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Delightful Finds From Internet Archive Book Images

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There’s a new Flickr account called Internet Archive Book Images. These are public domain images from books that have been digitized for posterity.

A Yahoo research fellow at Georgetown University, Kalev Leetaru, extracted over 14 million images from 2 million Internet Archive public domain eBooks that span over 500 years of content. Because we have OCR’d the books, we have now been able to attach about 500 words before and after each image. This means you can now see, click and read about each image in the collection. Think full-text search of images!

So far, there are about 2.6 million images to browse, with more being added every day. That sounds like a lot to take in, but the account is searchable. I thought it would be fun to enter some search terms to see what comes up.

Politician: This old comic says more about economics and capitalism than about any particular politician. It’s from a 1912 issue of Baltimore and Ohio employees magazine.

Airplane: According to the Flickr page, this huge airplane picture is from an 1890 issue of The literary digest. I think there may have been a mistake in the date, because the accompanying text says,

HE TRACKLESS WILDERNESS WILL YIELD ITS FRUITS AND ORES TO THESE GIANT PLANES. TO-MORROWS AIR-TRAVEL THE MOST BEAUTIFUL, inspirational, and senace-able of mans inventions will shortly be whoUy atmans service, carrying mails, freight, and passengersfor long distances at incredible speed, exploring wildernesses,surveying and mapping continents and oceans—doing a scoreof things that no vehicle hitherto at our disposal has been ableto effect. Already we are carrying our mails by airplane anddoing some other kinds of transportation. In Europe at leastone aerial ambulance is at work, and in places the airplane ismaintaining a fire-patrol in, or rather above, forest areas.

Sex: I had to laugh at this image. There is plenty to see under this search term, but right in the middle is an illustration about how to prevent bar patrons from groping the waitresses. It’s from the 1905 French book Images galantes et esprit de l'etranger: Berlin, Munich, Vienne, Turin, Londres.

Drugs: I couldn’t get past this illustration of chocolate worm cakes. It’s from the 1889 volume of The Canadian druggist. They supposedly contain Calomel, Jalap, and Santonine. Since chocolate is not mentioned as an ingredient, you have to wonder whether they contain either chocolate or worms, or both.

College: Right at the top of the search results is a drawing that contrasts the “eggheads” and the “jocks.” The dichotomy has been around a long time. This is from the Haverford College Athletic Annual and 1900 Class book of 1900.

Vacation: It has nothing to do with a vacation, but that’s where I found this picture of something to eat. It was included in the 1896 publication The Boston Cooking School magazine of culinary science and domestic economics. The description reads:

Chicken Salad Masked with Mayonnaise, Covered with Capers, Chopped White of Egg and Diamonds of Pickled Beet Border of Celery Leaves and Curled Celery Seasonable Recipes By Janet M.

Why would you want to mask a chicken? This sounds like everything for dinner piled on one plate.

Cat: This alarming image comes from a volume identified as Goethe's works. The man with the cat between his legs is a priest.

Education: The act of trying to stuff our heads with things. This illustration is from the 1872 book Education: its elementary principles, founded on the nature of man.

Cowboy: Under this search term, a photograph of the women of the University of Wyoming came up. They are from the 1911 edition of Wyo, the school’s yearbook. This was taken on Washington’s Birthday, at a late Valentine’s Day dance. The term “cowboy” was from a previous picture.

Mental floss: The image that came up is from the 1905 book Fancy work for pleasure and profit. That’s a pleasant image.

I could do this all day. If you find yourself searching through Internet Archive Book Images, set yourself a time limit or you might find it hard to stop.

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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]