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OldBear.Co.Uk

Billy Possum: President Taft's Answer to the Teddy Bear

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OldBear.Co.Uk

Teddy bears are beloved everywhere. They make up roughly 70 percent of the billion dollar plush toy industry. (And in Britain, 35 percent of adults reportedly cuddle with a stuffed teddy each night.)

But it wasn’t supposed to be that way. The supporters of President William H. Taft wanted you to snuggle up to an opossum instead.

The Birth of Billy Possum

In 1908, Taft beat out William Jennings Bryan to become the 27th U.S. President. At the time, mass toy manufacturing was a burgeoning market, aided largely by the booming popularity of Roosevelt’s teddy bear. Despite the bear’s success, industry eggheads believed the teddy craze would die when Roosevelt left office. So manufacturers looked to Taft for its successor.

That story starts, unsurprisingly, with Taft at the dinner table.

In January 1909, the president-elect was honored at a banquet in Atlanta. At Taft’s request, the main course was “possum and taters”—a toasty pile of sweet potatoes topped with an 18-pound whole cooked opossum. (Taft gobbled up the roasted marsupial so quickly that a nearby doctor advised him to slow down.) When Taft’s belly was stuffed, local boosters presented the president-to-be with a small plush opossum. The toy, they told Taft, was destined to be the next big thing—it was going to replace the teddy bear.

They dubbed it “Billy Possum.”

The gift pleased Taft—as did the dinner. The next day, he told reporters, “Well, I certainly like possum ... I ate very heartily of it last night, and it did not disturb in the slightest my digestion or my sleep.” But what Taft saw as food, his supporters saw as money. The teddy bear boom had been profitable, and Taft’s supporters were confident the new toy could become the next fuzzy fad. They imagined America’s children tossing away their teddies, flocking to the closest storefront to get their hands on a plush opossum.  

Anti-Teddy Bear Rhetoric

The Georgia Billy Possum Company formed, churning out thousands of the stuffed toys. (The company’s slogan was “Good-bye, Teddy Bear. Hello, Billy Possum.”) The year’s Stone and Webster Public Service Journal said, “Thousands of little possums are being made, which promise to be as favorably received as was the teddy bear.”

So began the Down-With-The-Teddy-Bear! rhetoric. The Los Angeles Times, for example, wrote that “the teddy bear has been relegated to a seat in the rear, and for four years, possibly eight, the children of the United States will play with Billy Possum.”

The market flooded with Billy Possum postcards, pins, and posters. Marketers introduced Jimmie Possum—Billy’s running mate—named after Vice President James Sherman. Supporters could join a group called the “Possum Club.” Composer J. B. Cohen and lyricist G. A. Scofield even wrote a ragtime tune called "Possum: The Latest Craze," whose last verse goes:

Ole Teddy Bar’s a dead one now
Sence Bill Possum’s come to town.
An’it taint no use to make excuse
Or raise a fuus an’frown.
 
Jes get in touch wit’de President
Eat possum when you dine.
Den ask a Job of de Government
An’ you’ll cert’ly be in line.

The teddy bear seemed doomed. In the world of print, one pro-Taft postcard showed an opossum feasting on a cooked teddy. Another declared the bear’s end in rhyme, reading, “No more Teddy Bear/We will fondle with glee/Billy Possum is future/Our mascot shall be.”

But it was all a massive flop. Billy Possum didn’t even last a year—the craze died by Christmastime. The teddy bear survived. But how?

For one, the story behind Taft’s toy wasn’t that compelling. The teddy bear’s story spotlighted a merciful, inspiring Roosevelt. The tale behind Billy Possum just highlighted a hungry, hungry Taft. Taft also had a dismal first year as president. According to historian Kathleen Dalton, cartoonists painted him as a “lost boy searching for his Teddy bear.” Ouch.

And, of course, it was a toy opossum.

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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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