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Another stick on the wall

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Imagine every nasty, chewed-up wad of gum you've ever had the misfortune of discovering on the bottom of your shoe or the underside of a desk, times 10,000, magically transposed to one spot. If that sounds like somewhere you'd love to visit, then welcome to otherwise relatively hygenic San Luis Obispo, California, whose number-one tourist attraction is Bubblegum Alley, AKA Cooties HQ. For over 40 years, pop-art pilgrims and masticatory thrill-seekers have donated wads of their own to this erstwhile shrine to the almighty bubble "“ more than 300,000 pieces in all, measuring 40 meters in length and up to 15 pieces deep. Awe-struck, inspired and more than a little overwhelmed by the smell, I felt compelled to post some holiday snaps of the Pollock-esque Alley, as well as a few gum-related facts for y'all to chew on:


1. The minty-fresh Greeks of yore were famously fond of a gummy substance called mastiche, derived from the resin of the mastic tree. (For you etymology buffs, mastic is the root of masticate, which despite sounding dirty to fifth graders means "to chew.") First century botanist Dioscorides thought the mastic had medicinal properties, and he was onto something: twentieth century scientists confirmed that chewing its resin reduces bacterial plaque in the mouth.

2. The US Army has issued its infantrymen packs of chewing gum since World War I, claiming that its use during battle improves soldiers' concentration and relieves stress. Only since Gulf War I has the Army dispensed caffeinated gum, with each stick approximately equal to the pick-me-up of one cup of coffee.


3. In an attempt to avoid having a Bubblegum Alley of their own, the neatfreak nation of Singapore banned the posession of chewing gum outright in 1992. The punishment for smuggling it into the country "“ even a small amount for personal use "“ ranged from steep fines to caning. But thanks in part to a 2004 free-trade agreement between the U.S. and Singapore (and heavy lobbying by the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company), the law was revised to allow certain types of chewing gum which boast "proven health benefits" "“ such as "enamel-strengthening" Wrigley's Orbit gum.

4. Perhaps owing to an increased blood flow to the brain experienced while chewing, gum-chewers have scored higher on word-recall tests than non-chewers. Despite this, chewing gum is banned in many schools.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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]