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The Ghosts of London’s Abandoned Public Toilets

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The modern public bathroom was born in London. In the mid-19th century, Victorian London began to install public water closets for the comfort of men (and, eventually, women) about town. For the price of a penny, the public could descend into underground lavatories to do their business. Most of these conveniences closed sometime in the years after World War II, but the facilities still stand.

Photographer Agnese Sanvito examines the quiet beauty of these once-vital, now abandoned Victorian bathrooms in her latest series. The project doesn’t have an official name yet, but Sanvito is partial to the title the blog Spitalfields Life bestowed on it, “Toilets at Dawn.” She captures the above-ground portions of the antique restrooms, where anyone could once pee for just a penny, in the golden hours of the early morning when they're at their most picturesque.

“In 2010 I started noticing the elegant structures of Victorian public toilets across London,” she said in a statement emailed to mental_floss. “These once proud and eccentric symbols of English civilization have since fallen into closure and blended into the background fabric of the city.”

When she first began photographing, the toilets were practically urban ruins. “Often they were full of rubbish or had trees and weeds growing out of them,” she said. “The decorative and elegant designs of the ironwork left forgotten within the grunginess and decay took on a new beauty, which first inspired me to start photographing them.”

While you can’t just stop in for a quick pee anymore, some of the former public potties are still up and running, just in different forms. The one below has been redeveloped into a bar, and is selling for more than $1.4 million (the listing call it “quirky and full of character,” surely a euphemism for antique poop if we’ve ever heard one).

At dawn, the city's quiet, deserted streets add to the slightly eerie, lonely feeling evoked by the vintage toilet cellars. 

This one is now a cafe. The original urinals are still there, but they’ve become seating.

Though London’s once-elegant Victorian toilets have been shuttered, the city's “spend a penny” culture lives on. There are quite a few modern pay toilets elsewhere around town—the train station pay toilets make bank. A free pee, though, can be harder to find.

[h/t Neatorama]

All images by Agnese Sanvito

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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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May 23, 2017
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