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Life Lessons From Sharper Image Catalogs

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If you're wondering what happened to The Sharper Image, America's one-stop shop for overpriced junk, this sad tête-à-tête from their website sums it up nicely:

Q. What happened to the Sharper Image retail stores?
A. All Sharper Image retail stores have closed.

After filing for bankruptcy in 2008, the gadget emporium was acquired by a joint venture firm that now operates its website and has nothing to do with the original retailer. In other words, The Sharper Image as you or I know it is dead.

All that remains are old catalogs, and inside each of these is a precious glimpse into a bygone era when we all blissfully teetered on the edge of catastrophic consumer stupidity. The following products were all sold in Sharper Image catalogs from 1987 to 1989 and they each teach us a valuable lesson about what life was like back then.

Man-Sized Dolls Were Your Only Defense Against Rampant Crime

The 1980s were so dangerous, if you didn't have a large man by your side at all times, an 18-wheeler would appear out of nowhere and smash you into smithereens. That scenario serves as catalog copy for Gregory, a "burly six-footer" whose "stern appearance is no accident":

"His rugged cleft chin, square-set jaw, firm expression, and broad shoulders telegraph to criminals that this is a man to avoid." Men want to be this doll, women want to be with this doll.

Some notable features of the $500 mannequin:
-Gregory has no lower legs.
-Gregory can be "changed with cosmetics to any age or race." It should be noted that, in his original state, he looks like a six-foot white baby.
-Like all us real macho men, he is "also available unclothed."
-You can "garb him in sports, casual, or business attire...or put him in a tux for formal occasions." This Gregory didn't get the memo, and showed up to a ritzy new year's celebration in a turtleneck:

Ideally, Piping-Hot Coffee Was Groin Adjacent

The dilemma: You bought great tickets to a San Francisco 49ers game, but you were up all night watching The Pat Sajak Show and need three quarts of coffee to stay awake.

The solution: The Sit N Sip, a seat cushion that stores and insulates three quarts of your favorite hot beverage and dispenses it from a spout placed in between your legs. An invention so simple and elegant, nothing could possibly go wrong to the person using it.

Americans Spent Most of Their Lives Rewinding VHS Tapes

Make that copy of Beaches haul ass with the AutoWinder, a machine that rewinds video cassettes and, uh, looks like a car. The catalog boasts that it "rewinds a two-hour movie in just under four minutes" and "saves your VCR from unnecessary wear and tear." Think of the money you're throwing away by not rewinding your VHS tapes in a tiny plastic car.

Cell Phones Were Important, But Only Because They Made You Look Rich

The Sharper Image was prescient enough to foresee the cellular phone boom, but too status-obsessed to profit on it with anything other than a fake antenna that you put on your car to make people think you were rich.

"Drive to class reunions with this new Phone-E antenna on your car," the catalog's description states, "and even Mr. Most-Likely-To-Succeed will be envious. Everyone will assume you have a cellular phone—the mark of success in the 80s." And if you're worried about someone breaking into your car to steal your rich-person's radio, I know a guy named Gregory who's not to be messed with.

Robots Body Shamed You

Stepping on a scale can be a humiliating experience, but with the Weight Talker II, it's a humiliating experience narrated by a disappointed robot. The scale uses a "pleasant male voice," giving you the terse Ukrainian gymnastics coach you never knew you wanted.

But Getting in Shape Was Easy

"Hello, this is Stetson. No, I can talk, I'm just working out and reading about my stocks. Yes, I too can't wait to see what kind of trouble Alf gets into next. Alright, nice speaking with you, President Reagan."

Toddlers Were Rich Jerks

Little Colby here just had a five martini lunch and he's speeding back to work in his Porsche so he can fire your ass before heading up to the Hamptons.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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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:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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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]

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