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Things You Can Buy At Christie's Pop Culture Auction

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Tomorrow, Christie's will be selling used clothing, an old stapler and a cookie recipe. The renowned auction house hasn't turned into your neighborhood garage sale, though—unless your neighbor is selling Tony Sopranos' clothing, Jack Kerouac's stapler, and a NASA cookie recipe. Here's what else your money can buy at Christie's Pop Culture auction.

Celebrity Items

"¢ Celebrity-owned objects always make their way into auctions like this one. For those seeking premium office supplies, a gray Swingline stapler, replacement staples and a ball point pen owned by Jack Kerouac are for sale.

"¢ An 11-year-old from Staten Island gets a perfect score on his pop quiz. Now it is estimated to be worth $800 to $1,200 because that student was Robert DeNiro. De Niro items are rare in the collectors market, according to Simeon Lipman, head of Christie's pop culture department. At that price, it should be exhibited on a very nice fridge.

"¢ In 1961, Marilyn Monroe spent $15 at a hair salon. In 2008, the opening bid for her receipt is $1,500. Lipman explained that celebrity receipts and checks are popular because the signatures are authentic, they are easy to display and everyone can appreciate them.

Sopranos Memorabilia


The answer to question number 12 on DeNiro's aforementioned quiz was "sopranos," anticipating the most-talked about items at the auction. James Gandolfini donated costumes worn while playing Tony Soprano in the HBO series. The collection of his and other outfits from the show looks like a Men's Warehouse clothing store, except for the blood-stained items. Proceeds from the costume sale will benefit the Wounded Warrior Project.

NASA Stuff

"¢ The Gemini and Apollo astronauts had a special appreciation for chef Lewis Hartzell. They brought his cooking knife and sand tart cookie recipe aboard their spaceships, and both are for sale.

"¢ Astronauts Elliot See, Neil Armstrong, Gordon Cooper, Charles Conrad Jr. and Deke Slayton signed a letter to Hartzell that said, "It is our considered opinion that the quality and quantity of his meals posed a real threat to the space program - we ate so much we almost overloaded the spacecraft before launch!" Their note shows the personal, and perhaps portly, side of the Gemini crew.

Toys, Toys, Toys

darth-blowout.jpgPop culture department head Lipman likes toys. Specifically, he spoke highly of the debut of designer toys at the auction as "the beginning of something new" at Christie's.

"¢ Star Wars has a strong presence. Vintage action toys look through their display case at an army of pink droids from Suckadelic's Gay Empire Attack! and Darth Vader doll with a very fluffy hairdo.

Another droid hangs from a cross, and yes, all graffiti tags on the Star Wars vehicle are in the language Aurebesh. "Conceptually, it's just out there," said Lipman, "It's great."

(Suckadelic also gives droids dance moves.)

"¢ Custom figurines from Kidrobot are also for sale. Graffiti artists bring their work to vinyl toys called "dunny" and "munny" pieces. (The dolls rhyme with "money" for a reason, with bid estimates up to several thousand dollars.)

Music History


"¢ Photos of Janis Joplin posing in a dark dress and close ups of Jim Morrison are available thanks to mug shots prints from their 1969 and 1970 arrests. Think of it as your own expensive version of The Smoking Gun's celebrity mug shot collection.

"¢ Recording "Stormy Weather" in 1952 cost record producers just the soda and hotdogs they paid the teenage quintet the Five Sharps.

Nearly a decade later, the song became popular—not for its sound, but for its rarity. A record shop owner played it on his radio show and then accidentally broke what turned out to be one of very few disc copies. It became a Holy Grail for music collectors (Random Note: The Holy Grail from Indiana Jones sold at Guernsey's auction house in March). The estimated sale price for the "Stormy Weather" recording is $20,000 to $30,000.

"¢ One of Lipman's favorite items at the auction is a signed photograph of Gypsy Sun and the Rainbows. The band consisted of Jimi Hendrix, Larry Lee, Billy Cox, Juma Sultan and Jerry Velez. At their Woodstock debut, Hendrix corrected the announcer's introduction of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, explaining that the band's full name was Gypsy Sun and the Rainbows (or "Band of Gypsies" for short).

After two more concerts, they disbanded.
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Last year's mid-year pop culture auction fetched a total of $1,237,020. You can find out how much this year's items were worth to collectors after the final gavel tomorrow.

After seeing how much people pay for used staplers, do you have any pop culture memorabilia that might cause a bidding war?
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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]