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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
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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