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The Quick 8: Eight Out-of-Place Artifacts

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Imagine being on the archaeological dig of a lifetime, searching for dinosaur bones or ancient Egyptian treasures, when you finally find something embedded in centuries-old rock or sealed in a tomb that you know hasn't been opened in thousands of years. But it's not a bone or a gem "“ it's"¦ a Game Boy? How in the world did that get there? That exact situation hasn't happened yet, but some similar incidents definitely have. They're called "Out-of-Place Artifacts," or OOPArt: things that don't appear to make sense in the context that they were found. Sometimes a perfectly logical explanation is to be had, sometimes the whole thing is a hoax or a misunderstanding, and in some cases, we still don't understand what happened. Here are some examples of each.

maine penny1. The Maine Penny. So an archaeologist finds a silver coin while digging in Maine. No big deal, right? It is when the archaeological site was an old Native American settlement and the coin is found to be a piece of Norse currency dating from 1065-1080 AD. Although more than 30,000 pieces were recovered from the site, they were all Native American save for the coin. There's no evidence that the Vikings ever had a settlement there, however, and no evidence that they even came that far south in the interest of trade. The only Norse settlement ever found in North America is in Newfoundland. The strongest theory thus far suggests that Native Americans acquired it through their trades and travels. There's no doubt that the coin itself is authentic, but how it ended up at the site is still in question "“ was it planted or did it really end up in Maine by honest means?

2. Acambaro figures. In 1944, thousands and thousands of little figurines resembling dinosaurs were dug up in Acambaro, Guanajuato, Mexico. The problem? As far as we know, people and dinosaurs didn't exist at the same time, so the existence of ancient carvings depicting such creatures when the people carving them didn't have any knowledge of them "“ it doesn't make any sense. Some people insist that no one person or people could have possibly carved 32,000 pieces by themselves; the carvings must be evidence that people and dinosaurs did simultaneously exist. Others say that the fact that all 32,000 pieces are intact or cleanly broken (but still grouped within the collection) shows in and of itself that the collection is a hoax "“ in reality, nothing that old with that many pieces is ever found in its entirety. One dating technique found that the pieces did, in fact, date back to 2500 BCE. But when that technique was later improved and then repeated, the result was different and found that the pieces were much newer.

runestone3. The Kensington Runestone. If the Vikings didn't make it as far as Maine, they definitely didn't make it as far as Minnesota"¦ at least, we don't think they did. But the Kensington Runestone says otherwise. The stone was found tangled in the roots of a tree by a farmer and is covered in runes. Roughly translated, one side says "8 Geats and 22 Norwegians on ?? acquisition expedition from Vinland far west. We had traps by 2 shelters one day's travel to the north from this stone. We were fishing one day. After we came home, found 10 men red with blood and dead. AVM (Ave Maria) Deliver from evils." Another side says, "(I) have 10 men at the inland sea to look after our ship 14 days travel from this wealth/property. Year [of our Lord] 1362." Not only does the stone not make sense historically, some people have noted how sharp and well-preserved the carvings are and question if it should be that way after hundreds of years of exposure to the elements. However, what appear to be authentic glacier marks (which are thousands of years older than the carvings supposedly are) are also quite sharp and easy to see on one side of the stone, suggesting that however the stone was lying must have kept it relatively untouched.

4. The Gympie Pyramid. This one has pretty much been figured out over the years, but I'll give you the back story anyway. In 1975, a pyramid-shaped earthen terrace was discovered in Queensland. It was thought to prove that the ancient Egyptians had mining operations in Australia "“ not only did the pyramid "prove" this, but so did a stone block with inscriptions on it that was dug up in the same general area. Although most scoffed at such an idea, a small number in the archaeological community supported the theory that an ancient civilization of some sort "“ be it Egyptian, Chinese or South American "“ had inhabited the area. Much research was done and the reason for the pyramid shape was revealed: in the 1880s, a farmer constructed the terrace and retaining wall to try to slow erosion. Pretty simple explanation, huh?

5. The Saqqara Bird. Speaking of Egypt, it has its own weird artifact. The Saqqara Bird was found in a tomb in Saqqara and has been dated to 200 BC. A carving of a bird doesn't seem like a big deal, right? It wouldn't be, but some have theorized that the shape of the bird is much different than other carvings that exist from the same time period "“ namely, it looks more like a modern-day aircraft than a bird. This would indicate, of course, that the Egyptians had much more advanced technology than we have ever imagined. You might notice that the bird lacks a tailplane, which would really indicate that it was similar to our airplanes, but the thought there is that it originally had one and it has been lost over the years. Replicas of the Saqqara Bird with a tailplane have been made, but the reports as to how it functioned vary. Some people swear that it glided beautifully just like an airplane, and others say that even with the addition of the tailplane, the Bird didn't glide well at all and was clearly never meant to do as much.

MYSTERY stone6. The Mystery Stone. Construction workers were digging near Lake Winnipesaukee (anyone else immediately think of What About Bob?) in 1892 when they found a strangely-shaped lump of clay. When the clay was cleaned off, what was underneath was an egg-shaped rock covered with carvings "“ a rock not native to New Hampshire by any means. The carvings include an ear of corn, a face, arrows, dots and a spiral. There's a hole that goes right through the middle of the stone, which is what has helped us realize that the stone may not be what it was originally thought to be (a peace treaty between two Native American tribes). When an analysis of the bore hole was conducted, it was determined that it had been made with modern day equipment. To this day, that's really all of the information we have on the Mystery Stone. If you think you can figure out the enigma, though, the stone is on display at the Museum of New Hampshire History in Concord.

7. The Baigong Pipes. A group of American scientists were on the hunt for dino fossils in China when they stumbled upon this series of of mysterious, pipe-like structures. They're situated in front of a pyramid-like formation which contained the mouths of three caves, which is there the pipes seem to come from. Although two of the cave mouths have collapsed, the third (and largest) contains two huge pipes "“ we're talking up to 16 inches in diameter. So far these specific pipes have gone largely unexplained, leaving the door open for theories about aliens and advanced prehistoric technology and all of that fun stuff, but clues can be found in a couple of similar structures elsewhere in the world. In Louisiana, cylinders a lot like the Baigong Pipes were found in the Florida parishes "“ they were determined to have been formed naturally when ironstone formed around the tap roots of pine trees. The trees are long gone, of course, but the "pipes" were so enduring that they stayed put

head8. The Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca head. A broken piece of statue found in Mexico seems pretty plausible, until you look closer at the poor decapitated piece: it appears to be Roman. The hairstyle and the beard match up closely with the style of Roman statues during the second century A.D. or so. So how did it end up in grave goods (items buried with a body) from pre-Columbian times, when we thought that had only occurred once, and nowhere near Mexico (The one time was when the Vikings made it to Newfoundland)? That's a good question, and one that is still in the process of being answered. Of course a lot of scientists and archaeologists are quick to point the hoax finger, but others argue that a shipwreck washed ashore could have eventually brought such an artifact to Central Mexico.

Do you know of any more artifacts that seem to be out of place? Those suspicious runestones seem to be scattered across the country "“ there's one in Oklahoma and one in Tennessee as well.

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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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