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The Weird Week in Review

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Space Station Toilet Out of Order

There is only one toilet aboard the International Space Station, and it's not working. The one toilet for the three-person crew is on the Russian-built Zvezda module. They have been using the toilet aboard the docked Soyuz space capsule. NASA flew a new pump from Russia to Florida, and will send it via the space shuttle Discovery when it launches on Saturday.

Girl Swallows Magnetic Toy Pieces

The parents of eight-year-old Haley Lents couldn't figure out what was causing the girl so much pain -until they saw the x-ray. She had been swallowing pieces of her favorite Magnetix toys. The tiny magnets are attracted to each other, and when ingested, can rip through intestines. Haley had eight tears in her intestines.
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"She's only been in America three years, and while she was in Russia, which is where she is from, in the orphanage ... they told us she ate everything she could get her hands on," Jason Lents said.

Tobacco Store Dilemma

Old Morris Tobacconists is a heritage building in Victoria, British Columbia that has been open since 1892. As such, it cannot be altered or shop owner Rick Arora will be fined by the city. However, the Vancouver Island Health Authority says he must cover the signs to comply with a law that states tobacco advertising cannot be seen by minors.

"Absolutely ridiculous," is how Arora describes the impasse, and he's right. Two arms of government are ready to strangle a business owner caught between their conflicting agendas.

Shark Attack in Bedroom

150sharkattack.jpg14-year-old Sam Hawthorne was bitten by a shark in his bedroom, hundreds of miles from the ocean! He was sleepwalking one night and walked right into a trophy shark's head that was hanging on his bedroom wall. His mother found him bleeding from a wound on the cheek, and the shark still imbedded in his face.

How Not to Cook Sausages

Two men cooking sausages on a balcony in Germany were unhappy with the performance of the lighter fluid, so they dumped a glass of gasoline on the barbecue. The resulting flame caused the man to drop the glass, which also ignited. Then the other man dropped the gas container, which spilled onto three cars below them and ignited as well.

"The fire was put out by the fire brigade. The total damage amounted to around €30,000 ($46,000). Whether the people involved will ever barbecue again in their lives is unclear," police said in the statement.

Man Backs Over Squad Car After Ticketing

150_squadcar.jpg70-year-old Henry Raskin was pulled over and given a ticket for speeding in Buffalo Grove, Illinois. When the incident was over, Raskin backed his car up over the police vehicle! It is thought that he intended to leave in a hurry, but didn't realize the car was still in reverse gear. Raskin was not injured, but was taken to a hospital afterward as a precaution. Police are investigating to see if he can be charged with another offense.

Childhood Toy is Ancient Gold Relic

John Webber's grandfather, a scrap dealer in London, gave him a cup to play with back in 1945. He always assumed it was brass or bronze. Last year, he decided to have it appraised. The cup turns out to be made of solid gold! It was also identified as a Persian relic from the third or fourth century BC. It goes to auction on June 5th, with an estimated price of 500,000 pounds, or almost a million US dollars.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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
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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]

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