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Vice

Juliette Eisner, co-director of Lil Bub & Friendz

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Vice

When Juliette Eisner, a communications associate at Vice, heard about the Internet Cat Video Film Festival taking place at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota last year, she immediately knew she wanted to cover it. Her piece grew from a short film into the documentary Lil Bub and Friendz, which premieres today at the Tribeca Film Festival (you can also watch the film yourself after it premieres; more information on that here). Eisner co-directed the doc with Vice's senior producer, Andy Capper, and got to spend lots of time with Bub—one of the most popular cats on the Internet—in the process. Thankfully, Bub's fame doesn't seem to have gone to her head. "She’s not a diva at all," Eisner says. "She’s the best-behaved celebrity I’ve ever met." We spoke with Eisner about meeting Bub, how she found her experts, and why she thinks the internet loves cats.

mental_floss: I’m curious about the development process. I know Vice does a lot of this kind of thing, but how did this documentary in particular come about?

Juliette Eisner: Vice covers a lot of culture and other types of stories. We do a lot of stuff about the internet and today's pop culture icons, and this just seemed pretty interesting to us, right off the bat. I definitely think that these celebrity cats are our new pop culture icons—replacing the Hello Kittys and the Garfields of the world.

I heard about the internet cat video festival, which was last summer at the Walker Arts Center. I was really taken aback when I first read about it, because the Walker Arts Center is such an awesome, renowned establishment, and I thought it was really funny that they were going to do a whole festival [about] internet cat videos. I pitched the idea to the team, and Andy Capper, who’s the senior producer of Vice [and co-director of this documentary], loved it. And we just picked up and went to this weird, weird cat video festival. I had reached out to [Bub and her owner, Mike Bridavsky] when I found out that we were going to go, and I invited them to be our cat celebrity friends. They came, and from the moment that we met Bub, we knew that she was super special and that her story was really, really interesting. So we decided to continue filming.

I think a lot of that was also because the festival itself was incredibly packed. It was like 10,000 people who had traveled from all over to see these cat videos being played for an hour on a little screen. So we realized that we’d tapped into something bigger than just an internet phase. It definitely is something that’s relevant, today, on the internet, in the internet culture.

mental_floss: Everyone who hasn't had a chance to meet Bub is probably wondering—what’s she like?

JE: Oh, my God. In the film, when I meet her—that’s totally the first time I actually meet her, I’m not pretending or anything—it literally is like a punch in the stomach. You’re like, “Am I looking at a cartoon? Is this an alien? I’m not sure.” She really does have that effect on people. She definitely is a weird-looking creature; she’s not a normal-looking cat. But on top of being just interesting-looking, she has this very calm demeanor to her—Mike is always like, “She’s an other-worldly cat; she’s kind of the Buddha of all cats.” But it’s true. 

Tribeca Film Festival

mental_floss: You traveled all over the place to make this documentary. How long did it take?

JE: It started at the end of August, for the festival, and then we went to Bloomington, which is where Mike and Bub live, to visit her in her hometown. And then she also came to New York for some press event that she was doing and we filmed her there. And then in the middle, we spent our time getting to know more about this internet phenomenon. We were talking to the I Can Haz Cheezburger CEOs of the world, and all these people who study and are very knowing about how social [and] internet trends have changed. It was maybe a five-month filming process, but it was all kind of side-project-y style, late night shoots on the side, and then somehow it became this really awesome feature-length film.

mental_floss: You talked to a lot of people; how did you find them? 

JE: The majority of the pet owners we spoke to were from Minneapolis who were at the festival, and then the other internet people—Ben Lashes [who manages Internet meme celebrities], he’s based out of LA, and Grumpy Cat lives in Arizona—we just started realizing what a big community it was, and reached out to these people [including a professor]. And everyone was really on board to talk to us. It was not that hard to find [people], which is also interesting. This is something that people do spend a lot of time researching and looking into.

mental_floss: Lil Bub & Friendz is premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival. Was the plan always to submit it to a festival?

JE: Not at all. Our original plan was to do a short, fun piece for Vice about the [cat video] festival. But I think that, at the festival, we realized that not only could we make a fun story about Bub, but [that we could look at] how the internet has changed the way that you can have a career. People can be famous by putting their image online. And you can make money from merchandising yourself by just being a famous character that people know about. And it was really interesting to us.

mental_floss: Why do you think people on the internet are so crazy about cats? Do you have any insight into that now, having made this film?

JE: I’ve been thinking a lot about this—why certain viral videos do better than others. I think that cats definitely cater to the kind of people who are looking for something that’s going to make them smile or laugh, like cute animals, to begin with. But I also think that cats, specifically, as opposed to other animals—they are probably the more mysterious house pet. That’s kind of the stigma around cats: that they do their own thing, they’re the independent ones, they don’t care, and dogs are the opposite. I think people like to see images of cats doing weird things because it’s a way to see into the mystery of the creature, and get to know them a little bit better or see them doing things you wouldn’t normally see them do. But it still kind of is this big question mark.

In the doc, Amy Kellner, who created the Cute Show for Vice, who now works for the New York Times, said that for her, it was all about feeling better. These cats make her feel better about her day. She’ll put [a kittycam] on her screen while she’s working because it calms her. Bub gets fanmail daily, and a large majority of it is like, “I’m going through such a hard time, but Bub’s picture makes me happy.” People really look to these pictures and animals to find comfort.

mental_floss: In the process of making this, did you learn anything that really surprised you? 

JE: I was super surprised going to the event; that was the big shocking moment for me for sure, realizing how big of a thing this cat phenomenon is. And then realizing that it’s become something that you can really have a career from. Ben Lashes was also a really funny character for me, because he’s essentially a manager of a band, but his band is a famous internet celebrity meme. He does the same things that any band manager would. And the fact that there are people like that out there—I don’t think most people realize or understand that. That’s his job and he is doing a really good job at it.

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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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