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Friday Happy Hour

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Let's jump right into the questions.

1) I was recently invited via bulk mail to (pay to) take a night class called "Protecting Yourself Against Identity Theft." I know people whose lives are absolutely consumed by this, to the point that they're shredding receipts for things they bought with cash. In 2006, Americans lost $56 billion in crimes of this nature. Have any of you ever had your identity stolen? Did you clear your name?

2) Speaking of night classes, I love reading our local school district's course catalog. I always find five classes I'd love to take and a dozen others to make snarky comments about. There's always something crazy geared at helicopter parents ("Visualizing Success for Your Little Leaguer") and a way-out-of-date computer class ("Mastering DOS"). The only class I've actually taken was dancing, in the months leading up to our wedding. Anyone taken any memorable night school courses? If you happen to have your local school's catalog, what's the strangest class being offered this semester?

superbowlxxv.jpg3) I'm a big Giants fan, and I'm absolutely shocked they made the Super Bowl. All season long, this team had "heartbreaking Wild Card loss" written all over it. After the game last Sunday, a friend and I were talking about our favorite single season in sports history. His response: Duke Basketball, 2001. For me, it's the 1990 Giants. I was in sixth grade and remember every game. Hanging over my bed was a Miller Lite poster with their schedule. Each week, I filled in the scores. Between 1991 and 1993, I probably watched that season's highlight video 75 times. So here's today's third question, for all you sports fans: what's your favorite single season in sports history?

4) The other day, my wife called from her car in the driveway. "You're not going to believe this, but a woman was parked right behind my car." We live near an elementary school, so parents are always dropping their kids off. Which is fine. But the streets aren't very wide, and when someone parks directly behind our driveway on the opposite side of the street, it's difficult to navigate.

But that's not what she meant.

Someone had literally parked directly behind her car, blocking half our driveway, forcing Ellen to channel Dale, Jr., and go up on the grass to start her commute. This total lack of regard incensed me. I saw the car was still there, grabbed a camera and ran outside. In my pajamas. This idiocy needed to be documented. Before I could get a picture, the car's lights went on, and she peeled the hell out. I was left half-naked, with a camera, waving my arms at her rear-view mirror. Unhinged.

So, the next question is this: what really-not-that-big-a-deal occasion caused you to freak out at your neighbors?

5) And we'll end with one quick survey: if you're reading this from outside North America, can you tell us where you are? Google Analytics can tell us these things, but I just like to put faces to the stats. Or at least (screen) names.

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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]