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The New Issue is Out (and it's twice as shiny as before!)

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The new issue is finally (FINALLY!) on newsstands, and we're so excited to talk about it. This month, mental_floss is covering all sorts of things, including exciting new cures for blindness, Crohn's disease and MS; America's next top energy source (icy methane bricks mined from the bottom of the ocean); and why Kashmiri men carry pumpkins on their bellies. We've even got great stories on the incredibly bizarre life of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and a little peek at all the skeletons hiding inside IKEA's well organized closet. In fact, there's so much great content that we'll be previewing it here all week.

But today we're focusing on Ethan Trex's wonderful piece on Tools. Here are our 2 favorite stories from the piece:

The 9/11 Squeegee

imagesOn September 11, 2001, a window washer named Jan Demczur found himself in a perilous spot. He was riding an elevator in the World Trade Center's North Tower when a jet struck the building and the elevator stalled out at the 50th floor. Luckily, Demczur and his five fellow riders had the foresight to pry open the elevator doors. But when they finally got them open, they found something grim on the other side: a solid wall. Rather than give up, Demczur grabbed his brass squeegee and began hacking at the wall. He eventually broke through, and all six passengers escaped to safety. Demczur's tool, meanwhile, ended up in the Smithsonian.

The Swiss Army Scalpel

While most Swiss Army knives are relegated to a mundane existence of tightening screws and opening beer bottles, Dr. John Ross' pocket knife has some better stories to tell. In 1989, the Canadian surgeon had a spot of bad luck when he arrived in Uganda. Before he could start practicing medicine, thieves stole his surgical saw. Thankfully, he'd also packed a Swiss Army knife. Whenever Ross needed to perform an amputation, he sterilized his trusty tool in boiling water and then used the saw blade to take off the injured limb. Ross praises the knife's high-quality steel for working "faultlessly," and by his count, he used the tool to perform at least six Swiss Army amputations.

In any case, there's tons more great stuff in the issue. Make our editors happy and pick up an issue on the newsstands. Or better yet, pick up a t-shirt and a subscription for a very low price here.

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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]