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The Weird Week in Review

The Town that Loves Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin has a fan club in Adipur, Gujarat, India called the Charlie Circle. A couple hundred local people are members, and have a celebration every year on April 16th, Chaplin's birthday. For this year's party, more than 100 people attended dressed as Chaplin's character the Little Tramp. The man behind the town's fascination with the actor is film buff Ashok Aswani, who became a Chaplin fan in 1966 when he watch The Gold Rush four times in one day. He started the Charlie Circle in 1973. The annual celebration includes a street party and procession and the showing of a Chaplin film.

Bear's Head Stuck in Can

It was a scene reminiscent of Winnie the Pooh and the honey pot. A young bear was spotted in Reading, Vermont wandering about, bumping into things, with his head stuck in an old-fashioned milk can. State biologist Forrest Hammond freed the bear with help from police and firefighters.

Hammond had to tranquilize the bear and first tried to soap up his head and pull the milk jug off, but that didn't work and he eventually had to use metal shears to get it loose. "He just did an excellent job of getting out there," Hall said. "It's important, too, that nobody got hurt," he said, adding that the bear was released into the wild.

Officials think the can had been used as a bird feeder because there was birdseed in the bottom, which may have attracted the young bear.

Fugitive Hides in Manure Pool

The Noble County Special Operations Group, the local SWAT team in Noble County, Indiana came to the farm where 52-year old Thomas Hovis Jr. was living to serve warrants from Steuben County. Hovis fled to the barn, where he pulled up the grate covering a manure pit and jumped in. Officers did not find him for about an hour, when they saw his head sticking out of the frigid feces. Deputies from the two counties immediately began discussing who would have the dubious honor of transporting Hovis in their vehicle. As Hovis showed signs of hypothermia, he was instead taken to a local hospital by ambulance.

Shark Bits Surfboard; Surfer Rides Shark

Jim Rawlinson was riding the waves at Hanalei Bay, Kauai, Hawaii on Monday when a tiger shark attacked his surfboard. The 68-year-old surfer slid backwards and found himself riding on the back of the shark! He estimates that he was on the shark for ten to 15 seconds, then took the surf leash off his leg and slid off the rear of the fish. From the bite marks left on the surfboard, Rawlinson and marine biologist Terry Lilley, who was shooting video underwater nearby, estimate the shark was around 14 feet long.

Burglars Break Into Prison

A minimum security prison in Hoorn, the Netherlands was the site of a break-in, not once but twice in the last six weeks. The facility is for inmates about to finish their sentences, and many have weekend passes. While the inmates were gone, thieves came in and stole their TV sets. Authorities have not yet determined how the thieves got inside the prison, and there have been no arrests.

New Mexico Cat Gets Ride Home from Chicago

Robin Alex, of Albuquerque, New Mexico went to New Orleans to built a Habitat for Humanity house. When she returned, her cat Charles was gone. That was eight months ago.

Then earlier this week, Alex received a call telling her Chicago Animal Care and Control had picked up her wandering cat as a stray. Staffers reached out to Alex after finding that Charles had a tracking microchip embedded between his shoulder blades, said the agency's executive director, Cherie Travis.

But Alex said she could not afford the round-trip ticket to Chicago to bring Charles home, so she was afraid he might be euthanized.

Enter fellow Albuquerque resident Lucien Sims. Sims said he has a tabby cat who strongly resembles Charles, and was moved when his mother sent him an online story about Alex and her pet.

Sims volunteered to pick Charles up and bring him back to New Mexico, as he was traveling to a wedding in Chicago. American Airlines did not charge a travel fee for the cat, and another company donated a pet carrier. Alex is happy to have her cat back. Still, no one knows how Charles came to be 1300 miles away in Chicago.

Stranded Couple Take Vows Via Skype

Sean Murtagh of London, England was scheduled to marry Natalie Mead of Brisbane, Australia surrounded by family and friends in England. They had a civil ceremony in Australia already, and were on the way to the big British ceremony when they were stranded at an airport in Dubai due to the volcanic ash cloud that canceled many European flights. Instead of canceling the wedding, they were married via Skype! Assembled wedding attendees in Ealing, west London, watched the couple take their vows aided by a laptop and a webcam at the airport. The airport donated flowers and a wedding cake for the celebration.

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
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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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