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Cheese Mites: How Cheese Eating Pests Became Cinematic Stars

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Aired in 1903, The Unseen World was a series of short films shot through microscopes -- the first "scientific" films made for the public. And Cheese Mites , a brief glimpse at cheese mites scuttling and jostling over a surface of Stilton, was the show's smash hit.

The film was created by American entrepreneur Charles Urban in collaboration with microscope enthusiast Francis Martin Duncan. In line with the style of most early cinema, The Unseen World was presented as a buoyant spectacle, a novel source of fun and entertainment. The series of microscopic films first played at London's Alhambra Music Hall as part of a full program that also included a few moralistic animal films (such as The Greedy American Toad), 15 short films on bees, and the illusionist Servais Le Roy performing his most famous trick, "Asrah the Floating Princess."
It was Cheese Mites, however, that filled houses for months. And even elitist scientists graced the theater to watch it. The Morning Post wrote of the phenomenon, "People like to be interested, and they don't in the least mind being interested by something worth knowing."

The Cheese Industry Steps In

All this attention, however, concerned the cheese industry. Although Stilton mites were well-known -- in one of the first references to Stilton cheese, in 1772, novelist Daniel Defoe took note of "mites so thick around it that they bring a spoon for you to eat the mites with, as you do the cheese" -- the cheese industry feared that Cheese Mites' success would cause cheese sales to drop (sales of microscopes, on the other hand, were soaring). In fact, faux disgust was part of the fun. The director had insisted on playing up the gross-out factor by adding a final shot of a man revolted by what he sees in his Stilton, and throwing it away.

Under pressure from cheesemakers, the British government finally shut down Cheese Mites, making it one of the first films to be banned -- despite all the erotic, violent, and graphic material onscreen at the time. But Urban's design to market science films didn't flag; and he went on to work with Percy Smith, whose hugely successful Birth of a Flower (1910) and Secrets of Nature (1930) guaranteed the future of nature films.
Want more from cheese historian David Clark? Be sure to check out his posts on Sardinia's Black-market Maggot Cheese, 3 Cheeses that caused Political Riots, and A Brief History of "American" Cheese. 

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]