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The Quick 10: When I See an Elephant Fly

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If you think one flying elephant is impressive, how about 16 of them? Today’s “I’m almost on vacation” post pays tribute to the ride that’s the favorite of kiddies everywhere (but not of Harry Truman): Dumbo the Flying Elephant.

2. Dumbo should have opened when the park did in July, 1955, but the ride was a mechanical failure at the time. Karl Bacon of Arrow Development, a company behind many of the rides at Disney, said:

“Dumbo didn’t work right. They were flying but not satisfactorily. The hydraulic system was spewing out this foam. The nitrogen was mixing with the oil and creating this ‘shaving cream’ that was throwing the whole thing out of stability.”

3. The first batch of elephants weighed 700 pounds each, which was way too heavy for a flying elephant (but quite trim for a real one). It’s part of the reason the ride didn’t work well enough to be ready for opening day.

4. Elephants aren’t cute to everyone. When Harry Truman visited the park in 1957, he said “thanks, but no thanks” to a ride on Dumbo. The reason? He didn’t want to be photographed riding gleefully in a symbol of the Republican Party (even an adorable baby one).

5. The original ride vehicles are worth a pretty penny – nearly 20 years ago, one of the original fiberglass elephants sold for $16,000 at a Disneyana convention.

6. Standing at the top of the ride, presumably directing traffic, is Timothy Mouse. He holds a whip at Disneyland and Tokyo, but the magic feather everywhere else. No one has ever said that the whip insinuates animal cruelty, but that would be my guess as to why he’s holding a feather at some parks (and perhaps Disney just didn’t want to change the original).

7. Though the ride has been there since just three months after park opened, those aren’t exactly the original elephants. The first version of the not-so-little guy had hinged ears that were supposed to flap up and down to help you fly, but they never worked properly and were replaced with stationary ears.

8. The Disneyland version of the ride comes with music unique to that park – tunes provided by a 1915 Gavioli band organ. At full power, the organ can be heard for more than a mile away. Don’t worry – Disney keeps it at a reasonable level.

9. In 1989 and 1990, Dumbo’s support arms malfunctioned a couple of times, sending a few people to the hospital to get bumps and bruises treated. In 1989, one of the support arms partially separated from the elephant, and in 1990, one the arms collapsed entirely. The ride was revamped after the 1990 incident.

10. If you close your eyes, you can pretend you’re riding Dumbo even if you’re in Dollywood, Silver Dollar City or Lion Country Safari. That’s because theme parks across America have been ripping off Disney’s elephant since he first popped up in the park – and they don’t really even bother to hide the imitation.

That’s it for me! I’m out all next week but leave you in the capable hands of Adrienne Crezo. If you want to get your Disney fix, check out my Tweets – I’ll be providing pics of the latest construction around the park, detailing how badly I do in the Princess Half Marathon on Sunday, and even sneaking off of Disney property to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

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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]