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4 Shows from Norway's Crazy, Successful Slow TV Experiment

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You may have heard of the slow food movement, a philosophy of cooking and eating slowly, with full attention and enjoyment, that serves as a counterpoint to a hurried fast food culture. The slow concept has worked its way into all kinds of practices. Slow gardening, slow parenting, and slow travel, all offer alternatives to the hustle and distraction of modern life. The slow philosophy works well for any experience that can be improved by conscious savoring and appreciating. That's why for the past several years Norway has been applying the slow concept to…television? Yes, and with surprising success.

Slow TV? Don't we already watch enough TV? Perhaps, but do we really watch it? Here are four things Norway turned into slow shows.

1. A Train Ride

In 2009, for the 100th anniversary of Norway's Bergen Railway, the national public broadcasting company decided to film and air the complete 7 hour 16 minute journey from Bergen to Oslo, a line considered to be one of the most beautiful in the world. Four cameras, two rigged to the front of the train and two to the back, captured an "orgy of beautiful nature." No plot, no gimmicks, just rolling scenery with some on-board interviews mixed in. While the train went through tunnels, archival photographs of the railway's history were shown.

Bergensbanen: Minutt for minutt was a smash hit, getting over 1.2 million viewers in a country of about 5 million, with 172,000 watching the entire trip from start to finish.

2. A Sea Cruise 

They followed up in 2011 with Hurtigruten: Minutt for minutt, a whopping 134 hour sea cruise through the fjords from Bergen to Kirkenes. Passionate fans around the world watched it streaming online.

3. A Fire

At least voyages go somewhere. The limits of slow TV were tested to the extreme this February with Nasjonal Vedkveld (National Wood Fire Night), a 4 hour discussion about firewood, followed by 8 hours of a crackling fireplace. This time, the station did get some viewer complaints, but not objecting to the slow nature of the program. The complaints had to do with differing opinions on whether bark-up or bark-down was the proper orientation for stacked firewood. Norwegians are serious about firewood.

4. A Single Interview

What heights of slowness can Norwegian broadcasting attain from here? This May the world record for longest interview was claimed by Norwegians when reporter Mads Andersen interviewed writer/historian/politician/chess player Hans Olav Lahlum for 30 straight hours on VGTV.

In an age when people can't seem to keep their eyes on a single screen for more than a few minutes, how does slow TV attract viewers? Commenters on TV websites and social media marvel at their own interest in these shows, expressing surprise at the way they get drawn in. The shows induce both calm and excitement, turning tiny moments into revelations by their contrast with monotonous repetition. Or, as the project manager of the Hurtigruen cruise show explained to Reuters, "It is the opposite to everything else on TV—that's why it stands out and why, apparently, people want to watch."

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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]