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A Very Tiny Dollhouse with Very Big Treasures

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I hate dolls. They just creep me out. But, as I’ve mentioned before on the _floss, I have a bizarre fascination with dollhouses.

I’m in good company, though. Included amongst the millions of people interested in miniatures was Colleen Moore, a silent film star whose career fizzled a bit when the talkies came out. But movies weren’t her only passion: a love of miniatures was passed down to her from her father, and in 1928, she enlisted the help of a set designer friend to make a remarkably detailed eight-foot miniature “fairy castle.”

This is not your average dollhouse, folks. Here’s a small sampling of the massive treasures contained inside:

  • A mural of Cinderella painted by Walt Disney himself. You can see it in the first color photo above.
  • An interior constructed by famed designer Harold Grieve.
  • Tiny books with signatures and inscriptions from authors and composers including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, William Randolph Hearst and Edward Albee.
  • Chandeliers dripping with real diamonds, emeralds and pearls.
  • A set of Royal Doulton china. Only two copies of this set were made; the other set resides in Queen Mary’s dollhouse.
  • Suits of armor made of real silver, given to Colleen by Rudolph Valentino.
  • A sliver of the True Cross. Colleen received this from her friend Clare Booth Luce, the Ambassador to Italy, who received the relic from the Pope.
  • The smallest Bible in the world, printed in 1840.
  • Moore's mother's engagement ring, left to Moore by her mother to be repurposed as a vigil light in the chapel of the dollhouse.
  • Needless to say, though it cost about $500,000 to construct, it’s a priceless treasure. During the Great Depression, Moore’s dollhouse toured the country to raise money for children’s charities. Stops in most major U.S. cities raised nearly $700,000 between 1935 and 1939. You might wonder how an 8’7” x 8’2” x 7’7” foot palace could travel so easily, but Moore had that covered: she had the fairy castle designed to be broken down into 200 pieces. Each of the rooms have a drawer in specially-designed shipping crates.

    Though the tiny palace no longer tours, you can see the castle at its permanent home in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

    Photos from the Museum of Science and Industry

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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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