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Why Walt Disney Built a Theme Park on Swampland

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Disney World opened on this date in 1971. Here's how the theme park ended up in Orlando.

It’s easy to see why someone would choose the Orlando area for a tourist attraction these days - it’s already such a mecca for vacationers, you’d be all but guaranteed to pick up some visitors by default. But back when Walt Disney was looking for a place to create a larger, roomier version of Anaheim’s Disneyland, Orlando was mostly swampland. So what possessed him to build one of the world’s busiest vacation spots on top of a bog? In a word: Interstates. Where he was going, he needed roads.

He knew he needed to build on the east coast after survey results showed him that a scant two percent of Disneyland visitors traveled from east of the Mississippi. Walt and his associates considered Niagara Falls, but ultimately nixed it because the frigid winters would prevent them from staying open year-round. They decided southeast was the way to go. With an eye on Florida because swampland was cheap there, Walt flew above the state to scout locations on November 22, 1963 - the day JFK was assassinated. At one point, he looked down and saw where the under-construction Interstate 4 was going to cross the Florida turnpike and knew he had his location. The crosspoint of two major thoroughfares and the nearby airport would make for easy access to his park.

Name Dropping

Although he had solved the problem of where to build, a new dilemma cropped up: Walt knew if he was making queries about buying land under his own name, the insanely cheap swampland price of $180 an acre would immediately skyrocket. To avoid price gouging, he created a number of fake companies and purchased the land under their names instead. It only worked for a little while, though. The Orlando Sentinel caught whiff of the scheme and published a story reporting that Walt was the man behind the purchase of thousands of acres of land in Orange and Osceola counties. He was right about the money; in some cases, prices went up to $80,000 an acre.

Some of the windows above Main Street shops in the Magic Kingdom pay tribute to those dummy corporations: “M.T. Lott Real Estate Investments” is just one of them. Other windows serve as tributes to real people who were instrumental in the early days of the company, or were just special to the Disney family.

And in case you’re wondering how Disney managed to pull off building on top of a swamp, well... he kind of didn’t. He made a big mound of dirt from what was scooped out to make the Seven Seas Lagoon, then built his theme park on top of it. When you’re walking into the Magic Kingdom, you’re actually on the second floor. The first floor is under your feet - it’s full of tunnels and buildings that allow cast members to move around the lands without being seen.

Here’s Walt announcing the “Florida Project”:

This story originally appeared 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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