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Wikimedia Commons

How Mao Accidentally Turned Mangoes Into Divine Objects

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Wikimedia Commons

Ah, the mango: Sweet, colorful, and juicy. While all these qualities are fine and good, there was a short period of time when an entire nation elevated the humble fruit above mere smoothie fodder and into the rarefied air of sacred object. In the late 1960s, mangoes briefly became the most celebrated and revered symbol of Chairman Mao's munificence to the working class of China, and it all happened because Mao was a re-gifter.

Ben Marks of Collectors Weekly tells the odd tale of the "cult of the mango," which itself came to symbolize the fervent and contentious years during China's Cultural Revolution. After the disastrous and famine-producing Great Leap Forward of the late '50s and early '60s, Mao Zedong and the communist party desperately tried to regroup and win back the hearts and minds of the People's Republic. Their new movement, The Cultural Revolution, began in 1966 and aimed to expel the bourgeois capitalist influence Mao insisted was still corroding China.

Pro-Mao student groups dubbed "Red Guards" — who were egged on by Mao himself — became impassioned to the point of competitiveness. Different Red Guard factions clashed to prove their devotion to the Great Leader and, in 1968, their ferocity boiled over at Qinghua University. According to CW, "two oppositional cadres, the Jinggangshan Corps and the Fours, engaged in what became known as the Hundred Day War, hurling stones, spears, and sulfuric acid at each other in a bitter struggle to prove their obsequiousness to Mao."

Now, Mao loved himself a good display of fervid Mao devotion, but even he thought the Red Guards were going overboard. He ordered 30,000 Beijing factory workers to put an end to the fighting and, after some casualties, they succeeded. This marked the dissolution of the Red Guards, but it also inadvertently put China's great mango craze into motion.

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One week after the commotion at Qinghua University, Mao welcomed Pakistan’s foreign minister Mian Arshad Hussain and his wife. This was a pretty standard meeting between neighbors, and Hussain brought a box of mangoes and gave it to Mao as a gift. At the time, China didn't have many mangoes and Pakistan was swimming in them, so the gesture wasn't exactly anything to write home about. According to scholar Alfreda Murck, “Mao didn’t like fruit. Mangoes are messy, so he would have needed someone to peel and slice them." So Mao did what anyone else would do in that situation: he re-gifted the mangoes. Mao sent the box of fruit, along with a letter of thanks, to the Beijing factory workers who were still stationed at Qinghua University.

Upon receiving the mangoes, the workers were astonished. Here was a box of exotic fruit they had never seen before and, even more amazingly, it was a gift originally intended for Mao himself. He sacrificed his own hunger to honor them, they thought, and the mango became a symbol of Mao's benevolence and appreciation of the working class. The fact that they received this incredible gift after they vanquished student groups did not go unnoticed. It had to have been Mao's way of saying that the working class would be the focus and drive of the new China, not the intelligentsia.

When they were told to get back to work, they split the mangoes up and each of the eight factories that had contributed workers to the Qinghua University clash got one.

The factories tried to preserve their sacred mangoes by bathing them in formaldehyde, encasing them in wax, or sealing them in glass. When a mango began to rot, one factory turned it into a broth and workers lined up to drink a teaspoon and imbibe its power. Wax mangoes started to be given as gifts and prizes to especially deserving workers, and the legend of the mango spread quickly.

Towns would have parades dedicated to the fruit. Not many people knew exactly what a mango was, but when they saw a wax simulacrum being escorted through the streets and wildly revered, they quickly learned that this fruit meant business. Alfreda Murck writes that when a mango celebration came to a small Fulin village a local dentist didn't see what was so special. He exclaimed that it just looked like a sweet potato and, for his insolence, "he was arrested as a counterrevolutionary." The man was found guilty and executed.

In 1968, China’s National Day Parade featured a massive float designed to look like a bowl of mangoes. It was proudly whisked through Tiananmen Square and solidified the fruit as the symbol of the People's Republic's gratitude for and dependence on the working class.

However, mango madness, like the fruit itself, began to rot. People moved on, and after a little more than a year, mangoes lost most of their status. Relics of the mango's importance remain, though, and last year, the Museum Reitberg in Zurich held an exhibition of plastic and wax mangoes and other mango-related tchotchkes from China's brief obsession.

It may have gone overboard, but you were briefly at the top of the food chain, mangoes. Back in the blender with you.

[Further Reading: The Mao Mango Cult of 1968 and the Rise of China's Working Class]

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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]