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How to Build a Blue Whale Without Having Seen One: Part I

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The Museum’s first whale model went on exhibit in 1908 and was 76 feet long. The model was located in the Hall of the Biology of Mammals, which closed when the Hall of Ocean Life opened. Made of plaster, the model was not salvageable. Photo courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History.

“Not too long ago a colleague in Canada called and told me that his museum was planning to build a whale and did I have any suggestions? I had only one—resign now and get yourself a nice university job.” - Richard Van Gelder

In 1959, with its centennial looming ten years down the road, the American Museum of Natural History decided to complete its Hall of Ocean Life, which had been neglected and left dormant like a “sleeping giant,” museum employees said, for many of the years it had been open.

One of the finishing touches they wanted was a new blue whale model to replace the current one, which was made of wood covered in papier?mâché and had been around since 1908. After almost ten years of aesthetic arguments, technical hurdles and construction delays—and Richard Van Gelder, the museum’s chairman of the Department of Mammalogy and the whale’s chief designer, resigning from the Ocean Life Committee twice, from the Museum once and nearly getting fired three times (the last time being just the day before the official unveiling of the whale)—they finally got one.

Plus-Size Model

The problems started with the fact that, when the museum first began planning the model in 1959, very few people had ever actually laid eyes on a live blue whale, or even a photo of a whole one; most pictures gave just a glimpse of some small portion of the animal—part of a back or a tail or a fin poking out from the ocean—and the first full-body, underwater live shots wouldn’t be taken until the mid-1970s. This included some of the men tasked with designing the model. “So far as accuracy was concerned, I couldn’t see much wrong with [the old model],” Van Gelder wrote in Whale on my Back, a recollection of the project, “mainly because I had never seen a blue whale.”

Faced with the same problem at the beginning of the century, both the AMNH and the Smithsonian Institution had sent teams to go see some whales. Both went to whaling stations in Newfoundland, Canada, waiting days or weeks before the whalers landed anything. Van Gelder’s whale-making predecessor merely took measurements and made his model off of those, but the Smithsonian team had spent several more weeks making plaster molds of the huge decomposing whale, cutting away the flesh and dismantling the skeleton. The results of their labor, more than 26,000 pounds of bone and plaster casts, were then shipped to Washington to be assembled.

For the new project, casting was deemed too expensive and impractical for the AMNH, and a replica seemed to be the better way to go once again. Rather than send someone back to Canada to find another whale and take new measurements, Van Gelder and his team used the whale at the British Museum—built on-site in 1938 out of wood, going off measurements taken from “whale #112,” a whalers’ catch that a museum expedition had seen in the Antarctic—as a template.

Van Gelder and his team consulted both the British whale and and the new Smithsonian whale, which was also based off the British one, frequently over the next few years for inspiration and accuracy. Using the British Museum's model as a guide, they settled on a design and decided that the model would hang from the hall’s ceiling, posed as if it were in a dive.

Don’t Leave Me Hanging

Problems started again soon after.

“Nothing must hang from the ceiling,” a museum higher-up told Van Gelder. “I don’t like things hanging on strings.”

Van Gelder tried to explain it would actually hang on wires, but it didn’t matter. Hanging the whale from anything was out of the question.

Van Gelder went back to his office and thought about how else they could display the whale. He wrote: “‘Make it out of rubber and fill it with helium,’ I thought, but put the idea aside. Too much like the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. Besides, we would probably have to anchor it with strings, and I didn’t know how far the string-ban went.”

Another museum higher-up approached him with a stringless plan. He suggested they build a pedestal in the middle of the hall, with a “gleaming chromium rod” jutting from it, and mount the whale on that. Van Gelder was not impressed with what he called the “lolly-pop concept,” and the other museum brass didn’t like it, either.

The Smithsonian had attached their whale directly to the wall, but Van Gelder, despite his interest in the model, called the display technique a “disgrace to the profession.” That the Smithsonian staff came in one morning to find that the whale’s head had detached from the body and fallen off the wall in the night did nothing to improve his opinion.

Van Gelder began to think about how one normally sees a whale: “Nothing more than a bit of fin, a puff of vapor, or a pair of flukes.” People didn’t see whole whales that often, and if they did, the whales were usually dead. To point out how few display options were available and highlight the absurdity of the string ban, Van Gelder half-jokingly proposed displaying the whale as if it were beached.

“I was shocked to learn,” he wrote, "that not only was the dead whale idea accepted, it was received enthusiastically.”

He’d made the mistake of presenting a plan that would cost the museum next to nothing, and soon found himself having to run with the idea and defend it from his heckling colleagues.

Van Gelder couldn’t bear to actually go through with the plan, but wasn’t sure how to get out of it. When another staffer suggested that it might be nice to add some models and recordings of the birds that would pick at a real whale carcass, a light bulb went off and Van Gelder knew how he’d undo the dead whale.

Not long after, it was Van Gelder’s turn to babysit a group of visiting museum donors. Over lunch, he explained to the Women’s Committee how the beached whale would look, sound and … smell.

“We are even planning something never done before,” he said. “A gentle breeze will waft the odor of the sea toward the visitors, to complete the attack on all the senses, and we are even going to try to simulate the odor of the decomposing whale, so that all can share in this wonderful experience in totality.”

After word of this got back to the bosses, the dead whale was out and Van Gelder was back to square one. The head of the Exhibition Department eventually saved him with a suggestion that had been sitting right under his nose. Van Gelder was “so brainwashed about anything hanging,” he wrote, that he would “never in a million years” have come up with the new idea. If they couldn’t hang the whale from the ceiling with strings, the exhibitor thought, they should just skip the strings and attach the whale directly to the ceiling.

And that's what they did.

Stay tuned for Part II, about the construction of the whale and the anus that wasn’t there.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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