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The Moons of Saturn: Taking Cues From a Wounded Icon

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As of today, Saturn has fifty-six moons. And at the rate new ones are shyly popping up, one might say that the planet is, um, bringing sexy back. Why so many moons, Saturn? Perhaps the planet is overcompensating for all the hating going on around the weary campfires of astrologers. The current planetary weather features an opposition between Saturn and the Sun, and since the Sun is always the home team, everybody's groaning in anticipation of the next dour event we can blame on the old ball of gas.

But maybe Saturn has something to teach us besides how to assume the position. And anything magnetizing enough to boast so many satellites must know something about relationships.

Let's consider this tangle of moons and try to superimpose some "straight-up" cosmology; we'll list the eight major kinds of satellites and their human counterparts. Maybe it'll make you feel better about all that celestial detritus you've got lurking in your own gravitational field...



RING SHEPHERDS: These moons circuit within or just outside the rings. Their chaotic orbits help sharpen and differentiate the rings.

mean hipsterHUMAN COUNTERPART:  These are all exes--typically with non-profit jobs who quit all the habits that made them attractive & now believe they live a "reformed" life; will plot run-ins to lay down rehearsed line inquiring whether you ever optioned that adaptation of Billy Budd.

CO-ORBITALS: Moons obsessed with each other, and with orbits close enough that there'd be a collision if one attempted to pass the other.

annoying coupleHUMAN COUNTERPART: These are couples you keep around a) to reinforce how content you are single or b) to reinforce how abjectly undesirable you feel or c) out of naked curiosity as to whether and whence they'll combust

INNER LARGE MOONS: They orbit inside the tenuous and transparent E Ring (icy, dusty, difficult)

girlsHUMAN COUNTERPART: Yes, these people mire in your tragedies and encourage you to do the same so they'll feel needed.

TROJAN MOONS: They orbit at exactly the same distance from Saturn as other moons and occupy the Lagrangian points, but far enough away from other moons that they never collide

heart boyHUMAN COUNTERPART: Overwhelming, commercial, and boring; these people come into your life at different times but for the same reason: to remind you to hold out.

OUTER LARGE MOONS: Huge moons orbiting beyond the E Ring

msg in botHUMAN COUNTERPART: People you only meet once but end up permanently lodged in your psyche.

THE IRREGULAR SATELLITES GROUP: These dears rock distant, retrograde, and usually inclined orbits; many have been swiped from other heliocentric orbits; in human form, they're manifested as career masochists you shared a few drinks with at the Kuiper Belt and somehow now they're yours.

THE INUIT IRREGULARS: Homogeneous, light-red in hue

HUMAN COUNTERPART: These people are helpful career-wise but ultimately frustrating, often addicted to taurine and Retin-A.

THE NORSE IRREGULARS: A jolly clan of 18 outer moons

HUMAN COUNTERPART: These ones are more maternal and into genealogy; they'll invite you to witness past-life regressions in their backyards.

THE GALLIC IRREGULARS: Substrata of the Inuits

HUMAN COUNTERPART: These harmless ones are less zealous than the rest of the irregular clan, and you'll often end up dating them out of guilt for how poorly you treated the Inuits


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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]