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Cowabunga! 10 Vintage Pictures of People Surfing

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Surfing is an ancient sport with an uncertain history. Some believe it was originated by Polynesian fishermen who rode wooden boards to get to the shore. Ancient Hawaiians referred to the act as "wave-sliding" and relied on Kahunas, or priests, to appease the ocean and yield choice waves. The boards were status symbols, and the bigger the board, the higher your birth: Commoners used boards that were 7 feet long, while chiefs would surf on boards as long as 25 feet.

Westerners on board the HMS Endeavour got their first look at surfing in 1769 as they traveled through the South Pacific. Joseph Banks, working on board as a naturalist, described it:

In our return to the boat we saw the Indians amuse or excersise themselves in a manner truly surprizing. ... In the midst of these breakers 10 or 12 Indians were swimming who whenever a surf broke near them divd under it with infinite ease, rising up on the other side; but their cheif amusement was carried on by the stern of an old canoe, with this before them they swam out as far as the outermost breach, then one or two would get into it and opposing the blunt end to the breaking wave were hurried in with incredible swiftness. Sometimes they were carried almost ashore but generaly the wave broke over them before they were half way, in which case the[y] divd and quickly rose on the other side with the canoe in their hands, which was towd out again and the same method repeated. We stood admiring this very wonderfull scene for full half an hour, in which time no one of the actors atempted to come ashore but all seemd most highly entertaind with their strange diversion.

Surfing wouldn't make its mainland debut until 1907; Hawaiian George Freeth demonstrated his gnarly skills at an event for a California railroad. Thanks to Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku, a swimmer-turned-surfer who popularized the sport in the 1910s and '20s, surfing spread and eventually became the sport we know today.

1. Waikiki, 1925

Olympic swimmers Charlotte Boyle and Ethelda Bleibtrey pose with the surfing savior, Kahanamoku, before the 100 yards National Championships.

Bleibtrey was the first woman in the world to win three Olympic golds. She was also arrested for "nude swimming"—or not wearing stockings while swimming. Kahanamoku was also an Olympic swimmer and won five Olympic medals. 

2. Sydney, 1930

A group of surfers hold up their boards. Before the '50s, all surfboards were made out of wood, and not exactly waterproof. The wood boards would get waterlogged and heavy after being in the water too long. Tom Blake invented the hollow surfboard in 1926 and by 1930, it had become the first massed-produced board. 

3. Bondi Beach, 1931

Pictured above is 5-year-old James Easterbrook, the youngest competitor at the surfing carnival at Sydney, 1931. 

4. Sydney, 1931

A large group of surfers run to catch a party wave.

5. Santa Monica, 1935

Surf bunnies (female surfers) lay on their 'mondo boards to create a star at the beach. 

6. Hawaii, 1935

A collection of surfers ride the waves in Hawaii.

7. Hermosa Beach, 1955

Members of the Hermosa Beach club get ready for a big competition. By the '50s, wood had been replaced with fiberglass and polyurethane foam. The new material was easier and cheaper to make. New increased availability of surfboards helped surfing become a popular sport. 

8. New Quay Beach, 1955

Two girls wax their board, while a third oversees. 

9. Hawaii, 1960

Surfers hot-dogging and performing tricks in Hawaii. 

10. Gidget, 1965

Sally Field poses for a promotional picture for the TV show, Gidget. The show was based off the 1956 movie of the same name and lasted for one season. 

All images courtesy of Getty Images. 

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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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May 23, 2017
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