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Disposable Suits and Paper Underpants

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On some level, it makes sense: Clothing made out of fabric is expensive. Clothing made out of paper is cheap and, after you're tired of wearing it, you can just throw is away. Genius, right?
At several points during the 20th century, fashion designers thought so too. In 1920, importers of German goods reportedly came to London, via Holland, to hawk their new line of paper suits to English clothiers. The "ready-made" suits, which could be cut to English styles, were to be sold for half-a-crown to 10 shillings a piece, depending on the cut, or 1000 for £120. The suits, according to this Times article, were "of the very best class of paper texture" and made it possible "for an English man to be "˜comfortably dressed' in a new suit once a week and the entire cost would be less, over a period of 12 months, than for one single West-end suit, cut and style thrown in."

The 60's Recycle the Idea

paper dress.jpgIt doesn't seem to have exactly taken off then, but that didn't stop paper suits from making a comeback in the 1960s. In the hopeful, optimistic "˜60s, paper was the clothing "textile" of the future. At a time when more and more goods were becoming "disposable" (plates, cups, cutlery, plastics in packaging, tissues, etc.), disposable clothing seemed like the next big thing.

And for a blessedly brief period, they were.

In Swinging London, ready-to-tear paper dresses were all the rage among ladies.

The little dresses, which were shift style dresses in bright patterns marketed as "instant fun from London," were absolutely prone to ripping, tearing, and all the problems you would expect from paper clothing, but that may have actually added to that "instant fun." (Check out the Victoria and Albert Museum's collection of paper dresses, here.)

Picture 122.pngThe dresses somehow embodied the Mod spirit: Andy Warhol recognized the pop art potential of the paper fashions, creating a limited run of paper dresses with his famous rendering of a can of Campbell's Tomato Soup. It wasn't just the Twiggies, the Nicos, and the Edies of the day who bought into the fad. Many of the dresses were promotional gifts from paper products companies, including from the Scott toilet paper company, which initially offered the dresses as a sort of promotional gag, but soon found itself inundated with requests for the dresses from women everywhere.

The success of the dresses had paper companies prophesizing a paper revolution: Don't pack for vacation again "“ just buy paper clothes when you get there and throw them away when you leave! Fashion changes so fast "“ always be fashionable with paper!

Paper Underpants

Paper clothing evolved from just dresses to include the depth and breadth of fashion, from trousers, skirts, and blouses to $20 wedding dresses and bikinis (treated with plastic). And of course, there was the underwear: In 1968, British Home Stores were selling French-made men's underpants for the bargain basement price of £1 for 24 pairs, while, according to the Times, Dorothy Perkins, a H&M-style high street clothing shop, offered packs of six paper knickers in three different colors for three shillings, 11 pennies.

Picture 91.pngBut sadly, as you've probably guessed from the fact that you're probably not currently clad in a three-piece paper suit, the paper revolution wasn't to be. It was rather doomed from the start: The strength and flexibility of paper could never really stand up to rigors of daily life and rain, well, that was a nightmare. Still, even though paper clothing hasn't become quite the force paper companies had hoped, the disposable clothing market is hanging on. In addition to disposable clothing for people in messy professions, like doctors and dentists, brands like OneDer Wear (their lovely logo is to the left) offer undies in several styles, including thongs made out of biodegradable cotton. Nowadays, though, disposable underwear isn't marketed to bright young things out on the scene so much as to lazy people and travelers.

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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]