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The Late Movies: The Secret Life of Machines

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I love The Secret Life of Machines, a late-1980s series about how everyday machines work. Presented primarily by engineer/cartoonist/artist Tim Hunkin, it's understated, funny, and deeply smart -- a gently curious investigation of how things go. Hunkin wrote about the first series:

The two sides of my life - researching stuff in books for the cartoon strip and making things, had made me realise just how much clever human activity in the world can not be explained in words or suit the format of a book, let alone fit with the publishing fashion of the day. The examples of this which seemed most immediate to me were the everyday machines around the home that everyone takes for granted. I’ve always enjoyed taking machines to bits and trying to mend them. It was always frustrating doing my cartoon strip about this sort of machine – it would be so much better if people could actually watch the machine working.

Hunkin has made loads of machines, as well as the flying pigs and sheep for Pink Floyd's Animals tour. He currently makes coin-operated machines for the Under the Pier Show in Suffolk -- which makes me really, really want to go to Suffolk. But for tonight, enjoy a few of my favorite episodes of The Secret Life of Machines. If you like these, they're all available for free online. (They're also on YouTube and various other spots, with Hunkin's permission.)

The Fax Machine

The first fax machine was patented way back in 1843 by Alexander Bain. In this 24-minute episode, Hunkin and copresenter Rex Garrod explain how the fax machine works.

The Vacuum Cleaner

The very first episode, this explains how vacuum cleaners work, with extensive animation by Hunkin. Hunkin writes:

The vacuum cleaner film was made before Dyson’s cleaners were introduced. These use an old industrial idea of sucking the air and dirt through spiral vanes. This spins the dirt and flings it to the outside of the chamber. Dyson’s version has several stages of vanes and needs no dust bag. Unfortunately the finest particles still get through so filter pads are needed over the outlet. These reduce the suction power of the machines, so I’m not sure they are any real improvement, despite the hype. There is also more awareness of the link between asthma and house dust, so all manufacturers have put more effort into the outlet filters.

The Refrigerator

The most dramatic part is around 2:45 when Hunkin blasts himself in the face with carbon dioxide.

Refrigerators are basically unchanged, but the disposal of scrap fridges is completely different. When I made the film, alternative refrigerant gases were starting to be introduced that are supposed to do less damage to the ozone layer of the atmosphere. Since then though, it has been decided that the gas trapped in the bubbles of the polyurethane foam insulation is also a problem, so now fridges have to be sent for specialist recycling, and every household waste tip has a mini fridge mountain.

Lots and Lots More

Nine of the full programs are available on this YouTube channel, the rest are easily found (in segments) by searching. You may also wish to consult Hunkin's pages on Series 1, Series 2, and Series 3 (The Secret Life of the Office). Hunkin's pages also have links to (legal) downloads of all the episodes.

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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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Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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