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The Analogist Is In

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The Analogist is a semi-regular feature in the spirit of traditional advice columns. But instead of dispensing advice, we tell you what your situation is like. Make sense? Let's get right to it.

Dear Analogist: I've been temping with an insurance company, splitting time between communications and HR. The HR folks just offered me a full-time position. A job's a job and I'm grateful and happy. But when I asked my boss in communications why they didn't want me, he told me that they did. However, last week, both groups had booked our main conference room for different important simultaneous meetings. HR agreed to find another meeting space if communications agreed to give me up. I've been traded for a two-hour stint in a conference room! Has anything like this ever happened before?


=====>This isn't as bad as it sounds. And I don't mean that in a "be happy you're employed" way. This reminds me of a story about Dave Winfield, who had an illustrious Hall of Fame career, compiling over 3,000 hits in 22 seasons. Two weeks before the 1994 baseball strike, Winfield was traded from the Minnesota Twins to the Cleveland Indians for the proverbial "player to be named later." Winfield hadn't played in a game for Cleveland when the strike forced the cancellation of the season. In all the turmoil and labor strife, no player was ever named to complete the transaction.

To settle the trade, executives from Cleveland and Minnesota went to dinner, and the Indians picked up the check. So Dave Winfield "“ according to The Sporting News, the 94th greatest player of all-time "“ was traded for a dinner. You're in good company. Congrats on the new job.

Dear Analogist: Since being named Best Man in my buddy's wedding, I've taken a new job in Dallas (commuting back to Phoenix on weekends), broken my collarbone in a freak street hockey accident, and found out I'm being audited. The point? No time to plan a bachelor party. One of our high school friends -- a guy not even in the wedding party -- really picked up the slack. He's been incredible with this thing, and we've got a kick ass weekend in Mexico ahead of us. My question -- how do I get this point across to the groom? I'm worried I'll get credit I don't deserve. Who else in history has taken on so much responsibility? (And don't say LeBron James against the Pistons in last year's playoffs. That one I could come up with on my own.)

Phoenix, AZ

=====>How about LeBron James against the Pistons in last year's playoffs? Oh, right.

While I'm not sure just how impressive your friend's actions really were, a great analogy for one person carrying a group is the 1884 season of Providence Grays pitcher Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn.

I will let the fine folks from explain:

radbourn.jpgOn July 23, 1884, Providence Grays pitcher Radbourn begins what may be the most remarkable feat in baseball history. 'Old Hoss' pledges to pitch every game for the rest of the season if the Grays would agree not to reserve him for the following year. He pitches in nine straight games, winning seven, losing one and tying one. He takes a 'day off' and plays right field before returning to pitch six more consecutive games. He plays shortstop for a single game and then pitches in 20 more consecutive games, winning 10 before having his 20-game win streak stopped. He would lead the NL in wins with 60, an ERA of 1.38, innings pitched with 678.2, strikeouts with 441, complete games with 73 and winning percentage with a .833 mark. The Grays would win the pennant by 10½ games over the Boston Beaneaters.

If the groom's not a baseball fan and thus can't appreciate this incredible feat, another comparison is Sean Connery's character in The Rock. I haven't seen that movie in about five years, but I think I remember him really going above and beyond for Nic Cage in the end. Have fun in Mexico. Good luck with the audit.

'The Analogist' is our least frequent running feature. See sessions one, two and three. If you've got a situation you need Analogized, just send us an email.

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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]