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9 More Interesting Museums Preserving British Heritage

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My last post highlighted seven museums dedicated to preserving some very specific aspects of British culture, like lawnmowers, Victorian toys, and witchcraft. But there are oh so many more and here are a few:

1. The Teddy Bear Museum, Dorchester, Dorset

Teddy bears tend to top lists of most collected items and, as anything with eyes en masse is creepy, I find teddy bear collections creepy. And this might be creepy. The Teddy Bear Museum bills itself as an "unmissable family museum," where every teddy "from the earliest teddies to today's TV favourites [are] all waiting to meet you." Who knows what they're about, these teddies? What do they want from us?

It gets creepier from here: The Teddy Bear Museum (and shop, of course) is actually the home of Mr. Edward Bear and his family, a collection of "human size teddy bears" who live in a quaint home on Antelope Walk in quaint Dorchester. These "human size" bears appear to be teddy bear heads affixed to mannequin bodies, and they're posed throughout their home in various attitudes of repose, industry, and domestic work. It is, the Teddy Bear House claims, "where fantasy becomes reality."

2. The Salt Museum, Northwich

Believe it or not, there has been a salt museum at Northwich for more than 100 years. The brainchild of two local salt proprietors who felt that some sort of official edifice was needed to highlight Northwich's importance as the "salt capital of the world." The standing exhibits in the museum include "Salt of the Earth," a visual exploration of the area's past as a major producer of salt, and "Made From Salt," an illuminating look at the 14,000 uses for salt.

3. The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising

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It's absolutely astounding how influenced we all are by brands, how deeply packaging and advertising imagery has become embedded in our collective psyches. This particular museum explores that consumer culture through its collection of more than 12,000 original items of advertisement and packaging dating back to the Victorian era. The collection also includes other, often overlooked kinds of ephemera, such as penny toys, magazines, royal souvenirs, and comics.

4. The Cuckooland Museum, Cheshire

It's not exactly British history so much as Black Forest, German history, but the Cuckooland Museum in Cheshire is home to a large and highly regarded collection of rare and antique cuckoo clocks, as well as five fairground organs. This museum lives somewhere between very neat and intensely maddening "“ many of the clocks are in working order, which prompts the question, what is noon like around there?

5. The Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker, Hack Green, Cheshire

Strange secrets abound in sleepy villages in England "“ secrets like a vast underground complex built to house the government should World War III break out?

Originally used as a bombing decoy site, in 1941 Hack Green became an RAF station protecting the area between Birmingham and Liverpool from aerial attack using radar detection, a very new technology at the time. After World War II, it became part of the ROTOR program "“ Hack Green's radar defense system was re-outfitted with long-range radar technology in order to better deal with the threat of Soviet conventional and now, nuclear, attack. And then: The Cold War. Hack Green became a 35,000 square foot warren of blast-proof concrete government offices and food stores, prepared to become a center of regional government in the event of World War III.

Hack Green was declassified in 1993 and now it's open to the public (likely the non-claustrophobic public): Explore the labyrinthine passageways and corridors, visit the decontamination facilities, be a secret agent on the trail of a Soviet Spy, and finish up your visit with a trip to the Bunker Bistro for "survival rations."

6. Porthcurno Telegraph Museum

Another underground museum, the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum is dedicated to preserving, well, the history of the telegraph in England. Back in the day, the Porthcurno telegraph station was the world's most important telegraph station, connected to more than 100,000 miles of cable to other such stations around the globe. The museum reveals the actually fascinating history of the transoceanic cables, including the ships that not only laid the cables, but which also raised them back up off the sea floor when they required repair, as well as exactly how telegraphs worked.

The telegraph station was moved underground in 1941, to protect it against enemy attack during World War II.

7. Cars of the Stars Museum, Keswick, Cumbria

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Consider it a bit like the Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, but for cars. In 1989, car enthusiast, dentist, and artist Peter Nelson opened the Cars of the Stars Museum, a motorcar museum featuring only cars that have appeared in films and television shows. Each car is displayed in its own set, recreating the film or show that it appeared in "“ so, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (both the "hovercraft" version and the main road car) is presented against a painted backdrop of Bavarian mountains. The museum owns some serious cars from some seriously nostalgic movies and shows: several Batmobiles, including the original; the Munsters' Koach car from the television show; the Flintstones' car from the atrocious 1995 live-action film; a flux-capacitor equipped DeLorean that was used to promote the third Back to the Future movie; Mad Max's post-apocalyptic muscle car; Robocop's police car, the original used in all three movies; and even a Herbie the Lovebug.

8. The Bond Museum, Keswick, Cumbria

Britain takes Bond very seriously. As arguably the most macho and coolest export ever from a country often dogged by bumbling leading men (Hugh Grant, anyone?), James Bond is an international icon and a source of some major pride. So it makes absolute sense that there should be a museum dedicated to the man, the myth, the legend.

Peter Nelson, the same man behind the Cars of the Stars Museum, spent hundreds of thousands of pounds over 20 years to finally open the Bond Museum this April. The only one of its kind, the museum houses some of the most iconic pieces of Bond movie memorabilia: Starting with the cars, there's the Diamonds Are Forever Mustang, the Aston Martin V8 Volante used by Timothy Dalton in The Living Daylights, and the Lotus Esprit S1 used in The Spy Who Loved Me "“ both the car and the submarine-car. Then there's the Russian T55 battle tank used in the St. Petersburg chase scene in GoldenEye, the Fairey Huntress boat used in From Russia With Love, the Bede Aerostar mini jet from Octopussy, the actual golden gun from The Man With the Golden Gun, and the actual Q Boat from The World is Not Enough.

And for visitors, the museum is open "007 days a week."

9. The Fan Museum, Greenwich, London

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Fan Museum is the only museum in the world dedicated to every aspect of fans and fan making. The museum, housed in two nearly 300-year-old historic homes in beautiful Greenwich, features more than 3500 fans, mostly antique, but spanning the centuries from the 11th century to present day. That a museum devoted to fans exists at all is to say that fans, of course, weren't just about keeping cool. Throughout the ages, fans have had ceremonial use, been part of the mythic landscape of gods and goddesses, and, as an art form, date back at least 3000 years. Victorian women used their fans to signal some un-Victorian sentiments; for example, a half-open fan pressed to the lips meant, "You may kiss me," while rapidly opening and closing a fan meant, "You're a jerk." Fans in the 18th century featured everything from instructions on how to play whist to details of Lord Nelson's victory on the Nile.

And these are all things I learned at the Fan Museum.

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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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