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The Quick 10: 10 of Edison's Other Inventions

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Thomas Edison was a busy guy "“ you know he invented the incandescent lightbulb and the phonograph, of course, but he also had 1,092 other patents to his name (although some were inventions of his employees that were credited to him). Some were pretty genius and we still use them today. Others"¦ not so much. Here are a few from both categories.

pens1. His first-ever patented invention: the Electrographic Vote-Recorder. Voters would hit a switch to vote yes or no. It was a gargantuan flop.
2. Stencil-pens, later adapted into tattoo guns. It was originally just "a pen actuated by electricity."
3. Addressing machine, which I am sure direct mail companies of the late 1800s were giddy about (that's a joke). The invention was made specifically to address newspapers. It was made "with a strip of paper perforated with numerous holes to form letters or numbers, of an ink-pad containing a limpid ink and a presser, whereby the ink is forced through the holes in the paper, and in combination therewith I employ a lever and an automatic device for moving a ribbon-paper along progressively."

4. Paraffin Paper, AKA wax paper. Yep "“ amongst all of these very technical and scientific electric devices, Edison came up with the idea of coating some paper with wax to make it moisture-proof. Well, actually, this is one of the inventions thought to have been created by one of his assistants. The first use of this amazing paper was to wrap candies.

5. A method of extracting rubber from plants. And not from rubber plants, oh no "“ from herbs and shrubs "having a small content of rubber."

6. The Kinetophone. You can see where he was going with this one "“ the kinetophone was a phonograph inside of a cabinet, and while it played through a couple of ear tubes "“ very primitive headphones, I suppose "“ the viewer would watch images. After a few failed attempts, he gave up on the idea of "talkies."

7. Cement as a design substance. Edison tried building lots of things with cement, including the cabinets for his phonographs and a mail-order concrete house. He was definitely ahead of his time with this one, because now you see cement being used for all kinds of unconventional things (including houses). But at the time, it was simply too expensive to waste on seemingly frivolous things.

dolls8. The undersea telegraph. Edison really wanted to make this one work "“ a transatlantic cable that could transmit messages. After lots of experimentation, he determined that the vibrations from traffic was just too much interference for his invention "“ however, his discoveries helped Alexander Graham Bell perfect his own famous invention, so the undersea telegraph wasn't a total loss.
9. The microtasimeter, a device that could measure minute changes in pressure.
10. A phonograph doll. A precursor to Talky Tina and Chatty Cathy, Edison saw how a doll that could make noises would appeal to children and collectors. Each doll contained a tiny phonograph that could hold records that played six-second recordings. The problem? At $10 each, they were pretty pricey for 1890. And that was if the doll was wearing a simple undergarment-type of dress "“ for a full dress with shoes and a hat, it could cost buyers up to $25. And the dolls didn't have particularly dulcet tones "“ Edison himself once said, "The voices of the little monsters were exceedingly unpleasant to hear."

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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]