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Make-A-Wish: Turning Kids Into Superheroes, Ice Cream Men & More

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The Make-A-Wish Foundation has granted nearly 200,000 wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions. From the first wish—making a 7-year-old boy with leukemia a police officer for a day—through countless family vacations and celebrity meetups, the foundation has provided all sorts of joy for seriously ill children and their families. Here is just a handful of wishes the foundation has fulfilled in recent years.

1. Superhero for a Day

This April, the Make-A-Wish Foundation granted an unusual wish to 13-year-old Erik Martin: it turned him into a superhero for a day. The Seattle boy transformed into his super secret identity, Electron Boy, to help Spider-Man with a dangerous mission. Nefarious supervillains Dr. Dark and Blackout Boy had imprisoned Major League Soccer's Seattle Sounders at Qwest Field, and only Electron Boy could use his powers to save them. After pulling on his red-and-blue costume, Electron Boy rushed to the stadium in a DeLorean driven by his trusty sidekick, Moonshine Maid, and rescued the team while his family and friends looked on and cheered.

After Electron Boy saved the team, the soccer players congratulated him and gave him his own jersey. As a sign of Seattle's gratitude, the city council gave him a key to the city while declaring it Electron Boy Day. Electron Boy, for his part, smiled for the TV cameras and flexed his muscles. The Electron Boy comic book was created by Ken Christiansen.

Such an elaborate wish certainly wasn't easy to pull off, but it really cheered up Erik Martin. His older sister told the Seattle Times, "He's over the moon. This is definitely beyond anything we thought it would be."

2. A Management Job in the Ice Cream Business

What kid hasn't considered the endless possibilities of becoming an ice cream man? You would have access to an unlimited supply of frozen treats! Five-year-old Robin had a much more sophisticated view of things, though. He didn't just want to be an ice cream man. When the Make-A-Wish Foundation asked Robin to make a wish, he asked, "Can you make me the boss of the ice cream man?"

Pretty sharp little guy. Robin figured that if the ice cream man worked for him, he could send down orders to give everyone free ice cream, even the kids in his neighborhood who sometimes couldn't afford a treat.
The Make-A-Wish folks made it happen. Robin got his own cap that said "Ice Cream Man," and he rode around the neighborhood with his normal ice cream man, taking orders from his chums and making sure that all of the frozen snacks were on the house.

3. Quality Time with Elmo

Like a lot of three-year-olds, Amanda is obsessed with Elmo. Sadly, though, Amanda is sick with a form of cancer that affects her liver. According to her parents, she spent all of her time in the hospital watching Elmo, playing with Elmo, or talking about Elmo, so when it came time to grant the Michigan girl a wish, the choice was easy: she had to meet Elmo.

Kevin Clash, the "muppeteer" who plays Elmo, canceled a previous engagement and flew to Michigan so Amanda could meet her favorite furry red monster. Amanda was understandably delighted, and the pair danced, sang songs, and laughed for an hour and a half. Make-A-Wish even shot a video of Amanda and Elmo playing together. Fair warning: it's so sweet that it will make you cry.

4. A Spot in the NFL Draft

Fifteen-year-old Zach Hatfield is a die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan who was diagnosed with leukemia last August. While many kids ask to meet their favorite team, Zach had a different request: he wanted to announce the Steelers' first-round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. Thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Zach got to travel to Radio City Music Hall in April and announce on national TV that the Steelers had used the 18th pick in the draft on Florida center Maurkice Pouncey.

While Zach did a commendable job of announcing the Steelers' pick, he kept trying to help the team throughout the evening. He told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that when he met NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell he asked for a second wish, "So, do you think maybe you could unsuspend Ben Roethlisberger?" According to Zach, not even the Make-A-Wish Foundation can help the embattled quarterback; the commish just smiled and said, "I don't think we can do that."

5. Taking Kids Camping

If you offer to fulfill a kid's craziest wish, how many of them would choose to use it on other people? That's what 17-year-old Rankin, a Tennessee boy, did a few years ago. When the Make-A-Wish Foundation gave Rankin carte blanche to make one of his whims come true, he asked for a weekend camping trip for the children he tutored after school. Rankin had been tutoring younger kids from Chattanooga in his free time, and he wanted for them to get a chance to have a fun outdoor experience.

The Make-A-Wish Foundation was happy to make Rankin's unselfish dream a reality. They sent Rankin and his young pupils for an action-packed weekend of hiking, playing ball, and climbing walls at an Alabama summer camp.

6. Meeting Dwight Schrute

Even if you're a fan of The Office, the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin is probably the last place you'd want to visit. Sixteen-year-old Anna disagreed, though. The North Carolina teen wanted nothing more than to visit the set of the hit NBC sitcom, so she made a trip to California to meet the stars. Anna later told the Make-A-Wish Foundation's website that Steve Carrell broke out of his Michael Scott character and was "down to earth and normal" with her, while she really hit it off with B.J. Novak—he plays Ryan Howard on the show—and continued to exchange letters with him after returning home.
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To learn more about Make-A-Wish, visit wish.org.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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