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The Late Movies: Inventors

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Last week I pointed to a profile of Steven Sasson, Inventor of the Digital Camera. But his short interview is just the latest in a string of inventor profiles by David Friedman. I've collected some more of Friedman's videos below -- for the most part these are impressively humble people who have created very useful things. And the videos are bite-sized, so you can take a peek without committing to more than a few minutes. Enjoy!

Jerry Ford: Safe-T-Chair

"I invented an automatic brake system that prevents falls and injuries from roll-away wheelchairs. I crop-farm: I raise corn, soybeans, and hay, uh, I raise hay for my horses. ... I have twenty-seven horses right now."

The invention is remarkably smart, purely mechanical, and has likely saved many lives.

Inventor Portrait: Jerry Ford from David Friedman on Vimeo.

Clint Fruitman: Painaway Pro

"Probably twenty years ago, I injured my back pretty badly. My partner was, at that time, my chiropractic doctor. And he sent me back to my job, which involved a lot of travel, with a TENS, or Transcutaneous Electrical [Nerve] Stimulator, attached to electrodes glued to my back."

Also: plastics!

Inventor Portrait: Clint Fruitman from David Friedman on Vimeo.

Tom Roering: Wilcraft

"Wilcraft is a drivable, amphibious, ice-fishing vehicle. ... The project started ... out of the desire to ice-fish safer, more conveniently, and be more mobile on the ice."

Inventor Portrait: Tom Roering from David Friedman on Vimeo.

Tami Galt: Fold-it & Go

"My idea came from going to the farmer's market and having too much to carry -- my back always hurt afterwards, and I'd be full of bundles. So I looked around and everybody was using these old-lady wire carts. And I figured I'd never be old enough to look like a little old lady in a wire cart. But I saw a few people with little red wagons..."

Inventor Portrait: Tami Galt from David Friedman on Vimeo.

Brent Farley: (Too Many Products to Mention

"Well, it's a chair for havin' sex on." Warning: slightly racy and definitely weird, Farley is the most colorful and prolific of the bunch. "... Marketing has always been my downfall."

Inventor Portrait: Brent Farley from David Friedman on Vimeo.

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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]