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The Weird Week in Review

Art "Restorer" Wants Royalties

Remember Ecce Homo, the Spanish fresco of Christ that was made into a cartoon after an amateur restoration effort? The new look of the art has made its home, the chapel at Santuario de Misericordia, such an attraction that the church has started charging an entrance fee of 4 euros. Now Cecilia Gimenez, the octogenarian who painted over the fresco, wants a cut of that. Her lawyers say she is entitled to royalties, which would go to charity. Meanwhile, the family of the original artist is considering suing Gimenez for destroying the art, and the church has retained lawyers in defense from all sides.

Man Flattened by Falling Mattress

Jesse Scott Owen had only moved to New York City from Florida three weeks ago, but the college freshman got a big city experience Tuesday when a mattress fell off the roof of a building and landed on him. Owen was walking along Broad Street when the falling futon knocked him out cold. Passers-by tended to him until emergency workers arrived. Owen was taken to a hospital with a sprained neck and a possible herniated disc. But he managed to Tweet about the experience. The mattress had fallen from the rooftop spa of the Setai Wall Street, about 30 stories up.

Bob-bob Goes to Disney World

Ethel Maze of Circleville, Ohio, took a group of 18 disabled veterans and volunteers to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. She hadn't planned to take her cat Bob-bob, but there he was, stowed away in her suitcase when she arrived at her Disney Resort hotel.

Mike Groleau, the group's designated "baggage handler," said he thought he saw the bag move — but after a long night of packing, he slapped some tags on the front and back of the green suitcase and loaded it with the rest.

"This was the last bag I grabbed," Groleau said. "... [S]omehow it got zipped up."

Ten hours later, as the group settled into its Disney-area hotel, Maze unzipped the bag, and there was Bob-bob, a little shaken but still purring.

Despite a TSA security check (which did not set off any alarms) and several hours in the cargo hold, Bob-bob appeared to be just fine after his trip.

Ig Nobel Prizes Awarded

The Ig Nobel Prizes were awarded last night in a ceremony at Harvard's Sanders Theater. One of the awards was a wedding gift for the researchers! The Psychology Prize went to Dutch researchers Anita Eerland and Rolf Zwaan, along with their colleague Tulio Guadalupe, for their study "Leaning to the Left Makes the Eiffel Tower Seem Smaller." Eerland and Zwaan's wedding is tomorrow. Other prizes were awarded for research into how a ponytail swings, how an MRI can detect brain activity in a dead fish, why we spill coffee, and how to keep colonoscopy patients from exploding.

Restroom Users Watched from Street

The public facilities at the Standard Hotel in New York City offer a breathtaking view. But don't assume that those floor-to-ceiling windows on the 18th floor can't be looked into as well! The Boom Boom Room club has restrooms that are completely visible from the street below. The view from inside is glorious, but in most such restrooms, the glass is reflected as a mirror surface on the outside. But the patrons of this toilet are being photographed by people on the streets! The hotel offers no warning and no explanation for the restroom design. Is it meant to be a free peep show? Is it a design mistake? Or is it a subtle way to encourage guests to use the restroom somewhere else?

British Soldier Gives Birth in Afghanistan

An unnamed British military gunner might not have known she was pregnant when she was deployed to Afghanistan. She gave birth to a boy Tuesday in a field hospital at Camp Bastion, in Helmand province, one of the more dangerous parts of the country. Mother and baby are reportedly doing fine, but a team from John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, England, is prepared to go to the base to care for mother and child. The baby was born only four days after a raid on the base by insurgents disguised as U.S. military.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
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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