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Before We Let The Games Begin

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Last night, my wife told me that Sochi had won the Winter Olympics. I did not know who Sochi was, and was fairly confident the Winter Olympics were not currently ongoing. So I chalked this up to delirium, related to her recent bout of food poisoning.

Turns out she wasn't crazy. The 2014 Winter Olympics will be held in Sochi, a Russian resort town on the Black Sea. Pyeongchang, South Korea, finished a close second.

To celebrate the news, here are some Sochi tidbits:

"¢ Sochi is "the longest city" in Europe and "the most beautiful place to visit in Russia." It's also "basically considered a beach town." [Russia.com]

"¢ Before this, Russia (and the Soviet Union) had won 293 Winter Olympic medals, but had never hosted the Winter Games. Moscow was home to the 1980 Summer Games, which the U.S. boycotted due to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. [The New York Times]

"¢ Both Maria Sharapova and Yevgeny Kafelnikov are products of a local tennis school (only Kafelnikov is from Sochi). [Wikipedia]

"¢ Here are all the photos tagged "sochi" on Flickr. (Svetlota, kzeke and adm.benbow have some good ones. JKEvgen does, too, and he gets credit for the photo above.)

"¢ "Sochi can be found on the same latitude with Toronto, Nice and the Gobi desert. As its charming landscapes and scenery are so reminiscent of the Mediterranean, Sochi is often referred to as the 'Russian Riviera.'" [Sochi2014.com]

"¢ According to the 2002 Census, Sochi has 328,809 residents. [Wikipedia]

"¢ "As Sochi is situated between the Caucasian Mountains and the Black Sea, it enjoys the most northern subtropical climate on earth. As a result, its Krasnaya Polyana mountains have great snow conditions and are largely protected from the wind. These unique conditions cannot be found anywhere else in Europe." [Sochi2014.com]

"¢ Average summer temperatures range from 78 to 89. In January and February, the average temp is 44. [Wikipedia]

"¢ "There are no large industrial facilities in the Sochi area, so the air quality, especially in Sochi's Krasnaya Polyana area, is considered among the very best in the world." [Sochi2014.com]

"¢ "Unfortunately the crime rate is extremely high in Sochi, and all yacht and boat owners are advised not to leave their boats unoccupied in the evenings." [Russia.com]

This is the official website of Sochi.

After my visit to Utah Olympic Park, I can't wait to get to Sochi. Though after my rambling trip recap, I doubt the proprietors of mental_floss will fund such an excursion.

Anyone ever been?

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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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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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