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The Quick 10: Santa Monica Pier

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One of the things I really loved about L.A. is how easy it is to transport yourself to a totally different environment. One day I was hanging out at the same hotel Marilyn Monroe once lived in and thinking about how I wasn't cool enough to be enjoying a super overpriced drink at the Tropicana; the next day I was eating a hot dog and going barefoot in the sand at the Santa Monica Pier. Maybe that's not that impressive to most of you, but when you come from the midwest, you don't transition scenery that fast. If you want a beach, you have to hop on a plane and travel several hours. Unless you count lake beaches, which totally aren't the same thing. Um. All of this rambling is my longwinded way of saying that today's Quick 10 L.A. Week post is about the historic Santa Monica Pier (and area).

sign1. Open since September 9, 1909, the Santa Monica Pier was originally anything but fun and carefree. It actually served the very practical purpose of carrying sewage out past the breakers. So when they advertise that they're celebrating 100 years of the Santa Monica Pier this year, what they are really saluting is 93 years of fun and entertainment and seven years of poo disposal. I kid... sort of. It was made for sewage, but even so, people were flocking to it even since 1909.

2. The second, adjoining pier was built in 1916 and has been known by three different names, which I'll probably use interchangeably. When it was first built by amusement park magnate Charles Looff - he built the first Coney Island Carousel in 1876 - it was known as the Looff Pier. At some point people started calling it Newcomb Pier and then the Pleasure Pier (as opposed to the municipal poo pier). I'm not sure that anyone actually designates between the two piers these days; at least from a non-Californian's perspective, the whole kit and caboodle is just referred to as Santa Monica Pier.

carousel3. Since Charles Looff brought Coney Island its first carousel, it's fitting that he was responsible for the Santa Monica Pier's first carousel as well. The wooden carousel with 44 hand carved horses - no two are alike - has been housed in the Looff Hippodrome since 1922. The building has been there since the pier opened in 1916. After many years of use, both the building and the carousel were found to be in dire need of repairs when the city conducted an inspection in the late '70s. The Hippodrome was scraped all the way down to bare wood and given a new coat of stucco; the carousel was meticulously taken apart piece by piece, then cleaned and repaired and put back together perfectly. People had actually lived on the floor above the carousel until 1974 when a fire forced them out, but when the building was put back together, the floor above the ride was restored. Office workers now occupy the second floor. Another fun fact: Wwen the carousel was fixed, the restoration artists discovered that one of the horses has a paper bag for a hoof - it was just crumpled up and just covered with several coats of wood putty.

4. The original Muscle Beach used to be located just south of the Santa Monica Pier. From the 1930s to the end of the 1950s, when people were talking about Muscle Beach, they were talking about the one in Santa Monica. It was especially known for its tumbling platform and gymnastics equipment, and people would wander away from the actual attractions on the pier to see what was going on with the athletes on the shore. This made the pier vendors none too happy; that coupled with the huge crowds and rumors of bodybuilders hooking up with underage girls caused the city to shut it down for a while. It returned without a tumbling platform. Obviously now feeling unwanted in Santa Monica, weightlifters headed down the shore to Venice, where the L.A. Parks and Recreation Department had plenty of barbells and weights were available. Venice has been the home of "Muscle Beach" ever since. Santa Monica has recently erected a sign claiming "The Original Muscle Beach" and still tends to attract people wanting to practice acrobatics and gymnastics while Muscle Beach Venice attracts the Arnold-type jocks. Joe Gold and Jack LaLanne were two of the original Muscle Beach's early regulars.

5. The La Monica Ballroom opened on the pier in 1924 and was the largest ballroom in America, able to hold more than 10,000 dancers. In 1926, a huge storm rolled in and almost devastated the whole pier and did enough damage to the ballroom that the whole thing had to be renovated. In the '50s it was home to a bunch of dance shows and radio broadcasts and was one of the nation's biggest skating rink from 1958-1962, when it was finally torn down.

ferris6. The Ferris Wheel you see in the pictures isn't the original... which you probably already know if you have seen pictures of its amazing light show at night. The Pacific Park Ferris Wheel had stood at the end of the pier for 12 years when Pacific Park decided to auction it off on eBay last year with a starting bid of $50,000. They got a bid on the first day. The 122,000 pound wheel was bought by Humphreys Real Estate Investments of Oklahoma City, Okla., and half of the proceeds of the winning bid was donated to the Special Olympics.

7. Movies with scenes there include They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, The Sting (even though the movie took place in Chicago, the pier was Santa Monica), A Night at the Roxbury, Titanic, Iron Man and The Hannah Montana Movie.

hotdog8. When is a hot dog not a hot dog? When it's a Hot Dog on a Stick. Or something. Hot Dog on a Stick has been at the Santa Monica Pier since 1946 - you might recognize the colorful uniform even if you don't know the chain. Originally you could just get corn dogs and lemonade at the stand, but now they've expanded to include french fries and fried cheese on a stick. I'm sorry to say I didn't experience any of these delicious items - has anyone else?

9. There are 12 attractions at Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier, including the West Coaster, a steel roller coaster that tops out at 55 feet high; the world's only solar-powered Ferris Wheel (which is what replaced the one sold on eBay last year); bumper cars; a drop tower; and several rides targeted at younger kids. Pacific Park is the first full-scale amusement park on the pier since the '30s.

SIGN10. The Santa Monica Pier is exceptionally susceptible to the California weather phenomenon "June Gloom." Mornings are foggy and will sometimes even include a touch of rain and the overall feeling is just kind of overcast and dreary. Some California residents have even reported June Gloom symptoms similar to seasonal affective disorder. Whereas it tends to "burn off" by early afternoon most places, spots on the shore or even a bit out on the water like the pier is don't heat up as fast as the land does and the clouds never really dissipate.

Have a Q10 idea for me? Send me a Tweet and let me know!

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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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