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Why CERN is Recreating the First Web Page

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By Peter Weber

Tuesday was, for all intents and purposes, the 20th birthday of the World Wide Web. Sir Tim Berners-Lee developed the web and its peculiar language — HTML, HTTP, URL — at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) between 1989 and 1991, but on April 30, 1993, CERN made the bold and crucial step of releasing the web to the world, free of charge. (Read the key document below.)

To mark the occasion, a group at CERN is working diligently to re-create the first web page. It isn't much to look at, visually — visit it here, once again at its original URL: http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html, or just look here:

And the page isn't, technically, the first web page, just a version of the original. But the project is more ambitious than just hunting down the original code. "The aim is to preserve the original hardware and software associated with the birth of the web," including the two NeXT computers Berners-Lee used to develop the web and host the first web pages on, says Pallab Ghosh at BBC News.

The project is partly about preserving history, with a dash of nostalgia. At the end of 1993, there were more than 500 websites, CERN says. This year, the World Wide Web has about 630 million websites, and it has changed how we communicate, shop, research, and interact with the world.

"I want my children to be able to understand the significance of this point in time: The web is already so ubiquitous — so, well, normal — that one risks failing to see how fundamentally it has changed," CERN's communications web manager Dan Noyes tells BBC News. "We are in a unique moment where we can still switch on the first web server and experience it. We want to document and preserve that."

James Gilles, CERN's head of communications, agrees. "One of my dreams is to enable people to see what that early web experience was like," he tells the BBC, and he should know: Gilles was a researcher at CERN when Berners-Lee worked there. "You might have thought that the first browser would be very primitive but it was not. It had graphical capabilities. You could edit into it straightaway. It was an amazing thing. It was a very sophisticated thing." Here's what the first web browser looked like, circa 1993:

Berners-Lee/CERN

But CERN also wants to use the first web page to try and preserve the free-and-open ethos that convinced the organization to give the web away, without charging royalties. "The web has not brought about the degree of social change some had envisaged 20 years ago," says the BBC's Ghosh. The early web was a two-way information street, almost subversive in its goal to make information and web access universal and free. Now, the web is "dominated by a handful of powerful online companies."

Re-creating the first web page might help us "go back in time and somehow preserve that experience," says Noyes. "Present-day browsers offer gorgeous experiences but when we go back and look at the early browsers I think we have lost some of the features that Tim Berners-Lee had in mind."

While the idea of reliving the early days of a revolution is always pretty unrealistic, celebrating CERN's monumental decision to gift the world the web is a worthwhile endeavor. That choice "was the birth of the Internet as we know it today," Dan Olds at The Gabriel Consulting Group tells Computerworld. "Before this, the internet was mainly used by academics to communicate with each other and exchange data. But after this code was released? Everything changed."

That makes it all the more amazing that we don't have an original copy of the first web page, posted on Aug. 6, 1991, says Jon Brodkin at Ars Technica. He flags this comment from a CERN fan:

It's crazy that 48 copies of the 600 year-old Gutenberg bible exist, yet not one copy of a website made just twenty-odd years ago survives. History will look back at us and roll its eyes. [CERN]

CERN

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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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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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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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