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Newspaper & Magazine Origins

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Here's a look at the early days of some popular newspapers and magazines. We'll save the story of the humble dormitory origins of mental_floss for another time.

The New York Times

Founded in 1851, the Times made serious history just 20 years later: In 1871, its muckraking brought down the famous Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall. (The term "muckraking" hadn't actually been coined at the time, however; it was an early-1900s phenomenon.) Bought by Adolph Ochs in 1896, it was soon given its famous slogan "All the News that's Fit to Print," which was more than just a boast: it was also a jab at its rivals' infamous "yellow journalism." The Times moved into new digs on 42nd Street in 1904, giving its name to the surrounding area, which is of course known today as Times Square.

The Washington Post

Like the Times, the Post—one of the city's most venerable non-government institutions—produced high-end copy right from its founding in 1877. Unlike the Times, it needed some extra help to increase circulation. In 1889, in a bid to get people excited about reading the paper, the Post management commissioned a theme song. The resulting tune, named simply "The Washington Post," is often heard by oblivious spectators at patriotic parades: It's the work of John Philip Sousa.

Time and Newsweek

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In 1923, Briton Hadden and Henry Luce—old buddies from the tony Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, as well as Yale—got together and decided to start a magazine. They thought at first that they'd call it Chance or Destiny, which is a little strange considering that they're opposing concepts. But the magazine's real destiny was to be named Time. Although the men were only 24, they were able to raise a boatload of cash from wealthy family friends. Still, the first issue was met with "a burst of total apathy on the part of the U.S. public," as well as some pretty strong criticism from more established editors. Undeterred, the pals redesigned the magazine, adding a snazzy red border to the cover, then crossed their fingers and put out a second issue.

By 1929, the mag was firmly established, and Henry Luce was well on his way to becoming a legend. (Hadden died tragically that year at 31.) Like the Pepsi to Time's Coke, Newsweek—or as it was then known, News-week—got its foothold just a few years later, during the Depression. Also like Pepsi, Newsweek was an immediate direct rival to Time; its founder had left the latter magazine with hopes of "run[ning] Henry Luce out of business."

Scientific American

Rufus Porter invented a number of things in his lifetime—clocks, cameras, and an early washing machine—but none of his inventions had nearly as much success as Scientific American, which essentially started as a pamphlet advertising his latest creations. Later on, the magazine would feature articles from more accomplished inventors (Samuel Morse, Thomas Edison), but we think its greatest claim to fame is its prediction in 1849 of underground mass transportation. Readers howled at this for about 20 years, until workers started building a tunnel in lower Manhattan that would become, indeed, the New York subway system.

Cosmopolitan

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It wasn't always about sex. Actually, when Cosmo started up in 1886, it wasn't about sex at all, nor was it targeted at women, nor was it lowbrow: In 1892, a single issue featured stories by Henry James, James Russell Lowell (the poet and founding editor of The Atlantic Monthly), and Theodore Roosevelt. Early stories, according to Charles Panati, covered "such disparate subjects as how ancient people lived, climbing Mount Vesuvius, the life of Mozart, plus European travel sketches and African wild animal adventures."

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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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