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The Quick 10: 10 Eiffel Tower Essentials

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The famous Eiffel Tower was inaugurated 120 years ago this month. Even if you've never been there, you've no doubt seen the thing a million times "“ it's practically synonymous with Paris and France (to the chagrin of some, I'm sure). But what do you really know about it? Here are 10 bits of trivia to amaze your family and impress your friends. Or something like that. They probably aren't "essentials," exactly, but I like alliteration maybe more than I should.

LIGHTNINg1. When the lofty landmark was inaugurated in 1889, it was the tallest structure in the world. This only lasted until 1930, when the Chrysler Building shot past it by more than 60 feet. It's currently taller than the Chrysler Building, though, if you count the 79-foot antenna added to the top. This still makes it only the fifth-tallest building in France.
2. La Tour Eiffel looks like it's one uniform color, but that's only perspective. Since it's so tall, it takes three different shades of whatever the color is (right now it's a brownish-grey) to make it appear all one shade. The darkest shade is used on the bottom and the lightest on the top. It's recoated with 60-70 tons of paint every seven years to prevent it from rusting.
3. World-famous chef Alain Ducasse runs Jules Verne, the gourmet restaurant on the second level.
4. In 1912, an inventor testing out his coat-parachute died when he jumped from the first deck and his invention failed him. Whoops.

5. The French sabotaged the Eiffel Tower before they ceded it to the Nazis and Hitler during WWII: they disabled the elevators, making sure that Hitler would have to climb to the top if he wanted a fantastic view of Paris (and he did: he agreed that Paris was the most beautiful of all of the European cities). The elevators were repaired in 1944 and all Allied soldiers were given free trips to the top.

6. You'll find little Eiffel Towers all over the world, sometimes in the most baffling places.

You know about the ones in Las Vegas and Disney World, I'm sure, but replicas are also in Hangzhou, China; Shenzhen, China; Slobozia, Romania; Copenhagen, Denmark; Messinia, Greece; Varna, Bulgaria; and Aktau, Kazakhstan. These in addition to mini-Eiffels in the hundreds of towns in the U.S. named "Paris," of course.

7. Gustave Eiffel had 72 names engraved on the tower to represent some of the great French scientists, engineers and mathematicians of the day. You can find the whole list here.

citroen8. Talk about an eyesore "“ from 1925-1934, Citroën used three of the four sides of the landmark as an advertising space. At tht time, it was the world's largest advertising ever.
9. Despite its great height, only one person died during the construction of the tower.
10. Thomas Edison visited the Eiffel Tower and was most impressed with it. He signed the guestbook, "To M Eiffel the Engineer the brave builder of so gigantic and original specimen of modern Engineering from one who has the greatest respect and admiration for all Engineers including the Great Engineer the Bon Dieu, Thomas Edison"

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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]