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What's Your Fantasy?

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This weekend I'll be competing for the championship in my fantasy football league. I don't want to brag, but I'll just say that I'm favored to win and it'll be my second championship in a row. That said, I've grown tired of my fantasy sports leagues, so I've found some fun alternatives.

Fantasy Moguls allows you play Weinstein brother, choosing the movies you think will be most successful. You get a budget of $100 every three months to buy eight movies, which are priced according to their real-life budget, so Transformers will put you back more than Juno. Points are scored in four categories - total domestic box office, per theater average (PTA), IMDb user review score and placing in the weekly top five chart.

If you watch C-SPAN instead of E! or ESPN, there's even a fantasy league for you. Fantasy Congress is the brainchild of Andrew Lee, a student at Claremont McKenna College, who decided that he could combine the seductive power of fantasy football with his own interest in politics. Players (citizens) draft senators and representatives and get points when they pass laws, show up to vote, make the news or even break party ranks. One benefit (besides the obvious educational potential) is that Fantasy Congress doesn't allow you to be a homer, since there's a finite limit on how many of your own Congressman you can draft.

Fellow blogger Jason touched on Fafarazzi in a post last year. In Fafarazzi, you draft celebrities and get points when they make headlines on any assortment of tabloid and jamie_lynn_spears.jpgblogs. Not surprisingly, today's biggest earner was pregnant Jamie Lynn Spears with an impressive 33 points, followed by sister Britney and talk show hosts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (they made entertainment headlines for announcing their return to work next month).

Another fantasy league that requires watching the tabloids is Fantasy Fashion. The game, which "gives women a league of their own," involves drafting designers and celebrities. You get points for covers on magazines like Vanity Fair and Marie Claire, features on InStyle's Look of the Day and recognition at awards shows. Designers get points when a celebrity wears their work, while celebrities get points for winning awards, getting mentioned in the tabloids and even attending the Oscars.

jim cramer.jpgIf you're looking to get an early start on beefing up your retirement fund, why not practice playing the markets with a Virtual Stock Exchange. Plenty of personal finance teachers have made their students play similar games. With no financial risk, you create a fantasy portfolio with real stocks and funds on the markets, then compete for the most profit. Enrolling in this league would finally give me an excuse for watching Jim Cramer freak out on Mad Money.

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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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