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Putin's New Puppy and Other Snuggly Diplomatic Gifts

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© Pierre Marsaut/ZUMA Press/Corbis

Last week, during their meeting about the South Stream gas transit pipeline and other large-scale energy projects, Bulgarian Premier Boyko Borisov gave Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin a Karakachan puppy, which he nuzzled in front of the cameras.

Throughout history, many other world leaders have exchanged animals. From showing might to making alliances, celebrating milestones to spurring conservation efforts, pets have been the diplomatic present of choice for the powerful. (The practice can bring controversy as well, such as this year’s concerns about the transfer of a number of animals, including baby elephants, from Zimbabwe to North Korea.)

This puppy also hearkens back to brave conquests, faraway places and national identity. “In our age of easy travel and global media, exotic animals still delight but rarely truly astonish us,” writes Marina Belozerskaya writes in The Medici Giraffe: And Other Tales of Exotic Animals and Powers. “For much of history when fauna from distant lands was scarce and communication slow, strange beasts could be potent, marvelous, and terrifying.”

Here are a few snuggly (and not-so-snuggly) diplomatic critters:

The puppy joins the collection of Putin’s gift animals this year, including a pair of Persian leopards from Iran, who are in a zoo-run breeding program.
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General Marquis de Lafayette gave President John Quincy Adams a pet alligator, who lived in a White House bathtub.
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The Sultan of Oman gave President Martin Van Buren a pair of tiger cubs (they soon moved to the zoo).
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King Menelik of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) sent animal-lover President Theodore Roosevelt a zebra and a lion.
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The people of Ireland gave President John F. Kennedy a Connemara pony for his son. Caroline named the horse "Leprechaun."
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Premier Khrushchev gave President Kennedy a dog.
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Prince Lorenzo de Medici truly arrived on the royal scene when an Egyptian sultan gave him a giraffe.
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The King of Portugal gave a white elephant named Hanno to Pope Leo X in 1516 in an attempt to secure a trade monopoly in the Spice Islands.
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When Richard Nixon took his historic 1972 trip to China, Chairman Mao Zedong gave him two pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing. (Nixon sent Zedong a pair of musk oxen in return.)
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The President of Indonesia gave President George H. W. Bush a Komodo dragon. Naga didn’t get along well with the first dog, Millie, and moved to the Cincinnati Zoo where he went on to father 32 offspring.
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While many newlyweds receive a new toaster to honor their nuptials, Catherine de Medici got a live lion from her father-in-law, the King of France, when she married Henry the II.
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Chinese emperor Xian Zhong Zhu Jianshen received many lions as gifts—so many that when Sultan Ahmid of Samarkand gave him two more in the 1480s, he refused them, saying he had too many of the useless big cats already.

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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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