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Survivorman Returns

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One of my favorite TV shows is coming back for a second season in August, after a long hiatus. Survivorman is a one-man survival show, hosted by Canadian survival expert/musician/TV producer Les Stroud. Each episode finds Les completely alone in the wilderness for seven days, carrying his own cameras and recording himself on a seven-day survival trek. Let me emphasize that: this guy is alone, schlepping fifty pounds of camera gear himself, while devising his own food, water, and shelter (he typically brings the most absurdly minimal survival gear with him, like a single match, a candy bar, maybe a rusty tin can). He's hardcore. And he's quite a nice guy, which makes you root for him as he survives the elements.

Tons more after the jump.

The first season of Survivorman found Les in locales such as a Georgia swamp; simulating a plane crash in the northern Ontario forest (there's a nice scene where he starts a fire by shorting the plane's battery and igniting a tiny bit of gasoline left in the tank); and my personal favorite: lost at sea off the coast of Belize. For that last one there was a support boat tailing his life raft, with a radio in case of emergencies. The raft was leaking, so much of his time was spent bailing seawater. I'm telling you: hardcore.

Much of the joy of Survivorman comes from how it operates on multiple levels. On the surface level, it's a show about survival, which is fairly interesting. But on the level below, it's a show about making a show about survival -- watching how this guy is all alone out there, making compelling TV. When you see some of the stuff Les is doing, you have to ask: how in the world did he get that shot? The Season 1 DVD has a behind-the-scenes episode that explains the lengths he goes to in order to record himself doing things like trekking across arctic ice floes (the short answer: he sets up a camera, treks for a few miles, then comes back and gets the camera). Finally, there's a slight Grizzly Man element to the whole thing -- what if he dies out there in the field? Would there be a final episode cobbled together from the tapes he left behind? I sure hope it doesn't come to that, but still, I have to wonder.

While shooting the second season, Les has been blogging from the wilderness (I guess this means he's carrying a computer too?). Here's an example from his entry in the Kalahari Desert:

My challenge is to spend my time in this extremely hot ecosystem and make my way across the desert to the crew camp. My personal survival items consist of only my watch, a multi tool and 20 litres (about 4 gallons) of water. With the truck I found: two empty pop cans, a nearly finished jar of peanut butter, a can of jam, two buckets, some cups, a can of coffee and an empty glass sugar dispenser from a restaurant. The locals sent me in with an ostrich egg as a gift and I've snuck in a small piece of chocolate I had in my pocket. Heh heh. I've brought all the stuff here under the tree with me.

It's mandatory that a person has at least one gallon per day if they expect to survive dehydration in this kind of heat. I have 20L - roughly 4 gallons - enough for four days. I'm supposed to stay here for seven.

Survivorman returns to the Discovery Channel on August 10, and OLN (Outdoor Life Network) on October 2. You can read more about the Season 2 premiere, but the best preparation is to watch old episodes from Season 1 (Les wants you to buy the DVD but episodes are often on Discovery in syndication). A word of warning: there are cut-down 30-minute episodes on some networks in syndication. The original episodes are an hour long, and you lose a lot in the edit.

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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]