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The Kingdom of Boomeria

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The Kingdom of Boomeria is a magical place of just one hectare hidden in the forest in Bonny Doon, California. Students who graduate from San Lorenzo Valley High School go out into the world and tell tales of their adventures in the Kingdom of Boomeria and find that no one believes them. After all, how many people can claim their science education included fighting medieval battles, building a pipe organ, and digging an underground labyrinth?

Preston Q. Boomer has been teaching physics and chemistry at San Lorenzo Valley High near Santa Cruz for over 50 years. He has a passion for science and believes that hands-on experience helps students understand scientific concepts. He also believes science (and life in general) should be fun. His nickname is "The Boom", which they say is not because of explosions in chemistry class, although there are stories of experiments that went awry, like the time he drew the cops to the school after a Tesla coil cut off police communications. Boomer taught the grandparents of his current students, but has no plans to retire. He is the crazy mad scientist that we all wish we had for a teacher.

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According to The Boom, the idea of Boomeria was born the night he used water guns to defend his home from students who planned to egg his house. He began construction on the kingdom in the mid 1950s on his 2.5 acre yard nestled in the woods. There were no neighbors at the time. Boomer's two sons, Lawrence and Alex as well as many students over the years helped construct a wooden castle with a dungeon, battle turrets complete with water cannons, a pneumatic system to power the kingdom's pipe organ, and an underground labyrinth that connects the different parts of Boomeria. The property also holds a swimming pool (which The Boom calls the "Main Aqueous Ammunition Bunker") and a chapel built around the organ.

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The tunnels beneath Boomeria were dug by students over a three-year period in the 1960s. Now they are known as the Great Tunnel, the Catacombs, and the Dungeon. While digging the tunnels, students found bones of an animal that resembles a dinosaur but still hasn't been identified. The reconstructed skeleton now hangs in the command center. Next to the castle stands a full-size working guillotine, which is used only for watermelons. No one is allowed on the guillotine platform except The Boom himself. The entire property is wired with horns, sirens, bells, and other means of warning and communication. The loudest is the Weapon Beulah, a Navy foghorn that can be heard miles away. When approaching the castle, you'll be greeted by The Boom shouting "Who goes there?" to which he expects a creative and intelligent reply.

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The students periodically try to conquer the kingdom using the water cannons. These battles rage fiercely, but as the kingdom's motto states, "The King Always Wins".

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The water to the cannons is controlled from the Main Engine Room. The Control Room holds the telegraph system used for communication and steam engines that power other parts of Boomeria. There is also a laboratory full of ancient chemicals and more recent experiments.

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The Brotherhood of Natural Philosophers is the science club The Boom's students founded in the 1960s. New recruits are taken to a party in Boomeria where they are expected to give a short science presentation, then are taken on a tour of the kingdom before being formally installed. Participation is not mandatory, as that would hint at hazing, but no one wants to miss it! There are activities all year long for club members, both inside the kingdom and elsewhere.

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Preston Boomer's great-grandmother gave an 1879 pipe organ to the Trinity Paris Church in San Jose many years ago. In 1953 the church replaced that organ, and The Boom took what was left of the old organ (the console and two sets of pipes) and made it a part of Boomeria. Over the years, Boomer and his students, under the supervision of organ builders Bill Reid, John West, and Bill Visscher, repaired and expanded the original organ. Now it has 2,500 pipes! You can hear a bit of organ music at The Boom's site. Image by Flickr user graymalkn.

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There are several ways you can experience Boomeria for yourself. The best way is to be a student at San Lorenzo Valley High School. If that's not possible, you can attend the annual Boomeria Extravaganza, scheduled this year for July 10th. The event is a fundraiser for the Santa Cruz Baroque Festival and will cost you $50 per ticket, but that will entitle you to an afternoon of organ music, refreshments, and a tour of the inside of the organ, as well as a look at the rest of Boomeria. The public is invited to a Christmas carol singing each year -the event for 2010 is scheduled for December 18th. If you are between 7 and 13 years old, you can attend the Celtic Music Camp held each summer at Boomeria. Otherwise, you can contact The Boom ahead of time and ask nicely. After all, it's his kingdom.

A large tree fell during a storm and damaged part of the castle last fall, but students and family helped remove the debris and insurance will cover repairs. The Boom said he would use the experience in his classroom lessons. It's just another example of how this teacher uses every opportunity to teach the principles of physics.

This post was inspired by an item at the Presurfer.

Read about other personal constructions at mental_floss: The Coral Castle, Salvation Mountain, The Watts Towers, and 7 Lifelong Personal Projects.

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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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