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5 Unusual Types of Yarn

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Clothing has to come from somewhere, and any seasoned knitter or crochet fanatic knows that the fibers your yarn is made from make a big difference when it comes to the quality of the product. Here are five strange fibers that you probably didn’t know you could wear.

1. Camels

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Unlike the one-humped Dromedary camel, which occupies arid regions like Africa's Sahara desert, the two-humped Bactrian camel lives in cold climates, particularly Mongolia. Tended by nomadic herders, these camels grow a thick, warm coat to protect them from the cold. It’s the fur on their underbellies that’s the softest, though, and gathered by the herders when the camels shed their coats in the spring. The downy fibers are then spun into a yarn notable for being remarkably lightweight, soft, and warm.

2. Muskox

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The coveted wool of the muskox comes from the layer of underwool closest to its body, called qiviut. Qiviut is valued for its strength and warmth and, unlike sheep's wool, it doesn't shrink. A male muskox can produce up to seven pounds of qiviut a year; when the animal molts, the qiviut is plucked from its coat and salvaged from objects it has rubbed against. You can buy high-quality qiviut accessories on the Alaskan Co-operative Oomingmak’s website, but it will put you back a couple hundred dollars.

3. Sugar Cane

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When the fluid used to make edible sugar is extracted from sugar cane, there is fibrous plant material left over, called the bagasse. In a process referred to as the viscose process, the bagasse is shredded, broken down, and shot (while in liquid form) at high pressure through small holes. The long strand of fiber is then solidified and spun into yarn, and dyed to add color. Sugar cane yarn is silky, with a lustrous sheen, and perfect for eco-friendly yarn fanatics.

4. Seaweed

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If you combine crushed seaweed from the shores of Iceland with cellulose fibers from eucalyptus trees, you get SeaCell, or seaweed yarn. SeaCell purportedly “makes the benefits of seaweed wearable” by releasing beneficial nutrients directly onto the wearer’s skin, including calcium, magnesium, and vitamin E. According to Chinese medicine, seaweed can also help boost your immune system, reduce blood sugar, and revitalize your skin, hair, and nails. Best of all, it’s completely organic, renewable, and one of the most breathable fabrics on the market—which is why high-end athletic stores like Lululemon carry it.

5. Your Pets

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If you’ve ever wanted a sweater as soft as Fluffy’s fur, here’s your chance: if you collect your pet’s fur and send it in to VIP (Very Important Pet) Fibers, you can have it spun into yarn and even made into a keepsake accessory or article of clothing. Or there’s Woofspun, which specializes in making yarn and garments out of dog fur, and even Cattyshack Creations, which makes fetching little handbags from yarn spun from your cat’s fur.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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