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6 Smart Questions to Ask When Buying a Bike

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Since May is National Bike Month, it’s prime time to get outside and spin your wheels. Haven't been on a bicycle since your childhood 10-speed? Well, you know what they say about riding a bike. But while the actual act of pedaling should feel like second nature, knowing what bike to get isn't so easy. Walking into a bike shop can be totally intimidating: There are tons of models to choose from, additional components and accessories for sale, and, often, serious cyclists in spandex hanging around—it's enough to make any newbie nervous.

A good bicycle shop employee will ask you several questions (about your experience, where you plan to ride, etc.) to help narrow down what bikes you might like. But being ready with some questions of your own will help you feel confident as you browse and purchase a new two-wheeler.

Consider this your cheat sheet. Keep reading for the top questions you should ask a salesperson to make sure you’re in a good shop and buying the right bike for you. Then go out and enjoy the ride!

1. DO YOU ALLOW TEST RIDES?

Why ask this? If you’re buying from a good shop, they’ll likely get you set up and fit the bike for you. While that helps with ensuring a comfortable ride, it can’t "give you the real-world sensation of actually riding the bike on the open road,” says Sam Dodge, Global Business Manager of GURU Sports.

He suggests testing a couple bikes for a short ride around the block and treating it as though you’re tasting wine. Compare the models closely, taking note, for instance, if one of them seems to brake more smoothly or handle bumps better. “Once you are happy with the functionality of the bike, you can shift your focus towards the more important options—like what color you are going to buy!"

2. IF I BUY A BIKE, WHAT LEVEL OF FIT DO YOU OFFER?

Why ask this? If your bike isn’t adjusted to fit your body, it won’t be comfortable to ride—and could lead to injury. "Some shops along with the tune-up plans will offer a basic fit at time of purchase,” says Dodge. "At the very least, the shop should set your saddle height correctly and advise you on adjustments that might need to be made on the bike.”

Once you’re on the bike, the salesperson might notice that you could be better off, for instance, if you swap out the saddle (read: seat) or handlebar that came with the bike with another type. While you’re on the subject, ask this follow-up question, too: Does the fit come with a follow-up session a few weeks down the road? It’s good to know you can pop back in if you need to make additional adjustments.

3. WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE GROUPSET ON THESE BIKES?

Why ask this? One of the details that affects the price of a bike is its groupset, which refers to mechanical components like the shifters, chain, and cassette. Some of the pricier ones might weigh less and shift a bit more smoothly, but it’s not necessarily worth your extra dollars if you’re a cycling novice—so inquiring might help you choose a less expensive (but still fantastic for you) option.

4. DO YOU OFFER FREE TUNE-UPS? AND WHAT'S INCLUDED?

Why ask this? Many shops will do a basic tune-up of your bike for free within the first year, sometimes longer. If you’re in a shop that doesn’t, it might be worth checking out another store. "It is definitely worth looking at what is being offered and understand what is included in that free tune,” says Dodge. However, don’t assume that a flat tire or worn-out brakes will be replaced free of charge without asking. “Most good shops will explain their policy so that your expectations are set at the time you’re buying. Ultimately they want to see you again and make sure you are happy with your purchase."

5. DOES THE SHOP OFFER ANY SORT OF BIKE MECHANIC 101 COURSES?

Why ask this? It’s smart to be able to handle a little simple maintenance—like changing a tire or fixing a chain that’s slipped off—on your own, because you might be riding miles away from a shop when a problem like these pops up. "A flat tire is a nearly inevitable rite of passage for the new cyclist,” says Dodge. "Having the right tools and knowledge to get you back on the road is a great life skill to have.”

6. DOES THE SHOP HOST A WEEKLY GROUP RIDE? ARE ALL LEVELS WELCOME?

Why ask this? It’s more fun to ride with friends! Plus, when you’re starting out, it can make you more confident, says Dodge: "If you are not super comfortable with the road or trails, this is a great opportunity to learn the best places to ride.” Bonus: You’ll easily pick up the best etiquette and rules of the road—which is great because no one likes a rude rider. “It’s always better to a get thumbs-up and not the middle finger from other cyclists and motorists."

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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