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The Weird Week in Review

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It's not a tumor, it's a towel!

In 1983, surgeons at the Asahi General Hospital in Chiba prefecture near Tokyo performed ulcer surgery and unknowingly left a surgical towel inside the patient. Twenty-five years later, the unnamed 49-year-old man sought help at a different hospital for abdominal pain. Doctors found what they believed to be a 3-inch tumor. Surgeons only realized the mass was a towel when they removed it! The towel is blue-green, but they are not certain of its original color.

Goat Boarded Bus, Didn't Pay

An unaccompanied pygmy goat walked onto a bus in Portland, Oregon Monday. The driver called dispatch, who sent a police officer, who took the tiny goat to the animal shelter. By then, the goat sported a note that said "Didn't have correct fare." Police checked the classified ads, and found a notice on Craigslist for a missing goat. Poppy, as the goat is named, was reunited with her owner Wendy Dean on Tuesday.

Man Jailed for Faking Death

When Gandaruban Subramaniam fled Singapore 20 years ago to avoid creditors, he faked his death in a most dramatic way -by claiming he had been killed in a shootout between Sri Lankan troops and Tamil Tiger rebels. However, he returned to Singapore and married his widow under his new fake Sri Lankan identity, and even fathered their fourth child! A lawyer uncovered the scheme and 60-year-old Subramaniam was arrested last October. He now faces 3 years in prison for fraud.

Olympic Pinhead

150chinaneedle.jpgDr. Wei Sheng of Nanning, in southern China, has Olympic fever, and he's showing his support by sticking 2008 needles into his head, face, hands, and chest. The needles are supposed to be in the five colors of the Olympic rings. It's not the first publicity stunt for Dr. Sheng, who set a world record in 2004 for sticking 1790 needles  into his head.

Fake Bus Stop for Alzheimer's Patients

Nursing homes in Germany are trying a novel approach to corralling patients who have wandered off. They construct bus stops near the facilities, in places where the bus does not stop. There, hospital staff can find confused patients easily. Franz-Josef Goebel says the idea may sound funny, but it works.

"Our members are 84 years old on average. Their short-term memory hardly works, but the long-term memory is still active.

"They know the green and yellow bus sign and remember that waiting there means they will go home." 

Giant Beetle Can't Find a Mate

150_beetle.jpgAn elephant beetle nearly five inches long made its way from Costa Rica to London in a shipment of bananas. Pest control officers took the beetle, an endangered species, to the Linton Zoo. Now the beetle is ready to mate, and zoo officials are having trouble finding a female elephant beetle in England. Linton Zoo director Kim Simmons says,
"We haven't been able to find Billy a Betty from zoos. Now we're pinning our hopes on private collectors."

Time is running out, as elephant beetles only live about four months.

Fake Call Enabled Museum Heist

Gold artworks worth $2 million were stolen from the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia near Vancouver. Before the heist, cameras mysteriously ceased to function, and a caller identifying himself as a representative of the security company told campus security that there was a problem, and that they should not respond to any alarms! Authorities believe the theft is the work of an expert jewel thief who was out of jail at the time.

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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]