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4 Wunderkinds

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Of course, there are many interesting child and teen prodigies worth mentioning in a list like this [Little Stevie Wonder had his first hit record at 13], but these four were either on my mind lately or, alternatively, brought to my attention only recently.

Michael Kearney
Michael was born in 1984 and made The Guinness Book of World Records 10 years later when he became the youngest person to graduate from college. If you're no Michael Kearney at math, that means he was 10 years old! The school was the University of South Alabama. But by my way of thinking that's not even the most astounding fact.

Unreal accomplishment: At only 6 months old, Michael was able to tell his pediatrician that he had "a left ear infection," and was able to read a mere 4 months after that.

In his own words: "Most people, they get into school when they're 6, and they get out of school around 22, 23. That's what I'm going to do. But I just happened to be in college that entire time."

RedsJoeNuxhallEnquirer.jpgJoe Nuxhall

During World War II, many professional baseball players were enlisted in the service creating a dearth that had to be filled. As a result, others got some pretty big breaks.

Unreal accomplishment: When he was only 15 years-old, Joe pitched part of an inning for the Cincinnati Reds on June 10, 1944. Though he got beat up in the game and had to be taken out, Joe remains the youngest person to play in a major league game (in the modern era).

In his own words: "I was pitching against seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders, kids 13 and 14 years old... All of a sudden, I look up and there's Stan Musial and the likes. It was a very scary situation."

babytype.gifChristopher Beale

And you thought Anne Frank was the youngest author ever published.. meet Christopher Beale, the little lad from Zug, Switzerland.

Unreal accomplishment: At the age of six, Christopher published a 1,500 word novella called This and Last Season's Excursions (Aultbea Publishing) (By comparison, the average published novel these days is about 75,000 words.)

In his own words: "I'm not the only novelist in the family.. My daddy writes stories too, although I'm not allowed to read them yet. They're probably not as exciting as my book anyhow. I asked him once, and he said there aren't any hinnies, bats or even any green mambas in them."

455px-Wolfgang-amadeus-mozart_2.jpgWolfgang Amadeus Mozart

What short-list would be complete without a mention of Mozart, who wasn't just a child prodigy, rather, he was an infant prodigy—the type of precocious toddler who probably changed his own diaper.

Unreal accomplishment(s): Could play the harpsichord from the age of 3, wrote his first musical composition at the age of 6, his first symphony at the age of 8 and his first opera at the ridiculous age of 12.

In his own words: "I care very little for Salzburg and not at all for the archbishop: I shit on both of them." (From a letter to his father Leopold, the man who home-schooled the prodigy.)

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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]