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How a Punctuation Mark Gave Us Uncle Tom’s Cabin

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If you Google “Semi-Colon Club” right now, you’re going to get a lot of stuff about colon cancer awareness. But back in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s heyday, the Semi-Colon Club was a gathering of extraordinary writers living in Cincinnati, Ohio.
 
In 1832, at the age of 21, Harriet moved to Cincinnati with her father when he accepted a new job. Her writer uncle, Samuel Foote, invited both of them to join a little literary group that met in his parlor every Monday at 7:30 p.m. Over drinks and hors d’oeuvres, writers contributed pieces to be read aloud to the club, anonymously if they wished, and listened as their work was critiqued.

 
What was just a way to improve writing and do a bit of socializing (one account said the evening always ended with “a gay Virginia reel led by the reader of the evening and a merry-hearted girl”) ended up being an important part of history. Stowe’s first published story appeared in the Western Literary Messenger, which just happened to be published by a member of the Semi-Colon Club. Without that break, she may never have gone on to write one of the most explosive pieces of literature the world has ever experienced.
 
Though none of the other members of the circle quite reached the level of literary fame Harriet did, there were definitely some achievers in the ranks of the Semi-Colon Club. Just a few of them:
 
Salmon P. Chase. Chase was just a young man of 25 when he was in the club, but he would go on to become the 23rd Governor of Ohio, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury and the sixth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In fact, Chase was likely the man who introduced Harriet to Lincoln when he uttered the famous sentence, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” OK, so we don’t have proof Lincoln actually said that, but the pair did meet at the White House in 1862.
 
Caroline Hentz, who is probably most famous for writing a direct rebuttal to Uncle Tom’s Cabin called The Planter’s Northern Bride in which it is “revealed” that most slaves were content, treated well, and didn't want their freedom.

Elizabeth Blackwell, who later became the first female physician in the United States.

Eliza and Calvin Stowe. Nope, the last name isn’t a coincidence. Calvin was a professor at Lane Theological Seminary, where Harriet Beecher Stowe’s father happened to be the president. When his wife (and Harriet’s good friend) Eliza died of cholera, Calvin and Harriet found themselves spending more time together. They married, of course, and when their first children ended up being twin girls, they named them Eliza and Harriet.

In addition, the Semi-Colonites had at least one notable visitor: Charles Dickens dropped by when he came to the U.S. in 1842.
 
By the way, the name of the club actually had nothing to do with punctuation or thought separation, other than serving as a clever double meaning. The explanation was that Christopher Columbus - whose Spanish name was Cristobal Colon - discovered new lands, then those who discovered other new things could at least be called Semi-Colons. 

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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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