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The Weird Week in Review

Runaway Floating Island

An inflated sculpture named "Is Land" was deployed at the Secret Garden Party music festival in Cambridgeshire, England. The £9,000 helium-filled sculpture is seven meters wide and looks like a chunk of land with grass and trees on top. The island drifted off after someone cut the ropes tethering the balloon on July 24th and is now nowhere to be found. Anyone who sees the island is asked to report it to the project's website. Donations at the site will go toward getting a second sculpture ready for Burning Man.

Murder Suspect Found on TV Show

Until this week, Liu Hao was winning his way to a date as a contestant on Happy League, a popular TV dating show in China. The 39-year-old was selected over eight other eligible bachelors after he sang on the show. But police in Jilin city responded to a tip from a viewer who recognized Liu.

Police watched the tapes and indeed Liu resembled Wu Gang – who stabbed a man to death more than 13 years ago outside a restaurant in Jilin, said Li Ang, a police officer from the criminal investigation department of the Jilin Public Security Bureau.

Li told The Associated Press that after a monthlong investigation, Liu was detained as the key suspect in the case.

Liu had become so comfortable with his new identity over the years that he "didn't think twice" about appearing on TV. The show's website has since removed clips that feature Liu.

Turtle with Broken Shell Finally Released

Andre the green sea turtle was found over a year ago with a massive hole in his shell, most likely caused by a boat propeller. Veterinarians at at the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Jupiter, Florida, found three pounds of sand inside his shell, which caused internal injuries and a collapsed lung. Local orthodontist Dr. Alberto A. Vargas applied a technique called "distraction osteogenesis," also called "sea turtle orthodontics," to brace and encourage proper shell growth. He attached an expander to the shell and adjusted it a quarter of a millimeter every day as the shell grew, in order to maintain proper pressure and shape. Andre's internal injuries were treated with a skin graft and vacuum therapy to help the wounds. After 13 months of treatment and rehabilitation, Andre was returned to the ocean on Wednesday.

Stiff Fine for Illegal Parking in Vilnius

Arturas Zuokas, mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, had enough. The mayor was so fed up with illegal parking that he took a spin in a Russian armored personnel carrier, crushing an illegally parked Mercedes along the way. The publicity stunt and accompanying photos made the news worldwide. Zuokas specifically cited illegally parked luxury cars as showing "a lack of respect" for pedestrians and bike riders. That's at least one driver who won't be parking in the wrong place anymore.

Skeleton Driver Pulled Over

A car was pulled over in Plattling, Germany, when police officers saw it was being driven by a skeleton! However, the driver was found to be a 23-year-old British man named Martin Williams. Williams had just purchased a life-size skeleton replica and was afraid it might be damaged in the trunk, so he placed it in the passenger seat. The car was a British model, with the driver on the right side, unlike German cars. No charges were files as no crime had been committed.

Building a Nuclear Reactor in the Kitchen

An unnamed man in Angelholm, Sweden was arrested for attempting to build a nuclear reactor in his kitchen. He was later released. Authorities doubt he would have seen success.

The 31-year-old tells the paper that he was able to buy radioactive waste from foreign companies and picked apart the components in a smoke detector (apparently older smoke detector contain nuclear material). He believes he spent between $5,000 and $6,000 on the project in total.

It was only later when the young man contacted Sweden's nuclear power agency that he realized his project was illegal. Police came to his apartment and confiscated the material. The young man was arrested but later released.

It is uncertain how the project went unnoticed, as the man kept a blog about his experiments.

Fish Goes on a Diet

An 8.8 pound giant gourami fish named Gary was donated to the Sea Life London Aquarium when he outgrew his tank, but the fish refused to eat. He refused to eat fish food, that is. The staff was puzzled until they found out Gary's previous owners had fed him nothing but chocolate cookies! Aquarium workers then started putting pieces of Kit-Kat bars inside grapes and other natural foods to entice Gary to eat. The fish is now being gradually weaned off chocolate.

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
Original image
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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