Portlandia Begins Tonight

Tonight, welcome to my world: Portlandia. I've lived in the real-life analogue of Portlandia for eleven years, and it's a place of dreams -- dreams of sleeping late, of opening a yarn store, of becoming a freegan, of getting rid of your car and becoming a bike commuter who only wears natural fibers while working quarter-time at a gluten-free bagel shop. It's a city where young people have come to get away from being in a city. As Fred Armisen (now famously) says in the first episode of Portlandia, "It's where young people go to retire."

Tonight on IFC (Independent Film Channel) at 10:30pm, you can see the first episode of Portlandia -- and see how us Portland residents have been living all this time, right under your noses. Yes, we put birds on things and call them art -- and we sell that art at stores devoted to selling handcrafted bird art. Yes, many of us don't seem to have proper jobs, and we often have four or five roommates -- and yes, most of them work at a co-op that sells bulk alfalfa on the cheap. Yes, we organize "sports" leagues that happen entirely indoors, because it's frickin' raining most of the time. Yes, we wear hoodies and jeans and layered shirts without irony -- because it's frickin' raining most of the time! And yes, this is completely nuts, and it's about time somebody noticed. FOR EXAMPLE:

Portlandia is a spectacular example of laughing with, not at. In Portland, the general consensus is that this show is hilarious and correct -- and this makes sense given that Brownstein is from Portland and Armisen (of Saturday night Live fame) hangs out here a lot. There was a screening of the premiere episode last week at a local brewpub theater (yes, we have lots of those -- drink a beer, eat pizza, and watch movies or TV on the big screen), and it was a smashing success. Carrie Brownstein's new band played at a sandwich shop/bar by the waterfront later on. Both Brownstein and Armisen have appeared on our local NPR affiliate, OPB. The message from Portland (and I, as a professional blogger somehow making a living in Portland, feel qualified to say this) is: welcome, and please buy some books from our many local bookstores, or some of our fine locally-made beers or spirits, or at least something with a bird on it.

The only fear we have as Portlanders is that our secret is finally, officially, out. There really is a weird paradise on the west coast, where public transit is excellent, bike lanes are everything, there's no sales tax, you're not allowed to pump your own gas (!), the library system is awesome (they'll mail books to you), and on and on. Now, it's true we have some of the highest unemployment in the country -- but that's partly because y'all have been moving here so much!

I grew up primarily in southwest Florida. Portland is about as far away from Florida as you can get, while still being in a major U.S. city: Seattle is the other option. In the past calendar year, eight friends of mine, all former Floridians, have moved to Portland. Eight. Of the few who haven't yet moved here, I know several who are thinking about it and perhaps secretly scheming -- constantly asking how much my mortgage is and getting really sad because it's half what their rent is in L.A. (I even know of one secret scheme to move here. That's how weird Portland is -- people SECRETLY MOVE HERE without announcing it. It's like moving to Brigadoon -- if you don't come, it might disappear. If you come, you might disappear.)

So tonight, if you have cable, please check out Portlandia. It's funny because it's true. If you don't have cable, come on, don't you have friends with jobs at health food stores? Go to their houses. Bring beer. MORE:

Secret tip: the second episode (airing next week) includes an extensive appearance by Kyle MacLachlan, who plays Portland's mayor. And Portland's real mayor, Sam Adams (yes, that really is his name), plays MacLachlan's assistant. It's getting real, people. Grab your favorite microbrew, put on your knit cap, and tune in. For more, check out the official site (with lots of clips) or check out some web-only clips on Hulu. See also: The Late Movies: Portlandia for early sketches, many of which make appearances (rewritten and shot much better) on the show.

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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]