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Own the Road: A Brief History of the Adopt-a-Highway Program

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In the 26 years since the Adopt-a-Highway program was launched, it has helped keep America’s highways clean, saved taxpayers money, sparked a handful of free-speech battles, and even been featured on an episode of Seinfeld. Here’s a brief history of the program.

The Birth of Adopt-a-Highway

The idea hit James Evans like an empty soda can, or maybe it was a discarded candy wrapper. Evans, an engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation, was driving one day in 1984 when he saw litter blowing out of the back of a pickup truck. Littering was a growing problem in Texas at the time, and while Evans knew that his department didn’t have the resources to combat it, he saw a prime opportunity to promote volunteerism. One year later, Billy Black, the public information officer for the Tyler District of the Texas Department of Transportation, collaborated with Evans and organized the first Adopt-a-Highway program.

How the Program Works

The program varies slightly by state, but volunteers typically apply to adopt at least two miles of highway for two years, and are responsible for cleaning that stretch at least four times per year. In return, the adopter’s name is recognized on a sign along that stretch of highway. The Adopt-a-Highway program saves taxpayers millions of dollars in cleanup costs and allows state governments to allocate transportation funds to other projects. The number of state employees devoted to highway cleanup and beautification has plunged since the advent of the Adopt-a-Highway program. A number of states, including New Hampshire, have Sponsor-a-Highway programs, where volunteers make donations to pay for maintenance crews to clean a stretch of highway in exchange for recognition on a sign.

The First Adoption

The first Adopt-a-Highway sign was installed along Highway 69 in Tyler, Texas, on March 9, 1985. The Tyler Civitan Club was provided equipment and safety training and was responsible for a two-mile stretch of road as part of Tyler’s pilot program. In 1999, the Texas legislature honored that group by passing a resolution that established March 9 as International Adopt-a-Highway Day.

“Don’t Mess With Texas”


The popular slogan that adorns bumper stickers and T-shirts originated as part of a 1986 campaign to reduce litter along Texas roadways and is trademarked by the Texas Department of Transportation. The litter awareness campaign was launched in conjunction with the Adopt-a-Highway program and is credited with reducing litter on Texas highways by 72% within the first four years.

The Adoption Movement Spreads

The Adopt-a-Highway program was a huge success in Texas and other states soon took notice. The program, or a variation thereof, eventually spread to all 50 states, as well as Puerto Rico, and several countries, including Australia, Japan and Spain. The most common adopters are civic groups and local businesses, though individuals occasionally adopt. Celebrities, including Bette Midler and Robin Williams, helped raise the profile of the program by adopting their own stretches of highway. Today, a handful of for-profit companies manage the sponsoring of highways by large companies looking for positive publicity and what amounts to advertising space on a small billboard.

Adopt-a-Highway Gets the Seinfeld Treatment

In the 150th episode of Seinfeld, “The Pothole,” Kramer announces, “I am a proud parent of a one-mile stretch of the Arthur Berkhardt Expressway.” Kramer proceeds to convert the four-lane highway into a “two-lane comfort cruise” by blacking out two sets of lane lines, which results in massive congestion. Out of fear that he’ll lose his baby, Kramer attempts to remove the black paint, but spills paint thinner all over the highway. While driving along Kramer’s stretch of highway, Newman runs over a sewing machine and it catches on the front axle, producing sparks. Here's the final scene:

Court Rules KKK Can Adopt a Highway

In 2001, Missouri and 28 other states challenged a lower court’s ruling that it was unconstitutional to deny the Ku Klux Klan’s application to participate in the Adopt-a-Highway program, but the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal. "We think we secured an important right,” Robert Herman, an attorney who was part of the ACLU team defending the Klan said. “The government cannot punish people for holding unpopular political opinions.” Missouri’s state legislature responded by renaming the stretch of highway that the KKK adopted Rosa Parks Highway. "I think the governor appreciates the irony of the KKK picking up trash along the Rosa Parks Highway,” a spokesman for Gov. Mel Carnahan said."But regardless of how it's done, honoring Rosa Parks is a very noble thing to do.”

Other Adopt-a-Highway Controversies

In addition to the KKK, a number of other groups have become the subject of controversy after adopting stretches of highway over the years. Some groups, including Wiccans and nudists, create minor ripples. Others spark legal battles.


• National Socialist Movement: Missouri state officials responded to another controversial adoption in 2009 when it renamed a stretch of highway adopted by a neo-Nazi group after Abraham Joshua Heschel, a prominent Jewish civil rights advocate. “I think it’s childish,” Cynthia Keene, one of the group’s leaders, told the New York Times. “If they want to have Nazis out there stomping on a Jewish-named highway, that’s their choice.” A National Socialist Movement unit in Denver adopted a stretch of highway in 2010 as a PR and recruiting tool. “We're upstanding citizens, try to be good people, and try to portray ourselves that way," the unit’s leader told a local television station.


• The National Alliance: The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet accepted the National Alliance’s application for the Adopt-a-Highway program in 2007. When the cabinet learned of the group’s white supremacist views in 2009, it threatened to terminate the contract. Fearing legal action, the cabinet ultimately backed off.

• Minutemen: In 2009 the San Diego Minutemen, an anti-illegal immigration group, adopted a stretch of I-5 in California near the Mexico-United States border. Caltrans, which oversees California’s Adopt-a-Highway program, reassigned the group to a less busy stretch of road after local activists complained. The Minutemen filed suit and won a six-figure settlement and a formal apology from Caltrans, in addition to being able to keep their sign near the border.

• Southern Appalachian Lesbian and Gay Alliance: After the North Carolina Department of Transportation denied SALGA’s request to adopt a two-mile stretch of highway in 1989, the group filed suit. The two parties settled out of court and SALGA’s application was accepted, but North Carolina DOT officials urged the group to leave the words lesbian and gay off of its signs. SALGA chose to include the words and the signs were soon stolen. Under the terms of its Adopt-a-Highway program, the state agreed to pay for the original and one set of replacement signs.

• Men’s Crisis Center: In 2008, local women’s groups in Juneau, Alaska argued that an Adopt-a-Highway sign recognizing a social group called the Men’s Crisis Center was offensive and filed a petition with the office of Gov. Sarah Palin to have it removed. "The Men's Crisis Center is in our imagination," the center's founder, Ron DeLacy of Columbia, Calif., told the Juneau Empire. "There's no organized Men's Crisis Center. You go to the bar, you're at the Men's Crisis Center."

• Luv Boutique: In 2009, a small chain of adult entertainment stores adopted four stretches of highway in Connecticut.

What Else Can You Adopt?

The Adopt a Highway program has spawned numerous offshoots, including Adopt a Spot (for a particular area in a community, such as a park or a plaza), Adopt a Stream, Adopt a Road, and Adopt a Street. If you’re interested in adopting, visit your state’s DOT website to learn more.

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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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