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From Unemployment to Underwear: 4 Alternative Economic Indicators

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photofriday / Shutterstock.com

On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) informed the country that the U.S. unemployment rate has dropped to 8.6%. This was good news as the national unemployment rate had been hovering around 9% for quite a spell.

The BLS is in charge of putting together some rather mind-boggling statistics. In order to calculate the unemployment rate the BLS surveys more than 100.000 businesses and over 400,000 worksites. And they do this every month. When they’re not busy with unemployment, they spend their free time calculating the national inflation rate and bird watching.

Unemployment and inflation, however, are only two figures that we can look at to tell us how the economy is faring. Over the years, economists and non-economists have come up with small ways to either judge the present or predict the future. Here’s a sample of some of the more interesting indicators.

1. The Underwear Index

The Men’s Underwear Index (MUI) was originally developed by Alan Greenspan. According to this indicator, if men are not quite as well off, they’re less likely to replace worn out underwear, and more likely to wear it out completely before replacing it. As expected, men’s tightie-whitie sales have been down throughout the recession, but they've recently shown an uptick. So, whether you’re a boxer or brief man, things might be looking up.

2. The Waffle House Indicator

Part economic indicator, part disaster recovery index, the Waffle House Indicator is a way to see how down on its luck, or completely out of commission, a city or town is. Open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the Waffle House is a simple gauge with which to evaluate the economic health of a community. Basically, if the 'House is closed, something pretty massive is going down. Craig Fuguate at FEMA has actually come up with a color-coded system to evalute the Waffle House-related damage in a given area:

"Green means the restaurant is serving a full menu, a signal that damage in an area is limited and the lights are on. Yellow means a limited menu, indicating power from a generator, at best, and low food supplies. Red means the restaurant is closed, a sign of severe damage in the area or unsafe conditions."

3. The Marine Index

There are two ways to use our nation’s elite fighting force to judge our current economy. One is by looking at recruitment statistics. Currently, the Marines have a pretty steady stream of recruits coming through the doors, and if recruitment is up, typically the economy is down. If we look at the armed forces in strictly an economic way, then the jobs they offer are typically more dangerous than average, lower paying than average, and more restrictive than average. These jobs, however, bring with them more job security than average, and have more geographic mobility. Therefore, if these positions are nearly full, it shows that the average citizen is willing to take risks to secure a job.

The other way we can use the Marines to tell how we’re doing is to look at their television ads. If their recruitment quotas are met, then they can afford to make their ads less inviting, tougher, and more intimidating. So, if you’re watching Monday Night Football and you see an ad with some gents going through grueling torments to be a Marine, then odds are, the economy still isn’t flying high.

For example, check out this ad, released in 2006 , featuring sci-fi, video game trials rather than real life exertions.

Compare it to this commercial posted earlier this year:

4. The Hot Waitress Index

New York Magazine has reported on a less concrete index, but one that they promise is just as reliable: the Hot Waitress Index. The theory goes that when times are good, people in the “general attractiveness business” (to mongrelize a phrase from Party Down) find many jobs – modeling, marketing, partying, acting – that put their beauty to use. When the economy falls, however, the last resort of the beautiful is to waitress. How one would ever quantify this index is beyond me. I guess it’s one of those gut-feeling things. Or maybe economic indicators are in the eye of the beholder.
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Are there any offbeat measures of the economy's health that you rely on? Feel free to coin your own right here.

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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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