The Weird Week in Review

Finally: A Use for Zucchini

An unnamed woman rose to the occasion when her dog was attacked by a bear near Missoula, Montana. The 200-pound bear came up on the back porch of her home. When she tried to separate the animals, the bear bit her in the leg. The woman grabbed the first object she could reach, which was a large zucchini, and struck the bear with it. The bear ran off. The woman did not require medical attention.

US Millionaire Leaves Estate to Wombat Awareness Organisation

An unnamed millionaire traveled to Australia two years ago and visited the people who run the Wombat Awareness Organisation in Mannum, Australia. He was impressed by the efforts the group put into their work. Upon his death, the wealthy American bequeathed the project eight million dollars! Director Brigitte Stevens was in shock when she was notified. She plans to use the money to buy properties and to open a 24-hour veterinary advice phone line. However, the money will be coming in gradually at a million a year for eight years, with the first installment due next year.

Say Hello To "Hostgator Dotcom"

Alaskan prizefighter Billy Gibby is trying for a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as the man with the most corporate tattoos on his body. He sells the space on his skin as corporate sponsorships for his boxing career. But Gibby is no longer Gibby, as his latest sponsorship deal had him legally change his name to Hostgator Dotcom. He already has a tattoo from the company, and now his driver's license reads "Hostgator Mel Dotcom". Dotcom uses the proceeds from his fights to support the cause of organ donation.

Dog Swallows Shot Glass

A woman in Palmerston, Australia went on vacation and left her dog in the care of her housemates. The remaining residents threw a party in which they celebrated with shots of Jagermeister. Billy the German pointer apparently helped himself to the refreshments as well, but the housemates didn't know until he began to vomit blood a couple of days later. A trip to the vet revealed that Billy had taken a shot himself, glass and all. The shot glass was removed from the dog's stomach in a three-hour operation. Billy's owner says the dog will not be invited to any more parties.

Embarrassing Billboard Typo

A billboard bragging about the schools in South Bend, Indiana was erected without anyone noticing a certain misspelled word. The sign directed readers to a website to see a list of the "15 best things about our pubic schools."

Responsibility for the spelling error has been claimed by the Blue Waters Group. The company does work for the city of South Bend's redevelopment commission to promote the city.

"I feel terrible. It's a mistake we made and we're guilty of it, and responsible for it. and we take full responsibility for the error," said Patrick Strickler, president of the Blue Waters Group.

"Four people looked at it, eyeballed it and didn't see the mistake, and those people all work for me,” Strickler explained. “We take responsibility for it. We simply blew it. We did not see the missing "L."

The billboard has since been taken down.

Pot Farm in Zoo Enclosure

It was the perfect place to grow marijuana: a section of the rhinoceros pen that only one zookeeper had access to. A worker at an Austrian zoo though he would never be caught, but Salzburg police raided the rhino pen at the Salzburg Hellbrunn Zoo over the weekend and arrested the 59-year old keeper. Additional weapons charges were added when guns were found in the man's apartment. Police, acting on an anonymous tip from one of the zookeeper's pot customers, seized 33 plants growing in the rhinoceros pen.

Sir Terry Pratchett Acting Like a Knight

Author Terry Pratchett was knighted by Queen Elizabeth last year. That wasn't enough to make him feel like a real knight, however, so he forged himself a sword. A very special sword. He gathered the iron ore from property he owned, threw in a little iron from a meteorite, and smelted it in a kiln he built himself. The 62-year-old fantasy author, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, hammered out the metal and then took it to a blacksmith for the final shaping.

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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]