Original image

The Quick 10: 10 Miss Universe Controversies

Original image

If you follow these things, and maybe even if you don't, you know that the Miss Universe pageant was last weekend. Miss Venezuela took the crown for the second year in the row. All in all it was a pretty tame competition, but it isn't always that way - the pageant has certainly seen its share of controversy over the years. Here are 10 of them.

armi1. The very first winner, Armi Kuusela of Finland, was just 17 when she took home the title in 1952. She was about 10 months into her year-long reign when she decided to hand over her sash and crown because she was getting married immediately and would no longer meet the requirements. Why she couldn't wait two months is anyone's guess. She was the first beauty queen to voluntarily give up a position, and perhaps lacking protocol, pageant organizers let her keep her title.
2. During the pageant of 1969, Miss Austria Eva von Rueber-Staier upset quite a few people with her response to one particular question on a written questionnaire. When asked to name the greatest historical figure in the world, she had responded with "Mao Tse-tung." Although this obviously didn't sit well with everyone, she still advanced to the semi-finals before being edged out. She did, however, take the Miss World title the same year. You might know her better as General Gogol's beautiful assistant in the James Bond movies The Spy Who Loved Me, For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy.

3. Miss Philippines Margarita Moran sort of made the same mistake after the 1973 pageant, though probably not as extreme. She won the competition and then proclaimed Richard Nixon as the "Greatest man on Earth." This was right in the middle of Watergate, mind you. Nixon sent her a thank you note, expressing his gratitude on her "thoughtful comment on my efforts to bring peace in the world."

4. It wasn't a contestant who created a stir in 1974, it was the host country "“ or rather, the host country's hostess. A former beauty queen herself, Imelda Marcos understandably wanted to show off the Philippines when it was chosen to host the Miss Universe pageant. But perhaps she went a little too far. She immediately ordered a 10,000-seat amphitheater to be built in under three months, using millions of dollars when much of the nation's population needed aid. And to top it off, after the parade route was set, she had some of the shabbier homes on the route bulldozed, hidden by fences or otherwise concealed so the contestants from other countries would only see the best side of Manila.

5. And that wasn't the only controversy to strike in 1974. The winner, Ampara Muñoz of Spain, pulled a Miss Finland and willfully gave up her crown. The runner-up, Miss Wales, would have been offered the crown, but she had recently been named Miss World and couldn't carry both titles. And, actually, Miss Wales ended up having to relinquish her Miss World title anyway when it was discovered that she was an unwed mother (gasp). Apparently the pageant officials gave up at that point, because they didn't even bother offering the crown to the second runner up "“ Miss Finland.

6. Everyone's favorite game show host was the culprit behind the 1987 brouhaha. Maybe not everyone's favorite game show host "“ I guess maybe some people prefer Alex Trebek or Pat Sajak. I digress. Pageant host and animal activist Bob Barker requested that the pageant stop offering fur coats and other prizes related to animal cruelty as rewards to the winner and runners-up. They refused, and the 20-year Miss Universe veteran stepped down. The 1987 pageant in Singapore was his last.

alicia7. You might remember this one "“ the 1996 winner, Venezuelan Alicia Machado, was basically warned that she was getting too fat to keep her crown. Officials threatened to replace her with the runner up, Miss Aruba, unless she trimmed down. She did, but it certainly didn't help matters when Donald Trump went on Howard Stern and referred to Machado as "an eating machine."
8. In 1999, it was revealed that Miss Guam was pregnant. She was disqualified, and pageant officials thought it would be a great opportunity to stump the remaining contestants with a tricky question: If a Miss Universe becomes pregnant, should she be allowed to continue her reign and keep the title? Most contestants awkwardly stumbled their way through the question, but Miss Botswana was prepared and answered that there was no way Miss Universe was any less spectacular with a bun in the oven, and that she should not only keep the crown, but celebrate her femininity. She won the title.

9. In 1966, several contestants from Latin American countries bonded together to have a press conference to share their opinion that they were considered the "nothings" of the pageant and that European girls were preferred. Misses Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay and Venezuela were sort of proved right a few days later when Miss Sweden won, but overall they have been incorrect: Venezuela ranks second when it comes to how often they land in the semi-finals, Colombia had first runner up placements three years in a row, and Puerto Rico and Venezuela are the only two countries to have winners in each of the last four decades.

10. The 1979 pageant held in Perth, Australia, had only just finished when a huge crash and loud screams filled the building. Part of the hastily-constructed stage had collapsed, injuring 20 candidates and lots of reporters and photographers.

Do you follow the pageants at all? Any opinion on last weekend's events? I can't say that I follow them too much, so fill me in if I missed anything good.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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!

Original image
Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
Original image

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]