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Putting Humpty to Shame: How to Have a Great Fall (and Survive)

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What's the furthest you've ever fallen?

Humpty Dumpty was a big wuss. While he was busy incurring mortal breakage from falling off a dinky little wall, people have been falling off of skyscrapers and out of planes -- and surviving. Heck, it even happened to someone I know: my friend Sara's dad worked construction in the 80s, and one unfortunate day (or fortunate, depending on how you look at it), he fell off the top of a six-story work site -- and landed on his feet. Some nagging pain aside, after a lengthy hospital stay he was more or less fully-functional, and every year on the anniversary of the accident, his family throws him a tongue-in-cheek "fall party." As cool (and scary) as that is, however, it's small potatoes compared to the following Guinness-worthy fallers. Take a page from their book, Humpty:

The faller: Alcides Moreno, a Manhattan window washer
He fell off of: the side of a 47-story Upper East Side apartment building after the safety ropes on his 3-foot-wide window washer's platform failed, last week.
Putting him back together: is going much better than expected; despite extensive injuries, he's awake and talking, and doctors expect he'll walk again, too.

What we can learn: well, Moreno was certainly lucky: according to staff at the New York-Presbyterian hospital where he's being treated, fewer than 1 percent of people who fall more than 10 stories survive. Falls from much shorter distances can be fatal if the victim hits his or her head. (When Moreno is feeling a little better, maybe he'll share his technique.)

vesnavulovic.jpgThe faller: Vesna Vulovic, a stewardess, in the winter of 1972
She fell: 33,330 feet from an airplane over the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) after a terrorist bomb ripped it to pieces, earning her a place in the Guinness Book: "Highest Fall Survived Without a Parachute." She was the sole survivor -- 27 others died -- and was found on a snowy mountainside by a German hiker, a serving cart pinned against her spine.
Putting her back together again: She never walked again, but aside from that, Vesna made a full recovery. She even went back to work for the airline (though she took a desk job), and claims to have suffered no psychological trauma as a result of the accident, because a month-long amnesia erased it from her memory.

What we can learn: it's hard to know what Vesna's falling technique was, thanks to her memory loss. It's thought, however, that her low blood pressure helped her survive the initial shock of the 500 mph wind and -45°C temperatures (her heart may have burst otherwise), and that the snow cushioned her landing somewhat. The best way to survive a fall from an airplane is to fall into a body of deep water with your body extended into as neat a line as possible -- though deep snow also provides some cushion.

bomber.jpgThe faller: The Royal Air Force's Sgt. Nicholas Alkamede
He didn't fall so much as he: jumped, seeing as how it was World War II and his plane was on fire during a not-so-successful bombing mission over Germany, which turned out to be a good move. He fell 18,000 feet to become the luckiest parachuteless bailout of the war, falling through tree branches and into a snowdrift, where his worst injuries were scratches, bruises, burns and a twisted knee. Not so luckily, he was then captured by the Germans.

What we can learn: aim for the trees, and cross your fingers that ski conditions are primo.

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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]