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The Weird Week in Review

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A Masters Degree in The Beatles

Liverpool Hope University is now offering a Master of Arts degree in The Beatles. The course is called "The Beatles, Popular Music and Society" and consists of four 12-week classes plus a dissertation. Believed to be the first course of its kind, the announcement has drawn worldwide attention. Liverpool is the city where all the Beatles were born and raised.

Woman Swallow Engagement Ring

Reed Harris of Farmington, New Mexico, planned a surprise for his girlfriend. He took her and some of her friends to Wendys and slipped an engagement ring into Kaitlin Whipple's milk shake. Reed's mistake was challenging Whipple and her friends to a chugging contest. Whipple won the competition, but the ring was no longer in the Frosty. An x-ray at a local emergency room confirmed that she had swallowed it. Whipple retrieved the ring without medical intervention a few days later.

Baby Otter Follows Harmonica Player

A student in Windygates, Fife, Scotland was playing a harmonica as he walked down the road in January. An abandoned otter cub who had been frantically searching for its mother responded to the sound of the instrument as if it heard its mother calling. The 6-week-old cub was taken to the Scottish SPCA's Wildlife Rescue Centre, where the staff named him Clyde. The otter will be raised for a year with a minimum of human contact, then released into the wild.

Dump Truck in Awkward Position

150dumptruck.jpgTruck driver Freddie Mitchell delivered a load of dirt at an interstate construction site and left with an empty dump truck near Talcottville, Connecticut. He entered the highway without realizing his dump body was still in the upright position. The truck soon struck an overhead sign. The sign didn't budge, the dump body was caught, and the truck cab lifted 20 feet into the air! Firefighters and heavy equipment operators had to stabilize the truck before they could rescue Mitchell using a ladder truck. Mitchell was not injured, but was taken to a hospital as a precautionary measure.

Good Luck Card Was Bad Luck

An unnamed Mexican chef was detained at the Manchester Airport when he was suspected to be an illegal immigrant to the UK. He claimed to be on a short visit, but a search of his luggage yielded a greeting card that wished him good luck with his "new life in the UK".

The man, arriving at Manchester Airport from Los Angeles, claimed he was on a brief visit to a friend who was opening a restaurant in England's North West.

But he admitted planning to work illegally after border officers found the card and pages of Mexican recipes.

Kitten Found Stuffed Inside Marijuana Bong

150bong.pngLancaster County sheriff's deputies had a warrant for the arrest of 20-year-old Acea Schomaker of Lincoln, Nebraska. When they found him, he was smoking marijuana through a plexiglass bong the size of a shoebox. Inside the bong was a six-month-old kitten! Schomaker explained the cat was high strung and was put in the homemade pipe to calm him down, and that it wasn't the first time. The kitten, named Shadow, was lodged at a Humane Society shelter for observation. Schomaker now faces animal cruelty charges in addition to marijuana possession.

Trapped In A Bucket For 3 Days

Mary Davis of Pemberton Township, New Jersey is recovering from an incident which left her immobilized for three days. The 76-year-old tripped and fell in her garage on Sunday, landing with her backside in a large bucket. The bucket remained upright, and Davis could not move her arms or legs. A neighbor alerted police Tuesday after seeing no sign of Davis for a couple of days. They found her still stuck in the bucket. Davis was taken to a hospital, where she is listed in good condition.

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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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