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The Weekend Links

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When I was a Freshman at Emory, Saturdays such as this would have meant me stumbling (in a few hours, of course) to the University cafeteria wearing the clothes I slept in and sunglasses indoors, troubling over papers due and exams looming (this is when I learned about having to "study"). Whether you are studying, procrastinating, or simply recovering, I hope these Weekend Links help pass the time. Or if you're like me now in my post-Emory life, that you might have some distraction until it's time for Lou Dobbs. So without further ado ...

"¢ Christopher Walken reads Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven." Can you take it seriously? Likely nevermore ... (Thanks to Martha for that jewel.)

"¢ Redheads fight back! Find Wendy's logo racist! Read all about the farce here. (Thanks to my friend Andrea from NYC.)

"¢ Michele sent in this cool link to pictures of funky statues of the 12 Zodiac signs found around Moscow. My Archer is looking a little sissy, the fish are fantastic, and I for one wish that crab-cart was real.

"¢ We all know of the George Foreman Grill, but were you aware of Dwight Yoakam's Chicken Lickin' Chicken Fries And Buffalo Style Bites? See more products to which B-listers have lent their names.

"¢ Dail from Florida sends in this link to the CIA World Factbook. Curious about Angola's natural resources? Or Niue's economy? This is your one-stop shop. Warning: possibility for hours wasted ahead.

"¢ Remember that VH-1 show The Fabulous Life Of... where you learned that Paris Hilton had enough pocket change to fly 10,000 Chihuahuas around the world on private jets 743 times? Put in a dollar amount in this generator to find out how many Thighmasters, iPods, Elephants and other oddities you could buy (with my current paycheck, I cannot even afford one whole cow.)

"¢ Jane has helped us find a revolution in interior design (especially for those with kids whose preferences chance on a daily basis): Bilk has hip self-adhesive and detachable wall decals.

"¢ If you're into model making and have some cardstock laying around, Chan's suggestion of this site and this one are great (especially the second one, where all patterns are free).

"¢ Here, the name says it all: Saints and Relics and Other Weird Stuff. Buckets of information here "“ expect to stay awhile (Thanks to Patty for the one.)

"¢ I'm always a fan of audio illusions, and this one from Eileen does not disappoint. See if you are one of the 2% who can't be tricked! (I for one am not.)
"¢ As Valentine's Day approaches, here are some unique gift ideas: From China, a chocolate-covered VW. Not to be outdone, Japan has their own version. (Thanks to my gal Janice.)

"¢ Spend some time playing with this global day and night map, courtesy of Megan.

"¢ "Filling out a timesheet from three weeks ago is like trying to put together the events of a drunken evening. You're never really sure what you did."

(If these analogies were on the SAT, maybe I wouldn't have fallen asleep. And here is a vintage collection from our own revered Analogist, Jason.)

"¢ So, Bob Knight's out of college hoops ... what next for him? ESPN's Page 2 uncovered a (hilariously false) retirement application from the surly General himself.

"¢ One housekeeping announcement -- winners of the 'Super Tuesday' contest will be announced Monday or Tuesday. Problems with the Wayback Machine, I'm told.

I would sincerely like to thank everyone who sent in links this week. Please keep it up! Email me at Your links benefit the greater good, and your valor in scouring the web does not go unappreciated!

[Last Weekend's Links]

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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]