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Going Solar

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[caption id="attachment_76035" align="alignleft" width="550" caption="My son, Jack, eager for the installation to begin!"][/caption]

A couple months ago, I received a postcard in the mail advertising a new solar company based here in California called Sungevity. I usually toss such things straight into the trash bin, but I really liked the branding and design on the postcard so I sat down and read the offer. They lease you the panels at no money down and within a few years, you're saving money on your electric bill. Though you're never off the grid, the solar energy supplements the power you get from your local provider and, in some cases, depending on how much sun you're capturing, you can even get credit from your local energy supplier if you're giving back more AC to the grid than you're taking.

I was pretty certain at that point that it was time to give it a whirl. When I saw that they were offering a free iPad as incentive to the first 100 people who signed up, it became a no brainer because I was about to buy one anyway. Now, before everyone starts screaming "Shill, shill!" let me say that I don't care if you want to use Sungevity to power your home or not. I don't care if you take advantage of the $500 cash in your pocket I can get them to give you through our "Friends of the _floss" code or not. (Wait for it...) I'm really just writing this post because working with these guys has been one of the most pleasurable experiences I've ever had dealing with a power company, contracting company, building contractor, etc. In fact, they're right up there with the Apple care team in terms of friendliness, politeness and efficacy. I guess what I'm saying is, if Sungevity sold refrigerators, I'd buy them. Cars, I'd buy them... heck, if they sold and serviced nuclear energy solutions, I'd probably buy it! (Well, maybe not... but you get my drift.)

What follows is a photo essay of the installation process for those who are curious as to how this works and what's involved. From start to finish, the process takes about 3 months. First you have to go to their Web site and see if they service your area. Then you see if your house is solar-able (if your southern exposure is blocked by trees or a taller structure, you can't do it). After that, they send someone out to the house to check the structure from an engineering point of view. If that goes smoothly, they pull permits from the city and contact your local power company to get approval. Soon, they are pulling up to your house with the gear!

The next thing they do is unpack everything and install casings on the roof where the panel tracks will attach.

Meantime, the electrician arrives and is busy installing the converter that takes the DC and turns it into AC.

By now, the panel tracks are being installed on the roof. These will hold the panels steady and are suspended about 6" off the roof.

Meantime, the electrician is installing the meter on the back of the house.

And now, the panels are connected to the tracks!

More...

And the money shot!

And voila! She is all done!

Oh, and the free iPad... guess who commandeered that a week after we got it?

Again, it's worth repeating: Through the whole process, these guys really, er, shone brightly. So if you're interested, don't hesitate to get in touch with me at david 'at' mentalfloss.com and I'll forward you my special "Friends of the _floss" $500 cash in your pocket code. Shine on!

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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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