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11 Child Prodigies and the Amazing Things They'd Done by Age 11

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Enjoy being humbled (humiliated?) by these 11 amazing child prodigies – some from history and some doing their prodigy thing in the here and now.

Image credit: JuditPolgar.com

1. Hungarian chess grandmaster Judit Polgar (1976-) began playing in tournaments at the age of six and, by the age of eleven, she had defeated her first grandmaster, Vladimir Kovacivic. She became the best female chess player in history. No other female has ever won a game against a men’s chess world champion; she has beaten nine of them.

2. American professional billiards player Willie Mosconi (1913-1993), at the age of six and standing on a box, played an exhibition match against the reigning world billiards champion in front of a packed house. He lost that match, but it earned him some major attention. By the age of eleven, Mosconi was the juvenile champion and regularly held popular trick shot exhibitions. He picked up the awesome nickname “Mr. Pocket Billiards” and won more World Straight Pool Championships (15) than anyone. He was also Paul Newman’s pool mentor as he prepared for his role in the 1961 movie, The Hustler.

3. French mathematician, physicist and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) wrote a treatise on vibrating bodies at the age of nine and scrawled his first proof on a wall with a piece of coal when he was eleven. He is probably best remembered for Pascal’s theorem (something about hexagons or whatever), which he threw out there at age 16. Oh, and he also invented the mechanical calculator.

4. German composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) is the child prodigy poster child. He began playing the harpsichord at age three and learned to play his first piece of music three days before his fifth birthday. He was composing his own music at five and, at six, embarked on a three-and-a-half year European tour with his father and older sister who was not too shabby of a musician herself.

5. Korean mega-genius Kim Ung-Yong (1962-) could have conversations at six months, could read in Japanese, Korean, German and English by the age of four and could perform complex calculus by the time he was five. From the ages of three to six, he sat in on University physics courses. The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes Kim as having the world’s highest IQ which is estimated to be over 210. Yowza.

6. Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) showed his talents for art at a very early age. His mother claims (as mothers often do) that his first words word “piz, piz” – short for “lapis” (Spanish for “pencil”). There is non-mom-derived evidence of his prodigious talent: Picasso drew “Picador” when he was just eight years old.

7. Actress Anna Paquin (1982-) won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her debut acting performance in The Piano when she was just eleven years old. Why do I choose to showcase Ms. Paquin here instead of the youngest Oscar winner in Tatum O’Neal who won at age ten? Well, Anna now plays Sookie Stackhouse on HBO’s True Blood, which only serves to enhance her general awesomeness.

8. Canadian hockey star Wayne Gretzky (1961-) was playing against ten-year-olds when he was only six. The uniforms intended for the ten-year-olds were far too large for the undersized Gretzky who tucked his sweater into the right side of his pants: a tradition he continued throughout his hockey career. When he was ten, he scored an incredible 378 goals and added 139 assists in just one season. Athlete prodigies need love too, you know.

9. British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) learned Greek at age three and had read all of Herodotus’s Histories and was quite familiar with Plato’s Dialogues by the age of eight. He was also more than competent in Latin and Greek and had read through most of the major Latin and Greek works, in their original languages, by the age of ten.

10. American smart kid Gregory Smith (1990-) could memorize and recite books by the time he was 14 months old and could add by 18 months. He went from second to eighth grade in one year and began high school at the age of seven, graduating with honors two years later. He entered Randolph-Macon college at ten and, there, majored in mathematics with minors in both history and biology before pursuing his masters at the University of Virginia. OK, so he’s an academic stud – fine. But wait, there's more! The activist work he began as a pre-teen for children’s rights throughout the world has made a serious impact. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.

11. Indian mental calculator Somani Priyanshi (1998-) took home the overall title at the most recent Mental Calculation World Cup in 2010 when she was just eleven years old. Her specialty? Square roots from six-digit numbers up to eight significant digits (Somani placed first). A couple other events at the MCWC: addition of ten numbers of ten digits each (Somani placed second) and multiplication of two numbers of eight digits (Somani placed second). Yes, her competitors were grown folks.

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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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