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5 Ways to Cheat Death in New Zealand

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I've been researching New Zealand like mad for the past day or two, prepping for an upcoming trip. More than anything, what I've discovered is this: while there are an absolutely humbling number of relaxing things to do in beautiful settings -- winery touring, hiking without end, lazing on the beach -- New Zealand also boasts a tourist economy based in large part on assisted near-suicide. It was they who popularized bungee jumping, for instance, and skydiving enthusiasts will tell you there's no better country in which to jump out of a plane at 12,000 feet. But these days, bungee-jumping is old news, and as Kiwis continually try to outdo themselves in the adrenaline department, the list of semi-absurd, totally insane adventure sports grows daily. Here are a few of the strangest. Photo above by Peter McBride.

5. Parabungee

Jumping off a bridge or Auckland's 328-meter Sky Tower not high enough for you? Try parabungee, which looks like a normal tandem parasailing trip until you cut the harness linking you to the jumpmaster / parasail pilot. Here's a video of someone doing a 1000-foot parabungee jump, and then cutting the bungee cord, essentially base-jumping from the end of his cord. Yeesh.

4. Fly-by-Wire

wire.jpgA bizarre but exhilarating experience where you control a high-speed plane on a leash, at speeds of up to 170km/hr. From the sound of it, you'll feel (and look) a bit like Evil Knievel, without the broken bones. Compared to parabungee it's definitely tame, but strange nonetheless:

3. Canyoning

This ain't your parents canyon adventure. When most people hear "canyoning" (including, until recently, me), they think of canyoneering, which is the process of moving through canyons and finding your way, even if you have to climb out and rappel down into an adjacent drop. Not so canyoning. Going down is the point, and the more waterfalls you can jump or rappel down, the better. I'll let National Geographic's Tim Cahill, who's actually done this, explain:

We clipped into fixed ropes at the tops of waterfalls, and Ros showed us how to ride the falls to the deep pools at the bottom. You lie on your back, put your arms over your head so that you don't break your elbows on rocks, inch forward, and rush down with the water, sometimes falling almost a hundred feet. We rappelled into shallow pools, did a Tyrolean traverse across the stream at one point—"no worries," Ros said, "you'll be 'roight"—and at the bottom, we slid through a long, narrow, sinuous passage that Ros called "the Tunnel."

NZ.jpgPhoto: Peter McBride

2. Canyon Swinging

If rappelling down the canyon wasn't thrilling enough for you, there's always the canyon swing. It works like this: there are two cantilevered platforms sticking out of either end of the canyon, and a sort of bungee cord connects them. You strap on one end of it and jump. Again, Tim Cahill:

The world dropped out from under me. I plummeted 90 feet (27 meters), and then the swing started. I found it was rather faster than I'd imagined. This was a little different from the bungee, since I wasn't used to falling into a 300-foot (91-meter) warp speed swing from a sitting position. Meanwhile, as I swung under the station where my rope was anchored, I couldn't help but notice that the wall of the cliff rushing by me to the right seemed but a few feet (about one meter) from my face. (I was probably 40 feet [12 meters] away, but it seemed too damn close.) Then, soon enough, I was swinging gently back and forth, taking in the view. Double paragliders were doing loops overhead, jet boats were tearing across Lake Wakatipu below, and the luge-bikes were winding down a cement track at truly silly speeds. Ah, Queenstown. I was winched back up to the anchor platform by the safety rope.

1. Jetboating

Not particularly suicidal but definitely thrilling, jetboating is a Kiwi invention: "An inboard engine sucks water into a tube in the bottom of the boat and an impeller driven by the engine blows it out of a nozzle at the stern in a high-speed stream. The boat is steered simply by directing the stream." (Thanks, Lonely Planet.) I had never heard of jetboating before, but apparently it's doable in almost every New Zealand river town of any size, most notably Queenstown, where a bracing trip down the Shotover river -- the same one you can rappel down and swing across -- gets you within inches of jagged rocks. Wear a rubber coat and plastic underpants for this one. Here's some video:

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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]