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Amazon

10 Cool Hacks for Amazon's Dash Button

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Amazon

In 2015, e-commerce giant Amazon debuted the Dash button, a Wi-Fi-enabled, adhesive-mounted panel that allows users to reorder popular household items like Tide detergent or Glad trash bags simply by pressing it. Rather than risk forgetting items at the store, the company hoped the immediacy and convenience of the button would translate into more sales.

Perhaps it has—Amazon is shy about sharing those figures—but like any piece of technology, users have found plenty of alternative uses for the device. Check out 10 ways the Dash has been repurposed.

1. AN ACLU DONATION BUTTON

ACLU via Twitter

Washington native Nathan Pryor recently told NBC News that his frustrations over the current political landscape compelled him to rework his Dash button into a device that would allow him to donate $5 to the American Civil Liberties Union every time he pressed it. Pryor said he lunges for the button whenever he feels frustrated at policy changes in government.

2. FRESH COFFEE NOTIFICATION

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Busy offices know they have some responsibility to make staff aware when a fresh pot of coffee is waiting for sleepy employees. While intra-office social media software makes for an easy method of updating employees, the Nelson Cash marketing firm in New York opted for an upgrade. When a worker finishes brewing a new batch of coffee, they can push a modified Dash button, which will then send an alert via Slack, notifying everyone that caffeine is now available.

3. A WIRELESS DOORBELL

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Wireless doorbells are widely available, but few (if any) are as economical as the $4.99 sticker attached to the Dash button. (Amazon will even credit that amount to your account, making the hardware essentially free.) The clever people at Not Enough TECH have posted step-by-step instructions for making a wireless doorbell you can mount near your front door that will send an alert to your mobile device whenever someone pushes it.

4. INSTANT PIZZA DELIVERY

Beware: this hack is not for those lacking in self-discipline. Pizza aficionado Brody Berson wrote code for his Dash button that sends his delivery and payment instructions to his local Domino’s Pizza location’s online ordering form. In a split second, a hot pie is on its way to him. Berson speculates you could write code for Jimmy John’s or any of a number of other fast food delivery sources.

5. COOLING DOWN A TESLA S

Who wants to climb into a scorching hot electric car? Not Michael Donnelly, proud owner of a Tesla S, who tweaked his Dash button to pre-set his car's air conditioning preferences. By depressing the button, Donnelly can activate the AC in his car; another button press lowers the temperature to his preferred setting. Because the car is electric, the engine doesn’t need to be on in order to control its climate. 

6. CONTROLLING HOUSEHOLD LIGHTS

Philips

Light switches are so 20th century. Blogger Dan at The GhostBit wrote a script for his Dash that allows him to power on his wireless LED Philips Hue light sources in his household. Cool? Very. But keep in mind that the Dash needs to find a network address every time it’s pressed, so there’s a three-second delay between button depression and illumination.

7. TRACK BABY POOP

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Cloudstitch founder Ted Benson saw the Dash as an opportunity to better understand his newborn’s needs. Instead of investing in expensive baby tracking data software, Benson configured his Dash so it would create a spreadsheet entry every time he pressed it, which he did to log his baby’s nap times, awakenings, and poops.

8. CALL AN UBER

Coder Geoffrey Tesserand posted this script for the Dash, which allows him to push a button that activates a request for an Uber ride to meet him at his home. Tesserand thinks it’s particularly helpful for those who need to request a near-daily pick-up and don’t want to go through the hassle of unlocking their phone and using Uber’s app to repeat the same destination location every day.

9. SEND A TEXT

iStock

Yes, texting is already a very, very simple task. But if you’re prone to repeatedly sending brief messages like “I’m home” or “On my way,” you can use code that allows you to send these generic missives via SMS text messaging.

10. RICKROLLING

Sending unsuspecting parties footage of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” has become one of the internet's favorite pastimes. One Dash user posted code that allows users to launch their own Rickroll at the press of a button. It will never let you down.

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technology
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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Weird
Creative Bar Owners in India Build Maze to Skirt New Liquor Laws
June 20, 2017
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Facing a complicated legal maze, a bar in the southern Indian state of Kerala decided to construct a real one to stay in business, according to The Times of India. Aiswarya Bar, a watering hole that sits around 500 feet from a national highway, was threatened in 2016 after India's Supreme Court banned alcohol sales within 1640 feet of state and country-wide expressways to curb drunk driving. Instead of moving or ceasing operation, Aiswarya Bar's proprietors got creative: They used prefabricated concrete to construct a convoluted pathway outside the entrance, which more than tripled the distance from car to bar.

Aiswarya Bar's unorthodox solution technically adhered to the law, so members of the State Excise Administration—which regulates commodities including alcohol—initially seemed to accept the plan.

"We do [not] measure the aerial distance but only the walking distance," a representative told The Times of India. "However, they will be fined for altering the entrance."

Follow-up reports, though, indicate that the bar isn't in the clear quite yet. Other officials reportedly want to measure the distance between the bar and the highway, and not the length of the road to the bar itself.

Amid all the bureaucratic drama, Aiswarya Bar has gained global fame for both metaphorically and literally circumnavigating the law. But as a whole, liquor-serving establishments in India are facing tough times: As Quartz reports, the alcohol ban—which ordered bars, hotels, and pubs along highways to cancel their liquor licenses by April 1, 2017—has resulted in heavy financial losses, and the estimated loss of over 1 million jobs. Aiswarya Bar's owner, who until recently operated as many as nine local bars, is just one of many afflicted entrepreneurs.

Some state governments, which receive a large portion of their total revenue from liquor sales, are now attempting to downgrade the status of their state and national highways. To continue selling liquor in roadside establishments, they're rechristening thoroughfares as "urban roads," "district roads," and "local authority roads." So far, the jury's still out on whether Kerala—the notoriously heavy-drinking state in which Aiswarya Bar is located—will become one of them.

[h/t The Times of India]

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