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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

iStock

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

iStock

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

iStock

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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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