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No Bull (well, one): 7 Historical Cow Tales

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There were 94.5 million head of cattle in the US in 2009. Many millions of cows and bulls have lived relatively short uneventful lives over the years producing milk and calves or ultimately steaks and hamburgers. Among those millions are a few who made the news and then the history books for one reason or another.

1. The Original Flying Cow

A cow known as Nellie Jay to locals later became known as Elm Farm Ollie nationwide in 1930 when she had the distinction of becoming the first bovine ever to fly in an airplane. Nellie Jay was flown from her farm in Bismarck, Missouri to the International Aviation Exhibition in St. Louis because she was such a productive milker. In fact, she was milked in flight and the 24 quarts of milk was packaged in cartons and dropped from the plane, with small parachutes attached.

2. Calf with New Legs

Last year, Nancy Dickenson of Ocate, New Mexico and her stepdaughter Martha found an 11-month-old calf on a neighbor's ranch that was suffering from severe frostbite. The Black Angus heifer had lost the use of her back legs and hooves. Dickenson found the calf's owner, then took Meadow to Colorado State University's veterinary school, where her back legs were amputated. In a move rare for livestock, the staff and students at the school fitted the calf with two prosthetic legs. Meadow now lives with Dickenson to Twin Willows Ranch, where she is treated like a family pet.

3. The Cow in the Silo

In 1949, a Hereford cow in Oklahoma later named Grady was having trouble calving. The veterinarian tied her down and she delivered a stillborn calf. When Grady was freed, she charged farmer Bill Mach and plunged through a small opening into the grain silo. The hole through which she entered was only 17 inches wide and 25 inches high! The cow remained in the silo for three days, happily munching silage, while newspapers nationwide speculated on ways to get Grady out. Ralph Partridge, a farm reporter from the Denver Post, went to Oklahoma and entered the silo. He milked Grady, covered her in axle grease, and tied her with rope. A veterinarian sedated the cow. While Mach pulled, Partridge and another man pushed, and finally Grady was out of the silo, and enshrined in journalistic history. She later produced healthy calves and lived until 1961. A 1950 children's book, Grady's in the Silo by Una Belle Townsend, brought more fame.

4. Big Horned Lurch

The African Watusi steer named Lurch holds the Guinness World Record for the biggest horns, as in circumference. His horns measured 38 inches around at the widest point, and spanned seven-and-a-half feet from tip to tip! Lurch lived for fourteen years at Rocky Ridge Refuge in Arkansas, a respectably long life for a steer, but he succumbed to a cancer that formed in the base of his horns and died last month.

5. Houdini Heifer

In 2002, America was taken with the story of a cow who didn't want to enter the slaughterhouse at Ken Meyers Meats. Can you blame her? The white Charolais cow broke away from the rest of the herd and jumped a 6-foot fence to roam the streets of Cincinnati, Ohio. By the time she was captured eleven days later, she was a hero to many for her determination and will to survive. Sending her back to the slaughterhouse would have been a public relations disaster. Instead, the SPCA took custody of the cow dubbed Charlene Mooken (a play on the name of Cincy's mayor at the time, Charlie Luken). Artist Peter Max donated artwork to the SPCA and arranged for the cow to be housed at Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, New York. Renamed Cincinnati Freedom, she lived a pastoral life there until her death at age 13 in 2008.

6. Taft's Milk Supply

President Taft kept a Holstein-Frisian cow named Pauline Wayne on the White House grounds to provide milk for the first family. The cow was a gift from a Wisconsin senator. Pauline Wayne served her country for three years, during which she was a press favorite, and returned to her original farm in Wisconsin after Taft left office. She was the last cow ever kept at the White House.

7. The Homecoming Queen

Maudine Ormsby of Columbus, Ohio became famous when she was elected the 1926 homecoming queen at Ohio State University. Maudine was a Holstein cow that had been nominated by the students of the College of Agriculture. All the other nominees were disqualified for voting irregularities. Maudine participated in the homecoming parade, but did not attend the dance after the game.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]