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8 Cracking Facts About Wallace & Gromit (and an exhibit you have to check out!)

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Wallace and Gromit are national heroes in the U.K. The cheery, if absent-minded inventor/baker/pest control expert and his faithful Dostoyevsky-reading canine companion have starred in some of the most fun and inventive adventures in stop-motion ever committed to film. And now, British fans of the Plasticine pair will get the chance to wander around a life-size version of their 62 West Wallaby Street home, at the London Science Museum's latest exhibition, Wallace & Gromit present A World of Cracking Ideas.

Drawing its inspiration from Wallace's amusing inventions, the exhibit is designed to introduce kids (and kid-like adults) to the creative process around inventions and ideas. It's the result of a partnership between Aardman Animation, the studios behind Wallace and Gromit, and Britain's Intellectual Property Office, so in addition such Wallace-inspired inventions as the karaoke shower, it also includes somewhat heady information on intellectual property rights. The exhibit opens on March 28 and runs through November 1 (the link contains one of the most time-consuming games to cross my desktop since TextTwist).

In the spirit of inspiration, we decided to compile a list of a few facts about Britain's favorite stop-motion adventurers. Here a few things you might not know about Wallace and Gromit:

1. Wallace and Gromit Save Dairy

WallaceGromit2.jpgWallace's influence over Britain is significant "“ at least when it comes to cheese. As a tastemaker, his preferences have been credited with saving several kinds of cheese of extinction. The makers of Wallace's particular favorite, Wensleydale cheese, were struggling throughout the 1990s, but when Wallace and Gromit's popularity skyrocketed, so did sales of the cheese. Wensleydale now offers a cheese in a Wallace and Gromit packaging, further cementing the relationship between the characters and the cheese. The Daily Mail reports that when Curse of the Were-Rabbit featured Stinking Bishop cheese, sales of the famously smelly cheese rose 500 percent.

2. The Truth about Cats and Dogs

Nick Park has said that neither character was exactly based on anyone he knew, although the ever-cheerful Wallace had often been compared to his father and the much put-upon Gromit compared to Park himself. Park has also said that Wallace and Gromit's adventures are a bit of a pastiche, inspired by other films and genres, including Hitchcock and Laurel and Hardy films, as well as a real-life Lancashire, Britain 1950s, "˜60s, and "˜70s aesthetic. And one more thing: Gromit was originally going to be a cat.

3. Honing his skills with a Sledgehammer

Picture 34.pngOne thing few people know is that when Park was a newcomer to Aardman Animation, he worked on Peter Gabriel's memorable "Sledgehammer" video.

4. They're Animated like Kong

All of the Wallace and Gromit movies use the same technique that brought King Kong to life in the 1933 film "“ stop-motion models made of Plasticine. Animators at Aardman Animations, however, use a special blend of the modeling clay nicknamed "Aard-mix" that's slightly more resilient. Liquid and fur are the hardest to animate, say animators at Aardman.

5. The Queen Likes It!

nick park working.jpgThe Queen and Prince Charles are fans of Wallace and Gromit, awarding creator Nick Park a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in 1997 for his contributions to the film industry. At a dinner celebrating the nomination, the Queen reportedly asked to be sat next to Park. And although Park is very honored by the CBE, he may be more proud of his gold Blue Peter badge, an award given out by the long-running British children's show and an honor he actually shares with Queen Elizabeth II and JK Rowling.

6. Tail Wagging Takes a Very Long Time

Each character moves 12 times a second to achieve that life-like animation. Animator Merlin Crossingham, talking to the Daily Mail, explained, "If Gromit is wagging his tail enthusiastically for 30 seconds, that's 360 movements. That's why it can take us days to do a four-second shot."

7.Oscar and Gromit

creature.jpgWallace and Gromit were born in the "˜80s, conceived to star in Nick Park's animated short, A Grand Day Out. Park started the film while in school at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, though it took nearly seven years to complete. When it was finally released in 1989, it won a Bafta (a British Oscar). In 1990, the film was also nominated for an Oscar, although the award would go to another of Park's films, Creature Comforts. Wallace and Gromit's next two adventures, The Wrong Trousers in 1993 and A Close Shave in 1995, both won Oscars.

8. Trouble at DreamWorks

Working with Plasticine models takes an incredibly long time to film "“ A Matter of Loaf and Death, a half-hour special featuring Wallace and Gromit in a bakery-based murder mystery that aired this past Christmas Day, took 18 months to complete. The special was also Nick Park's first production since his five-film deal with DreamWorks broke down last year after only three films. Park said later that "culture clash" contributed to the collapse of the relationship: DreamWorks couldn't help but try to Americanize the very British Wallace and Gromit, tarnishing some of the duo's nostalgic charm.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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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:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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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]

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