

Much of the publishing world will remember Susan as the coauthor of two critically acclaimed nonfiction works, The Patriarch: The Rise and Fall of the Bingham Dynasty, and The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times. Others will remember her as an incredibly gifted writer and editor for Time Magazine, as a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, or as a passionate and always-approachable professor at the Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke.

But Mangesh and I will remember her as the professor who was crazy enough to believe that what we were doing 10 years ago was worth supporting.

In the spring of 2000, shortly after Mangesh and I finished celebrating the release of the very first issue of mental_floss as a campus publication at Duke, we decided we were ready to take on the publishing world. How a couple of kids with no publishing experience were going to break into such a challenging industry was not something we knew the answer to. But we were fortunate to be introduced to a few successful alums in the magazine industry to help us figure that out. One of them was Susan, who was then teaching a couple days each week at Duke and spending the rest of her time in New York.

I can remember so vividly the first meeting with Susan, where I pitched the magazine's concept to her. Looking back, I have no idea why she decided we were worth betting on, but she did. As the first official member of our advisory board, Susan helped us reach out to some of her closest friends in publishing, and just a few years later, we could trace some of our most significant breaks back to her. From adding other key advisory board members to establishing partnerships with companies such as AOL and Reader's Digest, Susan was frequently the initial door opener. But she never wanted credit for playing that role.

I have no idea what to think about the afterlife, but it's at least fun to think that maybe Susan's pulled out a notepad and has started work on her third behind-the-scenes book on a publishing company. Hopefully she's documented all the times Mangesh went back for multiple samples at the Manchu Wok in the mall foodcourt, or my ongoing battle with Diet Sunkist addiction. Scandalous!

To Susan's friends and family, our thoughts go out to you.

See Also: Susan Tifft, co-author of classic newspaper book, dead at 59 [Boston Globe]

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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]