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Two Contest Winners

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Let's wrap up two outstanding contests.

First, Josiah wins for worst commuting story. His candidacy was bolstered by the way he unironically ended his submission by adding "At least no one died on the way!" He's earned The Superman Handbook: The Ultimate Guide to Saving the Day. Here's his story...

On my way to Iraq (Marines) the commercial flight I was on broke down once in Maine, then again in Ireland. Flying from Kuwait to Al Asad Air Base Iraq was spent in a C-130 aircraft with about 200 other Marines, each with full gear on, a backpack, and their personal rifle with them. We were so tightly packed that it was impossible to move and the only way of relieving ourselves was by climbing a ladder and strapping yourself in standing up while the plane was in flight. Right before we took off one Marine started throwing up into a plastic bag.

Flying from Al Asad to Al Qaim Train Station was spent in a CH53 helicopter with a constant drip of oil on my head, again packed like sardines, with an open door in the back that one could easily fall out of into the open hostile desert. At least no one died on the way!

And the winner of Matt Soniak's 'Hometown Haunts' t-shirt giveaway is Jessica from Bedminster, PA...

I'm from a tiny town named Bedminster, PA (just south of Quakertown) and the house that I grew up in is so haunted it's retarded.

A little history on the house, then on to the stories"¦

The main part of the house, the living room and my bedroom, was built roughly 250 years ago, bar far one of the oldest, still standing, structures in the area. At one point in it's history it served as a brothel and during that time there was a man shot and killed in my bedroom. The bullet hole was still in the window up until my parents replaced it a couple of years ago (sure, wait till I leave, thanks). With that in mind, these are the abridged stories of my life on Elephant Rd"¦

My Experiences...
I seemed to be the one that the "ghost" had the most fun with. My experiences began when I was approaching adolescence (seems to be the MO for most spirit activity, apparently we can be "emotional" ha!). I was laying in bed awake (as I have spent most of my life, not much for sleeping) and I heard on the floor next to me a tap followed by a couple of seconds of silence"¦then another tap"¦then another"¦so BRILLIANT me decides to lean over my bed to see what the heck it was (I should mention that the house is hard wood floors throughout, the only carpet being occasional throw rugs). Well, much to my chagrin what I found was a pencil I had left on the floor earlier lifting itself off the ground about 3 inches and then dropping to the floor"¦then lifting and dropping"¦lifting and dropping. So, as would become common practice for me over the next several years, I dove under the blankets for protection. The tapping continued for a minute (or 3 hours) and when it stopped I immediately heard the damned writing instrument roll beneath my bed directly under me. So as to avoid the inevitable pencil-through-mattress stabbing I was sure to incur I jumped off my bed and ran screaming into my parents' room.

Another nite a few months later I was laying in bed, minding my own business, when a sudden PRESSURE surrounded me and I quickly realized that it felt like someone substantially larger than I had decided to cuddle up on me. Not so rad for an 11 year old. The creepiest(!) part was when said pressure decided to start RUBBING HIS WISKERED FACE ON MINE. I'd had quite enough of the molestation, so I flung my arm around and "hit" whatever was there, screaming "No!" and just like that it was gone.

Another nite, my step-mom and I were up in her bedroom with my baby brother waiting for my Dad to come home. Attached to their bedroom was my brothers nursery and from those windows we had a clear shot of the driveway. Our dog was up in the bedroom with us so all possible inhabitants were in the bedroom. Our Front door consists of a thick (about 5 inches) wooden door and a smaller wooden door with windows that rattled pretty fiercely when the door would be closed. Soooo, Sher (stepmom) and I were upstairs and we heard the RATLLE/CRASH! (small door) BAM! (big door) and then heavy footprints in the dining room. I jumped off the bed to run downstairs, but thankfully Sher was looking out the window and saw that my Dad's car was NOT in the driveway. She stopped me and "locked" (tricky old farm house locks) the bedroom door. A couple of seconds later we heard the same RATTLE/CRASH!! and BAM!! followed by heavy footsteps below us again. Accompanying these noises was the shaking of the house that can only be felt in a house like this (accidentally stumbling in one part of the house brings a wall down in another). This continued every couple of minutes for about an hour until my Dad FINALLY arrived home. Sher and I were frazzled, to say the least.

To legitimize(?) my story here are a couple of things that happened to my parents"¦

My parents(Dad and Stepmom) were sitting on our sofa in the living room facing each other, reading, when they heard a scraping sound. My father looked up and told Sher "Do NOT turn around" (Sher says that my Dad's face was sheet white). So of course, she does, and what she saw was just a bit unnerving. On the wall were two pictures, one of myself and one of my brother Ryan, and they were both spinning around on the wall. My parents said they made 2 full rotations before the picture of my came crashing to the ground, shattering the glass. Clearly, I was not liked.

This occurred during a sunny afternoon in the spring"¦
My parents were sitting at the dining room table doing whatever parents do when they heard a little girls laughter, sort of faintly. As my brother and I were at my parents house and this was pre-baby brothers they assumed that it was my neighbors popping in for a visit (neighbors in country terms means their farm bumped up against ours but their house is a mile away). So they waited for them to come to the door. A minute or 2 later they heard the laughter again, but this time it was in the living room. The laughter continued, little girl giggly laughter and then was followed by little kid running throught the living room (hard wood floors). When the noise seemed to reach the doorway between the living room and dining room it stopped. Silence. No neighbors, no nothing.

My Dad was laying in bed (he sleeps as well as I do) when he said the room became ice cold (cliché, I know) and he heard a voice, a deep male voice, say "Would you like to speak to the dead?""¦my Dad's reply? "Um, no thanks" to which the voice replied "Are you sure?" (I guess the voice understood the scarcity of these sorts of opportunities and wanted to give my Dad a chance to think it over. How nice!). My Dad, again declined, and all was returned to "normal".

Besides these specific occurrences there was the almost daily regiment of disembodies footsteps, particularly around my bed at nite; doors opening and closing by themselves (our bathroom door was the rolly kind and would slide back and forth for hours during the nite); if ever there were toys left on the dining room table I would invariably have them tossed at me when I walked by(I was a huge enforcer of the little kids cleaning up after themselves once that happened a couple of times); Lights and Tv's turned off and on by themselves, etc etc.

There are a million other tales I have but I tried to narrow it down to the most interesting.

Last thing, my Dad, in his research where he found out about the murder and brothel, noticed that no one had lived in the house for more than 7 years over the course of the last 150 years or so (which I guess was when they first had real records). My family is tough, though. My parents only just now have put the house for sale.

Any takers?

Congratulations! We'll be in touch about your prizes.

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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]