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Mr. Mumler’s Ghosts: The Father of Spirit Photography

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Wikimedia Commons

“You may deceive the human eye, say the advocates of spirit materializations, but you cannot deceive the eye of science, the photographic camera.”
— Henry Ridgely Evans 

The 19th century was the first time in Western history that most people could not only read, but had the leisure time to do so. This made for many new ideas. New religions, for example, popped up throughout America. Among them was Spiritualism, the belief that souls live in the spirit world after death and can still be contacted. 

Another new idea, photography, was taking the country by storm at the same time. Take these two concepts, add a war that killed millions of loved ones, filter through a few hucksters, and you’ve got Spirit Photography.

Double the exposure = double the money

Bostonian William H. Mumler was the first prominent Spirit Photographer. He was a jewelry engraver in the early 1860s, and dabbled in photography as a hobby. One day a self-portrait he developed appeared to have the ghostly figure of a young girl in the background. Mumler figured it was an after-image of another sitter, as photographic plates were reused and it wasn’t unheard of for a previous image to remain slightly imprinted on a cleaned plate. But then again, the imprint also kind of looked like his dead cousin. Spirit photography was born.

A contemporary publication, Henry Ridgely Evans’s 1897 The Spirit World Unmasked: Illustrated Investigations Into the Phenomena of Spiritualism and Theosophy, describes two ways it was possible for the unscrupulous to capture the image of “spirits”: 

There are two ways of producing spirit photographs, by double printing and by double exposure. In the first, the scene is printed from one negative, and the spirit printed in from another. In the second method, the group with the friendly spook in proper position is arranged, and the lens of the camera uncovered, half of the required exposure being given; then the lens is capped, and the person doing duty as the sheeted ghost gets out of sight, and the exposure is completed. The result is very effective when the picture is printed, the real persons being represented sharp and well defined, while the ghost is but a hazy outline, transparent, through which the background shows.

It All Checks Out

People were skeptical of Mumler’s abilities to capture the dead on film from the start. There are accounts of many professional photographers of the day going to oversee his process. The strange thing was most came away finding no evidence of fraud. 

In 1863, The Journal of the Photographic Society of London reported the experiences of a “practical photographer” who was sent to scrutinize Mumler’s work. The photographer, William Guam, came away convinced in Mumler’s ability: 

Having been permitted by Mr.; Mumler every facility to investigate, I went through the whole of the operation of selecting, cleaning, preparing, coating, silvering, and putting into the shield the glass upon which Mr. M. proposed that a spirit-form and mine should be imparted, never taking off my eyes, and not allowing Mr. M. to touch the glass until it had gone through the whole of the operation. The result was, that there came upon the glass 3 picture of myself and, to my utter astonishment—having previously examined and scrutinized every crack and corner, plate-holder, camera, box, tube, the inside of the bath, &c. —another portrait.

Guam insisted his both his dead wife and father were present in pictures printed by Mumler, which was especially gratifying as he claimed had been hoping they would appear to him while the pictures were being taken. 

The Unknown Widow

Other critics were not so easily convinced. It was claimed that some of Mumler’s ghosts were actually his previous sitters, and many of them were live, recognizable Bostonians. In 1869, the New York Police brought a lawsuit against Mumler, claiming he was defrauding people who were suffering terrible grief. Outspoken celebrities of the day decried him as a fraud and much was written on how easy it was to fake a ghostly imprint. He was acquitted at trial, but the scandal ruined his reputation as a true spirit medium. 

His career held out long enough for him to have one more famous sitter. A woman, who Mumler claimed was a complete stranger to him, came to sit for him in 1871. The resulting photograph is considered to be the last known photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln, with her dead husband standing behind her.

Photo courtesy of the Allen County Public Library

Mumler died in 1884. There are no known photographs of him beyond that date. 

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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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