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The Weird Week in Review

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Flaming Pet Rat Starts Fire

David Stanifer and his friends had tied a ribbon and some bells to a pet rat named Amelia Earhart at his home in Titusville, Florida. He didn't have scissors, so he used a lighter to cut the ribbon and release the rat, who began running around the garage. The flaming ribbon began several small fires that grew out of control. Over a dozen firefighters responded to the blazing home, which suffered $30,000 in damage. The rat was unharmed.

Practical Joke Leaves Men with Face Tattoos

A village chief in Indonesia passed along a message to two men that government intelligence jobs were waiting for them,  but they would first have to get their faces tattooed with dragons. He later checked with a government representative and found the message to be a hoax, but only after 30-year-old Nanang and 40-year-old Bambang had their faces permanently inked. The two men have filed a police report. It was the third such prank pulled in Indonesia recently.

Blood Alcohol Test For A Horse

Police in LeleÅŸti, Romania responded to a call about a horse and wagon accident that resulted in the death of an 86-year-old villager. The wagon ran into him while he was sitting in front of his home. Witnesses reported the accident was due to the horse acting abnormally, so a veterinarian was called to draw blood from the animal for a blood alcohol test! The results have not been reported.

Graffiti Wall Vandalized

150graffitiwall.jpgGovernment councils in the area of Wadebridge, Cornwall, England built a 6-foot tall, 30-foot long concrete wall for young artists to practice their graffiti skills. The project was due to open on October 31st, but an unknown local jumped the gun by scrawling a protest across the wall. The graffiti reads. "I paid my tax + all I got was this lousy wall!!" The irony of the situation is that most of the wall's cost was subsidized by businesses and organizations, but the investigation and repair will be paid for with government funds.

Paraglider Teaches Eagle to Fly

French falconer Jacque Olivia Travail spent a year and a half training an American Bald Eagle to fly. The final exam came last week when the two soared over Europe's highest mountain, Mont Blanc together, Travail paragliding as Shercane the eagle flew on his own for 40 minutes. The 14-year-old eagle never strayed far from Travail.

The falconer said it was hard work for Shercane because the air is so thin up there, "but he enjoyed and we both had a great time together."

Man Eats 15-Pound Hamburger

150burger.jpgOn Monday, 21-year-old Brad Sciullo became the first person ever to finish off the Beer Barrel Belly Bruiser offered by Denny's Beer Barrel Pub in Clearfield, Pennsylvania. The burger's meat weighs 15 pounds, and the total with bun and fixings weighs over 20 pounds! By finishing the burger in the 5-hour time limit, Sciullo won $400 and a t-shirt.

Rabbit Invasion Shuts Down Mandela Museum

The prison offshore from Cape Town, South Africa where Nelson Mandela spent 27 years is now the Robben Island museum. The popular tourist attraction will be temporarily closed in November due to an invasion of rabbits!

"The current population is so large that it threatens to permanently damage the island's sensitive vegetation, and poses a serious threat to other fauna species," Seelan Naidoo, the museum's acting chief executive said in a statement.

A combination of culling and sterilization will be used to bring the rabbit population down to a manageable level.

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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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