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10 Reasons Why James Dyson Doesn't Suck

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My girlfriend is moving into my apartment in June, and among the myriad things I'm excited about is the opportunity to buy a new vacuum. My current roommate's vacuum is basically a motorized drinking straw that requires 15 passes over the same piece of string before picking it up and dropping it on the floor again. While we probably can't afford a Dyson, I marvel at the man who just thinks things should work properly.

1. He conquered Japan

Japan's market for hi-tech gadgets is, to say the least, saturated. But the constant innovation means the Japanese are less attached to their brands, which allowed Dyson to break into the market in the early 90s when no one in the UK was interested in his bagless vacuum design. Dyson snagged an International Design Fair prize with his G-Force model, and the Japanese began snatching them up at $2,000 a piece.

2. He's got an awesome house to clean with that fancy vacuum

Sometimes, two houses aren't enough. So in 2003, Dyson bought his third home, Dodington Park, a country estate in Gloucestershire, England. The estate sits on 300 acres of land, which feature an orangery, several gardens, two lakes, a mile-long "carriage drive," and the source of the River Fromme.

The house itself, not to be overshadowed by the land around it, has 35,000 square feet of space, 15 bedrooms, 40 bathrooms and 10 reception rooms (a morning room, an ante room, a library and a music room just to name a few). And that's just the main house; there are also staff quarters, two lodges, a Dower house, a farmhouse and four cottages (which bring the bedroom total to 51). If Dyson wants to admire the view of the property from any of the buildings, he can choose from 150 windows. If he just wants to sit back and relax, he's got 24 fireplaces to settle down next to.

3. A battle with disease turned him into a philanthropist

Dyson contracted viral meningitis when he was 45, but didn't realize it until his wife insisted his doctor test for it. After learning how hard the symptoms are to diagnose, Dyson set out to raise awareness of the disease and its symptoms. In 2000, he raised £1.5 million for the Meningitis Research Foundation by auctioning off two of his company's executives for a sponsored leg wax, playing a charity football match against Malmesbury's Victoria Football Club (the Dyson team won 5-1), holding Dyson Quiz Nights at 20 different pubs and donating the proceeds from the sales of 40,000 limited-edition purple and magenta vacuums.

4. It's simply a cool vacuum

People usually don't throw the word "revolutionary" around when talking about vacuum cleaners, but Dyson's design is considered just that. The bag-less, filter-less design doesn't clog or lose suction. It's a nice piece of eye candy, too, and is included in the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the London Science Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Museum für Angewandte Kunst in Cologne, the Zurich Design Museum, the Design Museum in Lisbon and the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney

5. Frustration was the mother of his invention

When Dyson was six-years-old, his father grew ill, forcing the boy to help his mother around the house. Vacuuming was his least favorite chore because of the "terrible smell of stale dog and dust" and poor suction on the vacuum. Three decades later, still frustrated by his vacuum cleaner at home, he was visited a sawmill and saw workers cleaning up sawdust with a big cone that used a spinning column of air for suction. He spent the next three years in his workshop developing his dual-cyclone vacuum.

6. He's an icon of clean

Three years ago, the Dyson became the most popular vacuum cleaners in America—one in five of all floor cleaners bought carried his name. His vacuums have made cameos on Friends and Ellen DeGeneres' daytime talk show, been given away in goodie bags at both the Emmys and the Oscars, and used to accessorize models at Fashion Week. The man is a real life Mr. Clean, but he's still ambitious. He told that he wants to become a verb, in the same way Google has. If you want to help the guy out, Google a vacuum store near you and Dyson your dirty floors.

7. That's Sir James Dyson to you

Dyson was honored as a Knight Bachelor in 2006, a move that drew some criticism from union leaders angered by the fact that, just four years earlier, Dyson moved his vacuum production plant from England to Malaysia. Despite the controversy, Dyson can rest easy knowing that he has a fan in the Queen. In his autobiography he says, "I was bowing in front of Her Majesty to receive this great big medal around my neck when she said, 'And what do you do exactly, Mr. Dyson?' I told her that I was the manufacturer of the Dyson vacuum cleaner. 'Oh, really?' she said. 'We've got dozens of them about the palace.'" A ringing endorsement if there ever was one.

8. He wants you to learn from his mistakes (and yours)

Dyson says it took him four and a half years and 5,127 prototypes to refine the design of his vacuum. There's a life lesson in determination there, but more important is the knowledge that the road to success is sometimes paved with 5,000+ failures. Dyson embraces the lessons people can learn from mistakes and has said that the "the freedom to fail" is lacking in public education. So in 2006 (a busy year for him), he announced his plan to build the Dyson School of Design Innovation. The goal of the school is to encourage teenagers to explore careers in engineering and design. Twenty-five hundred students will receive a free education with a heavy focus on hands-on projects and close relationships with mentors. The school, funded by the James Dyson Foundation and the British government, will also have weeklong residencies for younger children with interests in engineering.

Dyson's desire to educate also takes shape at his company, where every new employee, right up to the highest executives, tries their hand a building a vacuum on their first day.

9. His wife and kids aren't resting on his laurels

Mrs. Deirdre Dyson has her own rug design business, and a few of her rugs have shown up in the Big Brother house. The Dysons' daughter, Emily, used to work as a designer for Paul Smith. Like her father, she turned her frustration at a lack of appealing products into a business. She now owns Couverture, a boutique in London. Their son Jacob also took up the family trade and has a career in lighting design. The other Dyson son, Sam, is obviously the black sheep of the designing family; he plays guitar in a band called Wax On Wax Off.

10. He's pretty nifty with other things, too

After he turned the world of household appliances on its head, Dyson started tinkering with other things and grabbed headlines at the 2002 Chelsea Flower Show with the "Wrong Garden." Dyson built the water sculpture, which features four glass ramps positioned in a square, with the water seemingly flowing uphill and pouring off the top, after finding inspiration in an M.C. Escher drawing. Like Escher's work, it's a clever optical illusion; water is pumped in at the bottom of the glass structures and comes out of an opening at the top. At the opening, some of the water falls back down the surface of the ramp, while the rest falls over the edge like a waterfall. Compressed air pumped in along with the water causes bubbles to travel up the ramp towards the opening, creating the illusion of the water's upward movement.

His latest project is the Dyson Airblade, a super-efficient and enviro-friendly hand dryer. The dryer produces an air stream that flows out of a slit no thicker than an eyelash at 400 mph. In tests, the Airblade dried hands completely in just ten seconds and beat the energy efficiency of conventional dryers by 83%. Insert your own "this blows as hard as the vacuum sucks" joke here.

Matt Soniak is a mental_floss intern. You can read more about Matt on his own blog, Bat Country. He may have to venture into acting, if only to get his hands on one of those pretty yellow vacuums they give to Oscar nominees.

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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]