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Thomas Edison Drove the Film Industry to California

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Getty Images/Erin McCarthy

The motion picture capital of the United States, if not the world, is Los Angeles, California—specifically, Hollywood. The weather is conducive to year-round shoots and rarely has rain in the forecast. The area has diverse scenery too, with beaches and the ocean as readily available as deserts, forests, and even mountains. On top of that, when some of the first Hollywood studios opened around 1915, land was cheap and labor was plentiful. All the area needed was an industry, and the movie industry made a lot of sense.

Oh, and there was one other reason the movie industry made its way west. Los Angeles was far away from New Jersey—and Thomas Edison was in New Jersey.

Edison, over the course of his career, held over 1000 patents in the United States. He was credited with inventing a bevy of technological devices from the incandescent light bulb to the phonograph. He also had a role in the invention of the Kinetoscope, an early movie camera (although most of the work was done by William Kennedy Dickson, an employee of Edison). And during the late 1800s and into the 20th century, he held many of the patents over the technologies needed to create movies. Edison apparently used these patents as a cudgel.

Because Edison held so many patents, and because these patents applied to both the creation of movies and the technology used to run movie theaters, he was able to cajole other patent holders into forming a consortium which he would lead. Together, these firms formed the Motion Picture Patent Company, and exhibited a near monopoly on the production, distribution, and exhibition of all things film. The MPPC’s Wikipedia entry sums up well how viciously the company enforced its patents:

[T]he MPPC also established a monopoly on all aspects of filmmaking. Eastman Kodak, which owned the patent on raw film stock, was a member of the Trust and thus agreed to only sell stock to other members. Likewise, the Trust’s control of patents on motion picture cameras ensured that only MPPC studios were able to film, and the projector patents allowed the Trust to make licensing agreements with distributors and theaters – and thus determine who screened their films and where.

In short, if you wanted to be in the movie business, you did so at the pleasure of Thomas Edison. And Edison (via the MPPC) was not one to back down. The Company took to the courts to prevent the unauthorized use of everything from cameras to projectors — and in many cases, the films themselves. According to Steven Bach in his book, Final Cut, the MPPC even went to the extreme “solution” of hiring mob-affiliated thugs to enforce the patents extra-judiciously. Pay up — or else.

Many in the film industry, known as “independents,” chose a third option: flee. California made a lot of sense, not only for the reasons listed above, but also because it was in an area where judges were less friendly to the patents awarded to Edison and company. And even if the patents were held valid (or if the MPPC again tried to go with the extrajudicial solution), enforcement would be tricky, as cross-continental travel was expensive and cumbersome for mobsters and federal marshals alike. This time lag was all the “independents” needed, as the Company’s patents were expiring and the organization was losing antitrust cases in the courts.

Hollywood, born out of a desire to avoid Edison’s intellectual property claims, quickly became the primary location of the motion picture industry.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]

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