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10 Things That Have Deflated the Macy's Parade

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The Macy's Parade has been a Thanksgiving tradition since the 1920s. Through the years, however, there have been a number of mishaps with the giant helium balloons "“ some comical and some tragic. Here are ten such incidents.

1. Kathleen Caronna might want to think about buying a lucky horseshoe or something. First, in 1997, she was the victim of the infamous Cat in the Hat incident. When the Cat balloon got swept astray of the parade route by high winds, it ran into a lamp post and knocked it down "“ right in to Ms. Caronna, who was in a coma for a month afterward. She sued the city, Macy's, and the lamp post manufacturer for $395 million and settled for an undisclosed amount. But that's not all. In 2006, a plane carrying Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight instructor crashed into the Belaire Apartments building. Caronna's apartment was one of the ones hit, although she wasn't home at the time. Still: weird.

2. In 1986, there were two incidents: a 61-year-old bagpiper had a fatal heart attack while marching in the parade, and a spectator fell out the fourth story window he was watching from and landed on someone below.

3. In 1942, the parade was cancelled and the balloons were reduced to rubber for the war efforts. The Red Cross War Fund of Greater New York received a check for $12 for the 650 pounds of rubber.


4. In 1957, a downpour caused the hat on the Popeye balloon to fill up with rain.

The added weight made the balloon veer off course, and eventually the cap could hold no more water and dumped gallons and gallons on surprised spectators. I think it's rather fitting for a man of the sea, myself.

5. In 1963, the parade was nearly cancelled because of JFK's extremely recent death. It ended up carrying on, but all of the flags in the parade were adorned with seven-foot black streamers. Lyndon B. Johnson actually encouraged the company to go ahead with the show in an effort to try to help Americans through their grief.

mcd6. In 1993, the Sonic the Hedgehog balloon hit a lamppost (dang lampposts) and basically exploded. Part of the lamppost fixture fell and broke the shoulder of an off-duty policeman standing below. Picture from Wikipedia user Sullynyflhi.


7. In 2006, two sisters were attacked by M&Ms. The ropes of the 515-pound balloon promoting the tasty chocolate morsels got caught up on "“ yes "“ a lamppost. Neither of the girls were hurt too badly "“ just some minor scrapes and bruises. In exchange for their ordeal, they received V.I.P. seats in the grandstand and a lifetime supply of M&Ms (that's 384 packets every year, in case you're curious).


8. In 1936, the Father Diedrich Knickerbocker balloon deflated when his nose sprung a leak.


9. In 1956, the parade was a total bust. Every single balloon (there were only three that year due to a helium shortage) got flattened by high winds.

10. Finally, 1995 was not the best year the parade ever had. A woman who was seven months pregnant was injured when a float knocked a traffic light into her. (Luckily, her injuries were minor.) Another lady fell through a subway grate. And a group of anti-fur protesters stripped down to nothing but Santa hats and tried to join the parade. They were arrested for public lewdness and indecent exposure.

There are a lot more interesting facts where that came from "“ watch for a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade quiz later this week! Maybe you can enjoy it over your seventh slice of pumpkin pie.

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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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