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History of the U.S.: Al Gore Really Did "Take the Initiative in Creating the Internet"

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While it was a bold claim, “took the initiative in creating” is not the same as “invented.” The latter summons up images of Gore writing equations in a white lab coat, laying fiberoptic cable in a hardhat, and sharing a cup of tea with a house wife while explaining how to use e-mail; the former suggests that he played a key role in a broader congressional effort to formulate policies that enabled other people (engineers and computer scientists) to make the Internet what it is today. And that is pretty close to the truth.

Indeed, Al Gore was well aware that the “Internet” was already in existence when he was first elected to Congress in 1977. The groundwork for the Internet was laid in the late 1960s by researchers who invented a way to transmit information by breaking large amounts of data into smaller “packets,” which could be sent to multiple computers simultaneously. This digital network was organized and funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), the Pentagon’s research and development division, to share information between four key research sites. As more schools and labs were added, the network grew from four routers in 1969 to 40 in 1972. In 1975, when there were 57 routers (including some in Europe), ARPA handed the Net over to the Pentagon, which planned to use it as a backup if other communications were knocked out by a Soviet first strike.

Al Gore played a key role in making the network available for nonmilitary use. One year after the Pentagon separated the military and civilian parts of the network, Gore supported initiatives to build new “wide area networks” (WAN). To speed this process, in 1986 Gore authored the Supercomputer Network Act, which funded research to expand connections between universities and research facilities using high-capacity fiber-optic cables. In 1988 the Pentagon announced it would phase out ARPANET by 1990, prompting universities, industry, and other civilian users to expand the nonmilitary network. At the urging of these groups, Gore authored legislation allocating federal funds to connect 1,000 academic and other civilian networks to form an “information superhighway.” This evolved into the National High-Performance Computing and Communications Act, a $1.7 billion project linking universities, libraries, government facilities, and industrial labs in a common network. The NHPCCA— otherwise known as the “Gore Bill”— also funded computer scientists who developed Mosaic, the first graphic Web browser.

The 1992 expiration date set for funding raised the question of how to finance further expansion. Again, Gore was instrumental in getting Congress to pass the Information Infrastructure and Technology Act of 1992, which allowed businesses and individuals to use the Internet commercially. Gore understood the broader implications of his policies: rallying support for the NHPCCA in the House of Representatives in 1989, he told committee members, “I genuinely believe that the creation of this nationwide network will create an environment where work stations are common in homes and even small businesses.”

Some years later, Gore’s colleagues and leading computer scientists stepped up to defend his claim that he “took the initiative in creating the Internet.” In September 2000, Newt Gingrich said, “Gore is the person who, in the Congress, most systematically worked to make sure that we got to an Internet.” Meanwhile Vinton Cerf, who played a key role in designing the architecture and protocols of the Internet and is sometimes credited as the “father of the Internet,” recalled that “Al Gore was the first political leader to recognize the importance of the Internet and to promote and support its development . . . long before most people were listening.”

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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]