The Quick 10: 10 Problems Solved By MacGyver

Ever since creating the MacGyver quiz a few weeks ago, I've had the urge to write an article about all of the clever ways MacGyver was able to get himself and others out of potentially life-threatening situations. There's no way I could ever cover all of them, though, so I'll just go with 10 I thought were particularly"¦ interesting.

10 Problems Solved by MacGyver

1. You know those MIT students who used their genius to make lots of money in Vegas? They've got nothing on MacGyver. He makes a pair of trick dice by rounding some of the edges, but my favorite part is how he gets them on to the craps table. He ties some string to a paper clip, attaches the clip to the dress of a woman walking by and then steps on the string, pulling the woman's dress down. When everyone is staring at her, he swaps the dice out.

2. Mac attaches a piece of wire to a blood pressure machine and runs it to an alarm clock. He says that when the man sweats, the alarm goes off. Questionable.

3. I like this one because I envision a bunch of hammered guys sitting around a bar trying to duplicate this. To repair a soda gun (the kind that bartenders use to put tonic in your vodka tonic or Coke in your Jack and Coke), MacGyver sticks one of those little plastic pirate swords that usually impale cherries or olives in it. Using the sword, he opens the CO2 valve, fills a pipe with acetylene and sticks another chunk of pipe in to use as a missle, thus allowing him to escape from some bad guys.

4. Don't let anyone tell you Mac doesn't love the environment. To incubate some eagle eggs, he uses chair padding and some vegetable oil, claiming that the oil plus the padding fibers generates heat.

5. If you go into cardiac arrest with no medical supplies nearby, hopefully someone around you has seen the MacGyver episode where he uses a couple of candlestick holders, a power cord and a floor mat to make a defibrillator.

6. MacGyver in a strip club? Say it ain't so! But don't worry "“ he's too busy figuring out how he can hack cosmetics into weapons to be bothered with a lap dance. He crams make-up powder into a confetti cannon and fires it at his pursuers, blinding them while he escapes.

7. Hot air balloons don't have to be expensive. Just follow Mac's lead and build one out of super glue, clothes, a parachute, condoms, a refrigerator and an old metal box.

8. I'd like to see them try this one on Cold Case Files: when MacGyver finds a human skull, he identifies the person by recreating the face with pencil tips, modeling clay, glass eyeballs and some wool.

9. Proof that MacGyver is daddy material: He built a swinging playpen from a net and hockey sticks and, of course, fastened a diaper with duct tape.

10. This suggestion was actually sent in to the show's writers by an avid fan. MacGyver fixes a Jeep's leaky radiator with some egg whites. First he pours in some water and lets it heat up and then dumps in egg whites, which quickly get cooked by the hot water. The cooked egg whites then seal up the holes in the radiator.

Do you have a favorite MacGyverism I didn't mention? Feel free to share it in the comments.

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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]