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VELCRO: The Humble Origins of the Greatest Thing to Ever Happen to My Sneakers

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Fifty years ago today, the Velcro® trademark was registered. Let's celebrate by taking a look back at the beginning.

The Bur Trade
You may know the famous story about Swiss engineer George de Mestral's 1941 hunting trip in Switzerland—while walking his dog in the mountains, he accidentally brushed up against some cocklebur plants, and by the time he got back home, dozens of the round, spiky seeds were clinging to his wool trousers (and his poor dog's fur). What you don't know is how hard it was for de Mestral to translate that natural stroke of genius into a manmade one.


He quickly figured out why the seeds were so sticky by examining them under a microscope—the spikes each ended in tiny hooks that grabbed onto fabric and fur and wouldn't let go. But it wasn't until 1952 that de Mestral made a serious effort to mimic the cockleburs' hooks using different types of fabric. He quit his day job and raised $150,000 in venture capital, an enormous sum at the time. He also joined up with a textile weaver from Lyon, France—the only weaver who thought the idea would actually work. The pair's first attempt, using cotton, was a failure. But nylon, sewn into tiny hooks under bright infrared light, worked much better. He dubbed it "Velcro" after "velvet" and "crochet," the French word for "hook."

Just Plain Stuck

De Mestral seemed to be on his way to a huge success, and large-scale production finally began in the mid-"˜50s. But the fabric didn't actually make it to market until a decade later, and when it did, it flopped. It was extremely useful but also extremely ugly—a hard sell given that de Mestral mostly envisioned it being used on clothes. High-end designers wouldn't touch the stuff. The only group that found it appealing was the burgeoning aerospace industry—astronauts didn't want to fiddle with zippers and laces while trying to get in and out of their spacesuits, and they also needed a way to keep their various personal items and food from floating away in zero gravity. (The association with NASA later popped up in the 1997 movie Men in Black, which short-shrifts de Mestral by claiming Velcro was actually invented by aliens and adapted for Earth use.)

velcro.jpgBy the time people figured out that Velcro could also be hugely useful on everything from kids' shoes to watchbands, de Mestral's patent was close to expiring, and factories in Taiwan and Korea were churning out similar stuff. Today, if you use Velcro as a generic term, you'll make some Velcro executives very unhappy. The word has been Xeroxed, or, if you prefer, Kleenexed—the company would much prefer that you use the generic "hook-and-loop" unless you're referring specifically to their brand.

George de Mestral, by the way, wasn't just the inventor of Velcro. He also received a patent for a toy plane at age 12 and went on to design a hygrometer (which measures air humidity) and an asparagus peeler not unlike the kind that's "As Seen On TV."

This passage was written by Mary Carmichael and excerpted from mental_floss presents In the Beginning, available here.

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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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