The Weird Week in Review

Maggots Force Plane Down

A US Airways flight from Atlanta to Charlotte was forced to return to Atlanta when maggots began falling on the passengers. This caused an understandable commotion, and the plane was taken back to the airport. A bag in the overhead bin was found to contain spoiled meat that was infested. The bin was cleaned and the plane took off on the flight again a half-hour later but was taken out of service in Charlotte in order to be completely fumigated.

Woman Blames Crash on Vampire

An unnamed woman in Fruita, Colorado backed her car into a canal Sunday night. She told police that she saw a vampire in the road and was so scared that she put her car into reverse and backed away, ending up in the canal.

She was not injured. Her husband arrived on the scene and took her home. Troopers do not suspect alcohol or drugs to be factors in this accident.

They added that they found no evidence of a vampire.

Police search for Leprechaun

In another part of Colorado, Boulder police were called to investigate a man dressed as a leprechaun on Thursday. Callers reported the man was acting bizarrely, jumping out between cars in front of a store and making rude gestures at people. Officers looked for leprechaun but found no one matching the description.

Juveniles Steal Train

Two boys in Nelsonville, Ohio ran away from the Hocking Valley Community Residential Center and stole a train from the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway station. The 16-year-old and 13-year-old drove the train twelve miles! Police officers, who realized the train shouldn't have been in service as the scenic railway is closed, chased the train and even tried to flag it down, but the hijacked train kept going until the older boy, who was familiar with train operation, decided to stop to avoid debris on the track. The two escapees were referred to juvenile court. Lawmakers in Ohio are looking into increased railroad yard security.

Woman Sets Office on Fire to Get Off Work

A fire broke out at the offices of Bayonet Point Oxygen of New Port Richey, Florida in May of 2009. A year later, 40-year-old Michelle Perrino pleaded guilty to starting the blaze. Co-workers began to suspect Perrino when she talked about the fire in an office meeting. She mentioned it had started in a file cabinet, a detail that had not been released to the workers. A friend of hers later told investigators that Perrino said she started the fire in order to go home from work early that day without losing pay. Perrino had tripped the main electric breaker and blocked incoming calls on the phones. She was sentenced to nine months.

Cat Burglar Dresses as Cat

A woman who dresses as a cat has robbed at least two shoe stores and a beauty shop in New York City. Last week she was recorded on video robbing the Arche store in the East Village.

During the robbery at Arche, the 5-foot-6, 115 pound thief, apparently asked the a salesperson if she likes cats and then began moving like cat woman -- even making cat sounds.

Before she pounced, police say the suspect shopped for nearly 40 minutes, before turning over a note to an employee reading, "Give me the money! I have a gun!" Police say she then fled the store with $86 in cash.

The story has links to the security video and a composite drawing of the suspect wearing her cat mask.

Donald Duck Arrested on Drug Charges

Police officers in Massillon, Ohio arrested a man named Donald Duck after he repeatedly struck the vehicle ahead of him in the drive-through line at a pizza parlor. He was charged with possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. Police say Duck has a history of DUI arrests.

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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]