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A New Kind of Writing: Thoughts from Places

Former flosser John Green has been writing novels for years now. He's also been making successful video blogs as part of the brotherly YouTube power duo known as the VlogBrothers. Normally, the two processes couldn't be more different -- making vlogs is usually quick and spontaneous, and novel-writing is usually, well, not. But as John has written, he's interested in "finding ways to write for people that don't involve a pen and paper," and says that "YouTube could use a little more writing ... and books a little more YouTube. Writing is very good at slowing us down and leaving us, however briefly, with that rarest gift of the Internet age: a quiet, contemplative moment. Youtube is good at calling us to action and bringing us together."

John and his brother Hank's new series of YouTube videos, Thoughts from Places, goes some distance toward combining the forms. They're not like anything else I've seen on the YouTube -- thoughtful, funny, introspective, and usually involving some minor degree of travel porn, as John and Hank often go to interesting (and jealousy-inspiring) places -- and they've rapidly spawned an army of imitators. I thought I'd share a few here.

I'll start with this one, about Los Angeles and the recent tragedy in Japan, because *I'm* in it!

In this video, John goes to what he claims is his favorite city -- Amsterdam. I'll be there in two weeks, and hopefully I've love it as much as he does. What I can guarantee is that I'll come back with lots of pictures and videos.

The charity Water.org recently brought Hank to Haiti because Hank is an Internet Personality of Note and they assumed, I think rightly, that his video-based advocacy could help spread the word about Water.org's efforts to build wells there. Here's the video he made.

So I mentioned at the top of the post that there have been lots of TFP imitators, and there have been, though in retrospect calling them "imitators" is harsh. They are more like homages, and anyway I think this is a form that just about every video-camera-wielding person should try out, because making a video about the place you're in and how you are in it forces you to be aware of yourself and your surroundings in a new and kind of wonderful way. Here's a rapidly growing list of Thoughts from Places style videos from people (mostly teenagers) around the world. They're a cool way to get a bit of day-in-the-life flavor from people who live in places like Chile, and can visit this amazing national park with the bluest water I've ever seen --

-- or the more seemingly prosaic streets of one's own Midwestern city, where this YouTuber looked a little closer and discovered that the place he lived was speckled with Fairy Doors.

More of John and Hank's Thoughts from Places are here.

If any of you feel inspired to make a video like this, upload it to YouTube and put a link to it in the comments. If we get enough of 'em I'll post them on the blog!

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
Original image
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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