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Nazi Cows Loose in the English Countryside?

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The Nazis had a number of nefarious plots for world domination and genocide, from occultism to the infamous Sun Cannon (a giant reflector that was designed to melt enemies in midair using the power of the sun) to animal husbandry.

That's right. Animal husbandry. And now, 70 years after the fall of the Nazi regime, there are Aryan cows roaming the bucolic English countryside.

It was the dream of two German zoologists, brothers who wanted to bring back to life the mythic wild auroch, a great beast of Teutonic folklore that was hunted to extinction in 1627. The plan, with its roots in the glorious Aryan past invented by the Nazis, won support from Adolph Hitler himself, who saw the resurrected auroch as the first step towards cleansing the German countryside of "racially degenerate" wildlife.

The two brothers, Heinz and Lutz Heck, crossbred several species of big cattle believed to be descendants of the bovines Julius Caesar described as larger than an elephant; the resultant Heck cows, shorter than the aurochs were believed to be, but sharing the same muscular stature and brown shag, were displayed in German zoos, installed in game parks outside Berlin, and even brought to the shooting estate of Hermann Goering, Hitler's second in command and head of the Luftwaffe.

But the fall of the Nazis was not good to the Aryan Heck cows "“ the cattle, an unpleasant reminder of the Fuhrer's "master race" ambitions, were all slaughtered after the war.

Almost all. Saved from (re)extinction by a Belgium conservation park, the breed now has a new lease on life, 70 years later, here in England. In July of last year, a herd of nine Heck cows and four bulls moved into their new digs at the Upcott Grange Farm on the Devon-Cornwall border, a farm that works to conserve rare and endangered species of animals. Said Derek Gow, owner of the farm and the Heck cows, explained, "The Nazis wanted to recreate the aurochs to evoke the power of the folklores and legends of the Germanic peoples. Between the two wars there was thinking that you could selectively breed animals "“ and indeed people "“ for Aryan characteristics that were rooted in runes and folklore."

Gow says there's nothing wrong with owning Aryan cows and that their Nazi past isn't their fault: "I don't think there is anything more sinister in owning Heck cattle than there is driving a Volkswagen," he told the Independent, adding too that because of the cows' hardiness, they could some day roam England free.

Not quite the Nazi invasion of England that Hitler was perhaps imagining.

Moreover, despite the shaggy evidence of the existing herd, the Aryan cow plan was in actual fact unsuccessful: While the engineered cows resemble the auroch in shape, genetic testing has shown that the Heck cows are pretty far removed from their supposed ancestors. Just another kooky, half-baked and horrifying plan of the Nazis.


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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]