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Wikimedia Commons

The Earliest Electric Vehicle Adopters: Women in Corsets

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Wikimedia Commons

Electric vehicles are getting a lot of press these days, from the Nissan Leaf to the Tesla S. They drink not one drop of gasoline, are themselves emissions-free (though the source of the electricity may not be), and are nearly silent but for the sound of rubber tires rolling along the road. While these things appeal to tree-huggers and tech geeks alike, there were even earlier early adopters: the rich urban ladies of the early twentieth century.

When automobiles were first invented, ruling the road was a bit of a free-for-all. In the early decades of the 1900s, automobile ownership in the Northeast was divided almost evenly into three types of vehicles—gasoline-powered, electric-powered, and steam-powered—and they were all outnumbered by horses. No matter what made the cars go, horseless carriages were expensive toys for playboys. They were used for entertainment, not work, and were kitted out with fine fabrics and exterior flourishes on bespoke bodies. Rich people had to come up with things to do with their cars, like racing them or entertaining inside them.

Even early on, gasoline-powered combustion engines were gaining the upper hand. Cars with gas engines could travel far and fast, which was as appealing in 1905 as it is now. Electric cars used battery technology that was in place until only very recently, when lithium ion batteries got cheap enough to use en masse to power a car. For about a hundred years, electric cars could travel about 60 miles on a charge, as long as you didn’t drive too fast, or up too many hills, or in the cold. Even your great-great-grandfather had range anxiety.

But then, as now, electric cars were clean and quiet, and as a bonus in the early 1900s, they didn’t have to be hand-cranked to get them started. Gasoline cars belched smoke and fire and odors straight from hell. As many hand-wringers and pearl-clutchers of the day noted, drivers were sitting on top of an explosion when driving a vehicle with a combustion engine.

The pluses and minuses of electric vehicles worked together to make the perfect car for the ladies, who were deemed by the conventional wisdom of the day to be weak, fearful, and easily upset. Not only would women not have to deal with the brimstone of the gasoline engine, but they couldn’t go very far—another bonus! The limitations of the electric car made it appropriate transportation for the curtailed life of the pre-flapper woman. She didn’t even have to drive herself to the polls to vote yet.

That was enough for many lady drivers of the day. “My electric is a friend of which I stand in constant need for little morning spins in the park, for calling and shopping, for matinee, and for dinner and theater, and it never fails me,” one woman told the New York Times in 1915. The article noted that there were “seventy-three women in Manhattan alone who own and run electric automobiles,” and then it listed most of their names.

The article also noted of electric cars that a woman “could run it almost the first time she stepped into it, too.” Advertisements showing that electric cars were so easy to use that even women could do it were popular, kind of like those old Geico ads with the cavemen. Even Clara Ford, wife of Henry, had two electric automobiles, though the Ford Motor Company didn’t manufacture an EV of its own until the 2013 Ford Focus Electric.

Lest you think that type of marketing is equally caveman-like, note that Nissan took the same tack when introducing its New Mobility Concept vehicle in Yokohama, Japan, in February 2013. This little two-seater all-electric cart was built to navigate the narrow streets of suburban Japan and is “perfect even for mom.” Almost exactly like the ladies of 1915, the seven women testing these vehicles over two weeks would “shop, take kids to the train, and entertain."

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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]