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The Weird Week in Review

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Squirrel Terrorizes Neighborhood

A small but vicious gray squirrel has attacked at least three residents of Bennington, Vermont in the past couple of weeks. Kevin McDonald was shoveling snow when the squirrel attacked, jumping on his shoulder and holding on. When McDonald shook him off, the squirrel returned for more. Two other people were attacked in a separate incident, and one person was bitten. There are fears that the squirrel may have rabies, but wildlife authorities say that odds are low. They speculate the squirrel may have been reared as a pet and then turned loose. Wildlife control experts have been trying to catch the squirrel for over a week.

Balls All Over

A shopping center in Perth, Scotland was flooded with small red balls when a contest went awry. An Alfa Romeo car was filled with balls for a "guess how many" contest at St. John’s Shopping Centre, to benefit Comic Relief. However, the contest organizers failed to ensure that all the car doors were locked. A child, thought to be about three years old, opened the passenger door and released hundreds of balls.

Crowds gathered and cheered the farcical scene as several of the centre’s security team battled to gather up the balls, while many young children were seen making off with a few.

Siobhan McConnell, the shopping centre manager, said: “This was a bit more comic relief than we had originally planned.

Most of the balls were eventually retrieved, and the contest resumes today.

World's Most Expensive Dog

An 11-month-old Tibetan mastiff named Hong Dong (Big Splash) broke the record for dog prices, going to a new home in China for 10 million RMB, which is £945,000 or about $1.5 million US. Tibetan mastiffs are a very old breed, but lately have become a status symbol among China's new wealthy class. A few years ago, puppies sold for 5,000 RMB, but prices have skyrocketed because of the demand. Hong Dong's new owner will likely receive high stud fees for the dog's breeding services, as much as 100,000 RMB and may earn his money back soon.

30-hour Standoff Over Car Clamp

Jessica Davey, of Salisbury, England found her car clamped on Monday morning, despite the fact that she had purchased a valid parking permit, which was visibly displayed on the car's dashboard. However, since she didn't have it on the window, Anthony Brindley clamped her car wheel and demanded £110 to remove it. Unwilling to pay the fine, and unable to pay £250 to redeem her car if it were to be towed, Davey got in the car and stayed there -for 30 hours! Meanwhile, the police declined to get involved, saying it was civil matter. They intervened, however, when Davey's boyfriend tried to remove the clamp himself. He was arrested on suspicion of criminal damage. Davey eventually removed the car clamp herself the next day, when the car clamper Brindley was gone.

Commemorative Royal Wedding Cup with Wrong Prince

Guangdong Enterprises is selling a souvenir porcelain cup to commemorate the upcoming wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. The £9.99 cup features an inscription reading “The fairytale romantic union of all the centuries. 29th April 2011” and a picture of the prince and Ms. Middleton -except the prince pictured is William's younger brother Harry. Even if the offer is an elaborate spoof, it may prove to be profitable, as there are people who more likely to buy a limited-edition mistake than proper official wedding souvenirs.

Tsunami Victim Rescued 10 Miles Out at Sea

Sixty-year-old Hiromitsu Shinkawa was found floating on the roof of his house ten miles from the coast of Japan, two days after the tsunami hit his town of Minami Soma.

Incredibly, he was spotted by a maritime self-defence force destroyer taking part in the rescue effort as he clung to the wreckage with one hand and waved a self-made red flag with the other. He had been at sea for two days.

Reports said that on being handed a drink aboard the rescue boat, Shinkawa gulped it down and immediately burst into tears. His wife, with whom he had returned home as the tsunami approached, is still missing.

He was quoted as saying: "No helicopters or boats that came nearby noticed me. I thought that day was going to be the last day of my life."

Officials said Shinkawa was in good condition after being taken to hospital by helicopter.

Proposal On Stage with Robots

Chicago actress Nina O'Keefe is currently starring in the play Heddatron, which is about a woman who is kidnapped by robots. Her boyfriend, Erik Schroeder, works for a different theater company, but was called on stage for the Heddatron curtain call because it was his 30th birthday. However, that was just a ruse. After a prompting by the on-stage robots, Shroeder dropped to one knee and asked O'Keefe to marry him! The very-surprised O'Keefe said yes, after which the robots serenaded the happy couple. The proposal was captured on video.

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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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