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The Weird Week in Review

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Inflatable Breasts Recovered

Last week we learned that a shipment of 130,000 inflatable breasts were lost during shipping between Beijing and Sydney. The shipment has been recovered in Melbourne, where they had been offloaded by mistake. The men's magazine Ralph is scrambling to get them packed inside the January issue, as was the original plan. Editor Santi Pintado said the breasts were found just in time; one more day and they would have missed the scheduled issue.

Chipmunk Disables Car with Nuts

When Hope Wideup of DeMotte, Indiana noticed her windshield wipers and turn signals on her car wouldn't work, she found a glove under the hood that a chipmunk had stolen earlier. She drove another car for a couple of weeks, and then tried it again. When the car made a loud revving noise, she looked under the hood again. Underneath were thousands of black walnuts! The chipmunk had apparently stuffed nuts in the accelerator throttle. After $242 in repairs, Wideup says she will alternate her cars so neither will sit unused for long.

Actor Slits Throat on Stage with Switched Prop

Daniel Hoevels' final scene in the play Mary Stuart called for a suicide. But Saturday night,  the blunt prop knife had been switched with a real knife, so the blood spurting from his throat was also real. The audience applauded the "special effects", unaware the actor was injured until he failed to rise and take a bow. Hoevels survived because the knife missed the carotid artery -barely. After hospital treatment, he returned to the stage wearing a bandage for the Sunday night performance. Police are investigating the incident.

Cat's Face Reattached After Accident

150edgar.jpgEdgar, a female cat in Winthrop, Massachusetts came home after a three day adventure with half her face hanging from her skull. Her unnamed owner fainted when she saw the damage. When the woman recovered, she took Edgar to Angell Animal Medical Center. Surgeons reattached the skin on Tuesday with 35 stitches. Edgar is recovering well, and seems to have suffered no nerve or eye damage. Doctors believe she may have gotten under a car hood to say warm and was injured by a moving fan belt, an occurrence that usually kills a cat instantly.

Christmas Parade Duty Saves Suicidal Man

In a scene reminiscent of the movie It's a Wonderful Life, an unlikely event saved a suicidal man from drowning. Deputies from the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office river patrol were on duty for the 54th annual Christmas Ship Parade on the Columbia and Willamette rivers. They spotted a car with the engine running on a bridge and feared the worst. A search by various agencies who responded led them to the unnamed man who had apparently jumped into the water and was clinging to a log. Deputy Ken Yohe was one of the first responders.

"Any other night, we wouldn't have had a boat out," Yohe said. "We would have been responding from home."

"He could barely move," said Yohe. Officials estimate the man had been in the water about 40 minutes, and he was suffering from hypothermia. He was taken to Legacy Emanuel Hospital, where he was in intensive care.

"This is amazing," Yohe said. " It was amazing that he was even alive."

Obama to Appear in Nativity Scenes

150obamanativity.jpgEvery year for centuries, craftsmen in Naples, Italy sell handmade figurines for Italian nativity scenes. These scenes often have dozen of figures, including celebrities and newsmakers. The top selling figure this year is the US president-elect.
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"The ones we are selling the most of are those of Barack Obama, America's new president, along with his wife Michelle," said craftsman Genny Di Virgilio.

Tradition requires that the nativity scene be built up over time until Christmas Eve, when baby Jesus is put in the manger as the very last element of the display.

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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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