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What's the Deal With the Barber Pole?

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A colleague asks, "What's the deal with the barber pole? Does it represent anything, or is it just a flashy pole that some early haircutter stuck up?"

The dual arts of cutting hair and shaving faces have been around for a very long time, as have the barbers who practice them (razors dating from the Bronze Age have been found, and the "barber's razor" is mentioned in the bible). For much of their early history, barbers did much more than just take a little off the top, though. Early physicians thought of some surgeries as being beneath them, so the tasks of mending wounds, blood-letting and extracting teeth fell to the barbers. For their dual roles of cutting hair and cutting veins, they were called barber-surgeons and later, when the College de Saint Come in Paris wanted to further distinguish between academic surgeons and barber-surgeons, "surgeons of the short robe."

The striped poles you sometimes see outside barber shops are a legacy of the barber-surgeons' practice of bloodletting.

The typical barber-surgeon's equipment for bloodletting or applying leeches consisted of a staff (for the patient to grasp, causing the veins of the arm to stand out sharply), a basin (to catch blood and hold leeches), and a number of linen bandages. Often, the bandages were tied to or twisted around the staff, which was capped with the blood bowl, so everything was together when needed. The equipment would then be placed outside, both to dry washed bandages and to act as an advertisement. With the help of a stiff breeze, the bandages—clean in some spots, permanently stained in others—would twist around the pole and create an unmistakable swirling red and white pattern.

Over time, bloodletting fell out of practice, and the tools of the trade disappeared from barbers' shops as they concentrated on hair. (Some stubbornly continued to practice medicine; in 1745, England passed legislation to permanently separate barbers from surgeons.) To maintain tradition and advertise their services with a recognizable symbol, many barbers placed wooden poles outside—painted with stripes and topped with a ball, to resemble the staff/bandage/basin arrangement. The modern barber pole was born. [Image courtesy of Hillsdale Barn Antiques.]


Many of today's poles feature rotating, light-up cylinders and weather-resistant plastic and steel parts. Most of these poles probably came from the William Marvy Company of St. Paul, Minnesota, which has, for decades, been the dominant producer of barber poles in the USA. Company founder William Marvy got his start as a barber supply salesman in the 1920s. He was convinced that he could produce a better barber pole than the ones he'd been pushing, so he launched his own company. By 1950, he perfected his version of the barber pole. The Marvy model featured a Lucite outer cylinder, cast-aluminum housing and stainless-steel fittings, making it lighter, sturdier, and more durable than the other poles available.

By the late 1960s, two of Marvy's competitors had gone out of business, and his other two rivals were farming out their pole manufacturing to his factory. Soon enough, the Marvy Company was the only game in town, and in the country.

William Marvy, the only non-barber in the Barber Hall of Fame, died in 1993, but the company is still going today under the direction of his son, Bob. Annual pole sales are down to about 600 (compared to 5,100 in 1967), but the company keeps itself busy selling replacement parts and grooming supplies, and restoring old poles. If you're in the market for a barber pole, they still offer seven different revolving or non-revolving and stand- or wall-mounted models.

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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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