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Salvation Mountain

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California's Mojave Desert is an enormous, undulating swath of brown, gray and alkali white; driving through it is such a monochromatic experience that you almost feel like you could go into color withdrawal. That's why Salvation Mountain, just south of California's own Dead Sea, the Salton, is such a shock to the system. It's a man-made mountain covered in 100,000 gallons of technicolor paint, one man's 25-year project. I was lucky enough to visit with a friend last week, and this is what we discovered.

Driving up, the first thing you notice is that it's an absolute riot of color. There are no subtle shades here: it's all primary colors, glowing blue and red and gold in the merciless desert sun. The next thing you notice is that every bit of it is covered with Christian messages: God is Love; Catch the Jesus Fire; even slightly nonsense phrases like Jesus Bible Jesus. Confused or not, the message comes across loud and clear.

Confronted with all these colors and bold messages, we parked and climbed tentatively out of the car, expecting to be accosted at any moment by a crazy man, his brains addled by overexposure to the sun. Not at all: a meek and charming old man named Leonard came toddling up to us in a wide-brimmed hat, smiling and saying he'd love to show us a few things. We agreed, and the tour began.

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Leonard Knight came to the desert outside of Niland, California in the mid-80s. "I only meant to stay a week," he said, "but 25 years later, here I am still." He was an artist and a craftsman set on doing something big, that would send a simple message: "God is love." His first project was an enormous balloon covered in God-is-love-style slogans, and while it was impressive, it never got off the ground. But it inspired him to do something a bit more grounded: hand-sculpt a mountain.
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There was never a master plan for Salvation Mountain -- Leonard just keeps adding onto it as he sees fit. He does most of the work himself -- though people come and bring him paint and supplies -- mixing adobe out of straw, water and clay, which is abundant nearby. And his enormous structure is more than just a mountain: it's also a warren of shady grottoes, filled with and made from painted trees, tires, windows and anything else he might find in the desert that could be useful. Bales of hay also seem to be one of Leonard's main building blocks.
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About 10 years ago, Imperial County started threatening Leonard. He built Salvation Mountain on public land and had no legal claim to it, and the county's worry -- officially, at least -- was that all that lead paint he had used was seeping into the ground and poisoning the water supply. But after extensive tests, experts concluded that the water supply was fine, and to protect Salvation Mountain from wrecking balls and bulldozers on a more permanent basis, California senator Barbara Boxer had the Mountain declared a national treasure -- the only such monument ever to be read into the Congressional Record aside from Mount Rushmore.

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Leonard gets thousands of visitors each year, and he tries to give everyone who comes to his mountain a personal tour. He lives on the premises, very simply, in a 1958 Airstream trailer without electricity or running water. This is his front door:
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If you've ever been to the Watts Towers in South LA, you know how amazing this kind of one-man folk art can be. The problem with the Watts Towers is that you spend all your time there wondering what the man who built it must've been like -- at Salvation Mountain, equally if not more impressive than the Watts Towers, in my opinion -- its creator is there, and he'll happily give you a tour free of charge. He'll even try to give you free DVDs and postcards as you leave, and poo-poohs the suggestion that he take any money from you.
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If you're ever in the area, be sure and stop by -- Leonard's 74 years old, and may not be giving tours for much longer. We wondered what would happen to Salvation Mountain after he was gone, but didn't quite know how to ask him. I hope there's someone out there who'll take care of it the way Leonard has.
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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]