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Where's Waldo? And Who's Wally?

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Since I moved to London, I've gotten used to things being just a bit different: Sure, there's the whole accent thing and the driving on the other side of the road and the insertion of u's where they hadn't been before, but I mean the much more subtle differences "“ like Waldo.

With his trademark red-and-white striped shirt, his knit cap topped with a pom-pom, glasses and walking stick, Waldo has wended his way through virtually every country on every continent, through time and space and imagination, the sets of Hollywood movies and the pages of beloved books.

And Where's Waldo? you ask? Everywhere. His books have sold more than 50 million copies worldwide and have been translated into over 25 languages, and as a character, Waldo has become an icon, appearing on TV shows such as The Simpsons, Friends and Frasier. Waldo even made it onto the cover of Rolling Stone.

But here in the UK, Waldo is Wally.

And, shockingly enough, Waldo was actually Wally first "“ and he's British. Wally was the brainchild of Martin Handford, an illustrator born in the Greater London neighborhood of Hampstead. Handford said that growing up, his earliest influences were large-scale cinema epics, the kinds of movies with large crowd scenes, which he would then try to recreate with pen and paper.

wheres_wallyAlready a known illustrator who specialized in crowd scenes, Handford was asked to put together a book of his work "“ and voila! Wally was born, a visual tie-in that kept continuity from scene to scene.


Eventually, after publishers bought the book, Wally evolved into the bespectacled bumbling traveler we now know: In a typical book, Wally/Waldo carries his trademark walking stick, in addition to 11 other items that are designed to help him on his travels: kettle, mallet, cup, backpack, sleeping bag, binoculars, camera, snorkel, belt, bag and a shovel. Waldo, however, isn't particularly good at keeping track of his items and so, on each page, he loses one, requiring the reader to help him find it. To find him and his lost item, readers are tasked with visually sorting through vast scenes, often rife with visual puns and humor (sometimes a bit risqué humor at that).

The book series launched in 1987 in the UK, with Wally as its titular character; later that same year, the series was launched in the US, where Wally was introduced as Waldo. The series took off, becoming a sensation within only a few years and eventually morphing into a TV series in both the US and the UK, a comic strip, several video games (including one due out this September from Ubisoft), and even a few magazines (in the UK and Australia, Wally went on weekly adventures to new countries, which he reported on his children's geographical and cultural magazine, Wally's World).

By 1997, when the publishers of the books came out with Where's Waldo? The Wonder Book, the Waldo world also had several new characters to find: Woof, Waldo/Wally's faithful canine companion; Wenda, Waldo's girlfriend and the "one who takes pictures," according to the introduction to The Wonder Book; Wizard Whitebeard, whose magic allows the apparently jobless Waldo to travel as much as he does; and Odlaw, whose mean disposition, black-and-yellow striped clothing and slick mustache make him the villain in the Waldo-verse.

The intrepid traveler had even by then sparked some controversy "“ Waldo was spotted on the American Library Association's list of 100 most frequently challenged books, after wandering through a beach scene containing a nearly topless sunbather.

But not only has this international man of mystery gotten lost in scenes across the world, but so has his original identity. Continuing the pattern started with its introduction to the US, Wally got a new name and it seems, a new attitude with every country he was introduced. In some countries, Waldo retained the whimsical "˜w' in his name: For example, in Germany, he's Walter ("Wo ist Walter?") and in Norway, he's Willy ("Der hvor er Willy?"). But in France, he became Charlie ("Ou est Charlie?"), in Denmark, Holger and in Israel, Effi. According to Wikipedia (and therefore not entirely to be believed), American Waldo is a hipper, more "tech-savvy" traveler, while British Wally is a bit of a dork.

These days, Waldo and Wally (and Walter, Willy, Charlie, Holger and Effy) have been popping up in some pretty interesting places "“ and in some cases, in incredibly large numbers. This April, students at Rutgers University earned a Guinness Book of World Records distinction for the most number of people dressed as Waldo in one place.

google-waldo

In 2006, Waldo met with a bit of misadventure: According to Internet lore, he appeared in a field of corpses, with an arrow through his head, in a single frame of the theatrical release of the film Apocalypto. And that's not all: Now that Google Streetview has canvassed more of the earth, Waldo/Wally was recently seen at 77 Putney High Street in London; in 2008, Google Earth made a 55-foot tall version of Wally on top of a building visible; he's been found in some pretty atrocious fanfiction on the Internet; and he even made an appearance at this year's ComicCon, flanked by two scantily clad Waldettes.

Word also has it that we might be seeing more of Waldo in the near future "“ Universal has recently acquired the rights to the Where's Waldo? franchise and plans to make the beloved if plot-less books into a live action family film.

So, who do you think should play Waldo in the movie? Do you have any Waldo memories that stand out (say, the nearly topless lady in the beach scene)? Waldo/Wally turns 22 on September 21 "“ any plans to celebrate the worldwide wanderer's birthday?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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iStock
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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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