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5 of History's Biggest Killjoys

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Who would declare war on Christmas, alcohol, and sex? These extremely uptight people.

1. Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658): Stole Christmas

Technically, it wasn't Cromwell himself (above) that stole Father Christmas from England in the 1640s. It was the government he presided over as Lord Protector. During the brief period between the execution of King Charles the First and the Restoration of the monarchy with Charles II, Christmas was forbidden.

Cromwell and the commonwealth government he led were strongly Puritan. Puritans thought celebrating such a solemn occasion as Christ's birth with feasting and parties was repugnant, and without Biblical base. They also thought that having a "Christ's Mass" sounded much too Catholic. They abolished all traditional Holy Days (holidays) except for Sunday, and set up the second Tuesday of each month as a secular day off.

Everybody hated it.

Cromwell died in 1658, and the monarchy, and Christmas, was restored in 1660... at which time Cromwell's corpse was dug up, hung from chains, decapitated, and thrown in a pit with his head impaled on a pike. Because you don't mess with Christmas.

2. Carrie Nation (1846–1911): Attacked alcohol with a hatchet

It is tempting to hate Carrie Nation. This angry woman took it upon herself to forcibly free America from the vice of alcohol (decades before the U.S. government attempted the same with Prohibition). But she did it with such style! In the beginning, she would just stand outside saloons singing hymns, or greeting the bartenders as they opened up with, "Good morning, destroyer of men's souls!"

Then things took a turn. God apparently told her to smash all of a local saloon's stock with rocks, so she did. She entered Dobson's Saloon in Kansas on June 7, 1899, shouting, "Men, I have come to save you from a drunkard's fate!" Smashing felt right, and garnered much publicity, so she got a hatchet to do the job more effectively.

Between 1900 and 1910 she was arrested 30 times for attacking the liquor supply of saloons, administering what she called "Hatchetations."

Some historians believe it was the death of her alcoholic husband that set Carrie down the road to violently enforced temperance. Others note the strain of mental illness running in her family (both her mother and daughter spent the majority of their lives institutionalized). Carrie died in 1911, and never saw Prohibition enacted in 1920, the same year women got the right to vote. That was not a coincidence. Historians believe her campaigns paved the way for the U.S. government's attempt (and fantastic failure) to save the country from demon alcohol.

3. Will H. Hays (1879–1954): Sanitized the movies

In the 1920s, movies didn't get rated. Though most early motion picture content is incredibly tame by today's standards (if you ignore the racism and sexism and other modern -isms), contemporary viewers still found much to be offended by.

A campaign began to make it illegal to distribute any movie that didn't represent excellent morals and piety. As it was, each state had its own motion picture board that would censor each movie as they saw fit. Divorce treated lightly? Out. Gold miners drinking whiskey? Out. Too much wiggle in Clara Bow's bottom? Out. And the studio that made the movie had to pay for it: the editing, the redistribution, everything.

So Hollywood called on Will H. Hays, manager of President Harding's successful campaign, to be the new president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. They wanted him to clean up the image of Hollywood and staunch the hemorrhage of money being paid to state censors.

He wrote rules for making clean movies, but at first, neither the studios nor the public liked them. In 1930, a group of Catholic priests presented Hays a code that one of them, Father Daniel A. Lord (who would be the REAL wet blanket here, except priests really don't count), had written. Hays thought it was perfect and implemented it.

The studios initially balked at having their art restricted. Then in 1934, under threats of boycotts and other financial woes, the MPPDA agreed to voluntarily send all films through the Hays Code censors before release. The code stayed intact until the 1960s, when modern lettered, age-appropriate ratings replaced them.

4. Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825): Purified Shakespeare

When Thomas was a boy, his father used to read the family Shakespeare. When he grew up, he realized that his father had been omitting or changing anything that was lurid. Lady Macbeth cried, "Out, crimson spot!" and Ophelia's drowning was most certainly an unfortunate accident.

And so, when Bowdler grew up, he and his sisters wrote (or rather, edited) The Family Shakespeare.

To Bowdler's credit, he did not want to remove the impurities of Shakespeare for the sake of the entire populace, just the soft impressionable minds of women and children. Still, his name became a verb, to bowdlerize: "Remove material that is considered improper or offensive from (a text or account), esp. with the result that it becomes weaker or less."

5. Anthony Comstock (1844–1915): Totalitarian dictator of sex

Anthony Comstock was the nation's self-appointed chastity belt. As a traveling salesman in New York during the mid-19th century, he was disgusted by what he saw as a society sick and degraded by obscenity and pornography. At first he just took it upon himself to be an informant, supplying information to the police so they could do prostitution busts. Then he drafted his own anti-obscenity bill, and headed off to Congress.

Comstock's law against obscenity — which prevented the printing, sale, or distribution of sexually obscene literature or devices through the mail — passed in 1873. It also banned birth control devices, as well as information about birth control or sexual health. So Americans were the only soldiers sent overseas in WWI without standard issued condoms, and any married woman who wanted legal help from her doctor to prevent constant pregnancy was told to stop having so much sex.

Comstock also founded the utterly terrifying New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, whose agents were granted the right of search, seizure, and arrest by New York state. For every bookseller they had arrested for selling obscene material (like James Joyce novels), and for every Broadway play they had shut down, they received 50 percent of the fines the violator had to pay. The society dissolved in the 1950s.

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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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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]