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The Weird Week in Review

Easy Come, Easy Go

Kenneth Lamoree of Solvay, New York won $3,200 at a casino Monday night. Only about an hour after he arrived home on Tuesday morning, a fire broke out at his house. Lamoree, his fiancee, and their three children escaped along with the other family that lived in the duplex. The damage to the home was extensive, and the items that were destroyed included the wallet that contained Lamoree's winnings. The cause of the fire has not been determined.

Workmen Dig Up Wrong Trees

A real estate agent in Mackenzie, a suburb of Canberra, Australia saw workmen digging up trees and was told that they were under orders to dig up every tree on the property. The agent called Peter Collard, the homeowner, and found there were no such orders. The two workmen had dug up ten palm trees, grass. and topsoil before Collard arrived. When he confronted the men, they packed up and left without leaving their names. Collard suspects they were at the wrong address. The homeowner was left with $18,000 in damage to the property he is trying to sell.

Spider-Man Arrests Shoplifter

Don't even think about shoplifting in a comic book store when Spider-Man, The Flash, and some Jedi Knights are present. The super heroes, dressed for International Free Comics Day, detained a man who tried to make off with $160 book at Comic Centre in Adelaide, Australia. Store owner Michael Baulderstone, who was attired as Spider-Man, saw the perpetrator hide X-Men Omnibus and gave chase. Security cameras caught the super hero chasing and apprehending the suspect.

"Everyone in the store thought it was a play, that it was street theatre of some sort. It wasn't until I said `Call the police' that people started to realise."

"One of the funniest things about the incident was that I called for people to stand near the door and it just so happened we had people dressed as Jedi knights there blocking the exit, the Flash was there at some point too," Mr Baulderstone said.

Wounded Man Goes to Baskin-Robbins

Fort Walton Beach, Florida firefighters were working at a fundraiser at a Baskin-Robbins outlet when a car pulled up with a wounded passenger. The unnamed man had a knife stuck all the way up to the handle in his leg! He said he was using the knife and then fell on it. His fiancee was  outside when the accident occurred, and she drove him to the ice cream shop. Firefighters bandaged the wound and called Emergency Medical Services.

Russian Regional President Abducted by Aliens

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the leader of the region of Kalmykia, a part of the Russian Federation, claims he was abducted by aliens. Ilyumzhinov revealed in a TV interview that he was taken aboard a spaceship. Minister of Parliament Andre Lebedev has asked Russian president Dmitry Medvedev to investigate Ilyumzhinov's story, not because the MP is concerned about Ilyumzhinov's fitness for office, but because he is concerned that protocols should be in place for such meetings, lest some government figure should reveal state secrets to the aliens.

A Whale that Paints

Xiao Qiang is a Beluga whale living at Qingdao Polar Ocean World in China. He has learned to paint pictures, and his paintings sell for hundreds of pounds!

"He showed a lot of interest in painting right from the start so now all we have to do is give him the brushes and hold the paper while he paints with his mouth," said trainer Zhang Yong.

"His favourite colour seems to be blue and he's best of all at seascapes. His people always look like seals."

See a video of the Xiao Qiang in action.

Driver's License Granted on 960th Attempt

Cha Sa-soon of Jeonju, South korea finally has her driver's license, after trying to pass the written test almost daily since 2005. The 69-year-old woman finally passed the written part of the test last year, and took the driving test ten times before passing last month. All told, she was at the license bureau for testing 960 times attempting to obtain driving privileges. Cha now hopes to get a small car in order to visit relatives and to help in her vegetable business.

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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