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On Salmon, Trout, and Chat

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Several friends of mine have reported strange chat sessions over the past few months. The chats are a form of mediated communication between strangers that seems either like a prank or an art project (or perhaps both). The scenario generally goes like this:

1. A chatbot (posing as a human) starts up a conversation via AOL Instant Messenger (or another chat service). Some bots (like TheGreatHatsby) use a single, distinctive opening line like, "I say, old bean, have you seen my hat?" while others use a randomized statement intended to spark a conversation.

2. Unbeknownst to the first user, the chatbot has also initiated a similar chat session with another user.

3. When both randomly targeted users reply (generally with a statement along the lines of, "Who is this??"), the chatbot connects both bewildered users via some behind-the-scenes magic, and bizarre chats ensue.

Because to both users it appears that the other user initiated the chat session, confusion is common in the first lines of the chat -- but very often, it settles down into an actual conversation between two complete strangers. Here are the first few lines of a chat session from a Livejournal user who was recently contacted by the RegretfulCoho bot:

[01:18] RegretfulCoho: Hi.
[01:19] thesquidflu: Hi!
[01:19] RegretfulCoho: lol What's up
[01:19] thesquidflu: not much!
[01:19] thesquidflu: How about you?
[01:19] RegretfulCoho: Not much at all, who is this by the by?
[01:20] thesquidflu: I'm... Brandon! Who's this?
[01:20] RegretfulCoho: Brandon who?
[01:20] thesquidflu: [last name redacted]
[01:20] RegretfulCoho: Do I know you from somewhere?
[01:21] thesquidflu: I... I don't know!
[01:21] thesquidflu: hehe
[01:21] thesquidflu: where didja get my aim?
[01:21] RegretfulCoho: You just now msg'd me
[01:21] thesquidflu: You messaged me first, according to my aim!
[01:22] RegretfulCoho: Ok
[01:22] RegretfulCoho: Is this a bot program?
[01:22] thesquidflu: Nope!
[01:22] thesquidflu: hahahah
[01:22] thesquidflu: :D
[01:22] thesquidflu: I'm a real boy!

The chat continues for almost half an hour, as the users collaboratively try to figure out what's going on, and eventually land on the Wikipedia page explaining the phenomenon. These chatbots are often called Salmon bots (the "Coho" referenced in the chat log above is a species of salmon) or Trout bots, as the bots themselves adopt various fishy names and implement different strategies for passing messages. Some of the bots actually filter the conversations, removing screen names and words related to bots. Others simply connect two users and let the chat happen.

A Livejournal community has formed around this phenomenon, called themissinghat. Users post their experiences, including chat logs -- some are filled with profanity and confusion, others are just friendly chats between strangers. You can now even request a Salmon bot connection, in case you want to try out the randomness for yourself. Wow.

Have you been chatted up by a fishbot? Share your experiences in the comments.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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