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History of the U.S.: A Ridiculously Long and Incomplete List of Things Ben Franklin Invented

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We all remember Ben Franklin as a pretty bright guy who discovered some pretty important stuff. The real question is, what didn’t this polymath genius invent?

1742: Observing the wasteful use of firewood in inefficient colonial fireplaces, he designed the Franklin Stove, which used its iron body to diffuse a much larger proportion of the heat. The stove enabled poor families to save money and be warmer in the winter.
1749: Noticing that lightning was attracted to metal and tall objects, Franklin hit on the idea of attaching vertical metal rods to the tops of tall buildings to attract the lightning, thus sparing the roof a direct hit.
1752: To prove that lightning was static electricity, Franklin carried out his famous kite experiment with the help of his young son William (nobody ever said he was a responsible parent). He conducted an electrical charge from a key along a wire into a primitive battery. Franklin and son were lucky to survive; in following years, a number of scientists who tried to replicate Franklin’s experiment were killed by lightning.

1752: To allow his brother to urinate while suffering from kidney stones, Franklin invented the first flexible urinary catheter used in North America.

1763: Franklin, who had been appointed postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737, came up with the odometer. The complicated device composed of three interlocking gears was attached to the wheel of postal carriages in order to figure out the distances traveled by postal officers.

1770: He named and described the “Gulf Stream”— the giant Atlantic current circulating between the Gulf of Mexico and the west coast of Ireland— and correctly identified it as the reason the voyage from Britain to America took longer along certain routes. British admirals ignored his findings and then came up with the same answer several de cades later.

1784: Troubled by being both near- and far- sighted at the age of 78, Franklin improved spectacles by inventing the “bifocal.”

1786: To reach merchandise on high shelves, he invented a pole with a claw at one end operated by handles at the other— a device still used at corner bodegas everywhere.

1787: Although he never actually built them, during one of his eight Atlantic crossings, Franklin came up with a design for watertight bulkheads that would help limit flooding below deck if a ship’s hull was breached.

Along the way, he also helped develop America’s first fire department, the first library, and the concept of daylight saving time. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Ben Franklin the inventor was his refusal to patent any of his ideas, so that the widest possible number of people could benefit from them.

Looking for more fabulous content like this? You’re in luck - The Mental Floss History of the United States hits bookshelves near you on October 5th! If you pre-order, you’ll get three free issues of mental_floss magazine. Get all of the details over here.

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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]