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Places That Could Use a Little mental_floss

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Having cancer is really boring. Don’t get me wrong; it’s also terrifying, stressful, and exhausting. But a lot of the time, it’s just mind-numbingly boring. When I got diagnosed a few months ago, I figured I was in for some sort of spaghetti Western shootout with my rogue cells. In practice, fighting cancer mostly consists of sitting around. You sit and wait for doctor’s appointments. You sit and wait for your chemotherapy drugs to get mixed up. Then you sit in a recliner and receive the chemo. In terms of thrilling action, my fight with cancer ranks slightly above my epic teenage duel with the AP chemistry exam.

I’m incredibly fortunate to be receiving treatment at one of the country’s top hospitals, and better yet, it’s only three subway stops away from mental_floss HQ. The one downside to this amazing place is that the selection of reading material in the waiting rooms is pretty weak. The only magazines are ones that get left behind by previous patients, which largely results in an eclectic mix of trade mags. (I’m sure Paper Age and National Guard are both fine publications, but they’re not exactly general interest titles.)

One of the perks of working for a magazine, though, is that you inevitably end up with a giant pile of back issues in your apartment. So I started pulling old copies of mental_floss off of my pile at home and leaving one or two on the waiting room tables when I went in for treatment. Patients and their family members can spend the better part of a day waiting and receiving therapy, so I figured they probably wouldn't mind reading back issues.

When I went in for chemo on Friday, I saw three different people reading old issues of mental_floss and smiling. If our mag can make things even marginally less grim and tedious for these folks, we’re delighted to help.

When I told our co-founders Will and Mangesh what I’d been doing, they had a great idea: We should donate a pile of issues to other places that could use a little cheery reading material. So if you’ve got a location where some mental_floss love would brighten things up, tell us about it in the comments or drop us a line at After the holidays, we’ll dig into our stockpile of back issues and pick a bunch of places to send a year’s worth of reading material. So let’s hear your suggestions!

And if you're in a waiting room today and need immediate entertainment, grab a tablet and you can download the last few issues free.

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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]