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The Men Behind the Tools

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You may not realize it, but you've got quite a few proper names in your toolbox or hanging above your workbench. Let's take a look at a few of the names that have helped make drilling, screwing, cleaning, and tightening a bit easier for all of us.

Ettore squeegees

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The squeegee takes its name from the sound it makes as it cleans a window, and no brand name is as closely linked to clean windows as Ettore. It's fitting, then, that Italian immigrant and window cleaner Ettore Steccone perfected the modern single-blade squeegee in 1936 with a model he called "the New Deal."

Steccone's improved design made it easier for window washers to replace worn-out blades while they were dangling high on buildings' facades, but he had to resort to some trickery to get stores to stock the New Deal. When Steccone was still operating his business out of his garage, he tried to convince the New York window cleaning supply giant J. Racenstein Company to buy an order of his squeegees. They declined. Undeterred, Steccone bet the owner that within a month the company would place an order for his squeegees. The stakes? Only the finest hat in New York City.

Here's where the trickery comes in. Steccone then went around town and gave his window-washing colleagues free squeegees to try for a day. When they came back to him with rave reviews and asked where they could buy more, Steccone directed them to the J. Racenstein Company. Sure enough, Racenstein placed an order for Steccone's wares within a month. The luxurious Borsalino hat that Racenstein bought Steccone still sits in the Ettore Products Company's offices as an oddly dapper trophy.

Black & Decker

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In 1910, S. Duncan Black (far left) and Alonzo G. Decker pooled $1,200 to open a machine shop in Baltimore. At first they built machines to make bottle caps and dip candy, but in 1916 they hit upon an interesting idea: What if they made a portable drill? The pair worked to obtain a patent for a drill with a pistol grip and a trigger, and the drill was suddenly a lot handier than it had been. Within three years, the Black & Decker was racking up over $1 million in annual sales.

Stanley

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Although it merged with Black & Decker earlier this year, the Stanley Works' name lives on in the new corporate name Stanley Black & Decker. The company got its start in New Britain, CT in 1843 when Frederick Trent Stanley opened a shop to make door bolts and hinges from wrought iron. In 1857, his cousin Henry Stanley started a hardware company of his own, the Stanley Rule and Level Company. In 1920, the two companies finally merged to become the Stanley Works.

Allen wrenches

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Connecticut is a surprisingly fertile location for hardware designs. The familiar hex wrench takes its common name from the Allen Manufacturing Company of Hartford, which introduced a popular line of hex keys in 1943.

DeWalt

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Although DeWalt is now a subsidiary of Stanley Black & Decker, it traces its roots all the way back to 1922. That's when farm superintendent Raymond DeWalt ran into a problem. He needed more men to help him cut lumber to specific lengths, but his bosses wouldn't shell out any extra cash for payroll. DeWalt addressed the problem by hooking a saw to a moving yoke and an arm, which allowed one man to cut wood far more efficiently. Yes, DeWalt invented the radial arm saw, which made cutting lumber easier than the old table saws and handsaws that people had been using. DeWalt formed the DeWalt Products Company in 1924 and introduced the "Wonder-Worker," an electric woodworking machine that included his radial arm saw design.

Phillips head screw

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Yes, there's actually a Mr. Phillips. In the early 1930s, assembly lines were facing a conundrum. Powered mechanized screwdrivers could make production far more efficient, but they were incredibly irritating to use with the traditional flat-head screws. As soon as the tip of the screwdriver would slip into the slot, it would pop back out again.

Henry F. Phillips of Portland, OR solved all of that in 1934. His crosshead screw centered itself, and once a screwdriver was seated in the slot, it wasn't coming out. Phillips began licensing his screws to industrial plants, and they were an immediate hit. By 1937, General Motors had begun using Phillips head screws, and now you can find Phillips' name in most any toolbox.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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