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5 Cults We Feel OK With

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Maybe it's all the news of "Anonymous" protests against Scientology that have been dominating the blogs lately, but it seems the word "cult" is on a lot of people's minds. Which makes me think about just how many cults there are out there -- and not just the religious kind, either. Merriam-Webster has not one but five definitions for "cult," the most expansive of which is "a great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work ... usually by a small group of people." We're gonna take that pony and run with it.

Cult Movies: Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid!

Produced by Troma Studios, cultiest of cult film producers, notorious for birthing films like Sgt. Kabukiman, NYPD and Trey Parker and Matt Stone's freshman effort, Cannibal! The Musical. Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid!, however, holds the dubious distinction of being one of Troma's strangest films, and probably my first "cult" favorite (my friend Laurie had the tape in her massive video library; to her utter frustration, every time I came over, I would pull it down and insist we watch it). The "plot" revolves around two brothers who befriend an escaped mental patient (the titular "fat guy") and accompany him on his misadventures in the big city. What follows is barely comprehensible but highly entertaining, depending on your sense of irony; "fat guy" screams at a lot of people, busts up a funeral, there are a lot of jokes stemming from the brothers being high on 'ludes ... you get the idea. Variety actually reviewed it, dubbing it "A steady source of cheap, vulgar gags," a blurb which appears prominently on the back of the video box. That's Troma for you.

Cult Cars: the Subaru BRAT

brat.JPGThere are plenty of cars out there that people call cult, like the Lamborghini Countach or the Volkswagen Beetle, but if car was on every teenage boy's wall in poster form in the 80s (the former) or is one of the best-selling cars in history (the latter), we say it doesn't count. Cult means rare, and cult means a small, devoted following. That pretty much defines the devotion of BRAT owners. One of the ugliest cars in history (with the possible exception of the El Camino), devotees call its looks "quirky" and extol it as ahead of its time. Its name is actually an acronym for Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transporter, and it was essentially a four-wheel-drive station wagon with the wagon-top cut off. Other quirky features included a jumpseat welded into the back, which allowed Subaru to classify BRAT as a passenger car rather than a truck, and skip out on some otherwise pricey import duties; it also explains much of the cult appeal of this weird vehicle. I had a BRAT-owner friend, and his favorite feature was that the Subaru logo in the middle of the steering wheel could be pried off, revealing a tiny empty space. "That's where you keep your weed," he explained. (I think that pretty much says it all.) BRATs haven't been made since the 90s, but there's a healthy used-BRAT trade -- apparently they just won't die. (Sounds like Troma should make a movie: Drug-addled BRATs Must Die!!!, or something.)

Cult Whiskies: Port Ellen

portellen.jpgOld, increasingly rare and made in small quantities, Scotch is the perfect cult item. For you non-whisky-geeks out there, one of the most popular styles of Scotch whisky comes from the Scottish island of Islay (pronounced ee-luh), known for its strong peaty flavor. This is one of those love-it-or-hate-it whiskys (even for lovers of whisky), with tasting notes that usually go something like "iodine, tar, explosive salt, hospital gauze, like standing downwind from a fire on the beach." A special sub-strata of whiskys are those that come from distilleries that have been mothballed, and Port Ellen was one of many that didn't make it through the whisky slump of the 1980s -- but happened to make really excellent whisky. Supplies of Port Ellen are still being released, incrementally, but as they become rarer and rarer, Port Ellen becomes cultier and cultier. It's not uncommon to find bottles selling for well over $1,000.

Cult Computers: the Apple Lisa

lisa.jpgThis is a cult that the Floss' own Chris Higgins belongs to -- I know he's been keeping his eye out for a used Lisa for years. Here's what he had to say about it: "For Mac geeks and computer people in general, it's a fascinating look into a very special time in computer history — after the success of the Apple II, Steve Jobs and crew at Apple were attempting to create the next big thing. After releasing the Apple Lisa, which was a flop primarily due to its $9,995 price tag, Apple needed a hit." That's $20,000 in today's money, which Apple felt was justified because the Lisa included such cutting-edge (for 1983) features as a graphical user interface (GUI), a mouse, a built-in screensaver and a then-blistering 5Mhz clock speed. (By the way, if anyone knows where Higgins can get ahold of an original Lisa, let us know.)

Cult Fiction: A Confederacy of Dunces

200px-Confederacy_of_dunces_cover.jpgDunces is cult for a few reasons -- one because it's rare; the author, John Kennedy Toole, killed himself 11 years before the book was published in 1980, so there are no more Toole novels in the ol' pipeline. It was plucked from obscurity by a giant of Southern literature, Walker Percy, and was awarded the Pulitzer in 1981. Hollywood has been trying to turn it into a movie for years -- Steven Soderbergh was recently attached to the project -- but so far, nothing doing. It's also considered cult for its quirky subject matter, namely its protagonist, Ignatus J. Reilly, a brilliant but slothful slob finally forced out of the house to seek a job by his mother at age 30. Eccentric and deluded, Reilly's inner monologue is one of the funniest we've read.

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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]