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10 Screensavers of Yore

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In the early days of CRT monitors, we had real technical reasons requiring screensavers for our computers. Screensavers were programs that kicked in when you weren't using the computer, in order to prevent "burn-in" of constant onscreen elements like menu bars. But what started as a pragmatic solution quickly turned to the realm of entertainment: if you're going to display some random stuff on the screen, why not make it fun?

Here's a roundup of some screensavers I remember from the Good Old Days of computing -- the 90s -- when screensavers were delightfully corny, 3D graphics meant "the future," and flying toasters invaded our dreams. Enjoy!

Mac LC 575 - Flying Toasters

After Dark was a popular screensaver package developed in 1989. It was originally called "Magic ScreenSaver" before adopting the After Dark name (note: see the bottom of this post for a bit more on the history here). After Dark (or "AD," as we called it) allowed you to select from a bunch of screensaver options, but the most popular was, at least among my friends, "Flying Toasters." Here's a variant including a fight song!

(Hat-tip to Allison Keene for finding this and inspiring this post!)

Mac SE/30 - Starry Night

Another After Dark favorite, Starry Night worked nicely on the black-and-white Macs that were still very common in the 90s.

Windows - Mystify Your Mind

I always thought this was the classiest Windows screensaver.

Windows - 3D Maze

And I always thought this was horrible. It's like Wolfenstein 3D minus the gameplay, plus a horrible red brick color scheme.

Windows - Flying Windows

This one was popular among Microsoft employees.

Windows - Starfield Simulation

With this one, you could pretend you were on the Starship Enterprise. Sort of.

Windows - 3D Pipes

I seem to recall this coming out with Windows 98. I also recall it blowing my mind: semi-random 3D pipes?! What will they think of next?!

Windows - 3D Text Easter Eggs

In certain versions of Windows, the 3D Text screensaver had some interesting easter eggs that were apparent if you typed special phrases into the text box. Have a look:

Windows - Marquee vs. Cat

The "Marquee" screensaver just scrolled text across the screen -- much to the consternation of nearby cats.

281 After Dark Screensavers

This video purports to include 281 individual After Dark modules for Windows. If you saw it in After Dark, it's probably here.

A Correction Regarding After Dark

I originally wrote that After Dark was first written for the Mac. Apparently the history here is much more complex -- the After Dark product that I knew was actually largely based on Magic ScreenSaver, which was first written for Windows and then merged/ported to Mac. I'm in contact with the author of Magic ScreenSaver (later renamed After Dark) for Windows, and hope to bring you more on this soon. Stay tuned!

What Did I Leave Out?

I'm just scratching the surface of classic screensavers here. If you have a favorite, please share it in the comments!

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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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