Original image
Getty Images

"Ruby's Shoes"

Original image
Getty Images

“Ruby’s Shoes”
Written by Lori McKenna (1989)
Performed by Lori McKenna

The Music

When singer-songwriter Lori McKenna’s son was in second grade, he did a book report on Ruby Bridges, the African-American elementary school student who famously crossed the desegregation lines in 1960.

To help her son, McKenna came up with a song about Ruby. “I actually wrote that for his extra credit,” McKenna said. “It was his oral presentation of that book report. He got an A, by the way. That song has just been so good to me, because I ended up meeting Ruby Bridges, and she came and met my kids.”

McKenna also got to play the song on Oprah in 2005, which made it a viral hit on iTunes, and brought attention to both McKenna and Bridges.

Here’s Lori McKenna’s recording of the song:

The History

Ruby Bridges was born in 1954, the same year that the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the decision that schools must desegregate. The ruling was made in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education. Thirteen African-American parents in Topeka filed suit on behalf of their children, who were being made to travel extra miles just to attend their segregated schools. Of course, behind the practical matter of distance was the more urgent issue of civil rights.

For 60 years preceding the Brown case, segregation in schools in the U.S. had been informed by another Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson. That 1896 ruling held that as long as the separate facilities for separate races were equal, segregation didn’t violate the Fourteenth Amendment (“no State shall . . . deny any person . . the equal protection of the laws.”) But many of the facilities were not equal. Often, the black schools were housed in run-down buildings, and prone to regular shortages of everything from books to supplies to qualified teachers.

When Ruby Bridges was two, her parents moved the family from Mississippi to New Orleans, in search of better jobs. In 1959, Ruby started kindergarten in a segregated school. The Supreme Court ruling was still a year away from becoming law in Louisiana.

As she prepared to begin first grade, Ruby was one of six black children given the opportunity to attend an all-white school. In the end, she would be the only one who took the chance.

Educating Ruby

Initially, Ruby’s parents disagreed on the matter. Ruby’s mother wanted her daughter to have the advantages that she never had. But with the opposition to desegregation roiling through the south, her father worried about endangering the family. Finally, he agreed that his daughter’s education should come first.

On the morning of November 14, 1960, Ruby and her mother approached William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. They were escorted by four Federal Marshals. Local police and officials had been unwilling to ensure Ruby’s safety. Crowds of protesters waved signs and chanted, “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate.”

Ruby didn’t realize that she was making history. She has said, “People were waving their hands and yelling. I remember police officers being on horseback and motorcycles. So I actually thought I was in the midst of a parade. I thought it was Mardi Gras that day.”

She spent most of that first day in the principal’s office, while chaos rippled around and through the school. Only one courageous and compassionate teacher in the school was willing to take her on as a student. So that year, Ruby was in a class of one with Mrs. Barbara Henry. They did lessons together and played games inside at recess. They bonded as student and teacher, and as friends.

Meanwhile, Ruby’s family suffered for their courage. Her dad lost his job. Her mom was shunned by some store owners. And her grandparents were evicted from a farm in Mississippi where they’d been sharecroppers for 25 years.

As time passed, desegregation became more accepted, and Ruby eventually graduated from a fully integrated high school in New Orleans.

Today, Ruby Bridges Hall is a civil rights icon and activist. She’s received a Presidential Citizen’s medal. There’s an elementary school named after her in California. And since 1999, she has run the Ruby Bridges Foundation, whose motto is: “We believe racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it.”

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
Original image
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]