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L.A.'s Uncanniest Eatery

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Opened in 1935, it's said that the over-the-top decor at Clifton's Cafeteria inspired Walt Disney to create his theme park. These days, however, the proud-but-sagging local legend has become the Strangest Place on Earth -- or at least in Southern California -- to fill your stomach. Word on the street is it might not be around much longer -- yet another trendy downtown bar may be replacing it -- so I had to check it out while I still could!

Established in the depths of America's Great Depression, Clifton's do-gooder founders took a big gamble by instituting a "pay what you wish" policy (which still stands), making their cafeteria a refuge for millions of penniless and hungry customers over the years. It's also quite literally designed to be a refuge from the urban bustle right outside its doors: its elaborate redwood forest theme, complete with foliage, indoor waterfalls, taxidermied forest animals and countless other strange touches make it simultaneously calming and unsettling; imagine the Rainforest Cafe with decor and a menu that haven't changed in 70 years, populated mainly by homeless people slowly nursing cups of thin coffee. (If that sounds like a bizarre juxtaposition, it certainly is. And that's why I love it!)

Jack Kerouac probably ate at Clifton's, if this passage from On the Road is any indicator:

"Terry and I ate in a cafeteria downtown which was decorated to look like a grotto, with metal tits spurting everywhere and great impersonal stone buttockses belonging to deities and soapy Neptune. People ate lugubrious meals around the waterfalls, their faces green with marine sorrow."

This may also refer to a long-gone sister branch of Clifton's called the South Seas, which sadly became a parking lot in 1960.

Here's what Clifton's looked like in its heyday (long before the Beats deigned to eat here), when instead of Muzak over loudspeakers, the owners had trained singing canaries in the trees. (The health department eventually but the kibosh on that.)

A wooden stag keeps watch over the first-floor dining room, the furniture in which, you'll notice, is still identical to that in the photo above.

In the 1950s, Clifton's played host to meetings of the influential LA Science Fiction Society, frequently attended by luminaries like writer Ray Bradbury and movie monster-maker Ray Harryhausen.

Diners try to ignore the looming, pink moose-head:

It's also worth noting the strangeness of the surrounding neighborhood: Clifton's is smack in the middle of downtown LA's "historic core," at 7th and Broadway, which is a dingily grand collection of beautiful old buildings and silent-era movie palaces long ago converted to flophouses, discount electronics shops and Spanish-language churches. Hawkers of every sort sell the randomest things on the street outside (a woman twice approached me selling miniature guitars), and it's worth noting that it was in front of Clifton's that I had my strangest-ever encounter with a homeless man: while two police officers looked on bemusedly, a filthy guy in a sombrero cackled madly and danced, pointing to a bowl on the street full of coins. He wore matching dirty grey track pants and a gray sweatshirt that read, in bold college-style letters, "DARK SIDE."

Detail of the moose:

The place is absolutely enormous; in fact, with 600 seats, it's the largest restaurant in Los Angeles. Back-lit scenes from nature are everywhere:

My friend Brooke contemplates the waterfall:

Oh yeah -- the food. (Almost forgot.) There's so much of it, it's nearly as overwhelming as the restaurant itself -- but aside from a huge selection of pies and Jell-os, it reminds one of the taste and consistency of elementary school cafeteria food -- except you never had this much choice in your life.


Apologies for the blur, but this motorized raccoon moves quick, bouncing in and out of his hole with a fish skeleton in hand:

chapel2.jpgThe strangest touch of all, however, is a little grotto on the second floor, with a neon cross on top. Inside is a cramped viewing booth, where you sit peering into a little diorama-style forest scene. At the push of a button, you hear a 50s-era narrator read "The Parable of the Redwood." An uncannier dining experience, I cannot imagine.

For more, check out this NPR feature on Clifton's from a couple of years ago.

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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]