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Seth Resnick/Science Faction/Corbis

A Brief History of the Plastic Pink Flamingo

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Seth Resnick/Science Faction/Corbis

Today we learned that Don Featherstone, creator of the plastic pink flamingo, died yesterday at the age of 79. From the plastic bird's birth to its modern perch atop the pyramid of campy Americana, here’s how the hot pink queen of kitsch won over our hearts (and lawns).

The Birth of a National Icon

Perhaps not shockingly, the pink flamingo lawn ornament was invented in the same decade that polyester pants, pink washing machines, vinyl wallpaper, and Naugahyde lounge chairs were cool. Featherstone, a sculptor, was hired by Leominster, Mass.-based Union Products to make three-dimensional lawn ornaments. He created the first pink flamingo lawn ornament, his second assignment, in 1957.

According to Smithsonian, he used a National Geographic photospread as a reference, and it "took about two weeks to model both halves of the bird, brought into the third dimension by then-revolutionary injection-mold technology."

When they first hit stores, the blushing birds cost $2.76 a pair and were an immediate hit in working-class subdivisions from the Redwood Forest to the Gulfstream waters.

A (Brief) Fall from Grace

The 1960s were a decade of backlash against conformity, false experience, and all things Parental—including, evidently, Mom and Dad’s lawn décor. Hippies rallied against the plastics industry, cultural critics chastised all things “un-natural,” and home and garden magazines pleaded with people to abandon the gnomes, lawn jockeys, and flamingos of yesteryear in favor of classier, more natural yard décor. By 1970, even Sears had stopped selling the pink flamingo, replacing the gaping hole in their garden department with natural-looking fountains and rocks, writes Jennifer Price in her book Flight Maps.

And She’s Back!

Happily for flamingo fans, the ‘70s were a carnival of schlock, and by the early part of the decade, the pink flamingo had become so un-cool, it was cool again—this time as a self-conscious symbol of rebellion, outrageousness and all things Bad Taste. By the time John Waters’ movie, Pink Flamingos, hit theaters in 1972, the bird had fully transitioned to the realm of ironic kitsch. Gay bars used them as mascots, transvestites sported them on earrings and platform pumps, and in 1979, students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison planted 1008 of the two-legged creatures in the grass in front of the dean’s office, earning them—and the bird—a place in Wisconsin’s State Historical Society.

Pink is the New Art

By the 1980s, the pink flamingo had made the ultimate giant leap for mankind: it had, like Andy Warhol’s Campbell's Soup cans, become art. In 1987, the governor of Massachusetts proclaimed the plastic bird “an essential contribution to American folk art,” Price wrote, and new clubs like the Flamingo Fanciers of America and the International Society for the Preservation of Pink Lawn Flamingos sprang into existence in time to celebrate the bird’s thirtieth birthday. In 1998, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles began to sell plastic pink flamingos in its bookstore for $19 a set.

Long Live the Queen of Camp

In 2009, in honor of the students’ 1979 prank, the Madison, Wisconsin, city council named the plastic pink flamingo the official bird of the city. And the esteemed lawn ornament lives on in Americana infamy, lending its name to bars, restaurants, casinos, and hotels from sea to shining sea; they're even included in the Smithsonian's collection. The birds currently go for about $16 a set online.

This story originally ran in 2011.

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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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