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The Weird Week in Review

Counterfeiter Used Wrong President

Dana Leland of Central Falls, Rhode Island, was arrested in Massachusetts for trying to pass counterfeit $100 bills at a Target store. The bills were discovered to be fake because they bore the portrait of president Abraham Lincoln. Benjamin Frankllin is normally found on a $100 bill. Leland's lawyer says he suffers from mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse.

History Transformed in Exam

If you are in charge of finding graphics for any serious purpose, you might want to slow down and pay attention when you grab something from an internet search. In Australia's year 12 student history exam, a question involved the artwork Storming the Winter palace on 25th October 1917 by Nikolai Kochergin, which depicts the Russian Revolution. What actually ended up in the test was the illustration with a BattleTech Marauder inserted on the horizon. Looks like the revolutionaries had a bit of futuristic help!

A spokesman for the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) said the image was "sourced and acknowledged by the VCAA as coming from the Internet".

"The image has been altered but the alteration of the image won’t impact on the students’ capacity to answer the examination question," he said.

Having an image sourced as "coming from the internet" doesn't quite make it genuine -or original.

Camera Taken from Bird

Karen Gwillim of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, saw a cormorant near the town of Craven that was struggling with something. She was surprised to find the bird with a camera strap hanging on its neck! The camera was still attached, weighing the bird down. The bird allowed her to approach and remove the camera, then flew off. After drying out the camera and its memory card, Gwillim found about 200 photos. That was two months ago. Gwillim posted the pictures on Facebook, hoping to find the owner of the camera. Nothing happened until she told her story on television, then a man stepped forward who says he knows who the owner is, and arranged for the owner to claim it.

Boy Steals Parents’ Savings to Buy Candy

A family in Konotop, Ukraine, had a stash of $3,300 and €500 hidden under the sofa. It was their life savings. When the money was discovered missing, the family's unnamed 9-year-old son admitted he took the money -and spent it on candy. The child had converted the cash into Ukrainian hryvnas with the help of an adult, who is said to have a mental disorder. The boy found that he couldn't eat that much candy, so he shared it with his friends.

Sewage Dropped on Fire -and Firefighters

Firefighters were battling a 30 hectare brush fire in Kew, near Port Macquarie, Australia on Tuesday. A helicopter sucked up water from a pond, flew over the fire, and dumped the water on the blaze. But the pond, at a wastewater treatment plant, was the wrong one to draw water from - it was full of "secondary treatment" water, also known as sewage.

An RFS spokeswoman said 12 firefighters had been directly exposed to the "secondary treatment" water, while a further seven were in the general area.

"All 29 firefighters on the fireground and their equipment were immediately withdrawn and decontaminated by Fire and Rescue NSW," the spokeswoman said. "As a precaution, each firefighter has since been provided with further medical follow-up. At this time, no firefighters have complained of any ill-effects. They will continue to be monitored by the Rural Fire Service."

The fire was fully under control by Thursday.

The Carrot Rebellion

Spain recently raised the value-added-tax (VAT) on cultural activities to 21%, which didn't sit well with theater owners. One theater in Bescanó staged a revolt. Theater owner Quim Marcé decided they would sell carrots instead of tickets. Theater patrons love the idea, and bought plenty of carrots at €13. The theater then gave free theater admission away to patrons who bought carrots, which are taxed at 4%. Marcé also has the support of the local mayor, but other officials say the scheme is plainly tax evasion.

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
Original image
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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