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How To: Get Stranded on A Desert Island

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1 career that places you in frequent contact with tropical islands

1 unhappy superior

Fresh water


Step 1: Royally Tick Off Your Boss

Like Christopher Columbus
The so-called discoverer of America was down on his luck by the time he'd made his fourth trip to the New World in 1502. He'd never found the vast quantities of gold needed to repay his investors (i.e. the Spanish Royal Court) and, as if to add insult to injury, he managed to get caught in a hurricane that sunk his boats and stranded him and 120 crewmen on the coast of what is now Jamaica. In fact, his crew was only 150 miles away from the Spanish fort on the island of Hispaniola but, because of that whole not-paying-back-Royal-loans thing, nobody came looking for them.

Two crewmen even risked their lives to successfully paddle a canoe to Hispaniola, but instead of receiving help, they were given prison sentences! Meanwhile, the Governor of Hispaniola sent a messenger (by boat) to Jamaica to inform Columbus that no boat could be spared to rescue him. Talk about catty. All told, Columbus was marooned on Jamaica for almost a year before his imprisoned crewmen were released and managed to charter a ship to rescue their captain.

Like Alexander Selkirk
Of course, getting marooned has worked out better for some. Take the Scottish privateer Alexander Selkirk, for example, who got in a fight with his captain over some routine ship repair back in 1704. Selkirk, the second-in-command and ship's navigator, thought the repairs needed to be made before the boat took off on another raid. The captain disagreed, so Selkirk cleverly announced that he'd rather stay on the deserted island where they'd anchored than get back on an unsafe ship. Unfortunately, he chose to end this speech with a Jerry Magiure-esque "Who's comin' with me?""¦and nobody stood up. Worse, the captain then decided to take Selkirk at his word and literally left him, marooned, on the island. Selkirk ended up living there alone for more than four years, but it wasn't all bad. The island had been the location of a failed Spanish colony, which had left behind feral goats and a and a veritable all-you-can-eat salad bar of semi-wild produce, including oats, plums, pumpkins, radishes, figs, and parsnips. There were even cats, which Selkirk tamed by the truckload, eventually sharing his cozy hut, cat-lady like, with more than a dozen. Frankly, it was a better life than you'd find on board a boat. In fact, when a British ship showed up to rescue Selkirk in 1709, he declared their worm-eaten biscuits and salted beef to be inedible. Instead, he invited the crew up to the hut for a healthy, home-cooked meal, simultaneously awing them with his kitchen skills and saving most of them from dying of scurvy. Selkirk's ability to turn lemons into lemon soufflés so impressed his countrymen that his story was later fictionalized into a rather famous novel—Robinson Crusoe.

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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]