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The Extraordinary Life of Liviu Librescu

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There are those who are remembered for their wisdom and caring during their lives, and others who are remembered for undergoing and surviving trials. Some are remembered for a life of accomplishments. And there are those who are remembered for heroic deeds. Every once in a while, there comes someone who is remembered for all of those things.

Liviu Librescu was born in Ploie?ti, Romania on August 18, 1930. He was still a child when the Romanian government allied itself with Nazi Germany in 1940. Librescu and his family were sent to a labor camp in Transnistria with thousands of other Romanian Jews, then later to a ghetto in the city of Foc?ani. At least a quarter-million Jews died in Romania during World War II, but the majority survived, including Librescu. Romania fell under Soviet administration after the war, and established its own Soviet-backed communist government by 1947.

Despite his spotty education during wartime, Librescu was determined to go to college. He achieved a degree in aerospace engineering from the Polytechnic University of Bucharest in 1952. Then a Master’s degree. He went to work for various Romanian research centers and got a PhD in fluid mechanics in 1969. Librescu’s work on experimental aircraft was well regarded and the Romanian Academy of Science honored him with the prestigious Traian Vuia award in 1972.

Librescu’s future seemed bright, except for the fact that he refused to join the Communist Party. That issue cost him his job at the Institute of Fluid Mechanics and Aerospace Constructions when he requested permission to emigrate to Israel. Librescu continued to study and publish -but his work had to be smuggled out of the country to the Netherlands in order to be recognized. And he kept up his campaign to move to Israel with his wife Marlena.
Three years of work finally paid off in 1978 when the Prime Minister of Israel, Menachim Begin, made a personal appeal to Romanian president Nicolae Ceau?escu to allow the Librescus to leave, which he did and they did, immediately. Librescue joined the staff at Tel Aviv University in 1979, where he was a professor of Aeronautical and Mechanical Engineering. In addition to teaching, he continued his work in fluid dynamics and aerodynamics, researching motion and materials for data that has applications for aircraft design, component manufacture, and safety. Librescu also became an Israeli citizen.

During an academic sabbatical in 1985, Virginia Tech invited Librescu to come to the US as a visiting professor. A year later, they asked him to stay permanently. Already well-known in the aerospace research community, Librescu found wider fame as a professor in America. He was requested at symposiums and meetings worldwide to present his research, and was awarded grants for further study. Still, he continued to teach, past the age when many would have retired. Librescu devoted over twenty years to Virginia Tech, where he was popular with students and faculty alike.

Librescu was teaching a class in room 204 of Norris Hall on Monday, April 16, 2007, as Holocaust Remembrance Day was being observed in Israel. Student Seung-Hui Cho went on a rampage, killing a total of 32 people on the Virginia Tech campus. He shot into several classrooms in Norris Hall. Professor Librescu heard the shots and closed his classroom door. He instructed students to go out the window. Several students urged Librescu to come along, but he held the door shut as Cho tried to enter. Cho then shot through the door four times, killing the professor. The gunman entered the room and killed one student; the rest had escaped through the second-story window. That day, 27 students and five faculty members were killed, 17 others suffered gunshot wounds, six people were injured trying to escape, and Cho committed suicide.

Hundreds attended Librescu’s funeral in Brooklyn on April 18th. His body was then flown to Israel, where his sons Arieh and Joe live, for burial in the town of Ra’anana. Hundreds more attended the service in Israel, during which a Romanian representative awarded Librescu the Star of Romania, the country’s highest civilian honor. Virginia Tech established a memorial scholarship in Librescu’s honor. The Librescu Jewish Student Center at Virginia Tech was named in his honor. In addition, other colleges have named scholarships for Librescu.

Liviu received following awards: Shofar of Freedom Award 2007; Inspire Awards 2007 in the fight against hate and intolerance (ADL 2007); “Medal of Valor” 2007 presented by The Simon Wiesenthal Center; AARP the Magazine Inspire Awards 2007; ”Most Inspiring Person of 2007”; Tribute to Librescu at The 68th Annual Awards Dinner of the NCFJE 2008; New York City Comptroller honors the memory of a Virginia Tech massacre victim, Liviu Librescu on Friday, November 14, 2008; Facilitator Award honoring posthumous the life and actions of Professor Librescu 2009.


Virginia Tech Memorial Page

Liv Librescu’s Resume


Virginia Tech Massacre at Wikipedia

Israeli VA Tech massacre victim laid to rest

Liviu Libresco at Wikipedia

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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]