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The Weird Week in Review

Star Rugby Player Quits Team Over Photo

Joel Monaghan of the Canberra Raiders rugby team is no longer with the Canberra Raiders. Monaghan asked that his $250,000 per year contract be canceled after a photograph of Monaghan in a compromising position with a friend's dog was leaked to the internet. The picture was snapped at a post-season party with about 30 teammates. Monaghan's resignation saved the team's management from having to decide whether to fire him or not. Monaghan said he takes full responsibility for the incident. Alcohol was involved.

New Species of Lizard Found -on the Menu

Vietnamese herpetologist Ngo Van Tri noticed something strange about the tanks of lizards at the small diners in the village of Ba Ria-Vung Tau. They were all female, which is odd for the species Leiolepis ngovantrii, which is what they were thought to be. So he called a friend, herpetologist Dr. Lee Grismer at La Sierra University in California, who traveled to Vietnam with his son, a doctoral candidate. By the time they arrived, the batch of lizards a restaurant owner said he would save were gone.

"Unfortunately, the owner wound up getting drunk, and grilled them all up for his patrons... so when we got there, there was nothing left."

Faced with an empty tank and nearly dashed hopes, the men asked around at other cafes in the area for the local delicacy, and hired children to track down as many of the lizards as they could find.

What Gismer received were 60 specimens -all females -of a previously unknown lizard species that reproduces without males.

Blasted Tower Falls the Wrong Way

A demolition crew planned for the 275-foot smokestack to fall one way, but it fell the other way Wednesday at the Mad River Power Plant in Springfield, Ohio. The tower brought down power lines and crushed equipment. There were no injuries, but 4,000 houses were left without power. Nine traffic lights were out of order, and there was one traffic accident. The demolition was captured on video.

Man Forced to Eat Beard in Fight Over Lawnmower

Harvey Westmoreland of Lawrenceburg, Kentucky and his brother Joseph got into an altercation with Troy Holt and James Hill over the price of a lawnmower Holt tried to buy from Westmoreland. Westmoreland said that in addition to throwing punches and pulling a knife, the two men also cut off Westmoreland's beard and stuffed it in his mouth, forcing him to eat it. Alcohol was involved. Despite threats, the Westmoreland brothers called police. Holt and Hill later pled guilty to unspecified charges. The comments below the news story are equally entertaining.

Campaign Signs May Become Collectible

You must admit it's a name to remember: Young Boozer III. Boozer won the race for Alabama state treasurer, despite a rash of campaign sign theft early in the campaign. It seemed that college students wanted the signs for their dorms and frat houses. Boozer's campaign manager Glenda Allred also got requests from out of state for the signs, which some believe may become valuable in time. However, she said there were still signs left to be picked up after the election. The future value of the signs is uncertain.

Something Borrowed

In order to make Jillian Sherlock and Nikhil Pereira's wedding day as perfect as possible, the five bridesmaids kept quiet about the carjacking incident until after the ceremony was complete. A man who had broken into a house near the church in Boston was looking for a getaway, and the limousine carrying the bridesmaids looked like a possibility.

“He started fighting with the driver, and the girls got out and ran,” said Karl Kammann, a Buckingham Bus driver who had just dropped off 48 guests at the church. “It was chaos. Right out from under the wedding party! What a way to get married.”

The driver got out, the limousine disappeared, and was found abandoned a short while later. The ceremony went on as scheduled while police cordoned off the area as a crime scene. Another limousine was summoned to carry the wedding party.

Tasmanian Tiger Pelt Found at Garage Sale

What do you do with the pelt of an extinct animal? Get it appraised, of course! Bill Warren of Fallbrook, California picked up an unidentified animal skin at a garage sale for $5, and found that it belongs to a Tasmanian tiger, or Thylacine, which was declared extinct in 1936. Andrew Snooks from Armitage Auctions in Australia said the pelts are extremely rare. The last one sold at his auction house went for $68,000. But Warren is barred from selling the pelt, as the Thylacine is still on the US Endangered Species List. Warren plans to apply for an exemption and is hoping for the best.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
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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