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In the Beginning: Just 2 weeks to go!

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51yai+MKH5L._AA240_.jpgThere are just 14 days to go until our latest contribution to the book world In the Beginning comes out, so we figured we'd start excerpting short bits from it. The book covers the origins of everything, from big hair to the big bang, and today we're sharing some insights on Bond. (James Bond). Enjoy!

James Bond

Today's lesson on the history of James Bond is brought to you by the letters Q, M and the number 007.

The Bond Market

"Bond, James Bond" may sound suave to us now, but when Ian Fleming was dreaming up the name, he thought it was anything but. "I wanted the simplest, dullest, plainest-sounding name I could think of," he said. "James Bond seemed perfect."

The Book of Job(s)

Sean-Connery---James-Bond-Photograph-C12150975.jpegAt the time Fleming was doing his brainstorming, he was recovering on Jamaica from an uneven career that encompassed, among other things: a military education but no officer's commission, a failure at the Foreign Service exam, a few years as a middling journalist in Moscow, a few years as a banker, and a post during World War II as a high-ranking naval officer in the British intelligence service.

It was at this that he finally excelled. Among Fleming's tasks was a training exercise that had him swim underwater and attach a mine to a tanker, a plot development that fans of his book Live and Let Die will recognize. He also conducted a number of other risky, Bond-esque activities "“ including some racy affairs with women who were otherwise attached.

After the war, Fleming worked as a manager at a newspaper organization, but his heart was in writing. In 1952 he married a very recently divorced socialite and moved to Jamaica. In his new manse, dubbed Goldeneye after one of his military operations, he found a book called Birds of the West Indies by one James Bond, an ornithologist. (In the film Die Another Day, Bond happens across a copy of the same book in Cuba and poses as, yep, an ornithologist.) With a suitably bland name found, Fleming forged ahead on writing the first of his 12 Bond novels, Casino Royale. The novels weren't a huge hit at first, although President John F. Kennedy did give From Russia With Love a nod in a speech, resulting in a slight uptick in sales. It was only later, when the movie Dr. No came out, that Fleming started to get a reputation as the man with the golden pen.

A Study in Character(s)

Several of Fleming's characters were based on real life people:
DuringWorldWar II, Fleming was a personal assistant to Admiral John H. Godfrey, who served as the model for "M," the head of MI6.
Vesper Lynd, the first Bond girl (introduced in the book Casino Royale; you probably know her from the movie of the same name), was partly based on the Polish-born British agent Christine Granville, famous for defending France against the Nazis.
What about Bond himself? Although Fleming's own louche lifestyle certainly served as a model, several others have also been cited. There's William Stephenson (or as he was
known to his spy friends, "Intrepid"), a high ranking British agent who Fleming himself
referred to as "the real thing;" a colleague, Commander Patrick Dalzel-Job, who joined
Fleming in extremely risky super-secret operations during World War II; and Dusko Popov, a Serbian double agent nicknamed Tricycle who was known for his wealth and playboy tendencies.
And what about that number? There are several theories on why it's 007 and not, say, 123. The one we like best is that Dr John Dee, a 16th century agent who would have been a sort of predecessor to Bond, used the code to send messages to Queen Elizabeth. The two zeros meant "for your eyes only."

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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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