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11 Facts About the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Balloons—And What It Takes To Inflate Them

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At its start in 1924 (when it celebrated Christmas!), the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade wasn't a high-flying event: It was organized by employees and featured animals from the Central Park Zoo. The balloons—which used to be filled with only air—made their debut in 1927; Felix the Cat was the first character balloon. Now, 85 years later, the inflation of the balloons is an event itself. The parade closes off the streets next to the American Museum of Natural History, pins down its balloons, begins to inflate them, and invites the public to watch. We were there—and here are some of the things we learned.

1. For 43 years, the balloons were designed and made in a former Tootsie Roll factory in Hoboken, New Jersey. Last year, the Macy's Design Studio moved to a new 72,000 square foot studio in nearby Moonachie.

2. There will be 56 balloons in the parade this year: 16 giant character balloons and 40 novelty balloons.

3. The characters flying for the first time this year are Hello Kitty, Elf on the Shelf, Papa Smurf, and Companion by KAWS. Here's what they look like on the ground:


Hello Kitty


Papa Smurf


Companion by KAWS


Elf on the Shelf

4. The balloons used to be made of rubber; now they're made of polyurethane fabric.

5. The balloons are filled with a mixture of helium and air. The highest point of a balloon requires 100 percent helium, while something like a smile or a button needs only air.

6. It takes 90 minutes to inflate a giant balloon.

7. The average life of a balloon is eight years. This Kermit has been flying since 2002. He's 78 feet long, 61 feet high, and 36 feet wide.

8. On average, balloons are filled with 12,000 cubic feet of helium—that's enough to lift 746 pounds!

9. Balloons under nets are finished being inflated; the ones not under nets are still inflating. When those balloons are done, they'll be moved under a net.

10. SpongeBob SquarePants took its first flight in 2004, the year The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie came out.

11. The Aflac Duck, which debuted last year, is a "balloonicle." It combines a cold-air balloon and self-propelled vehicle.

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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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