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How Earth Day & the Hapless Farmer from Green Acres Are Related

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Most of us probably hear the name "Eddie Albert" and immediately think of the hapless gentleman farmer he portrayed on TV's Green Acres. Despite having appeared in over 100 motion pictures and a dozen Broadway shows, he'll always be remembered as Oliver Wendell Douglas, a role he played for only six of his 99 years. But it was the role he played offstage for most of his life that led to April 22 (his birthday) being designated Earth Day.


During the early 1970s, Albert had a regular workout routine that consisted of jogging to the beach near his Southern California home and then taking a swim. An avid birdwatcher (he'd bought his first Audubon pin at the age of six), he was very familiar with the various species native to his area and their habits. When he noticed an absence of baby pelicans one season, he investigated and found out that thousands of pounds of DDT (a pesticide) had been pumped into Los Angeles-area sewers by a single chemical company. DDT is fat soluble and has a half-life of eight years, so as it was absorbed by anchovies and other fishy favorites of the pelican diet, it eventually affected their reproductive systems. Mama pelicans laid eggs with such thin shells that they crushed and broke when she tried to incubate them. Albert asked NBC for a few moments of air time to address the harmful effects of DDT, and shortly after the broadcast he was invited to speak at three universities on the subject. Three years later, the U.S. government banned the use of DDT.

ear.jpgTV Guide once described Albert as an "ecological Paul Revere," to which the actor responded, "Ecologist, hell! Too mild a word. Check the Department of Agriculture; 60% of the world is hungry already. With our soil impoverished, our air poisoned, our wildlife crippled by DDT, our rivers and lakes turning into giant cesspools, and mass starvation an apparent inevitability by 1976, I call myself a human survivalist!" (You can almost hear the fife playing in the background.) He'd been traveling the world since the 1950s and meeting with experts in various fields (including a trip to the Congo with Albert Schweitzer to study malnutrition) and he passed his findings on to the public via interviews (in such high-profile venues as The Tonight Show) and university lectures. Washington finally decided to designate one day per year as an "environmental teach-in" (hey, it was the late 1960s, everything was an " "“in"). When Earth Day was inaugurated in 1970, Albert was one of many celebrity guest speakers on hand to help launch the festivities.

His Green Thumb

Even though Mr. Douglas' crops were always pretty sickly on Green Acres, Eddie Albert had a green thumb. He remembered the victory garden his parents had planted during World War I and at a young age fell in love with the idea of growing things. He studied organic farming methods before it was fashionable, and the front yard of his Pacific Palisades home stood out from its neighbors "“ instead of a manicured lawn, there were cornstalks, tomato vines and other vegetables flourishing. He learned and warned about the danger of topsoil depletion (which became his next crusade after the successful DDT ban) and also established City Children's Farms, a program for creating gardens in inner-city areas.

eva-acres.jpgHungarian-born Eva Gabor, Albert's Green Acres co-star, never quite understood his activism. "Every time a fish gets sick, you're off making a speech," she once remarked to him. He eyed the $5,000 feather-trimmed negligee she was wearing and replied, "I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't wear things like that on camera." "But it's so chic," she protested. Albert told her that because it was so chic, women in the audience would want to emulate her style, causing the death of X amount of birds just for their fashionable feathers. "Eddie, feathers don't come from birds," Eva reassured him. "They come from pillows, dahling!" Despite not seeing eye-to-eye on environmental issues, Eddie and Eva remained close friends long after Green Acres ended. The pair are even buried very near one another in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery.

His Legacy

During a 1996 interview, Albert was asked which of his accomplishments he was most proud of. He pondered a moment and then admitted that he never thought he'd been as good as he could have in any of his acting roles. When all was said and done, he chose his World War II service as his proudest moment. As a Navy lieutenant, he fought at the three-day battle of Tarawa in the Pacific Theater in November 1943. Piloting a Higgins boat under heavy fire, he helped to rescue over 70 wounded Marines off the island and out of the lagoon who had been left behind. He was awarded a Bronze Star for his heroism.

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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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