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mental_floss College Weekend

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So, Jason and Mangesh turned mental_floss over to me for the weekend. Yikes. I'm not sure what they were thinking. Don't worry, guys, I'll have 'er back safe and sound Sunday night"¦ mostly. I mean, a few bumps and bruises isn't really a big deal, right?

Nah, the floss is in good hands, and I don't mean mine. We have some great stories lined up for you from college students across the country (although international submissions are definitely encouraged). Here's a little sneak preview of what you can expect to find over the next couple of days:
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"¢ If you've ever wondered if there is a real Necronomicon and where it might be located, you'll want to check out Marissa Minna Lee's story about urban spelunking. She doesn't exactly answer that question, but she does present a pretty interesting theory about it. Plus, she shows us how to turn an entire building into R2D2 and offers up some rather interesting pictures of the steam tunnels at UCLA (which she may or may not have taken herself"¦ shhh).

"¢ You might be surprised to know that more than 60 percent of students participated in marching band during their high school days. OK, I totally made that statistic up. But if you were a band geek (I was), you're in good company. Steven Clontz from Auburn exposes four celebrities who were band geeks before they became famous for other reasons. What, there's no glory in being first chair clarinet?

"¢ As a student, Katie Kelly gets to gaze out at Princeton's scenic Lake Carnegie every day, donated by Andrew Carnegie in 1906. While Princeton apparently preferred donations of the monetary sort, a lake is by far not the strangest thing to be donated to a school. Katie fills us in on donations ranging from a second floor men's bathroom to circus animal corpses.

"¢ If you thought sitting through the Lord of the Rings trilogy or all of the Star Wars movies back-to-back (to back-to-back-to-back-to-back) makes for a long session on your couch, wait 'til you see what Andy Luttrell from Eastern Illinois University has found. These movies make 11 hours of Elijah Wood and Sean Astin look like child's play.

"¢ Unless you've been living in a hole since 1981, you undoubtedly are familiar with Mario. But where did Mario come from? For that matter, where did Donkey Kong come from? And why is a gorilla named "Donkey"? Nick Cannon from Elon University answers all of your burning questions.

"¢ Admittedly I am not a science buff by any means, but I had no idea that hypothermia can be a good thing in some instances. Colgate student Cassandra Galante explains why that is and makes sense out of three other scientific breakthroughs that are going on right under our noses.

"¢ There's something inherently creepy, intriguing and mysterious about entire populations of people that disappear without a trace"¦ it probably makes us wonder if that could ever happen to us. Nathan Johnson from the University of Wisconsin Parkside walks us through four civilizations that just completely disappeared "“ be prepared to get goosebumps.

"¢ In addition to being our resident art historian, Andréa Fernandes knows her architecture too. She takes us on a tour of colleges that have distinguishing buildings or other characteristics that make them stand out from the rest. She passed up Iowa State, but I'll forgive her for that one.

"¢ We also have a quiz or two up our sleeves. If you're interested in submitting a story for the next College Weekend, we'll be posting details tomorrow.

See you guys this weekend! Hey, Jason and Mangesh, is anything in the fridge off-limits? And do you guys get cable? Is it cool if I have a few friends over?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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