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A Brief History of Garden Gnomes

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Note: This article was originally published in May 2009. We're currently switching to a new hosting provider, and it's a messy process. So while we wait for the "OK, you can start posting again" note from the server migration people, we'll be putting up a few stories you may have missed the first time around.

At the risk of accidentally sounding biblical, we regret to report that gnomes have been banished from the garden. To be a bit more specific, gnome figurines, those whimsical, pointy-hatted denizens of home gardens and front lawns, have been banished from gardens entering England's famed Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show, which took place this past weekend [note: in 2009] during a riot of mostly good weather.


The decree has actually been in place for years, but it's only been this year that the rule was challenged and indeed, openly defied. The worst of it for Chelsea Flower Show administrators was that the offending gnome was introduced by a traitor in their own midst. Jekka McVicar, one of Britain's leading organic growers, a member of the Royal Horticultural Society's ruling council, and herself a 13-time Chelsea gold medalist, hid her own garden mascot, a fisherman by the name of Borage, in the foliage of her Grand Pavilion garden. Oh, the shame.

McVicar defended her gnome, claiming that "gardening can be too serious," and that it's important to have fun, but the RHS wouldn't budge and said that the gnome had to be gone by the open of judging on Thursday. Borage, McVicar says, is going underground, to sow the seeds of his rebellion from below. It's positively Miltonian.

Persona nongrata status at the old Chelsea Flower Show aside, gnomes are fascinating little creatures. We've dug up a little history on the popular garden accessory.

The Common Garden Gnome

Garden gnomes, believe it or not, are not the product of a 20th century lapse in good taste, as their garishly colored clothing and smiling countenances may indicate, but rather an 19th century one.

In the second half of the 1800s, German sculptor and potter Phillip Griebel started a business molding ceramic into lifelike busts of animals, a fashionable home and garden decoration at the time. Inspired by the gnome myths of his home (Gräfenroda, Thuringia), he began fashioning small, pointy-hatted ceramic gnomes for gardens; the first gnome went to market in Leipzig in 1884 and was an instant success.

Production was halted during World War II, and following the fall of the Nazis, garden gnomes were banned briefly as the German Democratic Republic rose to power in East Germany. Still, the gnomes managed to pull through and Griebel's garden gnome dynasty exists even now, although in a much diminished capacity, owing to the cheap labor and even cheaper materials coming out of China and Eastern European markets.

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Nowadays, garden gnomes can be found in a wide variety of attitudes and poses: Reclining on one elbow, smoking a pipe; fishing with a wee fishing rod; standing proudly, hands on hips; pushing a wheelbarrow; or holding open his robes to reveal his naughty bits.

One can also buy garden gnomes dressed as police officers, although you may want to think twice after the somewhat draconian treatment meted out to Gordon MacKillip, a Cornwall, England man who was threatened with arrest over his police gnome in 2006. According to reports, police told MacKillop, whose solar-powered gnome was dressed in police blues and accompanied by a miniature ceramic Alsatian dog, that his neighbors were complaining about the gnome. MacKillop was served with notice under the Protection From Harassment Act 1997, for "placing a garden gnome with intent to cause harassment."

The Well-Traveled Gnome

The common garden gnome's adorable tackiness and extreme portability has also inspired the popular prank, Gnome Roaming or Gnome-napping. The premise is simple: A neighborhood garden gnome is stolen and sent on adventures. The gnome-nappers usually photograph the gnome's exploits along the way or send postcards to the befuddled gnome owner, before returning the gnome, often with his new photo album of vacation shots, to his garden home. Hilarity ensues.

Despite the resurgence of the prank in recent years, owing to the popularity of the 2001 film Amelie, where the heroine inspires her quiet father to travel by stealing his gnome and sending him on trips with a flight attendant friend, and the Travelocity Roaming Gnome, the prank is at least more than 20 years old. According to urban legends expert David Emry, the first documented case of gnome-napping took place in the mid-1980s, when an Australian family's gnome was taken from their front yard. A few days later, the family received a postcard from the gnome, claiming he was vacationing in Queensland. He returned, two weeks after he went missing, sporting a wicked tan (actually a coating of brown shoe polish).

Of course, there's a sinister side to gnome-napping: In the past few years, people have been arrested for possession of stolen gnomes, and the gnomes even have their own extremist supporters, the Front de Libération des Nains de Jardin or the Garden Gnome Liberation Front. The Front is a French group that claims to have "liberated thousands" of garden gnomes since 1997 "“ they generally steal the gnomes en masse and then "release" them into the wild. Sometimes more creepily, these liberators, who are typically pictured wearing terrorist/freedom fighter-style balaclavas, set the gnomes up on the steps of a church or, even weirder, hanging by their necks from a bridge. These gnomes don't make it home.

Any good gnome stories out there? Anybody have a favorite gnome, or any strong opinions about gnomes in general?

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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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