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Live Smarter

Are Any Fancy Toilet Features Worth the Money?

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If you haven't bought a new commode in the past decade (or ever), the toilet aisle of your local home improvement warehouse may come as a shock. Today’s potty is an engineering marvel of fecal diversion, with LED lights, warmed seats, and bursts of cleansing water. Are any of these bells and whistles worth the price tag?

Before you worry about amenities, your first concern should be how well the fixture performs under duress. Toilets that use a pressure-assisted flush system are usually able to stand up to too much toilet paper or foreign objects, but their noise level (think public bathroom gurgling) can be an annoyance. A better solution is a high-flow system, which utilizes gravity and wide-mouth flush valves to let more water in and out of the toilet during a flush.

One example of the high flow system is the American Standard Champion 4 ($199), said to be able to handle waste volume up to 70 percent larger than the average. In less delicate terms, it can move a lot of poop without wasting water on multiple flushes. (Government regulations limit new toilets to 1.6 gallons per flush.) Some models also offer a dual-flush option, which further conserves water by letting the user select a partial flush for liquid waste.

Once you’ve established your toilet can perform its essential function—preventing a back-up that could ruin your day—you can consider luxuriating on it. Newer models offer a comfort-height seat that raises the lip of the toilet from the standard 14 or 15 inches to a more chair-like 17 or 19 inches, making it easier to get on and off.

Touch-less flush mechanisms can minimize the spread of germs, and heated seats can make cold winter mornings a little more comfortable. In the toilet industry, these car-like amenities come at a cost. Kohler, for example, offers “smart” cleansing seats with LED lighting for easier nocturnal pooping starting at $399—but that doesn’t include the actual toilet. If you’re happy with your current model, however, upgrading might be a viable option.

Before making a final selection, make sure your new fixture will fit in the space allotted. Elongated seats can add to a toilet’s dimensions, and some models may not fit perfectly over existing floor bolts. Measure from the wall to the floor drain to make sure you can accommodate the toilet's depth.

If you’re handy, you may be able to make the switch yourself, but remember that old toilets are heavy and any improper connection to the waste drain could mean a mess later. Consider enlisting a plumber to help ensure years of worry-free time on the throne.

[h/t KTAR News]

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]