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Makin' Copies: the Complete History

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My friend Diana Rooks wrote this fun piece on the history of carbon copies, which originally appeared in History Magazine back in August '06. It was so interesting that I wanted to share it with our readers. Read on!

From the development of the typewriter in the 1870s until the emergence of photocopy machines in the 1960s, carbon paper was an indispensable office supply. The smudge-prone substance on the back of the paper was actually printer's ink, not graphite. The term "carbon" was, however, an accurate reference to carbon black, the standard color of ink.

Englishman Ralph Wedgwood and Italian Pellegrino Turri developed the first manifestations of carbon paper independently around the same time. In 1806, Wedgwood patented a composition aid for the blind, the stylographic writer. The device replaced the standard quill with a metal stylus and substituted a sheet of carbon paper in place of liquid ink. The carbon paper was placed between two pieces of stationery and slid between metal guide wires. Pressure from the metal stylus left impressions of the writer's penmanship on the bottom sheet of paper, which became the original document. The top piece of paper, meant to keep the writer's hand clean, picked up a mirror image copy of the manuscript on its underside. When Wedgwood's intended market showed little interest, he modified the stylographic writer and repackaged it as a document copier.

By at least 1808, Pellegrino Turri had also developed carbon paper as a composition aid for the blind — specifically, his ladyfriend, Countess Carolina Fantoni. He built a machine, not unlike a mechanical typewriter, that allowed the Countess to correspond with him without dictating her innermost thoughts to a third party.

Initially, the only professionals who had much commercial use for carbon paper were journalists for the Associated Press. They bought their supplies from American Cyrus P. Darkin, beginning in 1823. Other businessmen feared that the new technology would facilitate forgery.

Around 1870, a grocery manufacturer noticed a sheet of carbon paper in the hands of an AP reporter and decided to form a new company. L.H. Rogers & Co. saw the demand for its carbon paper skyrocket a few years later as the Remington typewriter came into widespread use. The typewriter struck the paper hard enough to quickly produce both a professional-looking original document and a legible duplicate beneath a sheet of carbon paper.

It became common practice for businesses to compose every outgoing form in triplicate, using two sheets of carbon paper to create three copies. Soon, retailers found it convenient to create instant copies of receipts, invoices, money orders, checks, and other financial records. For more than 80 years, carbon paper was the cheapest and most essential tool for making copies.

Three innovations were responsible for removing carbon paper from desk drawers. Photocopying came into vogue in 1959, with the perfection of the Xerox Model 914. the copy machine enabled businesses to make an unlimited number of copies of not only outgoing documents, but incoming documents as well. Around the same time, office supply companies developed carbonless paper. Treated with chemicals that changed color under pressure, carbonless paper replaced its messier antecedent in most retail transactions. The yellow "customer copy" of some credit card receipts is an example of carbonless paper.

Despite the encroaching technologies, carbon paper remained useful as long as businesses continued to use typewriters. However, the advent of word processors in the late 1970s accelerated carbon paper's descent into obsolescence.

Perhaps in deference to a technology they replaced, most e-mail programs allow the author to send a carbon copy, or cc, to a secondary recipient.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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]

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