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The Sweetest Man In History Writes to Beckett Monthly

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Because the Internet can be such a cold and mean place, I think it's necessary to remind ourselves every now and then that people have feelings. Of course, I personally won't be doing that — the Internet would rip me to shreds if I did — so instead I will turn to B.M. from California who, in 1987, sent the sweetest and most sensitive letter ever written to Beckett Baseball Card Monthly.

Every month, Beckett would publish their "Weather Report," a tabulated list of baseball players broken into two sections: "Hot" and "Cold." The "Hot" players were on the come-up and playing well, while the "Cold" players were slumping. Quick-fire rankings are nothing new, and Beckett's "Weather Report" was by no means groundbreaking, even in 1987. However, one reader — our hero, B.M. — didn't see it as a fun and easy read, but rather a cruel and insulting missive that could emotionally harm the professional baseball players featured on the "Cold" list:

Here's the full text:

I just received the first issue of Beckett Monthly. It is great fun reading it; but, I really got a knot in the pit of my stomach when I came to page 7 -- the "Weather Report." This is so unkind, and I can't help but feel how it must really hurt a man like "Oil Can" Boyd, who has thrilled us to the tips of our toes with his concentrated, exciting performances -- especially in some of these games last season! And Gary Carter, who plays his heart out. And youthful, ever hopeful, Willie McGee! Pete Rose is Cold? You've got to be kidding!! And Reggie! And George Brett!! Did you ever stop to think how this must make them feel?? Like nobodies -- dirt! Please don't do this to these beautiful guys who bring so much joy to the baseball fans of the world! It's one thing when a 10-year-old from Peoria writes in and says Pete Rose in [sic] "Cold." It's quite another thing when a publication like Beckett, read by thousands of impressionable little guys, proud of their handsome collections of Strawberry, or Coleman, or Yount, etc., publishes a "list" of "cold" players! I can't believe you do this! I understand many of the players themselves read Beckett and collect cards! It's so cruel and unnecessary. Please don't.

We should all take B.M.'s words to heart. It's easier than ever to pass along flippant takedowns, be the target a celebrity, the subject of a viral meme, or even the "youthful, ever hopeful, Willie McGee." So let B.M.'s thoughtfulness echo: "Did you ever stop to think how this must make them feel?? Like nobodies -- dirt!"

Beckett responded to B.M.'s letter, saying the "Weather Report" represents the opinions of their readers and not the views of the magazine's editorial staff. "We certainly are not intending to offend any of the players...In our opinion, to publish a Hot list would be giving our readers only half the story." Half the story indeed, unless "B.M." is Beckett Monthly's own conscience, writing in after years of painful guilt. In that case, a Hot list would barely even be a small fraction of the story. What centaurs hide around the corners of a card collector's labyrinthine mind? We may never know.

In case you were wondering, "Oil Can" Boyd was listed yet again on the "Cold" list in the very issue in which B.M.'s plea appears. That's two months in a row, so you might want to sell his card if you can.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


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]