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Beijing's Olympic Building Boom

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We've been reading about China's construction plans for years, and wondered whether all those huge buildings will be ready in time for the 2008 Olympics. Now those buildings are opening for business, one by one.

Beijing Airport


Beijing Capital International Airport's new Terminal 3 will officially open tomorrow (February 29th). It is the world's largest airport building with over ten million square feet of interior space. In fact, it is the second largest building in the world! Designed by Foster+Partners, it went from plans to opening day in less than four years. Ten villages were displaced to make room for the terminal. But don't blame the Olympics; the old airport configuration was already straining under the load. Even this dragon-shaped design will be inadequate in another ten years or so.

Beijing National Stadium


The Beijing National Stadium is expected to be completed next month. Designed by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, it is sometimes called the "Birds Nest", for obvious reasons. It has an official capacity of 91,000, but will likely hold 100,000 for the Olympic opening ceremonies. (image credit: Tee Meng)

National Aquatics Center

The National Aquatics Center was completed last month, and has already hosted the 2008 Swimming China Open. The "Water Cube" seats 17,000 people. The Aquatics Center was designed by PTW Architects, CSCEC International Design, and Arup. The striking exterior is made from translucent Ethylene tetrafluoroethylene, or ETFE, a strong, lightweight plastic that looks like glass, and is estimated to save 30% in energy costs over a traditional design.

Olympic Basketball Gymnasium


The Olympic Basketball Gym opened last month in Wukesong, west of Beijing. It covers 63,000 square meters and can seat 18,000 spectators. China's basketball fever is largely due to the success of Yao Ming, who must sit out the rest of the NBA season with a stress fracture. Whether he will be able to play for the home team in August is now up in the air.

Olympic Green Tennis Center

The Olympic Green Tennis Center was completed in October, 2007. The three main courts look like flowers, with twelve sections of seating surrounding each court. The sections are separated by open vents to help circulate fresh air, which will be pumped in at the bottom of the stands. The main court will seat 10,000 spectators; the other two will seat 4,000 and 2,000 respectively. In addition to the three large courts, there are seven smaller courts that will host preliminary rounds and six training courts.

There are many more new venues specifically for Olympic competition and housing. You can see the art, and a few current photographs, at the Olympics site. There are also construction projects to accomodate the many visitors expected in August.

National Grand Theater


The National Grand Theater opened in 2007. The egg-shaped opera house with three auditoriums is made of titanium and glass and is surrounded by water. It seats 6,500 people. Designed by French architect Paul Andreu, the theater construction cost 50% more than estimated. Construction overruns and high maintenance costs will mean the Chinese government will have to subsidize the theater's activites for several years at least. See more pictures here.

CCTV Headquarters


The CCTV Headquarters building was designed by Rem Koolhass of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). The building is shaped like two Ls that are joined at the top, but the nickname that stuck is "the Z building." When completed (supposedly in time for the Olympics), the 54 story building will stand 755 feet tall. Besides CCTV offices, the building will house a hotel, a visitor's center, a theater, and exhibition space.



China is also building at least 109 new hotels to accomodate Olympic travelers. Pictured is the 400-room Langham Place Beijing Capital Airport Hotel, scheduled to open in mid-2008. The biggest hotel project is the Beijing Marriott Hotel City Wall, with 615 rooms.

15,000 people have been relocated to make room for the Olympic venues. Six people have died in the construction projects, including two at the National Stadium. One project, a shooting range, was delayed over the discovery of imperial-era tombs. Many ancient artifacts were discovered as bulldozers broke ground at several other sites. The Olympics begin August 8th.

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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]