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The Best Essay Ever - On Cable Laying??

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How did Neal Stephenson do it? Way back in 1996, he managed to make what's clearly the most boring subject on Earth -- transcontinental data cable installation -- into a clever, engaging 56-page article. Well, he probably did in the same way he made cryptography exciting in Cryptonomicon and a dystopian corporate future funny in Snow Crash: by being a super smart guy writing about stuff that's actually interesting, beneath its veneer of super-dorkitude.

In Mother Earth Mother Board, Stephenson declares himself the "hacker tourist," as he "ventures forth across the wide and wondrous meatspace of three continents, chronicling the laying of the longest wire on Earth." Discussed: the insane past, present, and future of data cables; mastery of slack; Supreme Ninja Hacker Mage Lords; more. Here are some selected bits from the article:

[On the laying of redundant "FLAG" cables to connect the same points.] This raises questions. The questions turn out to have interesting answers. I'll summarize them first and then go into detail.

Q: Why bother running two widely separated routes over the Malay Peninsula?

A: Because Thailand, like everywhere else in the world, is full of idiots with backhoes.

Q: Isn't that a pain in the ass?

A: You have no idea.

Q: Why not just go south around Singapore and keep the cable in the water, then?

A: Because Singapore is controlled by the enemy.

Q: Who is the enemy?

A: FLAG's enemies are legion. ...

Dr. Wildman Whitehouse and his 5-foot-long induction coils were the first hazard to destroy a submarine cable but hardly the last. It sometimes seems as though every force of nature, every flaw in the human character, and every biological organism on the planet is engaged in a competition to see which can sever the most cables. The Museum of Submarine Telegraphy in Porthcurno, England, has a display of wrecked cables bracketed to a slab of wood. Each is labeled with its cause of failure, some of which sound dramatic, some cryptic, some both: trawler maul, spewed core, intermittent disconnection, strained core, teredo worms, crab's nest, perished core, fish bite, even "spliced by Italians." The teredo worm is like a science fiction creature, a bivalve with a rasp-edged shell that it uses like a buzz saw to cut through wood - or through submarine cables. Cable companies learned the hard way, early on, that it likes to eat gutta-percha, and subsequent cables received a helical wrapping of copper tape to stop it. ...

In 1870, a new cable was laid between England and France, and Napoleon III used it to send a congratulatory message to Queen Victoria. Hours later, a French fisherman hauled the cable up into his boat, identified it as either the tail of a sea monster or a new species of gold-bearing seaweed, and cut off a chunk to take home. Thus was inaugurated an almost incredibly hostile relationship between the cable industry and fishermen. Almost anyone in the cable business will be glad, even eager, to tell you that since 1870 the intelligence and civic responsibility of fisherman have only degraded. Fishermen, for their part, tend to see everyone in the cable business as hard-hearted bluebloods out to screw the common man. ...

I encourage you -- no, I urge you -- to go read Stephenson's essay. Print it out, block out a few hours, and prepare for some wonderfully geeky edutainment. (Note: above I've linked to the printer-friendly version; there's also a standard version, but it requires clicking "next" 56 times.)

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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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