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The Rise of the Flapper

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Several factors were in play in the 1920s for the emergence of what came to known as flappers, teenagers and young women who flouted convention and spent their time pursuing fun instead of settling down to raise children in the prime of their lives. Many entered college or the workforce and felt entitled to make their own decisions about how to live their lives.

A lot of young men did not return home from World War I, which left an entire cohort of women without enough husbands to go around. The horror of the war (and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918) also impressed young people with the knowledge that life is short and could end at any moment. Instead of staying home preparing to marry a man who might never come, young women wanted to spend what time they had enjoying all that life had to offer.

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Movies popularized the image of the fun-loving and free-thinking woman throughout the US and Europe. The 1920 movie The Flapper introduced the term in the United States. The title character, Ginger, was a wayward girl who flouted the rules of society. Played by Olive Thomas, a former Ziegfeld Girl (left), Ginger had so much fun that a generation of lonely young women wanted to be like her. Another role model was stage and screen actress Louise Brooks (right), who also modeled for artists and fashion designers. She was the inspiration for the flapper comic strip Dixie Dugan.

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Clara Bow wasn't the first flapper on screen, but she was certainly a role model for young women of the era. She didn't play by the rules, and was tabloid fodder for years for her sexual escapades with the biggest movie stars of the time. Bow's first film was in 1922 and her career peaked in 1927 with the film It. "It" was defined as the sexual allure some girls have and others don't. Bow's fans wanted "it", so they copied her look and behavior.

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The rise of the automobile was another factor in the rise of flapper culture. Cars meant a woman could come and go as she pleased, travel to speakeasys and other entertainment venues, and use the large vehicles of the day for heavy petting or even sex.

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These young women has plenty of opportunities for fun. Although Prohibition drove alcohol underground, that only added to its allure. Postwar prosperity allowed for leisure time and the means to spend that time drinking, dancing, and hanging out with free thinkers.

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Being a flapper wasn't all about fashion. It was about rebellion. In this article from 1922, a would-be flapper (but still a "nice girl") explains her lifestyle choices to her parents. Flappers did what society did not expect from young women. They danced to Jazz Age music, they smoked, they wore makeup, they spoke their own language, and they lived for the moment. Flapper fashion followed the lifestyle. Skirts became shorter to make dancing easier. Corsets were discarded in favor of brassieres that bound their breasts, again to make dancing easier. The straight shapeless dresses were easy to make and blurred the line between the rich and everyone else. The look became fashionable because of the lifestyle. The short hair? That was pure rebellion against the older generation's veneration of long feminine locks.

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The party stopped when the economy crashed and the Great Depression curtailed the night life. Although the flapper lifestyle died along with the Roaring Twenties, the freedoms women tasted in that era weren't easily given up. They may have gone back to marriage and long hours of toil for little pay, but hemlines stayed above the ankle, and the corset never went back to everyday status. And we've been driving cars ever since.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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