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The Weekend Links

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"¢ In the dog days of summer, many of us are probably wishing we had automatic lawn mowers to keep us out of the heat. Well, the technology is at hand! As this Slate article examines, although the concept sounds perfectly lovely, "we're talking about a slicing machine that runs around by itself and can't even be stopped by power depletion." Don't sign me up for one just YET.

"¢ Here in Atlanta, we frequent the Sweetwater Brewery, which features their famous 420 brew in addition to the maturely named Donkey Punch and, of course, Happy Ending Imperial Stout. Read more about interesting, ridiculous, and funny beer names.

"¢ A Mesmerizing Magnetic Movie, from Michael at The Daily Tube ("the best new videos on the internet"). Gizmodo has more on the experiment.

"¢ The Green Movement continues to reach into the world of electronics. Here's a new way to save energy costs and be environmentally aware: a "green" computer monitor, that will also save on your own "green" by costing the same as those comparable, vampire energy sucking devices.

"¢ As a follow-up to yesterday's video game theme song quiz, here's the Super Mario Bros. theme, played on an Ocarina.

"¢ Flossy reader Tony has provided an article about a postage stamp that shows a 3-second sports clip. All I can say is, see it to believe it! For my money, I'd love to see that incredible helmet catch by David Tyree from this past Super Bowl played out over and over again on stamps across the country. (Sorry, Pats fans.)

"¢ From Paul: "Five things humans no longer need," an article that explores Vestigial organs, or "parts of the body that once had a function but are now more-or-less useless. Probably the most famous example is the appendix, though it is now an open question whether the appendix is really vestigial. The idea that we are carrying around useless relics of our evolutionary past has long fascinated scientists and laypeople alike." I for one wish we didn't have to deal with wisdom teeth.

"¢ Who knew bus stops could be interesting? Got any interesting bus stops in your home town? Ever had the good fortune of sitting in one?

"¢ Speaking of things one wouldn't assume to be interesting and yet, lo, here I spent a good ten minutes perusing ... pre-owned bookmarks. Perhaps my fascination came not so much with the objects themselves (although some are quite interesting), but in how they so closely mirror my own habits.

"¢ "Millennials" are taking up more desks in the workforce. How's that going? Chet Gulland takes a look.

"¢ Anyone brave enough to try this trick? How to make your eyes feel closed when they are open. Sounds creepy to me. What were your results?

"¢ From reader Amy: "I've recently returned from Key West and this guy performs at Mallory Square during the sunset celebration everyday. Maybe people already know about him but I found it fascinating. He's got these cats jumping through hoops of fire with a big hunk of sushi as reward. Combine that with his wacky gestures and exclamations and it's a lot of fun." See him in action here:

"¢ A similar topic from Jan: Zorro the Traveling Cat. The altruistic creator of this site makes a small donation to one of two animal-related charities of your choice if you send in a picture and fact from where you live or a place you've visited (and even gives a small pittance to you) and can add Zorro to the pic. Check it out, and consider collaborating!

"¢ This one is sure to be a treat and delight. Are you aware of the Annual Pun-Off? Here's a segment from NPR that you won't want to miss.

"¢ I don't have the money to throw away a microwave, but if I did, I might try this: beautiful pictures of microwaved CDs.

"¢ Ah, l'amore. This short animated video shows all of the perils and pitfalls of love ... but all's well that ends well ... right?

"¢ Finally, two interesting art projects: One, things to do with paper money, and two, skin painted to look like shoes.

Have a great weekend everyone! Please continue to send your links to—where would I be without you?

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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]