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"Cormullion," used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia

Decimal Time: How the French Made a 10-Hour Day

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"Cormullion," used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia

Everybody knows that there are 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in an hour, and 60 seconds in minute.* But in 1793, the French smashed the old clock in favor of French Revolutionary Time: a 10-hour day, with 100 minutes per hour, and 100 seconds per minute. This thoroughly modern system had a few practical benefits, chief among them being a simplified way to do time-related math: if we want to know when a day is 70% complete, decimal time simply says "at the end of the seventh hour," whereas standard time requires us to say "at 16 hours, 48 minutes." French Revolutionary Time was a more elegant solution to that math problem. The trick was that every living person already had a well-established way to tell time, and old habits die hard.

Noon is Now at 5

French Revolutionary Time officially began on November 24, 1793 although conceptual work around the system had been going on since the 1750s. The French manufactured clocks and watches showing both decimal time and standard time on their faces (allowing for conversion and confusion). These clock faces were spectacularly weird. Here's one -- see if you can figure out when primetime TV starts:

Decimal clock photo by "Cormullion," used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia

The system proved unpopular. People were unfamiliar with switching systems of time, and there were few practical reasons for non-mathematicians to change how they told time. (The same could not be said of the metric system of weights and measurements, which helped to standardize commerce; weights and measurements often differed in neighboring countries, but clocks generally did not.) Furthermore, replacing every clock and watch in the country was a spendy proposition. The French officially stopped using decimal time after just 17 months -- French Revolutionary Time became non-mandatory starting on April 7, 1795. This didn't stop some areas of the country from continuing to observe decimal time, and a few decimal clocks remained in use for years afterwards, presumably leading to many missed appointments.

Other Attempts at Decimal Time

The French tried again in 1897, when the Commission de décimalisation du temps proposed a 24-hour day with 100-minute hours, again with 100 seconds per minute. This proposal was scrapped in 1900.

And then of course there's the Stardate, a pseudo-decimal system of date measurement used in Star Trek. Unsurprisingly, the Stardate started out being supremely imprecise and was just supposed to sound futuristic; here's a snippet from the Star Trek Guide for teleplay writers on the original series:

We invented "Stardate" to avoid continually mentioning Star Trek's century (actually, about two hundred years from now), and getting into arguments about whether this or that would have developed by then. Pick any combination of four numbers plus a percentage point, use it as your story's stardate. For example, 1313.5 is twelve o'clock noon of one day and 1314.5 would be noon of the next day. Each percentage point is roughly equivalent to one-tenth of one day. The progression of stardates in your script should remain constant but don't worry about whether or not there is a progression from other scripts. Stardates are a mathematical formula which varies depending on location in the galaxy, velocity of travel, and other factors, can vary widely from episode to episode.

And lest we forget Swiss watchmakers in all of this, Swatch introduced their own bizarro decimal time system in 1998. Called Swatch Internet Time, it divided the day into ".beats" (yes, with a dot) and referred to a particular .beat using the @ symbol (so you might say, "ICQ me at @484 so we can swap some beenz, LOL!"). Each .beat lasted 1 minute and 26.4 seconds and represented 1/1000 of a day. Nope, not confusing @all.

See Also

The French Republican Calendar was another attempt by revolutionary France to decimalize everything. It wasn't particularly successful. Also interesting is the Chinese ke, a unit of decimal time.

* = There are actually several exceptions to the 24/60/60 rule, most notably leap seconds, but let's keep it simple.

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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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May 23, 2017
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