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Coming to America: Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Diana's First Visits

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With the media all in a tizzy this week over William and Kate’s 10-day jaunt through North America, let's take a look at the press carnivals that surrounded Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Diana’s first official visits to our royal-loving shores.

Falling in Love With Queen Elizabeth II

As a princess and heir to the throne, twenty-five year-old Elizabeth first toured the U.S. in 1951, when she got to ride around in President Harry Truman’s state of the art convertible, but her first visit as queen wasn’t until October 1957.

Just 31 years old at the time—two years older than Kate is now—young Elizabeth stepped off a plane from Ottawa, “paused almost imperceptibly,” according to a breathless reporter’s minute-by-minute account, smiled at a crowd of 10,000 howling admirers in Jamestown, Virginia, and met her host, then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon.

The queen’s quick, meticulously scheduled visit included a speech to the fledgling United Nations General Assembly in New York, a military flyover, a 21-gun salute, church, and a 1,500-guest formal dinner. Each day’s activities were typed out and distributed like scripts. “If a minor official was supposed to take two steps forward, one step back, shake hands, or even take off his hat, it was all written out for him,” according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

But—never mind all that. OMG, what was she wearing?

“Getting off the plane at the airport in her ‘scarab blue’ coat and her jaunty little hat made of pheasant feathers, Queen Elizabeth looked even younger and perkier than most people probably expected,” reported Charles McDowell, Jr., a staff writer at the Times–Dispatch. “She smiled easily, moved gracefully… At least a dozen women were heard to announce within two minutes, ‘She is radiant.’”

Sound familiar? The Queen, like her new granddaughter-in-law, Princess Kate, has always charmed American crowds. When she returned to North America in 1959 and met President Dwight D. Eisenhower to open the St. Lawrence Seaway, a congressman in the crowd summed up the American sentiment: “We have all fallen in love with the Queen, Ike!”

Princess Diana and 7,000 Pounds of Luggage (oh, and Prince Charles, too)

Princess Diana’s famous first visit to the U.S. in 1985 stirred up such royal hysteria—throngs of well-wishers in D.C. had to be kept from blocking traffic; television anchors were visibly aflutter—that even the austere New York Times described the American public as forgivably “star struck”: The Princess of Wales’ arrival, it said, “provided a respite from such serious but deadly dull concerns as unbalanced budgets and arms control talks.”

Indeed, there was nothing boring about Princess Di’s and, oh yeah, Prince Charles’ four-day tour in the U.S., during which no moment went untelevised, and none of Diana’s dozens of outfits went unscrutinized. The famous couple reportedly traveled with 7,000 pounds of luggage—a haul that, by our calculations, would have cost the modern traveler $6,950 in extra baggage fees. (In fairness, fourteen of Diana’s dresses were later auctioned, in 1997, for almost a million dollars—so perhaps the fashion icon’s math works out in the end.)

The night Princess Di arrived in Washington D.C., she and Charles attended a black tie gala dinner at the White House, hosted by President Ronald Reagan and his wife. The evening included businessmen, politicians and Hollywood luminaries like Clint Eastwood, Tom Selleck and Neil Diamond, and a few requisite gaffes: President Reagan expressed his great happiness to welcome “…er… Princess David—Princess Diane—here on her first trip to the United States.”

The evening also included perhaps the most famous fifteen minutes in any modern royal history: Princess Diana, dressed in a deep blue velvet off-the-shoulder gown and a sapphire and diamond choker, waltzed with Saturday Night Fever star John Travolta. That dress sold for $800,000 at a Canadian auction last month.

The Media’s Media

Saturday Night Live has lavished attention on the women of Windsor over the years, with questionably flattering results. Queen Elizabeth has been played by a variety of SNL actors since the ‘70s, including Joan Cusack and, most recently, the bespectacled (and, yes, male) Fred Armisen.

Princess Diana was flawlessly satirized by Madonna in 1985, and last fall, Princess Kate was played by Anne Hathaway in a disturbing, if hilarious, imagination of life behind closed doors at the ol’ Buckingham Hotel. And you wonder why the royals don’t love to vacation on our side of the pond.

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]