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Spacesuits Go Spandex, Harry Potter Goes Green and Checkers Gets Solved!

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Who'll Stop the Rain?

beijing-2008-logo.gifCountries go to great lengths of make sure the Olympics are perfect- Athens officials took unconventional steps to clear away stray dogs and prostitutes. But Beijing's preparations may take the cake- they've designed a rocket to blast away rain clouds and guarantee sun. History shows that there's a 50 percent chance of rain during the opening and closing ceremonies, but Chinese scientists have created a method to disperse precipitation clouds and prevent rain over the city. The rocket is still being tested and while some meteorologists say it won't work, Chinese officials expect nothing but sunny days ahead.

NASA gets sexy
Current spacesuits have layers upon layers of fabric and pressurized gas to keep a safe amount of air pressure on the body. But they're so bulky and unflattering. Luckily, astronauts can now show off their svelte figures with the spacesuit1.jpgnew BioSuit, a spandex-like alternative in space fashion. This new suit provides pressure by tightly wrapping the fabric around the body, but also allows for flexible movement. The redesign wasn't just done for vanity- the current suits weigh almost 300 pounds and make movement difficult when astronauts aren't floating in space; the new suits will make those football games on the moon a little less awkward.
Harry Potter and the Environmental Conscience
061021_HarryPotter_Vl.widec.jpgAdmit it, the only thought you had when you were reading the new Harry Potter book wasn't "˜Will Harry defeat Voldemort?' or "˜I wonder who's going to die.' No, you were too busy thinking "˜This behemoth of a book probably single-handedly destroyed an acre of the Amazon and now the Earth is going to die because I wanted to know what happened to Snape.' Well, worry no longer; Deathly Hallows was actually the greenest book in publishing history. Scholastic got 65 percent of their paper from forests maintained in an environmentally- and socially-responsible way and also contained 30 percent post-consumer waste fiber. The printing is expected to inspire other publishers to use environmentally responsible methods for choosing their paper.

Liquid TV, Why You'll Never Be Able to Beat Your Computer in Checkers (if it's really playing) and Bee Deaths Solved all after the jump!

The Chameleon Liquid
Scientists say a new liquid that changes color with exposure to magnetic fields could do for LCD monitors what ethanol is doing to oil. The liquid, which contains oxide particles covered in plastic, is cheaper and easier to make and control. Besides replacing LCD technology, the liquids could also revolutionize paper; The ability to make the liquid as thin and flexible as necessary means that scientists could use it to make rewritable paper. As far as I'm concerned, if they can make a TV that makes Planet Earth look even better for less money, I'm on board.

No Words, Just Emotions
Chinese researchers have created a video player that doesn't just measure volume or time, but also the emotions of the video. The EmoPlayer will eventually be adapted to use emotion-detecting technology, but for now it just lets users edit the emotional timeline. Experiments show that people found it easier to navigate the videos. It'll probably be a while before the EmoPlayer gets fully integrated onto YouTube, so for now here's a quick tip: kittens, puppies and babies always signal happy.

King me!
If neither player makes a mistake, checkers will always end in a draw. That's the result of a study at University of Alberta, Canada, which used computer simulations and plenty of complex math to "solve" checkers. This shows how a computer was able to defeat checkers champ Marion Tinsley in the 1990's and why you'll never be able to beat your computer at work.

Bee Deaths: Case Closed
Weeks I ago I wrote about a condition that was killing the world's bees. Now a Spanish scientist says an Asian parasite called nosema ceranae is to blame. After studying the deaths for several years and testing various theories, he settled on the parasite as the culprit. Asian bees aren't as susceptible to it, but it kills Western honeybees in a matter of days. Among the other ideas that were tested were drought and some odd theory about the electromagnetic waves from cell phones throwing off bee navigation.

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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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