Original image

8 Notable Items from the 1985 Montgomery Ward’s Catalog

Original image

We’ve lost so much, friends. Time has stolen it away from us. Our concept of beauty, of comfort, even our very values. Here, between the pages of a 1985 Montgomery Ward’s Catalog, I found what has slipped away. It is true that some of these things can still be found, either old and faded on eBay or earnestly reproduced on specialty sites like The Vermont Country Store. But these products deserve more; they have timeless appeal that would suit our 21st century stores and souls just fine.

1. Ostentatious Bridesmaid Dresses

We’re tired of your lies, Wedding Industry. Stop assuring prospective brides that the $300 dress they make their friends buy is an investment, because “they can wear it again!” In the old days, no one pretended such rubbish. A bridesmaid’s dress was an ugly, solemn pact of friendship. A bizarre drapery that appealed to no one but the bride; a flouncy, ill-colored, poorly cut sacrifice that a woman was willing to make to ensure her friend’s big day was just as she wanted it. Let’s drop all the pretense and return to those pure and honest roots.

2. Legitimate Girdles and Corsets

Who knew these were still available as recently as 1985? I can promise you, there is much more fashion demand for these contraptions today than there was then. Can you imagine what the steampunk cos-play crowd could do with these beauties? Dye them black, replace the gussets with brass, add a top hat and a tommy gun, and there isn’t a villain in all the Lovecraft universe who won’t quake at your approach.

3. He-Man Bedding

By the power of Greyskull, I’m sleeping in tomorrow and not even Skeletor himself can stop me.

4. Earthy-Toned Furniture

One word: Rust. Another beautiful thing that time and fickle fashion has corroded. If there exists a more cozy color for your lazy boy, I’d like to see it.

5. Flower Garden Bedroom Ensembles

Because is there any way in the world that you could wake up cranky in this room? Frightened, perhaps. Baffled, most certainly. But not angry! You would be living inside a carton of mint chocolate chip ice cream. Joy would seep into your very skin while you slept, possibly to the point of requiring insulin shots. (Also available in Spice!).

6. Serene Rear Window Decals

So, we’ve survived unlicensed Calvin peeing on stuff, completely useless and confusing European letters on American cars, and we’re getting so tired of your stick families and zombie families and Jesus Fishes being eaten by Darwin Fishes being eaten by Cthulhu. Let's go back to serenity, to calm images and gentle style. 

7. Fuzzy Velour

And while we’re on the subject of improving your travel experience, how long has it been since your tush was cradled by the welcoming warmth of velour? TOO LONG. And have you been driving along all this time, your hands blistering on the unforgiving bones of a steering wheel when you could be running your fingers through this opulence? Bring it all back, I say.

8. Everything This Man Is

Male clothing models today—meh. Always flashing good natured smiles on their boyish faces, designer shirts hanging on their lithe little frames. What ever happened to the male model who could ravish you with a simple lift of an eyebrow? A man with a jawline so chiseled it should have its own room at the Louvre? Unattainable ideals of male attractiveness? Bring back the classic stud, and let the little boys out to play.

And one thing we definitely don't want:

Do not bring these back, under no circumstances. Not just because I’m pretty sure pantyhose are sewn directly from the vile sheddings of Satan’s skin, but because of that name. “Big Mama.” Now, as a big girl myself, I can applaud the effort to bring up-sized products to the fleshier public, and I’m fine with a name that distinguishes their size. But…Big Mama? That’s the best they could come up with? Why not Wide-Load Womanhood panty hose? Or Tripping the Fatty Fantastix? Or Lardy Lady Leggings!

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
Original image

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]