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Dolder Tower in Riquewihr, France. iStock

You Can Visit the Two French Villages That Inspired Belle's Hometown in Beauty and the Beast

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Dolder Tower in Riquewihr, France. iStock

Beauty and the Beast's Belle spent her days reading fairy tales set in lands far, far away, but what this tamer of the Beast didn’t realize was that the "Little Town" she called home was perhaps the most magical village of all. Inspired by the real villages of Riquewihr and Ribeauvillé, two neighboring towns in France's Alsace region, Belle's hometown is practically a real-life destination where fans of the classic, animated Beauty and the Beast can walk a mile in Belle’s dainty, size six ballet flats. And now, with Disney's live-action version in theaters, our wanderlust for quaint bookshops, reading hardbacks by a fountain, and touring ornate castles is at an all-time high.

 

RIQUEWIHR

It’s easy to see why Disney’s animators chose Riquewihr for inspiration, and even easier to see why Belle grew up with a love for fairy tales. From its bright, cheery houses to a steeple rising above the city, this "poor, provincial town" (her words, not ours) is straight out of a child’s imagination. Adventures by Disney has included Riquewihr on its itinerary for next year's Beauty and the Beast-themed Rhine River cruise, but if you'd like to live out your childhood fantasies before then, Riquewihr is just a 45-minute drive from the Strasbourg Airport.

Vieille Ville Bonjour, bonjour! Walking through this medieval village—the Old Town portion of Riquewihr—is like strolling through a storybook. Vibrant blue, yellow, and pink houses line cobblestone streets, creating a maze perfect for dodging dudes like Gaston. The town's clock tower, Dolder Tower, overlooks the village's main square—the perfect spot to gossip about "crazy old Maurice." Of course, we can’t forget the baker. While he had zero interest in Belle’s book obsession, he sure knew how to bake a mean baguette—which you can buy in present day Riquewihr at the walk-up Au Petit Délice pastry shop on Rue du Général de Gaulle.

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Brocante Collections To find your own Lumières and Cogsworths, stop by Brocante Collections (2 Rue Latérale), a Riquewihr antique store with everything from dolls and dishes to clocks and candlesticks. Sadly, French-speaking home décor is not guaranteed.

Riquewihr Library While far from the Beast’s elaborate library, Riquewihr has its own collection of over 8000 books at the local Bibliothèque. But, to truly embody Belle’s bookworm tendencies, you’ll have to travel six hours outside of Riquewihr, to Paris’s Shakespeare & Company, the mecca for all book lovers. Frequented by icons like Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce in the '20s, Belle would've racked up quite a bill at this literary destination.

A town square fountain in Riquewihr—perfect for reading chapter three. iStock

Château d’Isenbourg For the full fairytale experience, you can spend the day exploring the town, then end it by sleeping in a castle. The Château d’Isenbourg, just 30 minutes south of Riquewihr, is a five-star castle hotel in the Alsace region. Sure, you may not meet the Beast of your dreams, and yes, this is a far cry from the real thing, but with an onsite spa, Jacuzzi, and nearby wineries, who needs a prince in disguise and his extravagant bachelor pad?

RIBEAUVILLÉ

Roughly twice the size of Riquewihr, Ribeauvillé was another source of inspiration for the Disney team. This town—a short 10-minute drive north of Riquewihr—is bordered by three cliffside castles and embodies that distinct fairytale charm for which the Alsace region is known. Points of interest include:

Wistub Zum Pfifferhus Is this where Gaston and his gang planned their attack on the Beast over brews and bad dancing? Perhaps. The Wistub Zum Pfifferhus's wooden interior and hearty cuisine (think sausages and steaks) could easily prepare that testosterone-fueled clan to storm the castle.

A street in Ribeauvillé. iStock

Ribeauvillé’s Castles Castle Saint Ulrich, Girsberg Castle, and Haut-Ribeaupierre Castle provide a majestic backdrop to this quaint village. Ribeauvillé’s castles were built around the 13th century and are accessible by foot, but you may need Gaston’s "five dozen eggs" diet because the hour-long uphill hike is a doozy. (Except please don’t follow this crazy diet—no one needs nearly 5000 calories worth of raw eggs.)

Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg While slightly outside of Ribeauvillé (a 20-minute drive), the Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg is perhaps the closest thing the Alsace region has to the Beast’s lavish residence. It has a drawbridge ("Kill the Beast!"), a medieval garden (where the snowball fight with all the feels could have taken place), and is surrounded by forests. The castle is open to visitors daily and offers special tours throughout the year. Of course, the actual inspiration for the Beast's castke is Château de Chambord, according to a Screen Rant interview with animator Glen Keane. But if you don’t feel like driving six hours to the Loire Valley, the Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg will do the trick.

Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg. iStock

The one glaring thing missing on this list—a must on any Alsace itinerary—is wine. The Alsace region is known for styles like Pinot gris, Riesling, Muscat, and Gewurztraminer, and restaurants throughout Riquewihr and Ribeauvillé serve up some of the region’s finest vintages. While wine wasn’t a central focus in Beauty and the Beast, one Disney fan site notes that Alsace wine was present during the failed wedding scene, which is a good enough reason for us to raise a glass and give a cheer to the beloved beauty and her beast!

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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