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8 Ways to Cross the English Channel (without a boat)

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The English Channel (La Manche) is the part of the Atlantic Ocean that separates Britain from France. The actual channel is the length of the entire southern coast of England, and contains many inhabited islands. When people attempt new ways of crossing the channel, they do it at the Strait of Dover, which is the narrowest point of the channel at only 34 kilometers (21 miles) between Dover and Calais. The cachet of crossing the channel is way out of proportion to its distance. There is something symbolic about making the trip, particularly if you do it in a new way.

1. Balloon

The first channel crossing by air was in the 18th century. French balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American doctor John Jeffries took off from Dover Castle in a hydrogen balloon on January 7th, 1785. The two had to pitch almost everything they took overboard in order to stay afloat, but landed unharmed at Guînes, France about two and a half hours later.

2. Swim

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The first man to swim the channel was Captain Matthew Webb in 1875. It took 21 hours and 45 minutes. Webb trained for two years and made an unsuccessful attempt a couple of weeks before his historic crossing. The course he took was 39 miles, due to strong currents. He became a celebrity and a professional swimmer afterward. Webb died while attempting to swim the Whirlpool Rapids under Niagara Falls in 1883.

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The first woman to swim the channel not only broke ground for her sex, but beat the time of the five men who preceded her by at least two hours! American swimmer Gertrude Ederle had already won a gold medal and two bronze medals at the 1924 Olympics. On August 6th, 1926 she swam from Cap Gris-Nez, France to Kingsdown, England in 14 hours and 30 minutes. That speed record stood until 1950.

3. Airplane

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The first flight over the channel in an airplane came in 1909 when French inventor Louis Blériot piloted a monoplane he designed from Calais to Dover in 37 minutes. He was one of three competitors who answered a challenge from the Daily Mail, which had offered a thousand pounds ($5,000) to the first man to fly the channel.

4. Pedal

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The first human-powered flight across the channel occurred in 1979 when the Gossamer Albatross piloted by cyclist Bryan Allen flew over the channel in 2 hours and 39 minutes. It was powered by pedals that turned propellers. The Gossamer Albatross was designed by Paul B. MacCready and his team. MacCready won his second Kremer Prize (worth £100,000) with the channel crossing.

5. Train

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Since May 6, 1994 it is possible to cross the channel by train. It was on that day the Channel Tunnel (Le tunnel sous la Manche) or "Chunnel" officially opened. A Eurostar train left Folkestone carrying Queen Elizabeth II, and another left Coquelles carrying French president Francois Mitterand. In addition to passengers, trains carry trucks and other vehicles underneath the Strait of Dover.

6. Skydive

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In 2003, Australian Felix Baumgartner became the first person to skydive across the channel. He jumped out of a plane over Dover and landed in Cap Blanc-Nez, France 14 minutes later. Baumgartner wore an aerodynamic suit with a 6-foot carbon fin attached to guide his flight.

7. Jet Pack

Swiss pilot Yves Rossy flew the channel last week using a jet pack. He launched from a plane high over Calais and flew to Dover in just ten minutes. Rossy, known as the Rocket Man, uses a jet wing powered by four kerosene-burning engines.

8. Human-powered Zeppelin

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The quest for new ways to cross the English Channel never ends. 39-year-old Stephane Rousson made an attempt this past weekend to cross the channel in a pedal-powered zeppelin. The French amateur pilot was 11 miles from his goal in Wissant, France when the wind direction changed and he had to abort the flight. Rousson was inspired by a scene in the movie E.T.

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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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