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Corbis

The Dog Who Saved the World Cup for England

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Corbis

Although Portuguese striker Eusebio scored nine goals in the 1966 World Cup and England's Geoff Hurst booted four goals to lead the home team to victory, neither of them was the real most valuable player of that year's Cup. That distinction went to an English pooch named Pickles.

As part of the ramp-up to hosting the 1966 World Cup, English soccer officials had been displaying the Jules Rimet Trophy that went to the Cup's winner in various places around the country. That March, the trophy had been residing in Methodist Central Hall in Westminster under the watchful eyes of five guards.

Something went awry on the morning of March 20th, though. The guard who normally stayed at the trophy's side had the day off, and at some point when the other four members of the security detail were enjoying their coffee or a quick trip to the loo, thieves broke in a back door of the hall and swiped the trophy.

As you might imagine, this theft didn't reflect too well on England. Hosting the World Cup is a complex, logistically difficult operation, and while everything may not go totally smoothly, FIFA at least expects host countries not to lose the trophy itself. The theft immediately became the biggest story in the British press, and crackpot theories and false leads soon inundated Scotland Yard.

Eventually, the police received a ransom demand: the thief would return the trophy in exchange for £15,000 in small bills. Scotland Yard and soccer officials reluctantly went along with this plan, but a trailing police van spooked the thief before he led them to the trophy. After police apprehended the suspect, a petty grifter named Edward Betchley, he claimed he was only a middleman who was working for a shady, possibly fictitious character known as "The Pole."

The police had their man, but they were still short one Jules Rimet Trophy. That's where Pickles, a four-year-old mutt, entered the picture. On March 27, Pickles was out for a walk with his owner, David Corbett, in South London when something under a hedge distracted the pup. Pickles insisted on investigating this hedge and eventually pulled out a newsprint parcel tied together with string. When Corbett opened the parcel, he realized that Pickles had found the Jules Rimet Trophy. It's still not clear how the trophy ended up under the hedge in the first place.

Corbett ran the trophy to his local police station, but the cops thought the story of Pickles miraculously finding the trophy in a hedge was a bit far-fetched. They initially thought Corbett was a suspect for the theft; detectives even questioned him until 2:30 a.m. and made him stand in a lineup before clearing his alibi for the day of the burglary.

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Once Corbett was cleared, the media got the story, and Pickles became an international star. Offers to visit foreign countries rolled in for the heroic hound, and he received a free year's supply of dog food. Pickles even starred in a feature film, The Spy With the Cold Nose. At the height of Pickles' popularity, he was earning £60 a day for Corbett.

Better still, when the English team won the World Cup that year, the players asked for Pickles to attend the celebratory banquet and even let him lick their plates clean. Corbett received a £3,000 reward that he used to buy a house in Surrey.

Sadly, Pickles didn't live to see the next World Cup. And the Jules Rimet Trophy wasn't much luckier. When Brazil won the Cup for the third time in 1970, it earned the right to keep the trophy in perpetuity; the familiar FIFA World Cup trophy someone will win next month made its debut in 1974. Thieves stole the Jules Rimet Trophy from a locked case in Brazil in December 1983. Tell your pups to keep their eyes open; the purloined trophy still hasn't been recovered.

This post originally appeared in 2010.

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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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