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Mail Time! Reconnecting a Reader With Her Horse

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In last week's newsletter—yes, we have a newsletter; the sign-up box is on the right—I reprinted a few emails from a reader who, with the help of a story by our own Scott Allen, tracked down her childhood horse. It's a good story, so I'm re-reprinting those emails here on the blog.

We get lots of, shall we say, intriguing email. Last week a woman wrote to inform me that she had a large chicken-wire ram ("suitable for topiary planting or paper maiche") that she wanted to donate to a school with a ram for a mascot. Since we had recently posted a round-up of bizarre high school mascots on the blog, she figured we could help.

But every so often, we get a very touching email, and I'd like to share one with you today. Back in April, Scott Allen wrote a story about the surprisingly strict horse-naming process. People started weighing in with horse-naming stories of their own. Like Patricia:

A horse with no name is entered into the system as an 8*, so, my last horse became Eight Asterisk written out. I always found it clever. I loved Risky dearly.

A couple months later, Robyn found the post, saw Patricia's comment, and responded:

Patricia - I ended up with a horse who I later found out was named Eight Asterisk (aka Risky) and never knew much about his history. Can you tell me more about the horse you had? Bay gelding about 15.3 hands with a small star-stripe-snip by any chance??

A reply from Patricia:

I don't know if you'll see this, but that is either a very precise description of Risky or a bizarre coincidence. I'm in complete shock as I am fairly sure that we are dealing with the same horse through a very odd twist of fate. (We were separated in a bit of a hard way and I would do anything to know what came of him.) Please, e-mail me if you see this, Robyn!

After reading that comment, we put Patricia and Robyn in touch. Patricia just brought us up to speed:

About two weeks ago, you guys were instrumental in connecting me with Robyn. You will be happy to know that the horse we suspected we had both ridden as teenagers was indeed the same horse! As my father sold the horse during my parents' difficult divorce, I never had a chance to give him a good-bye and know where he went or to whom; however, your assistance in connecting us has allowed me to know my childhood horse's fate. I cannot express to you the comfort that this has given me, as Robyn took such wonderful care of Risky, even retiring him to a 40-acre hayfield in which to enjoy his golden years. Sadly, Risky passed away two years ago, but knowing that he was always loved, safe, and happy truly means the world to me.

Thanks so much for sharing your stories, Patricia & Robyn. Now if we can only find a home for that chicken-wire ram, our summer will be complete.

[Note: It turns out that schools with ram mascots are sorely lacking in chicken-wire rams suitable for topiary planting. Since this newsletter went out last week, we've received over 100 emails from people interested in the ram. I'm waiting to hear back from the woman who offered it to figure out the next step.]




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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]