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Lendle: A Book Sharing Site for Kindle Users

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I recently bought a Kindle -- something I swore I'd never do. There were so many reasons I didn't want one: I already owned too many print books I hadn't read; the screen was kind of crappy; Kindle books were too expensive; the device itself was expensive; and, perhaps most troubling -- buying a Kindle felt like giving up on the publishing industry as I've known it. The worst part of the ebook model offered by Amazon was the inability to have the same kind of ownership over an ebook that I have over a physical book -- I couldn't resell it, lend it, donate it, or burn it to survive the upcoming superpocalypse. And most of those issues are still not solved. But there was one clincher that swayed things in the Kindle's favor: after going on a business trip with a book that weighed more than my laptop, I really wanted the option to have a super-light, super-portable gizmo for plane trips. And a few of the other issues (like the screen quality) have gotten better over the years. So I took the plunge and bought the basic no-frills Kindle, which has been a great way to read massive tomes like the Song of Ice and Fire series. (Oddly, I find pressing the "next page" button very satisfying. There's a progress bar at the bottom of the screen showing your percentage of book completion -- nudging that forward is like a little game I can play: "I'll stop reading tonight when I get to 25%!")

Enter Lendle

After some frustration buying ultra-expensive ebooks (as well as some reasonably-priced ones, like the initial Game of Thrones book and some deal-of-the-day books), I came across a site called Lendle. It turns out that some Kindle ebooks (not most, just some -- just those where the publisher has opted in) have the ability to be shared. Once. For two weeks. Well, this is a severely limited flavor of "sharing," but it's a far sight better than nothing. So I signed up.

The way Lendle works is pretty simple -- you tell them which books you own and are willing to lend (and it proceeds to tell you that half of them are not lendable due to the dumb publisher not opting in); you go through their library of books and select the books you want to borrow; and the site performs an anonymized match-making process. Within minutes of signing up, someone requested to borrow the book OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word, and I approved. When the lending period is up, this will give me a borrowing credit (I have my eye on some Vonnegut books I haven't read in a while, and my print copies are falling apart). It felt really good to let somebody else read a book for free, and it gave me a taste of how this ebook world could actually have benefits beyond print books -- after all, it would be quite expensive and time-consuming to put together a similar service that relied on mailing books (rather than emailing codes). Full disclosure: in my newfound joy at finding this book-sharing site, I went ahead and upgraded my account to the "Patron" level, an optional thing where you PayPal them a one-time $25 fee. This unlocks various additional features, none of which I have used yet.

Lendle upsides: Lendle has book clubs; it's integrated with Amazon's API so you can look up any Kindle book and be sure it's the right one; you get paid tiny bits of money (delivered when you get to $10 via an Amazon gift card) every time you lend a book; and this is probably the only time you will use the Kindle's built-in sharing feature.

Lendle downsides: it only works in the U.S.; you need to create your own private email address to use with the service (unless you're okay with revealing your real email address to strangers); and most books are not lendable (although the hope is that, long-term, publishers may ease up on their restrictions -- I'm not holding my breath). The other thing I've noticed it that the Lendle site can be pokey, apparently because it's pulling info from the Amazon API (for example, when you search for a book), and that appears to be inherently slow.

How to Sign Up

It's free to join and use Lendle -- in fact, they pay you! (No, I'm not clear how this works; in their FAQ they mention advertising revenue from the site, and Patron fees. I also suspect that you have to be a super-lender to accrue $10, which is the minimum there probably aren't many payouts happening each day.) If you join the site and use my referral code WTKIF5QW you or I could win a prize! Or you could just join without the code; I ain't gonna be mad at ya (but if you don't use the code, you're not entered to win a Kindle Fire!).

Other (Legal) Ways to Get Free Kindle Ebooks

My local library supposedly has Kindle books available, but I haven't been able to make the system work yet -- the library website and the creepy third party ebook site don't talk together nicely. I'll have to sit down with some friends who have done this so that I may navigate the very 1998-style websites involved with borrowing library books. I also noted that the waiting lists were extremely long, and the selection pretty thin.

There are lots of classics and older books available on Kindle (and indeed all formats), primarily via Project Gutenberg. I read Jayne Eyre in a free edition, and can't complain. I was also surprised by the large library of free short stories by authors (including Vonnegut) that are in the Kindle store -- I have a pile of bite-sized fiction on my Kindle in case I find myself on an extra-long plane ride.

If you're an Amazon Prime member, there is a small lending library available. None of the big publishers are on board with the program though, so you're only getting titles from small houses and from authors who own their electronic rights. Still, I found several books that were on my wish list that are available from the Amazon program. This isn't "free," but it's free-to-me as I already paid for the membership.

Do you know of other ways to get free ebooks? (And I don't want to hear about piracy!) Share your tips in the comments! Also, please be aware that you don't actually need Kindle hardware in order to participate in the Kindle (and Lendle) ecosystem -- there is a free Kindle app that works on smartphones, tablets, and desktop PCs (this last one is handy when you're doing research and need to refer to the book onscreen while you're typing a report).

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.