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The Weird Week in Review

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Olympics Open, Maternity Wards Full, 16,000 Couples Wed

Today is an auspicious date for China, not only because of the Olympics, but also because the date is 8-8-8. The Chinese word for "eight" is a homophone for "wealth". All 200 beds in Beijing's main maternity ward are full as women have scheduled caesarean section births to ensure "Olympic babies". Other cities report scheduled births at five times the normal number today. In addition, an estimated 16,000 couples will tie the knot today.

Max Goes for Candy

Three-year- old Max McGrath of Longridge in Lancashire decided he wanted candy from the supermarket, despite the fact that everyone in his family was asleep and the store was a mile and a half away. So he unlocked the door and walked the entire way! James Brown, who was driving a delivery truck spotted him looking through the store window at 3AM. Max was able to show Brown where he lived, but the truck driver had to call police to wake the family up. Max's mother Amy McGrath says she now keeps the door key out of his reach.

The Shire in Foreclosure

Ron Meyers envisioned a community modeled after the world in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and began a development project in Bend, Oregon. Several years later, the project called The Shire is in foreclosure, a victim of the subprime mortgage crisis. Only one house was ever sold, to one of the community's designers. One other has been built and draws a lot of interest, but no buyers. The houses feature artificial thatched roofs, unique stonework, and other Middle Earth touches. Fourteen other developed lots will go on the auction block if they are not sold by December.

Mid-Air Wedding

160biplane.jpg24-year-old Darren McWalters married his bride Katie Hodgson while flying over the English countryside on top of separate biplanes! The minister, 67-year-old George Bringham conducted the rites while standing on a third biplane. They communicated by wireless, and the vows were transmitted to witnesses on the ground over a loudspeaker. See a video here.

Girl Falls 14 Stories, Saved by Soot

12-year-old Grace Bergere was playing on the roof and climbed to the top of the chimney at her Manhattan apartment building to get a better view of the city. She slipped from the top of the ladder and fell down the chimney, 14 stories down to the ground! She landed in the building's boiler room in a 3-foot pile of soot. Firefighters were stunned to find Grace not only alive, but conscious. She suffered a broken hip, but no internal injuries.

Redneck Stonehenge

150redneckstonehange.jpgA farmer in Hooper, Utah built a fence out of old cars! Neighbors in a new subdivision were complaining about farming activities and the smell, but the neighbor who adjoins his property wouldn't help pay for a fence, so he built one from the material he had.
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Creator Rhett Davis calls it his "Redneck Stonehenge." It's not that he doesn't like his neighbors, he's just not sure they understand him and his kind.
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What used to be farmland is now filling up with subdivisions. "The unique community coming in, I don't think they're used to the farm life," Davis said. "I think the residential is starting to overpower the farmer."

Child Left Behind at Airport

In a scene reminiscent of the movie Home Alone, a family with five children left one behind when they departed from Ben Gurion Airport in Israel. Her mother and father were sitting in different parts of the plane, and each thought the 4-year-old was with the other parent. The girl was found wandering in the airport's duty-free shopping area after her plane had left for Paris. The girl was escorted to her destination on another plane.

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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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