Original image

Hobbies, Stupid Bets, Naming Conventions and Terrible Movies

Original image

squash.jpgThe other day, citing a long-standing partiality for indoor racquet sports, Mangesh casually mentioned he'd signed up for squash lessons. This bold move has inspired me to consider a new hobby of my own. I'll never follow through, but it's still fun to ponder. So far, my top three choices are the harmonica, Wii Bowling, and coming up with better hobby options. A two-part first question:

1a) What's your hobby?

1b) If time were no object, what new hobby would you pursue?

2) What's the strangest thing on which you've wagered? My friend Josh won big money when Cardinal Ratzinger was named Pope. Another friend stands to win his "death pool" if Chemical Ali reaches the gallows. And I once won a bet over whether "Money for Nothing" by Dire Straits was originally a Bruce Springsteen song. (It was not.)

3) Here's one for the parents out there: How'd you name your kids? After a friend or relative? Historical figure? Fictional character? If you don't have kids but still want to play, where'd your name come from?

4) Yesterday, I received this passionate email:

Recently, I was on a forum discussing our favorite "worst movies." Somebody came in and brought up "Head," and said that Mental Floss had declared it the Worst Film Ever.

Nonsense! "Head" may not be "Citizen Kane" or "The Godfather" or what-have-you, but it's certainly not the worst film ever. Countless Italian zombie movies have to be worse. "Mystery Science Theater 3000" showed much worse.

Even in the category of oddball acid-trip movies, "Head" isn't the worst. (In fact, it's probably one of the better ones.) When your competition is stuff like "Skidoo" (see Carol Channing in her bra and panties!) or "Myra Breckinridge" (Rex Reed gets a sex change and becomes Raquel Welch!), you've really got to suck to be the worst.

So, I'd like to correct you: "Head" is nowhere near the worst film ever.

Now, I don't remember any formal mental_floss discussion of the worst movies ever, and I've never seen Head. Not sure exactly where in the horrible movie rankings it belongs. So I'll toss the question out here: What deserves the title of Worst Film Ever?

5) One last question, from reader Sumner in Hattiesburg, Mississippi:

Dear Smart People:
I am about to join a girls roller derby team and I need your help. A roller derby name at its best should to be tough, somewhat promiscuous, and witty (this is where you come in.) I have racked my brain trying to come up with a suitable alter-ego name for my shy, everyday self. I have played a little with Joan of Arc, Molly Ringwald, Annie Hall (Annie Maul) and even the great Mary Tyler Moore. I would appreciate any input, throw in some new ones! I thought if there was anyone to do it, it would be you lovely people. Thanks!

Can we help her out?

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
Original image
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]