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The Weird Week in Review

Purple Snow in Russia

On Tuesday, residents of the Stavropol Region in Southern Russia found their landscape covered with purple-tinged snow! Samples of the snow were taken that ranged from purple to dark brown. After analysis, experts concluded that the purple tinge was due to particles in the atmosphere that drifted up from Africa in a dust cyclone. This is not the first time the country has seen such an oddly-colored snow.

Black-market Enhancements Hospitalize Six Women

Six women in New Jersey were hospitalized for injuries they received during black market plastic surgery procedures to enhance their buttocks. The women wanted silicone injections, but the unlicensed practitioner did not use medical grade silicone. Instead, the women were injected with "a diluted version of nonmedical-grade silicone."

"The same stuff you use to put caulk around the bathtub," said Steven M. Marcus, executive and medical director of the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System, who learned about the bizarre procedures through a committee he sits on that monitors outbreaks in the metropolitan area.

The six victims underwent surgery and treatment with antibiotics, and are recovering. It is not yet known whether all six cases are related.

Cement Mixer Buries Cars

A cement truck parked near a construction site in Warsaw, Poland unexpectedly exploded, which sent cement flying through the neighborhood. One woman was seriously injured by the explosion. Dozens of cars were covered in cement so badly they are considered a total loss. To add insult to injury, neither the builder's insurance nor the auto owners' insurance want to cover such an unusual accident. No word yet on what caused the cement mixer to explode.

Nun Inherits Brothel

A woman identified only as Linda K died in Austria with an estate, but only one heir -a child she relinquished for adoption in Scotland 55 years ago. The daughter was traced to a convent near Glasgow, Scotland where she is now a nun. The unnamed nun was informed of her inheritance, which included a large sum of money and a working brothel! The surprised sister sold the business and donated the money, as well as her cash inheritance, to a charity in India.

Toilet Art Exhibit to Become Real Toilet

British artist Robert Olley painted Westoe Netty, a picture of six men and a boy at a row of urinals. The iconic painting became famous in the 1970s. The original toilet built in 1890 and depicted in the painting was salvaged by Olley's friends in 1996 to avoid demolition. It was recently set up at Beamish museum in County Durham, England as an exhibit. However, museum patrons took the fixture for more than an exhibit, and used it accordingly. The exhibit was taken down -temporarily. It will be re-installed at the museum in an area that can be plumbed, so it will be both a cultural exhibit and a working urinal.

A Taste of Their Own Medicine

A van belonging to LBS Enforcement, a private company that enforces parking regulations, was out and about ready to put a wheel clamp on cars in violation in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, England. However, the Southend Council found that the vehicle's owners had not shown proof of taxes paid, so government officials clamped and towed the van! An anonymous resident took pictures of the incident.

"I don't think they were amused as one of them stuck a finger up.

"I took the pictures because it was so hilarious and I think a lot of people will be very pleased to see them get clamped for a change."

An employee of LBS Enforcement blamed the matter on a clerical mixup. I'm sure they've heard that story before themselves.

German Police Summoned Over Forgotten Vibrator

Police in Bochum, Germany responded to a call from a woman who was concerned over suspicious noises in her apartment. They found the strange sound to be coming from a dresser drawer. With the resident's permission, an officer opened the drawer, lifted the clothing inside, and found a "very personal, battery-operated object" that had somehow turned on. The woman's face turned a different color and the police left shortly. No doubt they were in a hurry to go outside and laugh.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
Original image
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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