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Remember Square One?

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If your heart skips a little beat when you hear the words “Turtle Power,” “Toontown,” or “Do it, Rockapella,” you may have gotten your elementary edutainment from a little show called Square One Television. For some of us, it came on every day after school, right before Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, and taught us everything from prime numbers to the Fibonacci sequence via comedy sketches, fake game shows, and (oh, yes) music videos. Watch and learn, children:

Originally broadcast from 1987 to 1992, Square One might seem dated and a little cringeworthy to today’s shortly-attention-spanned internet generation, but it was full of––hey, this next video has Vanessa Huxtable in it!

Another face you might recognize: Reg E. Cathey, the tall bass who has since become better known as Mayor Carcetti’s political operative Norman Wilson on The Wire and Freddy the BBQ-joint guy on House of Cards (aka real-world Game of Thrones). Here he is in an early judicial system role, which probably informed his portrayal as badass prison manager Martin Querns on Oz.

Much like its sibling program Sesame Street, Square One was able to attract the warmest stars of the era. There was even a special Square One edition of Video Jukebox, wherein we get to hear MTV’s own Downtown Julie Brown quip, “Is Math important? Bobby McFerrin thinks it is...” 

Square One Video Jukebox Highlights:

Bobby McFerrin with “Wanna Be” (“You’ve Got to Know Math”):

The Fat Boys with “One Billion”—just one of three Square One joints, also including “Burger Pattern” and “Working Backwards”:

Regina with “Combo Jombo” all about “combinatorics” (a term which may not have been heard since):

The Jets: “Infinity” about what is and isn’t infinity. (Hint: “There is no end.”)

Weird Al Yankovic with the very catchy and appropriately obnoxious “Patterns.”

Like any good variety show, Square One had recurring characters like Math Man and the Dudley Do-Right-esque Dirk Niblick of the Math Brigade. But it is probably best remembered for its show-ending weekly serial, a Dragnet spoof called “Mathnet.”

“The story you’re about to see is a fib. But it’s short,” began every episode, narrated by Sgt. Pat Tuesday and her partner George Frankly, mathematicians who inexplicably got guns, uniforms, and a whole NYC office to themselves, courtesy of the U.S. government. Their motto: “To cogitate and solve.” Their seal, complete with a compass and a bunch of arithmetic symbols, is seen here with (Nerd Alert) lego versions of Sgt. Monday and George.

Courtesy of Flickr user pixbymaia

Fans pay special tribute to "Mathnet" on what was once a very high-tech website, where you can read archived episode descriptions of every Square One episode, including breakdowns of every "Mathnet" ever. “Warning: This page contains SPOILERS.” Don’t miss an interview with the guy who played George, plus his reel, his hopefully outdated address, and information to hire him, if you’re so inclined.

Or if bigger stars still crunch your numbers, "Mathnet" knew them when:

In “The Case of the Unnatural,” character actor Paul Dooley does his usual blue-collar boss-man thing, and John Sayles plays troubled baseballer Lefty Cobb (hitting dingers at 13:13).

In “The Problem of the Missing Monkey,” Yeardley Smith plays a young, not-unlike-Lisa-Simpson animal lover, who advocates for Grunt, a gorilla accused of committing several counts of petty larceny, of course (at 20:22).

No list of ‘90s character actors would be complete without Wayne Knight, seen here as the double-talking Peter Pickwick. Spoiler alert, he turns out to be the who that done it. Or is he...? (He appears at 33:14 and bike riding at 36:13.)

And Weird Al manages to be the only Square One/"Mathnet" crossover star in “Off the Record.” Elementary kids of the ‘90s certainly have a type.

With all that star power, did Square One meet its goal of making math fun and cool...? Well, according to one 1990 educational study, which tested children on their retention after viewing Square One, “Results indicated that over half the children came to see that learning mathematics and having fun were not incompatible activities.” 

Remember?! If Square One touched your life, you can keep on counting at their Facebook fan page. Or sign the Guest Page! Remember Guest Pages?

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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]