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Apollo Robbins Will Steal Your Wallet: A Conversation with the World's Best Pickpocket

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Apollo Robbins is good at stealing stuff. For years, this renown pickpocket entertained Vegas audiences by stealing their hearts-- generally by stealing their wristwatches and money clips. But everything changed for Apollo after he picked the pocket of one of Jimmy Carter's secret service agents during one of his shows. I sat with Robbins to talk about the art of pickpocketing, life after Vegas, and why he lets gypsies steal stuff from him.


How'd you get into pickpocketing business?
My half brothers were involved with crime. But I was too young to participate. I also had certain disabilities that prevented me [from joining in]: like braces on my legs. When I became a teen, I ran into a friend at a magic shop who took me under his wing. I started reading up on magical theory and immediately blended that with what my brothers had shown me.


Your style of pickpocketing is based in magic?
I applied my magic in ways that were invasive, where it happened on people. There are two kinds of magic. If you think of it like martial arts, there's sparring where you are doing it with a partner and the other is kata where you're doing an exposition for the audience. Many times, illusions or magic sets are designed as an exposition for the audience to watch, but the the style I do with the pickpocketing is directly interactive. So I used that idea to build my pickpocket act in Vegas.

You mentioned a story about Jimmy Carter's secret service man. How did stealing from an president's bodyguard turn into your big break?
My show was part-variety, part-magic, so I brought people on stage. Then I'd steal all their stuff and give it back to them. But 7 or 8 years ago, I pick-pocketed one of Jimmy Carter's secret service agents. After that, I got approached [to consult] police departments and security individuals. I got to visit prisons and I started learning the thinking and skill set of real thieves.
So, there's a difference in how thieves and magicians pick pockets?

The thinking is the same. But you're in a different context and coming from a different place. For a street thief, the priority--more than dexterity or nimble fingers-- is being able to monitor where someone's attention is. It's fascinating. They don't so much manipulate attention [like a magician does], because they don't want to be memorable. But they do want to know where someone's attention is. If a person is focused elsewhere, a thief can put his whole hand in [a pocket] and steal.

And what about a magician?
You have to monitor the responses you're getting from the person you're working with and adjust your performance. In the same way that a film director would use a film lens to blur out a certain item or use a spotlight, I use certain movements that draw the eye instinctually.

So, what are some of the tricks a successful pockpocket will use?
If you keep eye contact as you approach someone and go to their side, the person will stay very focused on on your face and upper body because it's alarming to them that you're keeping eye contact. But if you break eye contact as you approach from the front and then you step to their side, you can use this. If you don't want them to focus on something you're doing with your hands, just by tilting your head into their personal space, it'll draw their attention, and they'll want to look at you. I use that when I'm stealing.

That's crazy! Is it safe to meet you in person?
Generally, yes. [Laughing] It depends on whether I'm on or off the clock!

Any other tricks of the trade you don't mind sharing?
My business is basically a business of false assumptions -- I create assumptions that look like reality and take advantage of those. I'll tell someone I'm going to try and steal from them and then challenge them to catch me. Then I'll use hand movements to create false assumptions. I'll put my hand in their pocket, and when it comes out, they're expecting that I would have stolen something. Then I create a ruse, by moving my hand in a half-circle. Their eyes will instinctively chase the movement, almost like a cat chases a string-- it's fascinating.

So, the ruse is in the half-circle?
Exactly. If you keep your hand movement in a straight line, the person won't follow it. They'll snap to the end location and they'll snap back to the pocket, and they'll catch your other hand if it's doing something. But that's not the only trick. If I'm going to steal from someone, I'll lock onto what I'm about to steal, but I wait. I'll use statements and situations that create an inner dialogue so they'll second guess themselves. They may say "I think he's up to this." And you can detect that. You develop a sense to detect that.

And when they're caught in this inner dialogue, then what?
When they have that inner dialogue, it suppresses their outside senses, so they can't feel when you're pulling something and they can't see it, even their glasses are getting pulled right off their face. There's a pickpocket who specializes in this named Bora. He removes glasses without people ever noticing, even though their field of vision has changed.

That sounds incredible. So, is pickpocketing still an art that people are practicing on the streets?
Definitely. That's what been interesting to me. You have organized teams that have become very prevalent in the US, especially around large sporting events -- The Super-Bowl, Kentucky Derby, etc. I set myself up to be pickpocketed in Spain. I just wanted to feel the sensation.

How did it feel?
Fascinating. Two Gypsy ladies outside of Alhambra locked up a frame on me. One lady was reaching inside a bag to pull out some fern leaves and the other was locking up my elbow and trying to steal from behind. I saw them doing it to other people, so I positioned myself so I'd be in the queue for it.

So, what's next for you?
I'm working with a show called Leverage on TNT as an advisor, teaching them how to do these types of techniques on television. I also work with the actors and the writers. And I'll be on an episode this fall. Until then, you can catch me at istealstuff.com.

Got any leads for who we should interview next? Email the person's name and the questions you're curious about to chetan@mentalfloss.com. If we end up using your lead, we'll be sure to include your name!

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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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