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The Weird Week ending December 14

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Blitzen Held Hostage

Someone has stolen a decorative reindeer from outside florist Christine Small's shop in England, and left a ransom note demanding £56.60 for Blitzen's return! A threatening phone call followed. A taxi driver returned the reindeer a few hours later, saying he had found it, but it was stolen again within minutes. Police are looking into the matter.

Glocat.pngGlow-in-the-Dark Kitties

South Korean scientists have produced cloned cats that produce RFP (Red Fluorescent Protein). The two Turkish Angoras glow in the dark when exposed to ultraviolet rays. This should make walking to the bathroom in the middle of the night a bit easier.

Man Drinks Two Pints of Vodka at Airport

A 64-year-old man trying to avoid airport security regulations banning liquids was told he would have to pay a fee to ship his vodka or throw it out. Instead, he quickly drank the quart he was bringing home from vacation! He was taken to a clinic to be treated for alcohol poisoning, and is expected to go home in a few days.

Coming Soon: Spider Web Clothing

Researchers in Tokyo have injected spider genes into silkworms so they will spin cocoons made of spider web. The strong material produced may replace nylon as well as silk in clothing and other items.

110_tulipisland.jpgDutch Plan to Build Tulip-Shaped Island

The government of The Netherlands is considering a barrier island to fight overcrowding and hold back the rising sea. The tulip shape is one proposed design that may give mapmakers fits.

Teacher Calls Police Over Guns"˜N'Roses Song

A teenage school custodian and two friends were playing around with the school's public address system, thinking they were alone in the building. A teacher working after hours heard the custodian singing "Welcome to the Jungle", which contains the line, "You're gonna die." She felt threatened, barricaded herself in a room, and called the police. Officers found the three teenagers and straightened the story out. As a state policeman said, "These things happen."

Cat Comes Home with Snake Around Neck

Reptile Rescue workers in New Zealand were called to unwind the deadly copperhead from Jelly's neck. After veterinary treatment, he is expected to recover from a bite and is anxious to resume the eight lives he has left.

Space Shuttle Atlantis 180_spidershuttle.jpgAttacked by Giant Spider

The videotape from NASA clearly shows the arachnid approaching and overpowering the shuttle as it sits on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. The next launch of the Atlantis has been postponed until February.

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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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