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5 "Fathers" You Didn't Know You Had

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5. Gary Gygax, the father of role playing games

Gygax invented Dungeons and Dragons in 1974, and fathered most subsequent iterations of the classic tabletop game, including Advanced D&D, various Dungeon Master guides, and was heavily involved with the licensing of D&D to become a cartoon in 1983. (Check the cartoon's intro out -- I've never seen so much plotting compressed into so few seconds.) Gygax grew up in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and lived there until his death last year. Near the end of his life, he said "I would like the world to remember me as the guy who really enjoyed playing games and sharing his knowledge and his fun pastimes with everybody else." And so we will.

4. Art Ingels, the father of karting

As in go-karting, which Ingels invented in 1956 while he was a designer at Kurtis Craft, which built Indy race cars. Ingels assembled the first go kart out of scrap metal and a surplus two-stroke cycle engine and tested it in the parking lot of Pasadena, California's famous Rose Bowl. Pictured below: a modern kart.

3. Abū Yūsuf Yaʻqūb ibn Isḥāq al-Kindī, the father of perfume

An early Islamic philosopher (c. 801"“873 CE) known for his pioneering work in astronomy, chemistry, logic, psychology and other diverse fields, he's best known for inventing a variety of scented perfume products through his extensive chemical research involving plant compounds. He also wrote the first perfume recipe book, the Kitab Kimiya' al-'Itr (Book of the Chemistry of Perfume), which included the first instructions for the production of camphor.

2. Al-Jazari, the father of robots

Another genius from the Islamic Golden Age (he lived between 1136"“1206), Jazari was an inventor, mechanical engineer and craftsman who contributed much to mechanical science, including development of the first crankshaft, and various pumps and water supply systems. But his most astounding work was in the field of automata, or robotics: Jazari built automated moving peacocks driven by hydropower, the earliest known automatic gates, a humanoid, drink-serving waitress, a hand-washing machine --

"Pulling a plug on the peacock's tail releases water out of the beak; as the dirty water from the basin fills the hollow base a float rises and actuates a linkage which makes a servant figure appear from behind a door under the peacock and offer soap. When more water is used, a second float at a higher level trips and causes the appearance of a second servant figure — with a towel!"

-- and long before the animatronic Rockafire Explosion band at Showbiz Pizza, Jazari created a band of musical robots. It was a boat with four automatic musicians that floated on a lake to entertain guests at royal drinking parties, which performed "more than fifty facial and body actions during each musical selection." (Pictured below.)

1. Frank W. Cyr, father of the yellow school bus

Kid_hack.jpgIn the American heartland during the 1930s, there was no standard for school busing. Cyr, who had been a superintendent of schools in Nebraska and was working as a teacher educator, found that students were riding to school in all manner of contraptions, from old jalopies and hay wagons to horse-drawn kid hacks (pictured at left). With help from the Rockefeller Foundation, Cyr organized a conference between transportation experts and education experts in 1939, at which they agreed upon 44 standards, such as bus height and aisle width, which every school bus should meet. Most of those standards have since changed and been updated, except for one: the color. Known as School Bus Yellow, it was chosen for its high visibility to other motorists.

Next week: 5 "mothers" you never knew you had!

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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]