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Fun With Live Microphones

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Much has been made in the press of President Obama's off-the-cuff, off-the-record remark about Kanye West and his upstaging of Taylor Swift at the Video Music Awards ceremony. Even though Obama simply voiced what most viewers were thinking, there was a lot of media criticism/analysis after the fact as to whether his remark should've been made public. Of course, he's not the first public figure to be foiled by a microphone. Here are four other examples...

1. Michael D. Duvall, 2009

Over in Sacramento, California, Michael D. Duvall, assemblyman for California's 72nd District, was apparently unaware that his microphone had already gone live in preparation for a televised committee hearing. Duvall, who had recently been placed on the Rules Committee that oversees member ethics, couldn't resist sharing some gossip with the colleague seated next to him. "She wears little eye-patch underwear," the married assemblyman confided, "And so, we had made love Wednesday--a lot!" The "she" in question was lobbyist Heidi DeJong Barsuglia, who was also married. Duvall went on to describe the more intimate details of his relationship with Ms. Barsuglia, unaware that his boasts were being broadcast. He resigned from the California State Assembly on September 9, 2009.

2. Jesse Jackson, 1984

jackson-presWhile he was on the campaign trail in 1984, presidential candidate Jesse Jackson sat down with Washington Post reporter Milton Coleman for an interview. During the course of their conversation, Jackson referred to Jews as "Hymies" and described New York City as "Hymietown." Jackson presumed that the reporter, who was also African-American, would not print these incendiary remarks—and Coleman himself didn't. But he shared his notes with another Post reporter who did. Louis Farrakhan used his Chicago-based radio show to call Coleman a traitor who'd violated black solidarity and went so far as to make death threats against the reporter and his family. Jackson eventually kinda, sort-of apologized for his remarks (though he kept mum about Farrakhan's comments), and Milton Coleman is now the Deputy Managing Editor of the Washington Post.

3. Newt Gingrich's Mom, 1995

In January 1995, veteran broadcaster Connie Chung interviewed Kathleen Gingrich, mother of Newt, who was then the Speaker of the House of Representatives. The interview was to be broadcast on the weekly magazine-style show Eye to Eye with Connie Chung, which was struggling in the ratings. She and her crew arrived at Mrs. Gingrich's home early in the day and Connie spent several hours just chatting with 68 year old Kathleen in a cozy, woman-to-woman manner. Once the cameras started rolling, Chung kept up the "best girlfriends" ploy and asked Mrs. Gingrich what her son thought of First Lady Hillary Clinton. When Newt's mom hesitated, Connie leaned forward and urged her to "whisper it, just between you and me." A more media-savvy interviewee would've spotted that trap a mile away, but Kathleen Gingrich was not a seasoned veteran when it came to the press. Besides, this nice lady wouldn't betray he, would she? So a guileless Gingrich scooted closer to Chung and uttered "She's a bitch" under her breath. This "scoop" did boost Chung's ratings for one week, but the backlash ultimately did more harm than good when it came to her career.

4. Nancy Kerrigan, 1994

time-nancykerriganFigure skater Nancy Kerrigan became America's Sweetheart after she was bashed in the knee backstage after an exhibition by a thug reportedly hired by her opponent, Tonya Harding. All eyes were on Kerrigan and Harding during the 1994 Winter Olympics, which had been hyped as "the ultimate showdown." In the end, Tonya broke a lace on her skate, which hampered her concentration, and even though Nancy looked like an angel in her white sequined costume, she was bested by 16-year-old Ukrainian Oksana Baiul. Nancy and her silver medal were whisked off to Florida so she could take part in a Disney World parade. Seated next to Mickey Mouse while smiling and waving to the throng of admirers, she muttered under her breath (apparently unaware that a microphone was picking up her comments): "This is so corny. This is so dumb. I hate it. This is the most corny thing I've ever done."


Of course her remarks were broadcast ad nauseum on TV news programs, so that the public could relish in the lack of gratitude the ice princess was showing toward her $2 million sponsor.
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We also could have included another Jesse Jackson moment from the 2008 campaign (his remark about castrating the Democratic nominee), or the time former President George W. Bush called a New York Times reporter a "Major league a**-hole." What other not-really-off-the-record moments do you remember?

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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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