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Apple's iPad - some observations

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I just typed "iPad" into the mental_floss back-end search engine and was amazed to discover that we haven't yet written anything substantial on this possibly game-changing device. There was this post, the interview with Chris Anderson of Wired magazine talking about the future of publishing vis-à-vis the iPad, but that was about it.

So, here's a post about the iPad because I went to the Apple store yesterday and gave it a whirl after reading this amazing Boing Boing post by Cory Doctorow over the weekend touting all the reasons why you SHOULDN'T buy the iPad. (And if you're considering one, absolutely read the post.)

Disclaimer: this isn't an official review of the iPad "“ just some observations.

Observation no. 1: I couldn't believe how many people were fighting to get their hands on the device! Not to buy it, just to try it. And the way some people were excited just to see it, as if they'd just discovered nirvana. I actually overheard someone say this, "Holy sh*t! There it is! Would you look at that! Wow!"

The table where they had the iPads on display had several rings of people standing on their tippy toes to see over the people in front of them as they waited impatiently to get their hands on it. The only other times I saw something like it, was when I visited the Church of the Nativity in Jerusalem and when I visited the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.

Observation no. 2: There's no Adobe Flash on the iPad. Why? If you could watch free TV shows on Hulu, then why buy them on iTunes? If you could play Flash games on sites like Miniclip, why buy them at the App Store, where Apple takes a 30% cut of every sale. This, by my way of thinking, is the biggest flaw of the Apple tablet. It's hard not having Flash on my iPhone, but on this larger device, you can't really live without it. So you have to believe that sooner, rather than later, someone like Brightcove will come along and release an app that gives you a workaround. Or Apple will cave to public pressure. Because too many sites rely on Flash to bring you their content. So this will have to change. But for now, it's a big black mark.

Observation no. 3: If you like reading books on the Kindle, you'll totally love reading them on the iPad. The screen is bright, the text pops, and the user experience is rich and fast. I think a lot of people will buy the iPad just for the e-books, especially since it's infinitely cooler looking than the Kindle and has that Apple cachet. The New York Times once wrote a piece about how Apple has a monopoly on Cool, and when it comes to e-book readers, this is no exception.

Observation no. 4: Pictures look amazing! You can stretch them, turn them, poke them and pinch them however you want and they just leap off the screen.

Observation no. 5: This thing is FAST! I don't know which version I had in my hands yesterday, but it was the fastest machine I've ever played with. No wait time on anything "“ at least none that's noticeable or annoying. I remembered back to the early "˜90s and how we had to wait for the dozen blue bars on AOL's homepage"¦ and wait, and wait, and wait. I knew back then that the day would come when there was no load-time. That day has arrived.

Observation no. 6: It's easier to type on than the iPhone, that's for sure. Still, it's no walk in the park.

Observation no. 7
: I'm going to have to go back and play around with it some more before I decide if I need one now or if I'll have to wait for the next version.

What about you all? Anyone buy one yet? What do you think?

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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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