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4 Doctor Who Stories Ripped From History Books

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Earlier this week, we looked at Doctor Who stories inspired by the headlines. But far more stories were ripped from the history books. In fact, the original series concept back in 1963 was to alternate science fiction stories (which could be used to introduce science concepts) with period pieces (which could be used to teach history). Since there were so many in nearly fifty years, I'll just list a small selection.

1. The Abandonment of the Mary Celeste

The History: On December 4, 1872, the crew of the Dei Gratia sighted another vessel sailing in the Atlantic Ocean. Something didn't look right about her, as if she was not being properly helmed, and the Dei Gratia moved in closer and identified it as Mary Celeste. They could see no one on board, and after a while, although she flew no distress signal, they decided to board her. They found the ship deserted. The cargo and personal effects of the crew were all intact, along with ample provisions for the voyage, but most of the ship's papers were missing, along with a lifeboat. The ship appeared to have been abandoned in a hurry, but since the crew and passengers were never seen again, to this day no one knows exactly what happened.

On Doctor Who: Starting in May 1965, the BBC began transmission of "The Chase," a six-part adventure featuring the Daleks and providing for the departure of long-running companions Ian and Barbara. The Daleks have developed time travel and are pursuing the TARDIS through time and space, with the intention of eliminating the pesky Doctor. The Doctor discovers the plot and flees through history, with the Daleks in pursuit. In part three, after a brief stop on the Empire State Building, they find themselves on a sailing ship that's becalmed off of the Azores. Barbara goes out to investigate, because she loves sailing vessels, and the companions are mistaken for stowaways. They manage to escape, and the Doctor dematerializes the TARDIS, leaving the ship's crew very confused. Then the Daleks' time vessel arrives. As the Daleks emerge, the crew and passengers flee the ship. The Daleks then leave to resume their pursuit, leaving the abandoned ship adrift.

Here's a fan compilation of clips from "The Chase" set to "A Pirate's Life for Me":

2. Jack the Ripper

The History: London, 1888. A maniac is stalking the streets of Whitechapel, targeting prostitutes, killing them, and sending gruesome trophies and taunting letters to the police and press. The crimes were never solved and the murderer was never identified, but he became known as Jack the Ripper. The general public quickly became frustrated with the inability of the police to find a murderer, and newspapers took to hiring private detectives, a la Sherlock Holmes, whose first adventure had been printed just the year before.

On Doctor Who: In "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" (1977), the TARDIS materializes in London around 1890; the Fourth Doctor wants to show his companion Leela some of the customs of her Earth ancestors, and they see a poster advertising a magician named Li H'sen Chang. En route to the Palace Theatre where he performs, they happen upon a murder in progress. The Doctor decides to investigate.

The victim is a cab driver who had gone to the Palace Theatre to confront Chang, claiming that he must have abducted his wife. The man's wife had attended a performance and been selected as a volunteer for a mesmerism demonstration, and had subsequently walked away. The police had been disinclined to investigate, but one of the theater's staff believes it's the work of the Ripper or a copycat, because this isn't the first woman to disappear in the vicinity of the theater recently. This turns out to be nothing more than cover for the real culprit: a deformed man hiding under the theater and claiming to be the Chinese god Weng Chiang, who needs the young women for a nefarious purpose.

The story is heavily informed by the media treatment of the Ripper murders, the public media frenzy about him, and the growing popularity of Sherlock Holmes (whom the Doctor deliberately imitates, complete with deerstalker hat).

3. The Disappearance of Agatha Christie

The History: In 1926, Agatha Christie's husband Archie revealed that he was having an affair and asked for a divorce. On December 8, they had a fight of some kind and her husband left. So did Agatha, leaving only a note stating that she was going to Yorkshire. No further trace of her was found until she turned up at a hotel eleven days later in Harrogate, Yorkshire. She would give no explanation of her disappearance, though many believe it was a stunt staged to embarrass or otherwise inconvenience her husband.

On Doctor Who: On May 17, 2008, the BBC aired "The Unicorn and the Wasp." The Tenth Doctor and Donna Noble arrive at a manor house in 1926 England and are promptly mistaken for guests at a party thrown by Lady Eddison, who as a fan of Agatha Christie, has invited her for dinner. But in a pattern that seems lifted right out of Agatha's fiction, the guests start dying mysteriously. It's obvious the killer is one of them -- but which one? In the end, Agatha Christie must save the day, but in so doing suffers temporary amnesia. The Doctor drops her off at a hotel in Harrogate, ten days later.

4. Vincent Van Gogh

The History: Born in the Netherlands on March 30, 1853, Vincent Van Gogh lived a life which is, for many, the epitome of the tormented artist. Though wildly famous today, in his lifetime he toiled in obscurity, unable to sell his paintings and frustrated at his inability to work during bouts of mental illness. His most productive period was the last two years of life. He moved to the city of Arles in 1888 with visions of starting an artists' colony; this dream went unrealized and he began to feel increasingly abandoned. The townsfolk called him mad and wanted him removed; the artist Gaugin visited but ultimately rejected the idea of continued artistic collaboration; and his bouts of madness grew progressively worse, longer, and more frequent. In 1890, he is believed to have shot himself, although some believe it was an accident and not a suicide.

On Doctor Who: On June 5, 2010, the BBC transmitted "Vincent and the Doctor." Intrigued by a strange monster appearing in one of Van Gogh's paintings at the Musee D'Orsay, the Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond decide to investigate. They land in Provence, in the city of Arles, and quickly find a cafe that looks exactly like Cafe Terrace at Night, painted by Van Gogh in September of 1888. There they find a redheaded Dutchman trying (and failing) to pay off his bar tab by bartering a self-portrait. They immediately recognize him to be Van Gogh and begin making friends with him to try and work out when the monster will appear. I won't spoil the episode, because it's one of the best, but the real star is Van Gogh's art. Many of his paintings are featured at some point in the story -- backgrounds in his apartment, the layout of his room, The Church at Auvers where the creature had appeared, why he decided to paint all those sunflowers, and a lovely scene explaining why he painted Starry Night in that distinctive way.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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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:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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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]

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