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In 1906, the Bronx Zoo Put a Black Man on Display in the Monkey House

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The young black man who arrived at the Bronx Zoo in the summer of 1906 cut a striking figure. Dressed in a white suit, he was carrying a wooden bow, a quiver of arrows, and a chimpanzee. He stood 4’ 11” tall and weighed 103 pounds, and when he smiled, he revealed a set of pointy whittled teeth, like a piranha’s.

At 23, Ota Benga had already lived an equally unusual life to go with his appearance.

A member of the Mbuti pygmy tribe, he had hunted elephants, survived a massacre by the Belgian colonial army, and been enslaved and freed. After being escorted to the United States in 1904 by explorer and missionary Samuel Phillips Verner, Benga had more memorable experiences. He danced at Mardi Gras, met Geronimo, and along with other members of his pygmy tribe, was displayed at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair in an anthropological exhibit called “The Permanent Wildmen of the World.” Though he was often referred to as “boy,” Benga had been widowed twice – his first wife was kidnapped by a hostile tribe; his second died from a poisonous snake bite.

By the time Verner brought Benga to New York, the explorer was flat broke. He contacted the director of the Bronx Zoo, William Temple Hornaday, who agreed to temporarily loan Benga an apartment on the grounds. Whether Hornaday had ulterior motives from the start is not clear. An eccentric man who believed he could read the thoughts of his animals, he had many good qualities. Namely, he was one of the first to encourage the display of animals in natural settings rather than small cages. But Hornaday also believed that pygmies were a sub-race, closer to animals than humans. And before long, he was displaying Ota Benga at his zoo in what he called an “intriguing exhibit.”

"Is that a man?"

In his first few weeks, Benga wandered around the grounds of the zoo freely. But soon, Hornaday had his zookeepers urge Benga to play with the orangutan in its enclosure. Crowds gathered to watch. Next the zookeepers convinced Benga to use his bow and arrow to shoot targets, along with the occasional squirrel or rat. They also scattered some stray bones around the enclosure to foster the idea of Benga being a savage. Finally, they cajoled Benga into rushing the bars of the orangutan’s cage, and baring his sharp teeth at the patrons. Kids were terrified. Some adults were too, though more of them were just plain curious about Benga. “Is that a man?” one visitor asked.

Hornaday posted a sign in the Monkey House outside the cage with Benga’s height and weight and how he was acquired. “Exhibited each afternoon during September,” it read. If Hornaday’s attitude towards his new acquisition needed further elaboration, it was summed up in the odd tone of an article he wrote for the zoological society’s bulletin:

"Ota Benga is a well-developed little man, with a good head, bright eyes and a pleasing countenance. He is not hairy, and is not covered by the downy fell described by some explorers . . . He is happiest when at work, making something with his hands."

Thanks to a piece in the New York Times, word of the exhibit spread. "We send our missionaries to Africa to Christianize the people," the Times wrote, "and then we bring one here to brutalize him." (Though in an editorial, The Times also said Benga "is probably enjoying himself as well as he could anywhere in his country, and it is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation he is suffering.")

Soon a group of black clergymen was leading protests around the city. After a threat of legal action, Benga was let out of the cage, and once again allowed to roam around the grounds of the zoo. But by then he was a celebrity, and the zoo was attracting up to 40,000 visitors a day, many of whom followed Benga wherever he went, jeering and laughing at him. Benga spoke no English, so couldn’t express his frustration. Instead he lashed out, wounding a few visitors with his bow and arrow, and threatening a zookeeper with a knife.

After Benga left the Bronx Zoo, several institutions, including the Virginia Theological Seminary, took him in. He eventually got a job at a tobacco factory in Lynchburg, Virginia, but grew depressed and homesick. In 1916, he committed suicide by shooting himself with a pistol.

Later in life, William Hornaday became known for his efforts in saving the American bison and the Alaskan fur seal from extinction. In 1992, Samuel Verner’s grandson Phillip Bradford co-wrote a book about Benga’s life, Ota Benga: The Pygmy In The Zoo.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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]