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Roz Savage: First Woman to Row Solo From California to Hawaii

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Early on the morning of September 1, Roz Savage became the first woman to row, alone, from California to Hawaii. The voyage of 2,600 miles took her 99 days, 8 hours and 55 minutes. During the trip she was in surprisingly regular contact with the outside world, equipped with high-tech gear including a satellite phone, iPod loaded with audiobooks, water-proof speakers, video/still camera, and a solar panel rig to power everything (read more about the boat and the gear). In total, Savage packed a reported $80,000 of electronic equipment on the journey, which made it possible (at a cost of $1.50/min via the satellite phone) to update her blog, including photos and even videos, from the middle of the Pacific.

But the media coverage from her boat didn't end with text, photos, or even video. Savage managed to record forty podcasts (iTunes link) from the water as well. They're well worth a listen (despite the occasional satellite phone connection problems), and are sponsored by Audible (who also provided her with the audiobooks she listened to on the journey). It's an amazing thing being able to keep in touch, at least via this technological remove, with a person who's on a solo journey across the ocean.

Here are some highlights from Savage's blog:

Day 34: No Emergency Exit

Further to the watermaker issue, somebody suggested that maybe I should abandon my voyage. With apologies and all due respect to that person, this really made me smile.

As I said in the podcast yesterday morning, this is not like a big city marathon, where I could just decide, "Hey, this isn't going so well, maybe ocean rowing isn't the sport for me after all" - then pull over to the side, stop running, and catch a bus to the finish.

Abandonment of my voyage simply is not an option. ...

Day 89: A Watery Walkabout

I've come to regard my little rowboat as my own personal floating nun's cell - a place for quiet contemplation. (In fact my existence generally has been quite nun-like: Poverty and chastity are pretty easy out here - but I'm afraid obedience is not my strong suit, no matter where I am!) ...

Day 94: Fundamental Issues

I've been at sea for over 3 months now, and it's starting to take its toll on my body. I've been fortunate so far - but this week I've started to fall apart. Nothing major - fingernails lifting from fingers (apparently due to some fungal thing), aches in the back, sunburned skin - but worst of all is the saltwater rash. It may sound like a trivial complaint, but grown men have been reduced to tears and/or excessive use of painkillers by this undignified ailment. ...

Savage plans to continue to row around the world in two more legs, over the next two years. But for the moment, she's relaxing and healing up in Hawaii. Check out her website for tons of information on this truly amazing voyage!

(Image of Roz preparing to stow her oars in Hawaii courtesy of Roz Savage's SmugMug site.)

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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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