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National Geographic Channel

The Making of The '80s: The Decade that Made Us

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National Geographic Channel

If you look at the world we live in—from the fitness fads to the gadgets we carry in our pockets and use in our homes to the music we listen to—nearly all roads lead back to one era: The 1980s. And that was why Jane Root wanted to make a series about the decade. “Loads of people have done shows on the 60s,” she says, “but, really, all the things that are so much a part of our world today started in the ‘80s. It was this [time] of incredible inventiveness. Our world was born in the ‘80s.” The result is The '80s: The Decade that Made Us, a six-part miniseries that airs tonight, tomorrow, and Tuesday starting at 8 p.m. on the National Geographic Channel.

To bring the series to screen—a process that took about a year and a half—Root and her team began by doing research. Lots and lots of research, in fact; “gazillions,” in Root’s estimation. Not just into what happened in the 1980s, but what occurred immediately before and after the decade, so they could provide the proper context to viewers. “We really wanted to do deep dives into things that happened,” Root says. “We talked to hundreds and hundreds of academics. We read books, we went back in archives, we took loads of old [advertisements], we did a ton of stuff like that which was really fun.” Some interviews and advertisements that appear on the series haven’t been seen since they originally aired. Of course, there was also stuff that was hard to track down. “It’s quite hard to find the early home videos and stuff like that,” Root says. “People didn’t keep a lot of that, which is disappointing.”

The team decided that the series should look back at the cultural, political, and technological events of the decade with an eye to how those developments inform our lives today. This, it turns out, helped the producers to determine, from tons of information about what occurred during that decade, what they actually wanted to include in the show. “There were some things that were pretty big then, but didn’t really last,” Root says. Things that were discussed by didn’t make the cut included pet rocks and Cabbage Patch Kids. “We left all those things out that were purely nostalgia and tried to go for things that had an impact. That changed things. And that you can still see some of the things they changed then [today].”

The episodes, though roughly chronological, are organized by theme. “That’s often how I like to make shows, so that you feel like you’re on a journey, but you slot things in,” Root says. “We looked to themes that we could find a lot of things that connected on." Determining the balance of the episodes—how much weight should be given to political events like the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan versus more fun things, like the development of the Rubiks Cube, for example—was key, too. “That was a long discussion,” Root says. “We went through phases where ‘let’s make it all super fun,’ and then we went through phases where ‘oh, we’ve got to make some more serious stuff,’ and then we navigated backwards and forwards.” One of Root's favorite episodes, which deftly balances serious and fun events, is the second, called "Revolutionaries." "[It's] about the way that counterculture becomes business culture," Root says, and features Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and skateboarder Tony Hawk, among others.

Root’s team interviewed everyone from actress Jane Fonda to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Popular Mechanics editor in chief Jim Meigs to Run-DMC’s Darryl McDaniels to shed light on the era. Academics who have written extensively about the ‘80s also participated, and the series is narrated by Brat Pack member Rob Lowe. Root was disappointed not to nab someone from one very prominent musical family, though. “We would have loved to have had someone like Janet Jackson, [or one of] the Jackson family members, [and] we didn’t get [them],” she says. “But in the end, we did pretty well. We were pretty amazed by the number of people that we [got].”

Root learned oodles of facts about the 80s in the process of researching and putting the show together, but one thing in particular was very surprising to the producer: that America's fitness craze started because Jane Fonda broke her ankle while filming a movie. The actress had to find a new, less intensive way to stay fit; the resulting workout would later become a wildly popular VHS tape series. “I read somewhere that in 1980 there was something like 13 gyms in the whole of Manhattan,” Root says. “Young boys went to them. Women didn’t go to gyms at all. Today, virtually every three blocks, there’s a gym. And I was just like, ‘Wow, you mean it all started from [Jane breaking her ankle]?’ That was just astounding to me.”

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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]