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Time is Money

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(This post was originally published on September 20th, 2011. I had no idea what kind of response I'd get from the _floss community since it was sort of off-brand, but this comment from loripop not only made my 2011, it made my entire 6-year, 2000+ posts flossing career: "This is one of the most beautiful things I've ever read on the internet." Loripop, whoever and wherever you are, thank you, thank you, thank you. And thanks to all the other wonderful commenters over the years on this post and so many others. You guys are something else! Keep it alive...)

My grandfather Mervin was an inventor. He invented hairclips. This month, he would have turned 110. To make money as a lad, he got a job sweeping up hair in a beauty parlor. Soon he noticed a need for clips. Clips that held the hair in place while the barber cut, clips that put waves in the hair, and doohickeys that crimped and flattened. He had patents on all these. Some were profitable, like the Jiffy, the Teeny, and others weren’t. But I guess the successful ones more than made up for the duds because he did pretty well for himself.

In the 1940s, his factory was at 173-177 Lafayette Street in Manhattan. Later he moved it to Orlando, Florida, though, when the workers tried to organize. In my family, we never liked unions much.

Fifty years later when I was living in SoHo, I wandered over to Chinatown to see what had happened to 173-177 Lafayette Street. I thought maybe the residue of the Mervin Wave Clip Company sign would be visible on the side of the building. The building was still there, but there was no sign of his sign. Everything was in Chinese. Mandarin or Cantonese, who knew?

At the street level of the old factory was a discount store. I went in to poke around and tried to strike up a conversation with the man who worked there. The place was overflowing with merchandise dressed in colorful wrappers that made everything look like candy.

“My grandfather used to work in this building,” I said to the clerk who might have been the owner judging by the confidant pose he struck.

He nodded.

“This was back in the forties,” I said.

Again he nodded, and then smiled a little.

“Those were different times I guess,” I said.

“Time?” he managed. “Time is money.”

I bought a bag of candy and headed home. The candy turned out to be some kind of dehydrated noodle though.

After my grandfather moved the business to Orlando, he met a progressive doctor who only ate food grown in his garden: fruits, nuts, vegetables. Way, way, way ahead of his time, the doctor told my grandfather You are what you eat.

Over time, my grandfather heeded the man’s advice and became a vegetarian. As kids, my brother and I would visit him in Florida and he’d eat a tureen full of salad for dinner while we had chicken, steak, fish, the works. He never tried to get us to give up meat, but we wanted bigger salads than normal for dinner because his looked so good. There were sunflower seeds in there, chickpeas, flax seeds and something he had flown in especially from Washington state called dulse, which is a very salty, dry seaweed that he said was full of B vitamins.

He also ate garlic cloves whole and liked to smear it on a piece of toast instead of butter or jam. When it came to apples, he ate the whole thing, including the core and the seeds. He’d say, “If a little seed like this has enough energy in it to produce an apple tree, can you imagine how good it is for you?”

I’d say, “Yeah, but they taste pretty lousy.”

He’d say, “So?”

There’s not much you can say to So. And anyway, it was pointless to argue with a man who peeled and bit into Bermuda onions the way the rest of us eat bananas.

My grandfather also loved mangos. He owned a tree on somebody’s property near I-95 and would drive over there to pick them when they were in season. But he couldn’t eat them fast enough, so every year he’d pack up liquor boxes with mangos wrapped in newspaper and ship them up to us in New Jersey. If we happened to be visiting him when they were in season, he’d send us home on the plane with a box, as well.

The box was always taped close and wrapped with heavy rope he had found on the beach during his morning walks—something washed up from the sea. The rope made it easy to pick the box off the baggage carousel and kept the mangos safe inside.

But in his late 80s he couldn’t take those long walks on the beach anymore because a melanoma had metastasized to his liver. So the rope collection began to diminish. The last time I visited him in Florida, before he died, he was 91 and still insisted on packing a box of mangos for me to take back north.

I watched him carefully wrap each mango in newspaper and seal the box. Then he painstakingly looped the rope around the box and asked me to assist in making a square knot. When he was done, he looked at me with a sunken face and said, “Well, that’s the end of the rope.”

And sadly, it really was. A month or so later, he was dead.

These days, I see people buying his wave clips off eBay and wonder what on earth they plan to do with them—if maybe the eBayers are just weird hairclip collectors or something. I also wonder who’s collecting all that rope on the beach now that my grandfather isn’t and wish I’d pay more attention when he was alive because I can’t seem to make a square knot without him.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
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WORLD WAR 1
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