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How To Blow Stuff Up

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Oh, sure, you could just go buy some fireworks, but where's the fun in that? To really leave your smoking, blackened mark on history there are two things you've just got to have.

Don't make the mistake of thinking you can do this alone. There's a reason James Bond's archenemies always have hordes of minions. Or, on a less intentionally evil note, think of the Manhattan Project. To build the world's first nuclear bomb, the U.S. government eventually ended up employing more than 130,000 people over the course of six years. And you wouldn't catch a single one of them slacking off on the job—not even for legitimate health concerns.

For instance, Elizabeth Riddle Graves, who worked at Los Alamos, New Mexico developing key parts of the bomb's core, didn't let her pregnancy stand in the way of science. In fact, when she went into labor at the lab, she first finished the series of experiments she was working on before heading to the hospital. In retrospect the whole "baby + Los Alamos" thing doesn't seem like such a great idea, but those were simpler times and the point is, she cared.

Almost as important are the staff members who will stick by you, and your vision, long after things go boom. Alfred Nobel invented dynamite and then assuaged his conscience by setting up a fund for peace awards—but had it not been for his youngest engineering assistant and executor Ragnar Sohlman, the name "Nobel" would still be synonymous with destruction. When the inventor died in 1898, his vast estate was stored in numerous bank accounts sprinkled through eight different countries. And while his will called for the money to go toward the pursuit of peace, some members of his family had other ideas of how it might be spent. To fulfill his boss' last request, young Ragnar armed himself with a gun and sped (relatively, this was the 19th century) from city to city collecting the dough, with Nobel's greedy relatives in hot pursuit. Then, after managing to withdraw all the funds and put them in a single Swiss bank vault, he spent the next three years fighting legal disputes before the first Nobel Prizes could finally be awarded in 1901. His descendant, Michael Sohlman, is the current director of the Nobel Foundation. You can't put a price on employees like that.

Innovation can take many forms. Sometimes, you build off the work of others—like in the development of the car bomb. The first vehicle-based bombardment actually involved a horse cart and was the creation of an Italian-American Anarchist named Mario Buda. In September of 1920, Buda pulled his horse up to the corner of Broad and Wall streets in New York City, across from the J.P. Morgan Company. Just after noon, his vehicle exploded, taking 40 bystanders (and the poor horse) along with it. More than 200 people were injured, but the real target of the attack—J.P. "Robber Baron" Morgan himself—was completely unharmed, being in Scotland at his posh hunting lodge; a fact that, no doubt, enraged Buda even more. It would be another 27 years before the concept he developed really took off, however. It's believed that the first modern car bomb exploded on January 12, 1947, when a fascist, paramilitary Jewish organization known as the Stern Gang drove a truck full of explosives into a British police station in what was then Palestine. Other times, however, innovation requires a little more imagination. During World War II, armchair generals often sent their "great" combat ideas to the U.S. military—and most were filed in the wastebasket. But one concept, the brainchild of Pennsylvania surgeon Lytle Adams, did make it into production. Dr. Adams big idea: Bats. On January 12, 1942 (we don't know what the deal is with January 12 and explosions), the doctor sent a letter to the White House proposing a system of bat bombs. According to records, the plan was to fill a bomb-like canister with hibernating bats and then drop the canister from a plane. Slowed by a parachute, the canister would open and the bats (somehow awakened) would fly out—each one carrying a tiny time-delayed napalm explosive. Impressively, the military spent two years and $2 million on "Project X-Ray" before deciding it was "unfeasible."

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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]